Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Flyway of the Monarchs

Oswego County is full of natural wonders. Spectacular geological features like the Salmon River Falls Unique Area and the fabulous sand dunes at Deer Creek Marsh Wildlife Management Area etch the landscape. World class salmon, steelhead and walleye swim in our waters. And each spring and fall our friendly skies load up with migrating fowl of every feather.

But not all miracles are big and obvious. Indeed, Oswego County is full of marvels of a smaller nature, and one of the most colorful is the fall migration of monarchs.

The majestic monarch travels thousands of miles in its life journey. (Photo by NYS DEC Web site).

This majestic butterfly’s range reaches way into Canada. As summer days grow shorter, signaling the butterflies to start moving to warmer climates, those born north of the border leisurely head south. Reaching Lake Ontario, they’re reluctant to fly over the huge pond. Although they can flutter for long distances, they have to stop sometime, to get out of heavy winds, to rest, roost, stuff like that. So they try to fly over land as much as possible and skirt the shoreline looking for some they can follow to the U.S. of A. At Cape Vincent they bank a sharp right.

Just about any refuge will do in an emergency. However, given a choice, monarchs prefer certain spots. In fact, they have an uncanny knack for resting in places their ancestors also frequented, often in the same tree their great grandparents used (four generations are produced each year) when they made the trip last fall.

Two of their most popular Oswego County haunts are Deer Creek Marsh Wildlife Management Area and Sandy Pond. The back sides of the dunes offer great protection from the weather, and lots of trees and bushes for perches.

They start migrating in good numbers in mid-August and continue coming until about mid-September. When they finally settle down for the night, they can fill a bush so thick, its branches seem to sprout quivering blotches of orange and gold.

I went up to both spots last week to see what I could see. I wasn’t disappointed. As I walked the beach, I looked north and my eyes settled on the graceful dance of several individuals.

When you first catch sight of one, it’s a fleck in the distance, so small and insignificant you think it’s a floater (one of the tiny spots some of us have in our vision). As it gets closer, you notice its telltale swaying flight and before you know it, a full blown monarch is effortlessly floating past you. It’s humbling to see how such a delicate, weightless critter can remain on its flight path pitted against such a vast expanse of open air and water.

I didn’t see flocks, but I did see several, including a small cluster resting on a tree trunk.

They should start appearing in massive quantities in late afternoon from now until the middle of next month. The best way to locate a batch is to walk the beach and keep an eye out for specks on the horizon that are flying in a determined direction, but in a very roundabout way. If your timing is right, they’ll lead you to their roost.

If luck is with you, you’ll find a tree pasted with tiny, colorful sails gently flapping in the breeze, and others circling the branches looking for perches. You’ll walk away with the knowledge you witnessed one of life’s smallest, most colorful miracles unfold before your eyes.

(The following photos were taken by Janet Clerkin)

A DEC interpretive sign at the parking area at Deer Creek Marsh explains how the dunes were formed. To reach this parking area, turn left at the end of Rainbow Shores Road in the Town of Sandy Creek.

Monarchs cross over miles of open water before landing on the beach.

The shoreline at Deer Creek Marsh, looking north. The area is owned by the NYS DEC and is part of the unique Eastern Lake Ontario freshwater dune system.

Driftwood on the beach.

Shrubs, small trees and dune grass line the edge of the beach at Deer Creek Marsh and provide a place for the monarchs to rest.

The back sides of the dunes offer shelter from the weather.

A viewing platform is situated between the marsh and the shoreline, offering an expansive view of two distinct habitats.

Milkweed and Queen Anne's Lace are common in the upland areas of the dune system.

Goldenrod is a bright symbol of late summer.

Fields of Queen Anne's Lace thrive along the back side of the dunes at Deer Creek Marsh. The dainty flower originated in Europe and is a member of the wild carrot family.

The milkweed plant plays an important role in the life cycle of the monarch. The butterfly lays its eggs on the leaves, the caterpillar feeds on the leaves, and the butterfly feeds on the milky white liquid during the late summer.

Matilda enjoys the late afternoon breeze off Lake Ontario.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Summer Whitewater Fun

Salmon River's summer colors

Up until recently, whitewater was feared by average folks. So much so, you couldn’t even find it in the dictionary. But that didn’t mean it didn’t exist. Indeed, all you had to do was go up to the Salmon River to see all the whitewater you wanted.

Oh, the stuff has always fascinated folks. Indeed, the city of Niagara Falls relies on raging whitewater's loud, scary qualities for its very existence; while places like the Salmon River Falls Unique Area silently testify to its more subtle artistic merits. But normal folks (except trout and salmon anglers, of course) never dreamt of stepping foot in it, let alone floating it for cheap thrills.

Daredevils did. Indeed, documentaries showing adventurers on places like the Colorado and Trinity Rivers planted a seed that bloomed into movies like “Deliverance” and “the River Wild,” launching whitewater onto a wave of respectability.

New York, the most mountainous state in the northeast, is etched in a web of the stuff. I-81 crosses two of its finest strands: the Black and Salmon Rivers.

The state’s only stream that can boast year-round adventure class rapids, the Black River requires great skill to navigate. Since this is a family-friendly blog--and this mighty stream is for experts only--we won’t go there.

The Salmon River is a different story. Oh, it has its dangerous moments, like during the spring thaw and when it’s swollen to a rage by a hard rain. Normally, however, this time of year sees it low and relatively safe. Free spirits have been riding its currents on everything from rubber tubes and air mattresses to more substantial craft like kayaks and canoes since the 1960s.

Its reputation really took off in 1996. That’s when the authorities, through prodding by whitewater interests, environmentalists and fishermen, made it mandatory for the power company to release a base flow from the dam which kept the river running at a consistent pace.

The rapids proved so popular, local businesses decided to try and raise the water level another notch, and convinced the power company to conduct water releases for recreational purposes five times each summer: one weekend in June, August and September, and two weekends in July.

Last month’s releases attracted colorful, boisterous flotillas of every type of craft imaginable. In fact, professional fishing guide Rick Miick tried floating the river for Skamania and landlocked Atlantic salmon on July 24. He caught some bass and claimed the trout and salmon weren’t hitting because “the kaleidoscope of rafts, kayaks and canoes shooting over the water was so intense and loud, respectable trout and salmon ducked for cover or clung to the river bottom in fear of their lives.”

The neatest things about the Salmon River during the dog days of summer are its relatively warm temperatures and safe rapids. Ranked on a scale from class I (shallow ripples a kitten can wade) to class VI (highly technical cataracts that can kill ya’), the Salmon River's rapids don't rise above class III, mild enough for an average eight-year-old, wearing a personal flotation device, to handle.

The releases scheduled for August 7-8 and September 4-5 are still far enough away to plan for.

If you’ve never paddled a fast moving river before, consider going during the August release and joining one of the organized runs offered by commercial outfits like Whitewater Challengers, www.whitewaterchallengers.com; and Adventure Calls, www.adventure-calls.com. (I don’t know of any commercial rafting companies that run the river during the September release, so you’re on your own for that one.)

Then show up in a swim suit. The outfitter will provide instructions, a seat on a raft, paddle, personal flotation device and, most importantly, a “brain bucket” (helmet). You’ll launch into the bubbly and set off on an adventure that’ll make you all wet...creating memories you’ll never forget.

Close-up of some rafters along the river

Kayaks and rubber rafts