Swimming with Loons and Finding a Sweet Gale Shoreline Swamp

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Miller Pond, Strafford, Vermont~ There is a pond not far from here where I like to go to swim and kayak. It is called a pond, but at half-mile across and 28 feet deep towards one end, it feels more like a small lake. In aquatic ecology we learned the difference has to do with depth of water; can photosynthesis occur throughout? If so, you have a pond.

IMG_2473Most years a family of loons nest on Miller Pond; this year I got to know them a little better, for I started open-water swimming. Loons will tolerate you as a swimmer and allow you to quietly hang out with them. This year the parents have raised two young. They have grown from brown balls of fluff on the parent’s back to larger white-throated birds that often wander off to dive for food. The adults are beginning to loose some of their distinctive white and black checkered breeding plumage and bright red eyes as we enter September.



In August, a third adult loon flew over the pond. The newcomer descended with much loud calling. There was great wing-flapping and running on water and loud calls, with one of the parents while the other one stayed with the young; however at least once, the three adults formed a tight circle, swimming round, then diving simultaneously to emerge again in a tight circle.IMG_2566

They repeated this courtship dance for a long time. Eventually the third loon flew off and I never saw it again. One could speculate about the relationship; was this last year’s non-breeding chick, or possibly an un-paired adult looking to steal a mate? Without banding the birds, we’ll never know.

Discovering a Sweet-Gale Shoreline Swamp

Kayaking around the shoreline one finds a lot of woody shrubs, royal ferns, meadow-sweet, beaked hazel, white birch, red maple, and conifers, hemlock, spruce and pine. Two areas border peaty bogs that are hard to penetrate; cattails, sedges, swamp roses, marsh St. John’s-wort, and more shrubs dominate. The shoreline foliage reminded me of small mangrove swamps; shrubby plants with matted roots growing out over the water, eventually holding soil and becoming new plants.


A handy guidebook I once picked up at a used bookstore, The Shrub Identification Book by George Symonds helped me to identify the shrubs as Sweet Gale and Leatherleaf, Red-Osier Dogwood, Willow, and Alder. Looking at wetland communities in Wetland, Woodland, Wildland, A Guide to the Natural Communities of Vermont, by Elizabeth Thompson and Eric Sorenson, I discovered that this was a Sweet Gale Shoreline Swamp. They define these areas as common swamps on peaty shores of small ponds and along the edges of slowly moving streams. The substrate is a mat of sedgy peat and roots, commonly floating in shallow water. They are often a narrow zone between open water and peatlands. Sweet gale, meadow-sweet, leatherleaf, and hairy fruited sedge are common.

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Meadow-sweet (Spirea latifolia)
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Sweet Gale (Myrica gale)
Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta)
Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis)
Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata)


Stumps of large trees that stood before the dam was built have hollowed out and filled with enough soil to become little island communities, hosting small trees, sundews, mosses, and shrubs.Sundews are insectivorous plants that ingest insects that become caught on the sticky leaves. Their presence indicates the acidic, nutrient-poor soil on this stump.

Round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifola)

Here is what looks like a huge gourd someone hung up 10 meters in a dead white birch. It is actually an oddly shaped polypore fungi getting ready to burst open.

Birch polypore fungi (Piptoporus betulinus) as photographed in August.
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Same polypore photographed September 6th. See how the bottom has flattened out and hollowed.

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Loon family on September 6th. Young are making a warbling call I’ve not heard before.
Watching kingbird and cedar waxwing fledglings.

All photos are by Micki Colbeck and may not be used without permission.

2 thoughts on “Swimming with Loons and Finding a Sweet Gale Shoreline Swamp

  1. Very impressive work Ms. Colbeck! This is a very cool study of a very neat ecosystem. I’d love to hear more about what songbirds nest in this habitat. Are there herons along the perimeter (e.g. great blue, green, night, etc)?

    1. One Great blue heron pair, one kingfisher pair; kingbirds, catbirds, cedar waxwings,and flycatchers have been abundant towards late summer. As for warblers and other songbirds, I’ll need to do a more intensive study next spring. The sedge/peat bog is pretty impenetrable by kayak, but I could hang out on the edges and observe. Today, I saw the second stage of the white birch polypore fungi as it started to flatten out on the bottom. The loon family seems to be doing well. I’ll post photos on the blog. I had to convince one fisherman that it wasn’t the loon’s fault he wasn’t catching anything; he was angry with them. There was another young man in a kayak who caught his limit of large black bass, by “being sneaky”, as he put it.

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