I love returning to Keoka Lake each spring. If the ice is out, or nearly so, I immediately jump on my paddleboard. The earliest I have ever been able to do that is April 7. The first tour around Stone’s Cove is magical. Usually no one has put their docks or rafts in the water, so I can cruise right next to the shore. The water is icy cold on my feet but so clear! I can see fish, snails, rocks, and plants that are already starting to grow. I make mental notes about what I see under the water. That gives me a baseline for future sightings and activity.
The next thing I do is put out my birdfeeders. I know that I should not do this because of bears, but so far we have escaped any visits. I love seeing the birds return to feed, some who have been here all winter and some who choose to linger while in transit. Listening to them in the early morning is delightful, even the shrill blue jays, and they provide entertainment all summer as their numbers multiply.
Then the fun really begins as I start to clean up the yard from the winter debris. My preferred tools are a manure fork and bucket. With the fork I am able to lift up the sticks and pinecones without disturbing the surface layer of pine needles. Raking would be easier, but I choose this method to keep our property as intact as possible to avoid erosion, especially near the lake. The large sticks go to the burn pile and the smaller ones get dumped into holes or used to create water bars. The water bars are very useful during summer downpours to divert the water from flowing directly to the lake. This process takes some time, but it is so satisfying to see the results of my labor, a tidy yard ready for summer and barefoot grandchildren.
I usually put out my hummingbird feeders in early May so they have food as they migrate. I prefer to make my own hummingbird food, ½ cup white sugar to 2 cups of water and no red dye. There are not many pollen producers that early and food for them is scarce. Last year we had at least two nesting pairs that stayed all summer. By August we had about a dozen flying around our heads whenever we dined on our deck. They chirp and fight over the two feeders.
The dock goes in sometime in early May followed by our pontoon boat. My husband and I love to do a slow cruise around Keoka each evening after supper. We get to enjoy the bounty of activity and beauty that surrounds us. We check on the eagle nest near Kokosing and wait for the first signs of baby activity. The babies are born late winter/early spring but do not show their heads above the nest until mid-May. In 2021 there were 3 babies, last year only one. For a week or so in 2021, we thought there were only 2, but the runt eventually showed its head. It took all summer for the little one to catch up. The parents were very busy trying to feed such a large brood. We were often lucky enough to see them bring food to the nest. I was concerned about the odor in the nest during some of the hotter days in June, but I have learned that the babies are trained to do their business over the nest edge (poor Kokosing), and the parents remove any leftovers from feeding so the nest is quite clean. As the summer progresses, we get to see the babies start to fly. A stiff northwest wind gives them the chance to spread their wings, lift off, and quickly pull their wings in to drop back into the nest. They will do this for a couple of weeks before they are strong enough to try the same on a nearby branch. It is so exciting to witness some of their early flights to nearby trees. The parents continue to feed them for several weeks as they gain confidence. After about a month, they seem to leave the nest area, but we continue to see them if we look carefully around the lake. The babies are harder to spot because they are all brown. The head turns white after a couple of years.
The eagles are fun but we really love the loons. The loons arrive as soon as the ice disappears, and we try to keep track of possible nesting pairs. Luckily Andy Tabor and Charlie Tarbell set out the nesting raft in Stone’s Cove. The raft has been a great addition. In the early years the loons nested near the mouth of Kedar Brook. The eggs were susceptible to predators, and we did not often have viable babies. With the raft, the loons are just off shore and safe from other critters. It is always so exciting when the loons finally lay their eggs on the raft and the nearly 4 week wait begins. Generally around July 4th the babies appear, usually two of them. At first they ride on the parents’ backs, which keeps them safe from snapping turtles. They make their way to Johnson Cove within the first day or so. This is good because the cove is shallow with virtually no boat traffic. Within about a week they are swimming well on their own and shortly after begin to dive. We relax when they start to dive because they are less susceptible to being eagle food. The babies are brown and develop white chests in August. They stay with the parents who continue to help feed them until they leave in the fall for a winter on the coast. The babies will stay at the coast for several years until they get adult plumage, find mates, and return to nest somewhere on an inland lake.
We had a family of mergansers on our shore last year. They originally had about 10 babies, but the number dwindled over the summer, probably due to the eagles and turtles. They seem to enjoy Stone’s Cove in the early summer, but later we saw them at Kedar Brook and along the eastern shore of the lake.
Each evening we often see a blue heron near Kedar Brook, but it disappeared in late August. In 2021 there was a heron at the brook, and someone observed it being taken by the eagle to feed their brood. Although the heron seems large, they only weigh about 12 pounds because their bones are hollow, making them easy prey for the eagle.
Last year we observed inland herring gulls for a short time in early August. When Waterford had an open dump vs. a transfer station, they were frequent visitors to the lake and the dump. Rock Island was often covered with them and their droppings for many years.
I love the times in August and September when transient loons and Canada geese gather on Keoka as they begin to migrate. It is fun to spot the V’s of geese as they come and go in the early morning and at dusk. Some years we have had a nesting pair, but they generally move on and do not linger here. They love to spend the night on the sandbar at Kedar Brook. The loons call out when they are in flight, creating quite a racket. They also call out all summer when an eagle or airplane fly over. Apparently they cannot tell the difference when something large flies over the lake. The loon calls in the fall are very different from the summer sounds. It is fun to notice the transition in their conversations.
Living on Keoka Lake provides a great deal of entertainment from the natural world, if you take the time to observe and listen.