John Weiss column: Where were the yellow-headed blackbirds?

A male yellow-headed blackbird sits on cattails near open water of Rice Lake.

(Editor's note: Outdoor Writer John Weiss has taken the Department of Natural Resources' 125-mile challenge. The DNR wants people to celebrate the 125th anniversary of state parks by going 125 miles by boot, boat or bike in state parks, state forest, state trails or state water trail. Weiss will use the challenge to highlight all the public land, and what it has, in the region.)

CLAREMONT — After paddling through a zizagging thick wall of cattails, we finally came to the open area of Rice Lake in Rice Lake State Park and pretty much had it to ourselves.

Which way should we go? And where were the yellow-headed blackbirds?

Rice Lake has about 5 miles of shoreline but the entire shore is solid cattails. It's also a prairie bowl lake so it's shallow. On July 4, there was also a light breeze, enough to cool my wife, Debbie and I, but not enough to make it hard to paddle the lake several miles northwest of Claremont.

We randomly chose going right and we headed out into the lake, staying close to the cattails because I had promised her we would have a good chance of seeings the blackbirds. Their red-winged cousins like wetlands but like those closer to shore; yellow-headed tend to live more toward the open water so they aren't seen as much. I had seen some in a previous canoe trip there but the lake is changing, as prairie lakes tend to do, so I wasn't sure what to think. But I promised Debbie we would see one.


Every time we came to an opening in the wall of cattails, we'd try to probe it but kept hitting more walls. Frankly, it was getting boring seeing nothing but cattails.

As we paddled on, we saw two pelicans and later heard sandhill cranes and mallards. But with the thick vegetation, we saw only the pelicans that like open water. We could head a lot of chatter of birds inside the cattails but seldom saw them.

The park also has paddle-in camping across from the boat landing and noticed the cut into it only by a green marker. It's tighter than the zigzagging trail at the landing but took us to shore for a stretch and to see the beginning of the South Branch, Middle Fork Zumbro River. It's just a tiny stream, now clogged with woody debris. But it's the beginning.

As we paddled out, just before we came to open water, a male yellow-head balanced in a tangle of cattails. Unlike its cousins, that usually flee as people get close, this one posed for more than a minute and we got a good look at it, as well as the white spot on its wings, as it finally flew.

From there, we continued on and found some visual relief in one white water lily. But as we paddled further, we found hundreds of the lilies in the shallow and even a few bulrushes. Oh yes, we also saw a great blue heron, dragonflies and several muskrat houses but no muskrats.

Later on, the wind shifted and more dark clouds came; we didn't want to get stuck out there in a storm so we cut our trip short and finally found the channel back to the landing.

I figure we paddled maybe 4.75 miles. Add 4.25 miles walked on the Douglas Trail the week before and my challenge is up to 40 miles.

There are many more trails, both on land and water, to come.


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