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The joy of floods, flooding

The American Pipit takes advantage of shallowly flooded areas to find food.

The crust of ice cracked under my boots, providing a brief resistance before my foot plunged into a foot of water. Every step took extra care and effort. My boot had to push through without sliding across the ice, causing a horrible slip and terrible drenching in the freezing weather. This is how some of the trails are during flood season at Audubon. They typically only flood for a day or two, but I love trekking through the floodwaters when it happens.

Floods transform the landscape and reinvent it, which is one of the reasons I love it so much. I love almost anything that takes the familiar and turns it into something new. This is the same reason I love hiking and biking at night or wandering outside after two feet of snow was dumped on the world. There is something magical in wandering through a familiar space that has been rendered unfamiliar by a sudden change.

Audubon’s trails flood almost every year as the snow melts and the first cool, spring rains wash away the winter grit and grime. The trails wander through wetlands whose function is to flood. They hold the floodwater back from the creek and release it slowly, so the creek doesn’t rise as high or as quickly. Wetlands are the sponge habitat, absorbing water so that it doesn’t fill grandma’s basement or wash away the road. This is important, but not the reason that I love hiking through the flood.

Floods push animals out of their comfort zone as they seek higher ground. Over the years, floods have shown me many things I would not normally see. Foxes appear in new places, stalking smaller animals that are also out of place in the flood. Deer lie clustered on tiny hills that emerge a foot above the water. A small group of grouse clusters on high, open ground, far from the lowland shrubs where they spend more time.

One of my favorite flood time encounters combined the magic of flooding with the transformative power of night. I was walking back to the Nature Center at dusk on one flooded spring several years ago. It took longer than expected to navigate the flooded trails, so the sun had sunk below the horizon as I took a break next to Audubon’s Spatterdock Pond.

Submitted photo Audubon’s trails flood for a few days each spring.

I idly let out a Great Horned Owl hoot, since I was just learning how to make an owl call. No owl hooted back, much to my disappointment, but I decided to keep hooting. Practice makes improvement. The owls seemed uninterested in my poor imitation of the deep resonant hoots that real Great Horned Owls make. I was just about to give up when a large shadow whisked across the pond. One time, two times, three times it flew from one side of the pond to the other. I hooted in excitement and, to my immense surprise, a Great Horned Owl perched in a dead tree in the pond.

It was silhouetted against the sky and close enough to see the tufts of feathers sticking out on either side of the big round head. I stared at the bird, enthralled, for several minutes before wondering what would happen if I hooted one more time. I hooted in my best deep Great Horned Owl voice “Hoo hoo hoo hooooooo, hoo hoooooo”.

The owl never replied, but it did turn its head toward me. I was, foolishly, excited to have drawn its attention, when it dove at my head. Great Horned Owls have a wingspan of five feet or more and talons as long as my pinky finger. The bird dipped below the tree line in the dark and became invisible. I was alone in the dark with a silent unseen predator with killer feet coming towards me, well aware that this was only happening because of something I did.

I ducked quickly to the side and could feel the breeze from the owl’s wings as it passed beside me. I left the owl behind and trudged carefully through the swamp on the way back to the parking lot. The owl, I’m sure, took advantage of the small creatures displaced by the flood to eat well that night.

Floods change the world. They flood homes of animals and people, reroute the trails and roads that are normally taken, and inconvenience many. They also force us to look at the world in a different way, to go in new directions and find new paths.

Photo by Jeff Tome Animals need to find higher ground when their wetland homes flood.

I’m glad floods don’t happen every day, but I revel in them while they are here. Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open daily, including restrooms, the Blue Heron Gift Shop, Indoor Nature Play Area and exhibits. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

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