Saturday, October 26, 2013

Franklin's Gulls for Fall Break

As any other college student, I was very much looking forward to fall break, and of course, I planned to spend every minute outside, in the bush, and away from the city. I was struck with a brilliant idea of going swimming with some water birds. So Monday morning I was up before the sun peaked over the roof tops around my house. I wolfed down a bowl of cereal, then threw a towel and my camera gear into my pack, and proceeded to the garage to squeeze into my wet suit (I would much rather put a wet suit on in a mildly warm garage as oppose to the brisk beach of a lake) I also threw my work coat and jeans on over my wet suit, so I wouldn't look like a goof at the gas station when I filled up my car. I then shouldered my pack and strode out into the cold dark suburban air. A quick double check in my car's trunk to make sure my flippers and breathing tube where with me, and I was off!
As I rolled into the Wildlife Management Area (WMA) I was pleased to see I would be the only one there (There's just something interesting about a fella in a wet suit that makes spectators out of most Nebraskans). With my swim gear in one hand, camera gear in the other, and pack on my back, I soon realized I probably could have left half of this at home, and with insulation of my wet suit and work coat, I felt like a walrus crawling across the Sahara desert.
Words can't describe the feeling of being a Walrus with too much blubber.
After lugging all my equipment the longest mile in my life, I was greeted with the sight of one of the most beautiful lake coast lines in these parts. This secrete spot consists of a 30 foot high cliff face that extends a good 80 yards along the lake, with a decent silt sand beach below. It isn't much for swimming because the water is only a foot deep for at least 50 yards out. But these shallow mud flats attract a plethora of different water fowl. My hopes were to find some out past the mud flats in the deeper water, so I could swim under and catch one. However, on this cold morning, I found the flocks were holding tight and resting on the mud flats.
As I scoped out the lake shore for hunters or hikers, I realized, it's going to be pretty darn hard to sneak up on these birds if they are in the shallows, as I will not have the invisibility cloak of water to cover my body. I found a good chuck of bark and figured I would where it as a hat to at least break up the outline of my head. I zipped up my wet suit, threw on my wet boots, face mask, and goggles (though I probably would not need them). I left my gloves behind, so I could operate my water proof camera, (HUGE MISTAKE!) I didn't make it 20 yards in my approach before my hands were burning numb and I had to return to my launch point to muscle my wet gloves onto my lifeless hands. Okay, take two! I slipped back into the water like a crocodile, so as not to make any noticeable ripples, and began my second approach. It's important to realize, I'm a log in 8 inches of 38 degree F water, and I have to move at a rate of maybe 10 feet per minute, because I'm a log. It's cold!

Many of the Franklin's Gulls towards the inside of the flock
Take this time to rest, while the birds on the outside of the huddle
 stand watch
My approach brings me closer and closer to a flock of Franklin's Gulls. These are a smaller vision of the classic Sea Gulls we all see in the summer time. Franklin's Gulls are a strong social bird, commonly found in large flocks. In my case, it would seem as though I didn't find just a flock, I found a whole nation of Franklin's Gulls.

Franklin's Gulls are distinguished by the white patched around their eyes,  and the black blotch, that looks like they're wearing a pair of Beats head phones, which spans across the top of there head to each eye. Another unique characteristic of these birds is a red bill. During the summer time the Franklin's Gull's bill turns a cherry red, and changes to black during the fall and winter time; if you look closely you can see a bit of red coloration on the bill of this Franklin's Gull.
I can only imagine how tired these birds must be, flying all the way from Canada to Argentina. What a vacation!! That must be why many of these birds towards the middle of the flock are sleeping. I learned the birds on the outside of the huddle keep watch and constantly chirp to communicate with the other birds, while the birds towards the middle close their eyes and rest before a day's flight.
The interesting part of approaching these birds was that they never flew off. They generally just scooted back away from the oddly shaped log that was crawly through the mud towards them. My approach finally ended as the flock broke into an absolute cloud of birds. There were so many over head that they shaded the sun from shining through.As the birds settled back onto the mud flat, I retired to my shore camp, tore off my wet suit, and dried off, reflecting on the amazing experience of the nation of Franklin's Gulls.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Juvenile Bull Snake

After a successful morning of bush-wacking, and adventuring to new virgin territories. I stopped by my car for a bit of a pre-lunch (a banana and granola bar, if you were wondering). I quick changed into some shorts and my Merrell Trail Glove trail running shoes. These Bareform shoes are the lightest, quietest shoes my feet have ever have the pleasure of inhabiting. I bounced off to the next trail head feeling like my feet had wings.
This afternoon, I planned a quick 3 mile trail run before I would leave the park. Over-pass Trail was the habitat of focus for this trail run. A steep up hill switchback led to a mile stretch across the bluff ridge which over looked the great Missouri River, before the trail ducked back into the woods. The trail was pleasantly littered with walnuts and acorns, and I could feel every bump or root in the trail through the Vibram soles of my Trail Gloves. It was a perfect 73 degrees afternoon.
This little Bull snake was trying to warm up in the afternoon
sun, on the hiking trail.
As I was scanning the trail for any roots or tree branches that might trip me up, I noticed a familiar tan form with black blotches down the length of his slender body. A Bull snake!!! What a marvelous find! He was only a juvenile, I wouldn't put him past 3 years old, in my opinion. Bull snakes at this age can be great filming subjects, because they haven't experienced many human interactions yet.
So I methodically set down my pack and began setting up my filming gear. It's important to remember, snakes react to fast, sudden movements. Snakes can sense your foot step vibrations through specialized sensor organs in their bellies. So generally a snake knows your presences before you are aware for theirs. Yet snakes will often times just stay still; this is because they know they are relatively camouflaged and if they moved they would give away their position. Therefore, by using slow, normal movements, you act like you haven't noticed the snake, and he feels unthreatened and content with staying put. But once you leave the area, you can bet the snake will give up his camo position and find a safer place to chill.  
Here the little champ is trying to act big and mean by hissing.
This little Bull snake posed for a few pictures like a stud, and was generally docile for filming. He even mustered up a few tail rattles and hisses for some awesome talking points in the video. I released the little champ, snapped a few final pictures, and was on my way down the rest of the trail. Check out the YouTube video here  It turned out pretty good, besides the sun glare.
Filled with a sense of enrichment and satisfaction which only the wilderness can provide, I returned to my car and bid Ponca State Park "Good bye." Until I return next year, my wilderness adventures will continue on, and hopefully I can share my adventures with all who are interested via Wildimpact!!!