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2012, despite the election results, was a pretty bad year for my family. So when the chance came to join John McCain and Mitt Romney, I jumped on it. That's right, I bought a second home.

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.

Fall Banner
The Monster of Lake Lorraine
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 (<i>Ctenopharyngodon idella</i>)
Grass Carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella)
Yup, Grass Carp. This is one of those invasive Asian carps that you hear about. They tolerate a broad range of temperatures and water conditions and they scarf down any aquatic vegetation available including grass clippings thrown out from lawns. Several times early in the morning the edges of the lake fairly boiled as these big fish stuck their heads clear of the water to munch vegetation along the shore. Grass Carp can grow to over 4' long and weigh over 80 pounds. They're a real scourge in many waterways... and I was happy to see them.

Here's why.

Filamentous algae
Filamentous algae at Lake Lorrain in 2006
Just a few years ago, the lake was so heavily filled with mats of filamentous algae that you could almost walk across it. In this image (from Bing's birds-eye view), the algae is already being cut back, and these days it's well-nigh gone. Filamentous algae is often a problem in small lakes, where fertilizer from lawns and farms drives up the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous causing an algal bloom. The water ends up ugly, oxygen depleted, and unable to support much life. The same effect creates dead zones in the ocean.

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.

Images of fall (click for full size)



Winter Banner
Beautiful Bullies
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 LBD
Geese and Little Brown Ducks
Here you can see the Canada Geese looming over, umm... Pintails? Widgeon? Well, yeah, exactly. You can see why we refer to these guys as LBDs. At any given time there's a flock or two of LBDs around, living in the shadow of the geese. As they have at many small lakes, the Canada Geese have settled in as year round residents. Each year the Department of Natural Resources sends out a team which, along with local volunteers, shoos the geese from their nests long enough to replace their eggs with wooden replicas. It sounds cruel, I know, but when you consider that the egg count this spring alone was 54, those little white croquet balls are all that stand between us and a goose apocalypse. Another instance in which human intervention is required to maintain an environment that's inherently unstable.

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.

Swan and Geese
Trumpeter Swan and Canada Geese
The Canada Goose is a large bird, with a wingspan up to 48". However, the Trumpeter Swan is much larger, with a wingspan of 80". Not too long ago, the Trumpeter was endangered, and the total population of this species is still only around 30,000. So we felt quite privileged when a quartet of these big boys decided to spend some weeks with us. Despite their elegant appearance and their endangered status, the Swans were not exactly shy birds. They actively chased away geese and delivered their namesake honk toward anyone or anything that disturbed them.

Our other winter big guy was another former member of the endangered species club.

Bald Eagle in Flight
Bald Eagle
Charlie (and no, I don't know why his name is Charlie) showed up last winter and hung around through the spring. He even made a few appearances over the summer and has recently been perched in his tree again, all of which makes me think that his regular spot over the summer is not too far away.

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.

Images of Winter (click for full size)



Spring Banner
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
Turtles in Transit
Why did the turtles line up to take ship? Well, turtles generally like to sit in the sun and warm their cool blood, but I think it's more than that.

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.

Images of Spring. (Click to enlarge. Especially the green one)



Summer Banner
The Non-Duck of the Doldrums
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.

American Coot
These guys are American Coots. I can't tell you that they're old Coots, let's just say that they are mature. Coots are duck-shaped and they behave like ducks, paddling around the lake and making shallow dives for vegetation and small critters. However, these birds are derived from different stock. They're actually members of the Rail family like the long-billed Virginia Rail or the King Rail of the coasts. Despite its duck-disguise, it's easy to tell the Coot is a pretender. You just have to watch them swim.

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.

Images of Summer.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Oct 27, 2013 at 07:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science.

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