Things always must be put into perspective. While winding through a maze of highway construction, railroad tracks, pole buildings and piles of scrap that dotted both sides of a pot-holed gravel road, I was glad to be following someone familiar with the area. I patted myself on the back for having the wisdom to rendezvous southeast of downtown St. Paul before heading to our final destination at Pigs Eye Lake.
The day was hot and the two other vehicles in our entourage parked near a weed patch. I don't do well in the heat, so I looked for a shady spot for my car. The only shade to be found was adjacent to and almost under a humungous barge in dry dock. I hesitated for a moment before maneuvering my car next to the rusty mass of metal. It was an interesting perspective. When you stand under a barge you feel infinitely small.
We grabbed our gear and headed for the water. At that moment, perspective hit a bit harder. I gawked at the flotilla of stationary barges, then gawked at our small aluminum canoe, then gawked at the muddy Mississippi, then gawked at the two marine batteries and heavy gear that needed to be ferried to a heron rookery, then gawked some more. I had serious thoughts about remaining a landlubber, but my sense of adventure won. We decided to make at least two trips.
I was happy to stay behind for the first one, since it would give me more time to chicken out. As I waited I entertained myself by gawking at a few smelly carp carcasses and watching swarms of mayflies, a kettle of turkey vultures, a number of double-crested cormorants and the comings and goings of great blue herons.
The canoe came back into sight as I slipped on the sandy embankment, landing gracefully on my butt. Hopefully this wasn't a sign of things to come. Having had surgery recently I wasn't interested in capsizing.
Once on the island, mosquitoes bombarded the new source of blood. After slathering myself with botanical insect repellent, I offered it to Andy VonDuyke, the rookery researcher.
"Oh, no thanks, I'm saturated with DEET," Andy said.
He led us to research plots flagged with neon orange plastic ribbon. For the next three hours we craned our necks to study the antics and activities of great blue herons, great white egrets and black-crowned night herons. We listened to the food-begging vocalizations and squawking of sibling fights.
Our vision of the top canopy was partially obscured by leaves, but we hadn't come to the rookery to guess what was happening in the nests. Andy has several video cameras positioned high in the trees that allow for spying on the colonial birds.
When our necks ached from looking up and we had spent sufficient time viewing the real-time videos, we scoured the wooded flood land for bits of information that would give additional insight to the dynamics of the birds above, as well as the forest floor and its inhabitants.
The most notable was the dead body of a great blue heron. Andy had found and flagged the bird the day before. Before dying, the young heron had been ready to fly the coop. Had it fallen from its high home? Had a sibling won a feud?
Upon closer inspection, a small circular head wound indicated a severe, well-placed peck may have caused the bird to fall from the heights. Once on the ground it stood no chance of survival, regardless of its injury.
Remnants of eggshells were scattered about. Coloration, signs of vascularization and edge pattern told us the species that had laid the eggs, their viability and if they had produced youngsters. Feathers varying in type, size and color confirmed the species.
A couple of stick nests had fallen to the ground. I was surprised at the small twigs that were used to construct the nest. Most were about the diameter of my small finger. Bits of crawfish, snails and fish found far from the water indicated a bird had eaten here. A fairly fresh skull and jawbone of an opossum showed that predator had become prey.
Another telltale sign of the woodland's history was a plethora of manmade items: balls, bottles, plastic and lots of flotsam littered the land. It looked strange and out-of-place.
Throughout the exploration I continued my efforts to keep the mosquitoes at bay, albeit unsuccessfully. They were wicked. Clearly, Andy's DEET was working better. One good thing about mosquitoes: they undoubtedly kept or highly discouraged other humans from spending much time near or under the rookery. Plentiful nettle assisted. And, of course, the journey from solid land across the Mississippi helped too.
Wrapping up our visit, Andy replaced the video batteries in his strongbox. We walked swiftly to the canoe and were loading equipment when the startling blast of a bullhorn ripped through the air. We all jumped. Andy laughed and said the barges were on the move again.
"No matter how tempting to take a short cut, don't go between any stationary barges," Andy ordered. "Let me tell you, once a barge starts to move you don't want to be in its way, especially in a canoe."
"Thanks for those words of wisdom," I said, remembering the importance of perspective.
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