All posts by Roger Talbot


Water Closet for August 11, 2017

Seven paddlers including the Old Closeteer arose in the dark and wondered for a moment why they were doing so.  It was four-o’clock; sunrise, their target, was at five-thirty. They planned to greet the sun’s early light on the Great Wenham Swamp, a vast impoundment above the Willowdale Dam on the Ipswich River.

“The swamp may be quite like it was four centuries ago before the Indians killed beavers for the new comers from across the sea who paid iron pots and knives for their pelts”

Once on the road to their put-in spot off the Topsfield-Ipswich Road they cheered up and upon arrival joked as they lugged a canoe and five kayaks down to the river a quarter mile above the Willowdale-Foote Dam where a woolen mill once made clothing for the Union Army.  No wool was needed on this late-July sunrise-paddle day. The cool air was dry and clear; the water flowing high and fairly fast.  Almost two inches of rain had fallen two days before.  At five-thirty, at least human-wise, the seven had the lovely river to themselves.

Early morning “sea smoke” surrounds paddlers on the Ipswich River. – Judy Schneider photo

But others were there in great numbers; the fish below unseen, song birds above, and geese and ducks on the surface.  The first sights that thrilled the paddlers were patches of fog no more than head high on the water.  It is called sea smoke on the ocean.  The water vapor rising in cool air condensed and gave us quite a show. These low clouds glowed in the reflected light from the sun still beyond the high greenery of the river’s walls.  Light above in the trees plus that reflected up from the still water provoked a wondrous mood they’ll not forget.  If they do their photographers, who caught some, can pull them down from cyberspace.  All happily dawdled to allow the three photographers to take shots in the magic light.  The shutter bugs were kidded about lagging. Those without cameras just marveled at the scenes that included flowering white and yellow water lilies, button bushes, pickerel weeds, smart weeds, reed-canary grass, and now and then wild-rice to mention but a few plants flourishing in the wetlands.  Within a half-hour the patches of fog on the water were gone and new phenomena caught their eyes. Large spider’s webs between the twigs of swamp dogwood and button bushes and high up in dead maples glowed silver in the stronger light. They, full of dew, sparkled. Yet in an instant due to a change in angle they completely disappeared like sand paintings swept away upon completion by their makers.  They knew the webs were still there, but could they be sure? Or were the webs the spiders’ morning offerings to the sun god and not just lovely catchers of prey?

The belted kingfisher’s loud long chatter as he flies from perch to perch is always a welcome wakeup call for river travelers. – Judy Schneider photo

Such whimsical wonderings were theirs as they happily chatted and pointed out things while passing. The photographers, usually astern in their wakes, captured some of what they’d seen and stored it digitally.  As the sun rose higher the shade lessened as the fleet left the tree canyons and paddled out into the open scrub-shrub swamp dominated by canary grass, cattails, button bushes, bur-reed, smart weed, and dying silver maples.  The numerous beaver dams they passed over have exacerbated the effect of manmade Willowdale Dam. Together for the past two decades these dams have been drowning the venerable old maples and swamp white oaks which like water but can’t take so much year ‘round.

 The areas of the dams’ impoundments are impressive.   The Great Wenham Swamp, originated long ago as a mill pond behind the Willowdale Dam, for two centuries it has flooded almost four square miles (about 2800 acres) of what was once wet meadow.  The addition of a dozen beaver dams since the late 1990s put several hundred more acres around its edges under water.  Dying trees are seen all along the four miles of meandering river from High Street (Route 97) to Asbury Street in Topsfield.  The fallen and leaning giants, without twigs and leaves, are unintended victims of the beavers. Passers by who think they know the history of the scene are not much saddened. The swamp may be quite like it was four centuries ago before the Indians killed beavers for the new comers from across the sea who paid iron pots and knives for their pelts. After the beavers were gone the colonists drained the rich beaver meadows so they could hay and pasture them in late summer.  Then mill builders came and damned the rivers for water power. After the Civil War the farmers gradually moved west or into area factories.  But it was not until 1996 that steel leg hold traps were banned and the beavers came back.  The Closeteer guesses from his knowledge of Middleton’s eight miles of Ipswich River that there may 30 to 40 beaver dams between the headwaters in Wilmington and tidewater in downtown Ipswich.  There are three manmade dams standing.

Canada geese quiet on calm Ipswich River water before the early morning mist is gone. – Judy Schneider photo

As the Closeteer paddled with his companions in the perfect light of another new day he thought of beaver meadows, hay fields and pastures, and mill ponds for power.  He and the others were also much impressed by other evidences of energy being captured.   As the sun rose after a cold night like so many this summer, the turtles came out in numbers and parked on emergent logs with their dark solar panels towards the sun. On the paddle back, when the sun’s altitude was at about 45 degrees turtles, hundreds of them, single or little groups were seen along the west bank on floating and leaning logs and snags their faces pointed up and out; their dark backs at near right angles to the blood warming sun’s rays.   The paddlers passed within a few feet of many, closer than they could upriver. Their hypothesis was that in the Great Wenham Swamp turtles are much more used to canoe and kayak traffic up from Foote’s Canoe and Kayak Rental at the Willowdale Dam and thus not as shy. 


Four painted turtles position themselves on a log to catch the early morning light. – Judy Schneider photo

  The turtles were not the only ones being recharged that morning.  Despite over five miles of paddling, sometimes against current over submerged beaver dams, the paddlers’ energy and spirits were high.  At the end, their vessels were pulled out and toted up the bank and on to vehicles with vigor and good cheer. Any muscle fatigue wasn’t acknowledged, only some regret upon leaving such a lovely scene.  Near the end the paddle the first rental canoe from Footes passed them going up river.  The veterans wished its two paddlers well knowing they too were being recharged. 

The turtles sense the energizing sun each day. The Stream Teamers and friends realize the Ipswich River is nearby and now navigable year-around thanks to beavers holding back the water.  The Indians of long ago were well aware of this.  Each year in May before the big migration-blocking industrial dams they greeted millions of anadromous fish up from the ocean to spawn.  Present paddlers’ descendants might see the fish again when the manmade dams are gone or modified.  What a renewal that would be to human spirits and more essentially to fish!




  Precipitation Data* for Month May June July Aug.
  30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches 4.06 3.95 3.89 3.37
   2017 Central Watershed Actual 4.87 6.08 3.8 .3 as of Aug. 4

 Ipswich R. Flow Rate
(S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):

 For Aug. 4, 2017   Normal . . . 18 CFS              Current Rate  . . . 17.6 CFS

*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru June.

** Middleton Stream Team is the source of actual precipitation data for July..

Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.

 THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: or          <>

WOOD DUCKS (April 2011, revised March 2017)*

Water Closet for March 31, 2017

The other morning Middleton Stream Teamers while spring cleaning the park at Farnsworth Landing on the Ipswich River compared notes on Aix sponsa, wood ducks, recently seen.  We agreed that there has been an increase of this species in the last couple decades.

Sometimes on a paddle down river we’ll scare up several while rounding each of its many meanders. 

“See the mating pair on the dark and shaded flood of a little woodland river; they seem to float as lightly as the drifting leaves”

This discussion led one member to the Closet’s treasured volumes by ornithologist extraordinaire Edward Howe Forbush.  A century ago he gave us three thick books, entitled Birds of Massachusetts and other New England States.  This monumental work was published by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1925.  We have a set in the Closet thanks to Francis Masse who passed on this gift from his father, the late Chester Masse, who served the area as a state game warden.

We can’t resist starting with an old fashioned bit of what some would call Victorian purple prose.  Flashes are found throughout Forbush’s pages between more objective passages and anecdotes.  Authors then didn’t have the media we have, illustrations in books at the time were black and white photos, ink sketches and a few expensive colored plates of paintings, hence the need for word pictures.  Here is Forbush peeking from a riverside hiding place:

“See the mating pair on the dark and shaded flood of a little woodland river; they seem to float as lightly as the drifting leaves.  The male glides along proudly, his head ruffled and his crest distended, his scapular feathers raised and lowered at will, while his plumes flash with metallic luster whenever the sun’s rays sifting through the foliage intercept his course.  She coyly retires; he daintily follows, exhibiting all his graces, the darkling colors of his plumage relieved by the pure white markings of head and breast and the bright red of feet and bill and large lustrous eye.  What a picture they make, as, intent on one another, they glide along close together, she clothed in modest hues, he glowing and resplendent.

Pair of wood ducks molting. This difficult to obtain close up photo was taking in late August 2016 on the beaver impoundment just southwest of Middleton Pond. – Donna Bambury photo

He nods and calls in low sweet tender tones and thus, she leading, he pursuing, they disappear into the shadows where the stream turns upon another course.”

Wow! Maybe we should end here and leave them to imagined bliss.

The courting Forbush so delightfully and anthropomorphically described may lead to a snug high-rise apartment with the female sitting on 15 eggs.  Wood ducks are cavity nesters.  We wonder if the increase in wood ducks isn’t due to an increase of holes in trees.  In the last half century there has been a significant increase in protected forests and less cutting in others.  The trees are getting older hence more holes.  Also people like Middleton’s Red Caulfield have put up wood duck boxes.  Along our rivers and streams since their return two decades ago beavers have been drowning many acres of trees.  The upright corpses attract wood peckers, insects, and fungi, hence in time more hide-a-ways.  Then there is the change in people’s behavior so vividly remembered by old timers who lived in rural areas.  Just 70 years ago there were shotguns and twenty-twos, often loaded, in barns, workshops and farmhouse entryways.  To some any wild thing that moved was fair game.  Most hawks and owls were deemed chicken killers.  Ducks were shot and eaten.  Other animals, even small birds were practice targets.  Another 60 years before those waning agrarian years, the hunting of birds occurred on a massive scale along our coast by market hunters.  The “good old days,” so nostalgically remembered by many old timers were bad ones for wild creatures.  According to Forbush, wood ducks in the mid-19th century darkened the skies at times and by the end of the nineteenth century were almost extinct.  European poultry fanciers were sending wood ducks raised there back to the states from whence their ancestors came.  The good news is they are coming back in the wild.  Jim Berry Ipswich ornithologist, who has been working with colleagues throughout the state on the Massachusetts Audubon Bird Breeding Atlas, reports that wood ducks were reported in 377 of 1077 area blocks inventoried three decades ago in Atlas issue 1.  Atlas 2, 2012, has them in 664 of the 1077 blocks.  Jim warns us to take these numbers with a grain of salt.  The inventories for Atlas 2 have been more intensive, the areas better covered.  However, he a life-long North Shore birder, agrees with us Stream Teamers that there are more of these very beautiful-dabbler ducks that are roughly half the weight of common mallards, also dabblers.

Wood ducks just spooked while swimming on open water, Boston Brook, Middleton. On ascnding they make squeaking sound unlike the quacks of mallard. Yearly in the past more wood ducks have been seen and heard in the area. – Judy Schneider photo

One old Stream Teamer reports seeing more wood ducks each passing spring.  This March 2017 he spooked 70 in scattered small groups in a half hour’s hike along Boston Brook in Middleton.

We digressed above and left the developing embryos in the tree cavity under mother where they will be for four weeks until hatching.  They’ll then hang out in their protective apartment fasting for a day before venturing forth in the open air dressed in light down.  Now observations become dicey.  John James Audubon observed a brood jumping from a high exit hole to water far below.  Their mother rounded them up and then led them on a much longer more dangerous adventure through to fledging.  Other observers have seen them with their sharp claws and a bill tip, called a nail, climbing down trunks to ground and water.  Still others say they’ve seen mothers carrying them one by one to the water where they’ll feed until fledging if the snapping turtles, large fish and snakes don’t get them first.  Life for young ducklings and goslings is precarious.

The Closet’s small copy of Audubon’s famous elephant portfolio is open now to his wood duck painting.

Male wood duck in early stages of molting below the heron rookery near Middleton Pond. – Donna Bambury photo

Audubon, without camera, shot his subjects with gun and then wired them into dramatic poses.  Here before us are two “glowing and resplendent” males and two females “clothed in modest hues.”  One of the females is looking out from a hollow tree.

A few years ago stream teamer Glenice Kelley, while spring cleaning at Farnsworth Landing, accidentally touched with rake a well hidden female mallard, distant relative of the wood duck. She was incubating a dozen eggs in a ground nest.  Mother mallard moved, hence was revealed.  We’ve returned several times since to peer in at her on a nest among the leaves at the base of a red cedar just twenty feet from major highway Route 114.  She sometimes has her wings spread over the sides of her nest, feathers somewhat extended, almost a perfect match for the brown oak leaves.  May her brood and those of all ducks survive to be led by mothers to water and then on to fledging and flight.  We can only wish; predators will determine.

* Essay was frist published in April 2011. This is a March 2017 revision. Wood ducks are back here in numbers again this spring. Each year we see more.  




  Precipitation Data* for Month of:  Dec Jan Feb March
  30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches 4.12 3.40 3.25 4.65
   2016/2017 Central Watershed Actual 4.41 4.02 3.46 1.5** as of March 24

Ipswich R. Flow Rate
(S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):

For March 24, 2017   Normal . . . 189 CFS    Current Rate  . . . 78.2 CFS

*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru Feb. 

**Middleton Stream Team is source of actual precipitation data for March.

Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.

THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: or <>

Thank You For Being

     To all the Members, friends, and supporters of the Middleton Stream Team, I thank you. Your hard work, dedication, and enthusiasm for protection of our river and local wetlands is very much appreciated. If I may speak for the river, it would say, “I need you more than ever, this summer only a few of my tears trickled through the river bed as my finned and aquatic insect friends lost the life giving flow of my waters. I have hope you can help me and truly teach people that water is life!”  Our Stream Team is blessed with extremely talented and knowledgeable folks, we have small numbers but great depth and passion. I am looking forward to an exciting, productive and fun year together!

Sandy Rubchinuk

2016 Middleton Stream Team Nature Photo Awards

  • Frog - Susan Piccole
  • Beaver Tree - *First Place Under 18 - Ella Bernard
  • Farnsworth - Elaine Gauthier
  • We Are Not Alone - Robin Lee McCarthy
  • Turtle On Leaf - Ella Bernard
  • Branch Pond - Stan Shursky
  • Fish - Alison Colby Camplell
  • Creighton Pond - Stan Shursky
  • Rainbow - Jackie Hannigan
  • Trees - Pam Hartman
  • Low River - Ella Bernard
  • *Second Place - Jen Buonarosa
  • Peabody St - Elaine Gauthier
  • Pond - Jen Buonarosa
  • Middleton Pond Trees - Pam Hartman
  • Log Bridge - Elaine Gauthier
  • Osprey - *Best Wildlife Photo - Donna Bambury
  • Moon - Jen Buonarosa
  • Middleton Pond Snow - Pam Hartman
  • Middleton Pond Heron - Sue Quimby
  • Eagle - Sue Quimby
  • Mallard - Susan Piccole
  • Times Gone By - Robin Lee McCarthy
  • Vernal Pool - *First Place - Donna Bambury
  • Best Drought Photo - Donna Bambury
  • Rookery - *Third Place Susan Piccole
  • Middleton Pond - Sue Quimby

The Middleton Stream Team photo contest awards were announced on November 27 at the Lura Woodside Watkins Museum in Middleton.

The 2016 first place award, a colorful photograph of salamander eggs discovered in a vernal pool, went to Donna Bambury of Middleton. Second place was awarded to Jennifer Buonaorsa of Middleton, who entered a beautiful photo of a sunset and moon over a low Middleton Pond. Third place was awarded to Susan Piccole of Middleton for a photo of trees and cat tails in the rookery.

Honorable mentions were awarded to Pam Hartman of Middleton, Elaine Gauthier of Middleton, and Alison Colby-Campbell of Haverhill.

Ella Bernard was awarded first place for under 18 for her photo of a beaver sculpted tree.

Donna Bambury was also recognized for best drought photo and best wildlife photo. The last was a photo of an osprey perched in a tree beside Middleton Pond.

All the entries can be viewed at The winning photos are on display at the Middleton Post Office Lobby display case for your viewing enjoyment.


Middleton Stream Team Nature Photo Contest

The Middleton Stream Team Annual Nature Photo Contest is Underway!

New this year! Photos are encouraged to be submitted on-line!

The Middleton Stream Team encourages you to enter your photos taken on or near waterways and wetlands in Middleton. We are especially interested in photos depicting the effects of this year’s drought on the river, streams and wetlands.

Cash prize of $200 for first place photo, and $100, $50 respectively for second and third. Under 18 years first place prize is $50.

The Stream Team encourages you to explore and photograph Middleton. Photos must be received by November 1.

Details for rules and submission forms available here.


Billboards Highlight Ipswich River

Billboards Highlight Ipswich River

The  Ipswich River Watershed Association is highlighting the organization’s effort to bring attention to the impacts on the Ipswich River on billboards adjacent to the Peabody Mall and near Kappy’s on the Malden//Saugus line. They went up at midnight last night (9/30/16) and will run until October 13th.

Look for our two youngest Middleton Stream Teamers on one of the signs!

The two billboards are located at:

North Shore Mall
Viewable from Route 128 South bound or parking lots of Cheesecake Factory and JcPenny
Route 1 Northbound

Viewable from Route 1 North bound right before Kappy’s

Middleton Pond Cleanup