south river spring

A little rain stop us from our canoe trip down South River? Never!

ANTIGONISH -- A little rain stop us from our canoe trip down South River? Never! But when the morning of the 19 of May 1996 brought a fair-sized downpour, we had some serious reservations, postponing our start to noon, the time of day when forecasters predicted the skies would clear. Just after lunch, we launched our two canoes and one kayak by the Dunmore bridge while clouds still filled the sky. The rain, fortuitously, had subsided.

We immediately approached the fastest water of the river. Although none of the trip participants claimed expertise at river canoeing, all three groups came through the first trial without a scratch. Stretches of quicker waters were encountered periodically along the route, but none was so daunting as to require a portage or carry-over. For the most part, the river provided a gentle flow which allowed everyone to take in some of the beautiful scenery and riparian wildlife.

In both the fields and woods that bordered the river, fresh green foliage was rapidly emerging. Spring is a season well known for wildflowers, and from the canoes we could see colonies of Dutchman's Breeches in full bloom and Bloodroot with the flower buds set to emerge.

The Red Maples, which had started flowering several weeks earlier, were still in bloom, though their show was clearly waning. As if to step in where its cousins were leaving off, the Sugar Maples were just starting their show of copious, lime-green flowers. Both of these maples flower prior to leafing out which is a good clue that they are wind pollinated. This mating strategy is also true of White Elm, a tree we only saw sporadically on our trip.

Although most of the woody plants showed some signs of leafing out, the one farthest along was the Honeysuckle. We only saw Honeysuckle twice during our trip, but they were easily identified by their numerous, pendulous flowers that always appeared in pairs. The flowers of Honeysuckle are deep, and thus are more likely to be pollinated by insects.

Given that the day was cool and cloudy, we weren't blessed with seeing a great diversity of the dynamic insect fauna that was certainly there. Aquatic insects were the most abundant, especially around the algae and emergent vegetation. Water Striders skated across the surface of the water as they looked for their next meal. Water Striders are a great example of the plethora of so-called beneficial insects. When you find them in slower water, Water Striders are undoubtedly hunting mosquito larvae.

south riverA quick dip or two of the net revealed a variety of insects that live below the surface of the water: Crawling Water Beetles, Backswimmers and Water Boatmen were the most numerous. As their name suggests, Crawling Water Beetles are not great swimmers -- their legs are spindly and not exceedingly paddle-like. The Water Boatmen, though, have both middle and hind pairs of legs shaped like oars; the front pair terminate in scoops which they use to hold the algae upon which they graze. The Backswimmers do indeed swim upside down. You may have noticed most fish are lighter on their bellies than on their backs. This is thought to be a method of camouflage -- predators from above see (or don't see) a dark back against the dark of the riverbed, while predators from below are fooled by a light belly set against the brighter background provided by the sky. The Backswimmers are light on their backs, and dark below which would make them an easy meal for any duck or minnow in the neighborhood. They counteract this apparent design flaw by swimming on their backs. As another means of defense, Backswimmers can give a nasty bite, so they should be handled carefully!

A few flies were out, but none was biting. The most abundant aerial insect was certainly a small species of mayfly. Not only do these insects not bite, they do not even eat during the short time spent as adults (their scientific name Ephemoptera derives from the same root as ephemeral which describes their transient existence as adults). The primary business of the mayflies was to mate and then lay eggs in the stream prior to being eaten by the many birds in the area. Many mayflies seek out the turbulent, shallow areas of water to lay their eggs. This ensures that the larvae will develop in an area of high oxygen content. Other groups of insects that adopt this strategy are dragonflies, stoneflies and beetles.

The birds encountered on the trip were quite diverse. Both Tree Swallows and Barn Swallows were flying all around us, presumably catching the mayflies or smaller insects that we didn't notice. Yellow-rumped Warblers were darting out from their perches to catch the insects that only their eyes could see. The Yellow-rumps were by far the most common warbler. Their migration wave had started in late April and would soon be over. Other warblers spotted were Northern Parula, American Redstart and Yellow Warbler, all first sightings for the year.

Throughout almost the entire 12 km trip, Spotted Sandpipers were foraging along the banks. Their characteristic teetering makes them one of the easier sandpipers to learn for the novice naturalist.

Bald Eagles never cease to amaze people, more for their regal composure than for their behaviour, for they -- like most large birds of prey -- actually do very little most of the day.

However, the first eagle spotted (of six) was an adult returning to its nest in a White Pine which bordered the river. Its mate was perched on the rim of the nest, but we couldn't see the chicks since they were too small and nest was too deep.

As we paddled under the bridge for the Trans-Canada Highway, we entered the upper reaches of Antigonish Harbour. The current was very slow here and for the first time we had to paddle to maintain a reasonable pace. Eagles were soaring overhead as we pulled in to the take-out site. The drivers of the group headed back inland to pick up the vehicles while the remainder got the gear ready for the trip home. And just then, it started to rain...

*Randy Lauff, MSc., teaches in the biology department, St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish and is president of the Eastern Mainland Field Naturalists. He also wrote "The Insects of Winter" ( and the info poster "Owls of the Maritimes" for shunpiking magazine ( Randy may be reached at

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