Goose Pond, 10/21/17

Birding with non-birders is different than birding with other birders. When I bring non-birders along, they notice things I wouldn’t otherwise, like specific bird behaviors or how dinosaur-like certain birds like herons look. Saturday was no exception, with my esteemed guest asking questions I would not have thought about. What do geese eat? Is there an alpha? What are those weird mounds?


At the time I guessed the geese were looking for small invertebrates. While that might have been true, I have since learned Canada geese (Branta canadensis) are mostly herbivorous, with small creatures being only an occasional part of their diet. (source)

There is probably not an alpha goose. That would be cool though. Or terrifying. Take your pick.

They are muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) lodges.

While my guest was enthralled by the dramatics of the pond, I was focused finding individuals of other species among the mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and Canada geese. This was more easily accomplished by scanning the pond with the scope rather than glancing over it with bare eyes. The first species to jump out at me was the cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii), a species that is rather similar to its Canada cousins but smaller and with almost duck-like proportions.

Cackling goose (left), two Canada geese (right)
Cackling geese (the two small ones in the center) and Canada geese

I also found a single snow goose (Anser caerulescens) (where are your friends, little buddy?), three tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus), a canvasback (Aythya valisineria), and quite a few American coots (Fulica americana), northern pintails (Anas acuta), blue-winged teal (Spatula discors), green-winged teal (Anas carolinensis), northern shovelers (Spatula clypeata), ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis) and ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris). Not bad for a pond that looked to mostly be mallards and Canada geese at first.

Maquoketa Caves State Park

Let’s talk about place and memory. Have you ever been somewhere once and revisited later only to realize your memories were off? We create a mythology around places we’ve been. This mythology plays over and over in our heads and morph into something that is not an accurate representation of a physical reality. I experienced this a few weeks ago when I went caving in eastern Iowa.

Maquoketa Caves State Park is a small park, but it packs over a dozen caves in a tight cluster. They range from larger caverns, including a few that the tallest adults could stand up in, to tight squeezes not everyone could fit through.

Looking out from Match Cave

Let’s talk about comfort levels. Although I have some experience with caves, including Maquoketa, it is very limited. I have a bit of claustrophobia, but it’s not bad. Some of the caves made me slightly nervous, but slightly nervous is okay. You don’t want to be so scared you panic but if you don’t push yourself you won’t have any fun. I entered a few caves twice, letting myself go farther the second time around. My favorite of these was Barbell Cave. It was a bit farther of a walk from the parking lot than many of the caves, but it was worth both trips. On my  first entry, I learned the cave had a high opening, about eye level, that I needed to hoist myself into. After that there was a wide, curving crawl that led to a small room that was big enough for a few people to sit tightly in. There I saw another room, but it was separated from me by a tight squeeze. I was not up to it yet. On the return I was ready, though even the kid who popped out when I got there said it was tight for him. I went for it anyway and yes, it was tight on the hips. It took me several seconds to slide through. Once I did, I found myself in a large room, big enough for a small get-together if none of the party-goers were too keen on standing fully upright. Upon turning off my headlamp (it’s good to do this when you’re stopped to save the battery) I was enveloped in the darkest dark. You can go to the middle of nowhere on the surface and wait for the sun to set, but as long as you’re above ground you won’t see darkness like this. It wasn’t even black- it was beyond that. As extraordinary as it was, I have to admit it gave me the willies. After a few minutes of quiet darkness I turned the light back on and squeezed back into the land of sunshine.

That was the narrowest fit of the day. Some of the caves were much larger. Wide Mouth Cave and Ice Cave were both memorable in the sense that they both looked the most like caves in cartoons, with large rooms that led directly to the outside. Ice Cave was the taller of the too, but even though I couldn’t stand up in Wide Mouth Cave it still could have accommodated a large amount of people.

Wide Mouth Cave

The largest cave, and one of the biggest draws, was Dancehall Cave. It is a long, wide cave that I was able to stand up in most of the way. It is also the only artificially lit and paved one at the park. There were three grandiose openings to it and some of the chambers were large enough to be, well, dancehalls, as they were used in decades past. Many of the visitors stuck to these large chambers. However, there were smaller tunnels off to the side and these held the most interest to me. As I mentioned earlier, memories are not always accurate. I had an image of a cave at the park that I’d had for years. I thought it might be one of the side tunnels. Thing is, I had only been to Maquoketa once before and that was almost two decades ago. That’s quite a time for a brief glimpse of a cave to evolve into a memory that matches nothing I’ve seen in real life. I didn’t find the mythical cave I was looking for.

That’s okay. The side tunnels were great and were not as crowded as the main route. They involved more physical exertion too: there were changes in elevation and places where I had to crawl. Fun! One route led to a balcony of sorts above the main chamber where I sat and ate while watching people below. Another winded for a few minutes until I got to a drop-off several feet above the chamber where I started.

One of the entrances to Dancehall Cave

There were a few caves I didn’t go in. Up-and-Down Cave didn’t look like much so I didn’t enter. Turns out there’s a tunnel in it that goes longer than I thought. I didn’t enter Dugout Cave because I was was told to skip it by a couple exiting it. Apparently it was a tight squeeze with not much reward. I also skipped Wye Cave because it was crowded when I finally got there. There is also a long tunnel within Dancehall Cave that I didn’t explore. That one and Wye Cave, both long ones, would be better to do with a small group anyway.

Rainy Day Cave- the wettest cave with its own little creek

So what did I do on this trip? I made memories that will change with time and pushed my boundaries. Both are good reasons to have gone and both are even better reasons to go back in the future.