The residence in question was actually a manufactured home, that staple of rural Missouri generally known as a "double-wide." This particular double-wide was even cheaper than the average example, because it had been foreclosed on. That did give me pause. In the midst of our own misery, it felt wrong to take advantage of the economic disaster settling on someone else. But then, I couldn't see how our not buying the place was going to help anyone, and while I did have a lot of sympathy for the previous owner, some of the little ... adjustments ... he made to the property while departing helped reconcile me with the situation.
Anyway, the reason for the purchase wasn't really the mobile home. It was what was behind it. This particular manufactured home was perched on the edge of an 80-acre lake.
If you tuned in to read politics and nothing but politics, you can stop now. I warn you, from here on out it's going to be ducks, fish and turtles all the way down.
Lake Lorraine is located in the hills about 30 miles south of St. Louis. Like every other lake in the state it's artificial. In this case, the dam was built in the 1950s, cutting a couple of small streams that come down off Fox Den Ridge and feed into Sandy Creek. Looking at pre-lake topographic maps, the center of the resulting lake should be right at 50' deep, but my high precision $29 depth finder indicates that the depth is more like 30-35 feet in the central channel. That's only to be expected after nearly sixty years of built up sediment. All lakes, big and small, are temporary phenomena.
Time has allowed the lake to become well-established as an ecosystem, to develop a complex food chain, and to become a regular stop on the routes of migrating birds. However, a lake this size is always under stress. Always changing. There are chemicals that wash in from lawns and from highways, there are floods that bring in washes of soil and fertilizers, there are droughts that lower the depth and the oxygen content of the water, there are idiots like me who occasionally like to dunk a line, resulting in a lot more stress on the fish of the lake than would otherwise exist.
Everything about the lake, everything, is a mixture of nature and... assisted nature. In some ways, it's a microcosm of the world we live in-- a place where nothing goes untouched by man, but where that touch can also act to heal as well as harm.
We actually took possession on 4th of July weekend, but considering the amount of work required to make the place livable again, it was a couple of months before we were able to settle in and spend some time in the place. That timing couldn't have been more perfect. The trees were beginning to change, migrating birds were stopping by... and the monster was in its prime.
Naturally, we were a bit surprised that our little lake came complete with a monster, but there it was -- two dark humps, about three feet apart, sliding slowly through the water just a dozen or so yards off shore. After seeing it for several days, we gave the beastie an appropriate monster name, Lorrie.
I had some suspicions about the nature of Lorrie right from the start, but it wasn't until I managed to construct a dock (happy to share my plans and construction method, though breaking a toe in the process is optional) and assemble my research fleet (more on them later) that I could confirm my monster ID. Once I was able to get myself into close Lorrie proximity, here's what I saw.
Grass Carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella)
Filamentous algae at Lake Lorrain in 2006
Yes, Grass Carp are an invasive species spread here by people, but you know what? Most species of filamentous algae are also invasive species. Plus, these Grass Carp were specially bred and placed by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. They're tetraploid, sterile, so that if they escape the lake they won't go on to bred in the streams and rivers on the other side of the dam. They're an artificially altered invasive fish brought in to combat an artificially stimulated invasive algae. In an artificial lake. And I kind of love them.
Their sleek, silvery bodies slide into the shallow waters of the bay behind our home, occasionally flashing back the sunlight but more often appearing as dark and torpedo-ish as sharks prowling offshore. The older ones are either so sated, or just plain tired, that I can splash up to them in my paddle boat and lay a hand on their heavily-scaled backs. In any case, unlike many large fish, their lifespans are relatively short. They live at most a decade, and with the end of fall, several of our oldest fish are leaving each year. Lorrie disappeared last winter. This year another of our named fish, The Creature (who liked hanging around a small shaded bay we call the black lagoon), perished. Give it another couple of years and all the monsters will be gone. Then we'll miss them.
There are only a few species of waterfowl that hang around the lake year round. There are a lot more that pass us moving either north or south on their way to places where the days are longer. No matter the direction of travel, several seem to think this is a good spot to catch their breath and for a few short stretches the lake is genuinely crowded with feathery travelers.
During a large part of the year, the Canada Geese are the largest waterfowl around, and they literally tower over the LBD (little brown ducks).
Geese and Little Brown Ducks
In any case, the middle of winter sees the geese ousted from their spot at the top of the waterfowl world. Not only do they have to shoulder aside for flocks of cousins Snow Goose and Greater White Fronted-Goose, a much bigger visitor comes to call.
Trumpeter Swan and Canada Geese
Our other winter big guy was another former member of the endangered species club.
Charlie's appearance in the winter overlapped with another big raptor—an Osprey. Getting a chance to watch both birds in action was a great treat. The eagle dives down at the water, claws extended, and rakes down to (amazingly) extract a fish. The Osprey circles around at an altitude of a hundred feet or so, seems to hover for a moment, then folds its wings and just plunges down, striking the water with an enormous splash before flapping upward, fish in tow.
But the variety act didn't last. Soon enough, Charlie began chasing the Osprey away whenever it appeared. For most of the winter it was gone, but over the summer as Charlie began spending more time away from our little lake, the Osprey slipped back to splash down again. On his last visit, the Osprey was just wheeling above the water, picking out the juiciest bluegill or little bass, when a feathered bullet streaked onto the scene. Charlie, who hadn't seen in weeks, somehow appeared just in time to defend his territory.
Really, I wish there was some way to broker raptor detente.
Last year was the hottest, driest summer on record for the Missouri area. Day after day, the temperature ran up to 100 ... 105 ... 108. As the temperature went up, the level of our lake went down, down and down. We began to worry that we had moved in just in time to see the whole thing turn into a giant mud puddle. By the time winter rolled in, the water was down almost 2 feet from when we had moved in. When you consider that the bay behind us is only 3 - 5' deep, the mud puddle thing was more than a remote possibility.
Then the spring rains delivered big time. We had gully washers. Then toad stranglers. Then duck drowners. It, by God, rained.
It rained enough that the hillsides and streambeds above the lake surrendered years of gathered up twigs, branches, and logs. On a couple of occasions enough debris washed into the lake that without going down to move a pile of sticks, you'd have had a hard time knowing that there was a lake under all that junk. Water levels recovered in a hurry, and soon enough there was the sound of Niagara Falls from the far end of the lake as water (plus debris and adventurous fish) plummeted over the spillway. The geese, many of whose nests were flooded by the rising waters, didn't appreciate this superabundance. Mostly because they weren't in on the wooden-egg thing. But the turtles loved it.
Almost from the moment the ice broke up, the pointy heads of turtles appeared in the water, and as the logs floated across the lake, the turtles climbed on board.
Turtles in Transit
So far all the stories I've been telling are ones of human intervention, but this is a story of reptile self-reliance. There are 17 species of turtles in Missouri, and I've seen a number of them in our lake. There are the very common Red-Eared Sliders and Northern Map Turtle (which together make up all the sailors on the log above). There are also False Map Turtles with their ridged backs, and Common Snapping Turtles with their big heads and reduced shells. I've snapped a pic of a Ouachita Map Turtle, caught a glimpse of the red-tinted shell of a Western Painted Turtle, and seen many Stinkpots and River Cooters. I've also seen softshell turtles, big as dinner plates, flying through the water with amazing speed (I suspect they are Midland Smooth Softshell, but can't be sure unless I nab one).
What's special about all these guys? They got here on their own. Sure, someone might have given a turtle a lift some time, but these turtles—most of whom are aquatic or semi-aquatic species—got to the lake without any program of turtle distribution. Like the voyagers on the log above, they struck out in search of greener ... waters. They reached the lake, and did so in such numbers that in the spring the shallow bays swarm with their rounded forms. Any trip down to the water's edge in spring (and fall) is likely to be greeted by a series of kerplunks as turtles vacate their perches on logs and banks, and the many snorkeling heads drop quickly below the waves when they catch a glimpse of nearby people.
This spring, in the midst of one of those heavy rains, Northern Map Turtles dug their way into the muddy bank below my house and laid their eggs. They dug out burrows about six inches deep, working with surprising speed, and laid a few dozen 1" elongate eggs into each burrow. A few weeks later, some industrious skunks dug up three of the nests and snacked on the eggs. I hated to see it, but I make it a rule never to disturb skunks at their work. Despite the skunks best efforts, they didn't get them all. A couple of other nests spilled open later, and I got up early enough to see a final little micro-turtle flopping its way to the water.
Maybe that little guy will live the rest of its life in the water of our lake. Or maybe, like its ancestors, it'll develop turtle wanderlust. Somewhere out there is the pond of opportunity, just waiting for a turtle with a dream.
Once the turtles are toasty and the Bluegill and Red-eared Sunfish have scattered from their breeding beds, things settle in for the summer. Despite being a season of growth and activity, in a way it's a sleepy time at the lake. Most of the transients have gone on to Canada or other points north. The single Loon that wandered mutely around the lake all winter and spring has vanished to make its call somewhere else, Charlie has moved to wherever Charlie goes in warm weather, and most of the colorful ducks have gone with him.
Left behind are the guys that stick it out through the Missouri heat. There are the geese, of course, and the unshakeable squad of LBD. There are also a few Ring-necks and some Mallards (both of which are extremely pretty, despite being common). There's also a water bird that's not brown, and isn't even a duck, though it certainly looks like one.
Unlike ducks, Coots don't have webbed feet. Instead the individual toes on the Coot's foot have become broad and flattened. The Coot also has a very distinctive gait in the water. Where ducks have developed their back and forth paddling to propel them smoothly over the surface, the Coot makes a motion that's much more like underwater walking. As it does the aqua-walk, the rest of its body moves just like that of a bird walking on the shore. In particular, the head bobs forward and back with each hidden step. If you see a bird going through the water with a motion that looks like a chicken submerged to the breastbone, you can be pretty sure it's a Coot.
Okay, so I've only covered a small fraction of happens in a year at even a tiny lake like this one, but I suspect I've long exhausted everyone's patience on a Sunday morning. Let me make one last pitch, and you can get back to the politics.
There's a group here at Daily Kos known as Backyard Science. The focus of the group is on the kind of observation that you can do everyday, everywhere, whether your backyard is a lake, a lane, or a parking lot. Drop in on their diaries, not just to get wonderful, daily notes on the creatures, plants, and events around us, but to lend your own observations to the mix. There is more to the world than what's happening in DC. Thank goodness.