Why You Need to Try Paddle Birding

When in a canoe or kayak, you can observe and experience birds in a new way—and bank some memorable adventures while you're at it.

We paddled our kayaks quietly to a small island chain on the Mississippi River in north Minneapolis. Overhead in the trees, we could hear the strange clicking sounds of young Great Blue Herons begging for food. Spotted Sandpipers whistled their alarms as they darted over the rocks, unsure of our steady approach.

On one of the isle’s shores we found carcasses and eggshells, along with an overwhelming smell of rot. I pointed out a Killdeer head left behind by nearby nesting Peregrines—just as a few drippy chunks of fish rained down from the heron rookery above. “Whew,” I thought, “that was close.” Then, another deluge: Five of the kayakers were pelted with half-digested fish puke—a common defense mechanism for some nestling water birds. Such is the danger and excitement of paddle birding.

Paddle birding is one of my favorite warm-weather activities. People think it only means looking at ducks and geese, but by scanning the banks at close range you can find all sorts of shorebirds, swallows, warblers, orioles, buntings, and waxwings. While exploring an island with group of naturalists last week, for example, I watched a family of Merlins try to divebomb Blue Jays. You never know what you'll see on the water.

Of course, different landscapes offer different experiences. Rivers and streams keep you moving along as you watch for birds of prey, while the stillness of lakes and bays gives you time to leisurely explore the shoreline. As a national park ranger who works on the Mississippi River, I get ample opportunities for kayaking and canoeing. The gentle, self-powered pace allows you to access habitat from a different angle and listen for unusual or hard-to-hear species—even if you’re not that skilled.

My first canoe trip on staff was through Minnesota’s Vermillion River Bottoms, a forested floodplain that’s chock-full of channels. I was paired with an experienced paddler, and he later confessed that he was afraid we would be the slow “loser boat” because of my lack of experience. Migration was in full swing, though, so we still saw plenty of birdlife: Caspian Terns, Common Nighthawks, swallows, and swifts cruising down the river. The real highlight was the Prothonotary Warblers nesting in old snags: a scene that’s hard to observe from land.

The type of craft you choose will help define the experience, too. Canoes are good for sharing the work load; you can split the paddling with two or three people in a tandem, or spread it across eight to twelve in a voyageur. It’s essential for the passenger in the back to know how to steer (or as in nautical terms: stern). I’ve seen many a relationship end when one partner doesn’t know how to properly turn the canoe. I’ve also learned that while birding, it’s much better to be paddling up front than sterning. If you’ve never canoed before, start with a single-person kayak. You will learn to maneuver quickly because you have total control of the boat. It allows for more agility as well, which is helpful if you want to beach onto a nearby shore.

Preparation for a paddling trip is relatively simple. Most importantly, you need to learn your route. Check with local parks or the Department of Natural Resources for maps. For major rivers like the Ohio or Mississippi, the Army Corps of Engineers may be a better resource. You don’t need a ton of extra gear beyond your boating equipment. Most binoculars made in the last ten years are waterproof and safe to bring along; a harness will help keep them out of the way while you paddle. Life vests are a must, as are dry bags for holding electronics, wallet, keys, snacks, and trash. When dressing, note that temperatures are always more extreme on the water: If it’s cloudy or chilly on land, it will be even cooler and breezier in the craft, so layers are always a great idea. Pack a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses on sunny days to counter the glare off the water. And even though you’re surrounded by H2O, pack plenty of hydration as there will be exertion.

People frequently wonder if it’s worth it to bring a camera or scope. First, assess your paddling ability. Beginners tend to tip their boats, which isn’t a plus for fancy, expensive possessions. My scope is waterproof so I almost always lug it with me—and regret it the few times I don’t. If the boat is large enough, I’ll even attempt digiscoping. I’ve gotten amazing shots of bats flitting over the water at dusk or even roosting in adjacent trees with my smartphone, scope, and tripod.

Being on the water can give you access to areas that don’t have trails or roads; but you must be judicious when landing or getting close to the birds. If there’s a sign on the shore that says  “No Trespassing” or “Don't Cross: Nesting Birds” or “Keep Away: Overrun With Snakes, Poision Oak, and a Foreboding Sense of Doom," you should obey. If you approach a bird and hear frantic chip notes or see an injured wing display, that’s a cue to give the animals their space. Many rookeries protect themselves—often in disgusting ways. Adult herons, egrets, and pelican will flee their nests when they see people, but their flightless chicks will vomit right on you, as the Great Blue Herons on my recent trip were happy to demonstrate. Ring-billed Gulls, on the other hand, will dive at your head and drop copious amounts of poop until you leave. While safety for you and the birds is foremost, it’s these sticky, stinky encounters that make paddle birding so special.