17. Jemseg Flats
Route 715, Lower Jemseg
This four kilometer long peninsula is flanked by the mighty St. John and what is reputed to be the shortest river in North America, the Jemseg River. Nature is relatively undisturbed here, sharing this impressive piece of the world with the relatively innocuous harvesting of intervale hay by local farmers. The variety of natural habitats layed out before you is unique because this place sheds its skin several times a year. In the springtime most of the intervale is inundated by the swelling of the St. John River. Incredible volumes of water are generated by snowmelt coupled with increasing temperatures and rainfall events that are colloquially described as the ‘freshet’ . This massive invasion of water quickly overtops the banks of the St. John and covers extensive low lying areas known as ‘intervales’. For most people ‘the flats’ would mean an area along a major watercourse where water is present in significant amounts. Well Jemseg Flats is not a misnomer. Evidence of the amount of water that has been here in the spring is clearly marked for you on the smooth bark of the mature Silver Maples that line the bank of the river and dot the rim of wetlands. Pick a large maple, any maple, and start at the base of the tree working your eyes up to the height of about fifteen feet. At this point you will see a distinct line of iridescent green flecks known to the botanists as shield lichens. The height at which the lichens begin to appear is usually a pretty good measure of where springtime water levels may have climbed to. As you stand there you might get a chill running through your body when you internalize the thought of your legs in cold icy water for a period of two months!
But as the cold waters start to leave the intervale ground the place seems to come alive with the springtime antics of a whole host of resident and migrating birds that leave visitors with truly memorable experiences. Your most obvious encounters will come with the numerous species of waterfowl that hang their hat here. Seemingly out of place but increasingly common to the Maritimes is the Mallard. Here they stake their claim to the first few tops of hayfields that have started to peak above the waterline. The showy and arrogant green headed Mallard is outnumbered by its shy and reclusive cousin the American Black Duck. This icon of Maritime waterfowl prefers hiding among the sedges and swimming among the trees, knowing full well the importance of keeping some overhead cover around in case of an aerial attack. Residency on the floodplain since the last ice age has no doubt provided the Black Duck with some evolutionary advantages as the bright coloured Mallard seems to stick out like a neon sign waiting for an owl.
The whistling you hear overhead is most probably the American Widgeon whose biggest joy it seems is taking short flights over the flats and calling out to anyone who will listen. On the right day the call of birds on the water will bounce off of the tall maples and echo its way around you. The prolonged and beating whistle out over the St. John River will be remembered as that of the Common Goldeneye. Curiously enough the Common Goldeneye does not have much of a call to boast about. The beating whistle is created by the down pressure of air caused by its wing beats! In addition to the typical Maritime representatives, The Flats is a place that attracts uncommon waterfowl species as well. The spoon-billed Northern Shoveler started out not too long ago as a frequent visitor but is now a full-time nesting resident. Northern Pintail can also be seen staging here, feeding voraciously for a few weeks before it resumes its journey to northern coastal marshes and bogs to nest.
By mid-June much of the water has fallen off the intervale and retreated back to the channels of permanent water bodies. Any freshly exposed mudflats immediately become prime feeding sites for the Common Snipe. Binocular-carrying avian enthusiasts can very easily approach these birds to a distance of a few meters, not because of any great stealth on their part, but because of the bird’s superb camouflage and its willingness to hold tight hoping that the threat might pass outside of its fight or flight distance of tolerance. Out of the drying hayfields seem to emerge litters of Moles, Deer Mice and Voles, which almost concurrently also attract a handsome and bright coloured little raptor, the American Kestrel. At night the Great Horned Owl joins the ranks of the sharp-eyed hunters putting his survival of the fittest skills to work.
The receding waters will no doubt have caught some fish surprised and stranded in ephemeral pools destined to dry out. This harsh reality is just nature’s design of providing for all its creatures. Belted Kingfishers and Great Blue Herons are the obvious winners in this turn of events. A loud knocking echoes across to you from among the statuesque Silver Maples that line the riverbank. Apparently a Pileated Woodpecker has come upon one of the floodplain monuments that has conceded defeat after a century of basement flooding.