Thursday, August 2, 2012

Watching Wildlife from a Boat

By Wayne Meyer, PhD

            Recently Hagerman NWR announced some proposed changes to the rules for boating on the refuge.  If the changes go forward, motorless boats will be allowed to float upstream on Big Mineral Creek all year round.  Although not many people are likely to take advantage of this opportunity, I thought I’d write about some of my experiences on Big Mineral Creek to try to encourage a few more people to take advantage of the new opportunity.
            For many years boating has been allowed in Big Mineral Creek from mid-March until the end of September.  In a canoe or kayak, boats that typically draft only a few inches, it is possible to travel more than a mile upstream.  You need only go a few hundred yards to get away from almost all people and now you are by yourself with nature.  I have frequently been able to float quietly up to Wood Ducks and Barred Owls, much closer than I would have been able to get on foot.  A canoeist has a very different silhouette than a standing person, so the animals tend to be less frightened.  I also suspect that the animals are aware that a canoe cannot leave the bed of the stream, so they’ll sit in a tree and watch you go by.

            There are several species of birds that you can see more easily by boat than you ever will by foot or on the tour route.  Black-crowned Night-herons breed on the refuge most years.  They tend to feed at night and stay well hidden during the day.  We feel fortunate if we can find a Black-crown once each summer on the weekly bird census, but I see one almost every time I float up the creek in the summer.  Wood Ducks are usually very hard to locate on the tour route because they prefer to remain under cover unless there is a very lucrative food source in one of the impoundments.  I’ve never failed to see several Woodies on the creek and they often flush just a little way downstream so that I can see them multiple times if I move slowly and quietly.  Each spring there are some warblers that can be heard singing from the depths of the forest bottom that won’t come out to the edges where non-boaters would be able to find them.
            Of course, other animals can ONLY be found along the creek bottoms because of habitat restrictions.  Last week I went up Big Mineral to Beaver Creek and saw at least 50 river cruisers ( a family of dragonflies) while in all my censuses this spring and summer I had not seen a single one.  The reason, of course, is the water.  River cruisers, as you should guess from their name, tend to fly along streams and rivers and almost never leave the shade, so they are very unlikely to be seen out on the lakeshores.  Rick Cantu has also seen Sanddragons and Shadowdragons that will never be found away from the water and trees (one of these years I’ll find them for myself).  One of these days I’ll run into some of the River Otters that are increasing on the refuge.  Even the plants are special; the bottomland habitat has many unique species of plants that will not be visible if you don’t get in a boat and explore.
            One special aspect of the refuge makes boating more interesting for me, the way things change as the lake goes up and down.  In 2007 when Lake Texoma went over the spillway at Denison Dam (642 ft.) I put in my canoe at Big Mineral Picnic Area and floated directly over the then new bridge over big Mineral Creek.  As I went over, I was not able to reach the guardrails with my paddle.  That year I could canoe between the trees, an experience that is truly amazing.  I was able to get upstream almost all the way to Meadow Pond, 3.6 miles of winding paddling one way.  That year there was enough water to canoe Harris Creek for more than a mile.  Last year I didn’t even bother putting in, although there was enough water to go a short distance on Big mineral Creek.
            Why don’t you think about boating at the refuge this summer, or maybe we’ll run into each other this winter, provided the rules changes go through.  I guarantee your experience of the refuge will be very different from the water surface than it is from the road surface.

Photo:  Canoeing, by Ronnie Barron

ED NOTE:  Don't miss Canoeing 101, a dry-land presentation by Aris Tsamis, from Mariner Sails, Inc.,  at 3 pm, Saturday, October 13  - Super Saturday  at the Refuge!

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