Lake Forest: ‘Look what we’ve got here. This is special’|[12/27/07]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 27, 2007

A white Easter duck floating along with a family of wood ducks might seem like a rare sight, but for residents of Lake Forest it’s just one of the many wildlife phenomena of which they get a daily dose from their backyards.

When Rick and Chris Olsen, self-proclaimed naturalists, decided to settle in Vicksburg 26 years ago, they knew they wanted a lakefront property where they could watch the birds fly over. So, four years after moving here, they built a house where they could do just that.

“My husband knew he could keep me happy if he kept me near a lake,” Chris Olsen said.

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They decided to settle in the Lake Forest community, built in about 1974. At the time of their move the area, was “a circle of wagons basically.” Their home overlooks a 20-acre lake, around which houses have sprouted over time. Binoculars and cameras have had an active role since they moved to the area, also home to varied wildlife. Chris Olsen can spot and name nearly every species of birds that has taken up residency near her home, where trees envelop the property.

“They have stories. You get to know them,” she said of the animals. “They get to know me, too.”

Often the backdrop for photographs of sunsets and wildlife, including birds, deer, lizards and turtles, the lake was the victim of beavers digging around a drain pipe about four years ago. A February storm that brought about 12 inches of rain caused the dam to fail and, within 12 hours, the water had completely drained, Olsen said.

“It looked like the surface of the moon. It became a field,” she said.

Louis Logue, a 26-year resident of Lake Forest, lives right across the lake from the Olsens and is the vice president of the Lake Forest Recreational Association, which owns the lake. He said it took three years for the association to raise the funds to make repairs last January.

“Unfortunately, we’ve only had 10 or 12 inches of rain since then in Lake Forest. So, now, we have about one-third of a lake. We’re still lacking 5 or 6 feet,” he said. “Eventually, we’ll get the rain, and the lake will fill up. We’ve been doing rain dances.”

The water feature, always home to rare wildlife, has become more of a marsh. Tall grass, known as alligator weed, has been taking over the lake for about 15 years, Logue said, and is more prevalent with the low water.

While Olsen enjoys the natural growth of the weed, other residents are eager to clear it out. They have tried to no avail dousing it with chemicals.

“We did research and found out it’s uncontrollable,” Logue said. “We had a couple of county agents come out. They said it’s one of the most invasive weeds.”

In fact, the only way it will die is if a hard freeze attacks it while the water is low or if a certain herbicide is used continuously, Logue said.

John Coccaro, director of the Warren County Extension Service, said the weed has almost no impact on the fish, but is often unwanted by homeowners because of its unsightly appearance. The most-used method to rid lakes of the weed is herbicide, which he said does not harm fish or waterfowl. However, if the weed is killed all at once, it could use up all of the oxygen in the water, which, in turn, could kill the fish.

“As far as the weed just being in the water, that’s not really an issue,” he said.

Logue said he and other residents want to be able to control the weed, which he believes could be harmful to the fish.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of the weed, but we’re hoping we can — once we get the lake back — keep control,” he said.

Olsen has noticed the wildlife nesting and playing in the weed, which she thinks should be left alone.

“This is beautiful. Can’t we appreciate it?” Olsen said.

Trees, now bare from fallen leaves, have also popped up, providing a home for the wood ducks. And the natural environment has lured numerous birds — purple gallinule, Indigo Bunting, anhinga and the endangered Red-cockaded woodpeckers, she said.

For Olsen, it’s a daily event to sit, watching the animals from a room that was added to the back of their home. Her binoculars, books on birds and even her son’s Eclectus parrot, Emerald, keep her company as she peers through the large windows that look out on the lake. She thinks of it as a natural sanctuary for her winged friends.

“I appreciate it the way it is and what we’ve got,” she said. “I’d like to see people appreciate it for what it is. It’s an estuarial breeding ground.”

Logue, like other residents whose yards overlook the water, also enjoys sitting and watching the water fowl — blue herrings, Canada geese, egrets, ducks. The newest addition has been cormorants, large-winged fisheaters. He even built a wood duck box for the ducks to nest.

“I like to sit out in the backyard in my deer hunting tent. I set up a couple of watering features and a sunflower feeder and wait until the birds come out,” he said. “I’ll take pictures of them.”

Olsen said, what she and her neighbors have, is something special. And, she wants to keep it that way.

“Moms and dads should bring their kids out and say, ‘Look what we’ve got here. This is special,'” Olsen said.