Some could argue that the worst time to be walking the dikes at Pointe Mouillee is mid-winter. The place is totally exposed and without cover for all but the smallest of beasts. Life, as we know it, is out of sight and mind. A casual winter visitor is left with the impression that this is a sterile landscape. This is true enough when bitter northern blows sweep the icy flats clean. At that time, not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse (ho, ho, ho). But when conditions are on the “milder” side the starkness of Mouillee can be refreshing. While not bustling with activity, there is life on the winter marsh.
My last venture out onto the dikes was in late January. The first obvious evidence of other life forms came in the form of human tracks. The paired marks of a sled framed a set of boot tracks leading down and across the ice. They led toward the dead cat-tail expanse. Above them, the two-track bordering the Long Pond Unit units were also marked with the wobbly linear lines laid down by bike tires. The muskrat trappers were out. Most chose to run their route using bikes because of the long distances they need to traverse.
With the season only days from officially ending and a warm spell due, most of the trappers were making their last run of the season. I bumped into Dave Venier, a long-time acquaintance and veteran ‘rat trapper. He was assisted by his cousin Cliff and a young neophyte by the name of Zack. Cliff bemoaned the fact that the ice would soon be gone. “We water trapped earlier when there was no ice and switched to ice trapping with this latest hard freeze.” But, he acknowledged, that despite the hardships, the rats were especially fat this year and that brought a satisfied look across his cold-reddened face. He held up a ‘rat for my examination and the creature slipped out of his gloved hands when I snapped his portrait.
Estimating that perhaps 2,000 muskrats were taken out of the marsh this winter by the hardy set of trappers working this place, Venier bemoaned the fact that the “up and down” winter conditions kept the catch way below normal. Fat hairy ‘rats should bring in top prices, however, and the trio rode off down the dike with a sense of success. They paused to exchange a few words with an ice fisherman pedaling his way out to the farthest unit to try his hand at catching a few fat fish.
Two Short-eared Owls dashed out from the rocks on the northward side of the dike as I continued on my way. I hate that. These crepuscular owls are a regular sight on the Mouillee Marshes but there is no way to sneak up on them– especially when you don’t know they are even there. By the time I realized what I was seeing, the birds were gliding in different directions over the distant cattails. Their hiding place down in the canary grass was betrayed by only a few scuffle marks in the snow and some soft gray down feathers adhering to the stems.
These owls, along with a host of other birds of prey, cruise the marshes seeking mice – those creatures that stir on moonlit nights and windless days. Winter cattails are perfect cover for these smallest of beasts because they lean over into dense tent-like formations. There are wide open spaces between the clumps, however, and mice must traverse these open danger zones if they want to do anything other than cower in fear all night. The regular tracks of at least one White-footed Mouse (see below) revealed a successful journey. Another track, revealed a different story.
An x-shaped mark in the snow adjacent to another mouse crossing highlights the ever-present perils faced by Mouillee Mice. These tracks were probably made by a Great Horned Owl where it plunged to earth to nab a rodent meal. No doubt the fearsome fowl had been eying the spot and decided to make its move on one hapless victim but the result, according to these particular tracks, were in the mouse’s favor.
The owl feet struck the snow in open position and together covered an area of about 18 square inches. That they were not drawn together into a killing crush– a move that would have obliterated the track – proves that the attempt was unsuccessful. What we had here was your basic “doggone it” moment in an owl’s life followed by a high-pitched mouse “Alleluia” moment.
Out on the far dike, the winter walker is very close to the mouth of the Detroit River. The venerable Detroit River light looms in the frosty distance – a place it has occupied since 1885. Always on duty, the daytime lighthouse droned out a mournful fog signal throughout the morning.
Mouillee is located at the confluence of the Huron River and the Detroit. The Huron mouth was completely frozen over while the big “D” river was open along the main channel on the Canadian side. Piles of ice marked the edge of the main river channel.
There were clusters of Tundra Swans and diving ducks in the open water and at least a dozen Bald Eagles speckled the scene. Most were immature birds with dark heads and tails. All were grouped into small packs clustered around a certain dead fish or duck on the ice.
I would argue (to anyone listening, of course) that this January vista of the lower river, as viewed from the outer dikes of Mouillee is truly a beautiful sight. Even the plumes issuing from the barber pole stacks of the Trenton Power Plant seem fitting. It is a view that makes a winter trip to this “barren” marsh a “w.w.w. experience (well worth while).