Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Rails of the Wisconsin


Amber waves of grain.” That line echoed in my head as the kayak slid through narrow, surprisingly current laden channels of the upper Wisconsin River just north of Rhinelander. Grain, not as in wheat , barley or oats, but rather what belongs here-wild rice.
My friend Mitch Mode, an avid bird photographer (when his sporting good store releases him) and I took a rare chance to venture into the “northwoods” and slip the boats into water. Although Mitch loves photographing pretty much any winged creature-I've grown to see he has a soft spot for shore birds-birds most of us, including myself, never give much thought. They generally migrate north in the spring and return early fall to embark on the long flights to wintering grounds in the southern US and South America.
Sora Rail

Every year when I purchase my migratory license and fill out the HIP information, I'm asked the standard questions: Do you plan to hunt rails, snipe or gallinules? Although I'm an avid bird hunter, I couldn't ID many of them, for they're not game I'd seek out.

The 1300 acre Rhinelander Flowage extends upstream from Boom Lake, another back water of the Wisconsin River, formed by a major dam in downtown Rhinelander. Above the flowage, the Wisconsin twists and turns a hundred times as it snakes it's way south of the Rainbow Flowage near Lake Tomahawk. The river here has a much different character than what it transforms to in the southern part of the state. Until it empties into the rice filled flowage where we paddled, it's narrow and meanders through dense forest-quite unlike the wide flats and sand bars of the lower Wisconsin.

It's said one should use the right tool for the job, and I was totally out-gunned by Mitch's set-up. He's done this before. His kayak was a smallish plastic drab-painted and ghillie suited affair, perfect for slipping into close quarters with wildlife. The camo-theme continued with paddle, hat, shirt and long lens on his camera. No problem-I'd be sure to scare everything away with my 18' bright white kevlar sea kayak, orange vest and hat! Being a long hard chine boat was not ideal here where I'd have to twist and squeeze through narrow passages filled with tall rice stands, weeds and lily pads. No matter-I was on new water (to me) and could sit back and watch how Mitch maneuvered to get some beautiful shots. I'd keep myself and my boat out of the way.

Rhinelander Flowage

I'd probably seen Sora Rails while duck hunting out west or even instate, but to me they were just another tiny shore bird flitting around not earning my attention. As soon as we set the boats down at the launch, Mitch's ear was tuned to their call. A loud clap of his hands invoked a hail of “weep” calls from this small secretive bird. As we paddled, any loud sound would shock the unseen rails into various calls. The long high descending “whinny” was my favorite and it seemed the entire marsh was a chorus of them when Canadian geese set them off.

Although we could hear them, it took some time before one of the little marsh walkers exposed himself at the “shore” of the channel. The slate blue/grey bird nervously sauntered across water lilies in its search for small invertebrates and vegetation. Mitch pointed the tiny bird out and started shooting, while I clumsily made a wide turn and made my way back to drift in for a closer look. The rail picked along the edge, happily chirping out a “quink-quink-quink” from time to time while feeding, unconcerned with us. 

Mitch-Fully outfitted


Sora Rails are fairly easy to identify-they have a small yellow bill with a black face and “mohawk.” A short tail flashes white underneath when it's walking or launches into the air. Legs and feet are oversize for such a modest sized bird.

I think Mitch would have been quite content to spend the entire day floating and photographing here and skipping out on “real” life in town. I could see why-the rice beds attract a host of waterfowl and other wildlife. A pair of eagles soared high above, Marsh Hawks (Northern Harrier) floated just above the vegetation hunting and a copious supply of wood ducks and teal were happy to make this part of the river home among the muskrat huts.

I love nature like this. Marshes and swamps may not be as glamorous as a majestic mountain or forest, but they team with life. That spicy snappy smell you can only find here and with the slow flowing water that binds it all together. These are good and important places.

The outside world all too soon pulled Mitch from the water, but he insisted I stay an explore-which I felt obliged to do. The long boat changed gears and set about to investigate more of the deceptive passages through the rice. As long as I kept an eye on channels with moving water I felt assured I wouldn't get lost. Hopefully. 

Among the Rice


With some satisfaction, I did manage to navigate a few narrow corridors and wind up back at the launch. From time to time, I'd try Mitch's hand clap and chuckle at the response from unseen rails tucked nearby in the weeds. Cheap entertainment I guess. This flowage will have to be visited again-spring would be best, with many more migrating stop-overs passing through. A better camera (than my iphone), proper attire (and different boat??) would be along next time. As Eiseley eludes to-these are magic places and must be returned to.

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water. -- Loren Eiseley






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