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Birding by Canoe

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Published on: Jun. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

Great Blue Heron

breeding strategy, the females establish territories and fight for mates. The males incubate eggs and care for young!

Large numbers of wood ducks arrive in April, too, the males absolutely resplendent in their breeding plumage. Pairs of "woodies" are usually spotted as they take flight with the female squealing down the river. At times they will attempt to hide in streamside vegetation rather than fly, and a quiet sharp-eyed floater can get a close look at North America's most beautiful duck.

The wood thrush, yellow-billed cuckoo and pileated woodpecker are common inhabitants of larger tracts of streamside forest. The pileated woodpecker can be as large as a crow and is an attention-getter when it flies over the river announcing ownership of the forest with its loud, piercing call. It is a year-round resident.

The call of the yellow-billed cuckoo is commonly heard beginning in late May. Cuckoos hide in foliage. In flight they have a long, sleek profile and silent wings. They are sometimes known as the "rain crow." By late April, the wood thrush's eerily beautiful flutelike call is often heard at dawn and dusk and is the perfect campsite serenade at the end of a day on the river.

Nighttime has its own bird sounds. Camp on a clear moonlit night in late April through June and you will not soon forget the name of the whip-poor-will. Its larger relative, the Chuck-will's-widow, can also repeat its name incessantly, but with a different cadence. "Whips" emphasize the first and last notes, while "Chucks" place the emphasis in the middle of their call.

Add some arguing barred owls sounding like crazed monkeys and the spooky whinnying of screech owls and you are in for a memorable, though maybe not a restful night.

Like many humans, a number of birds are attracted to rivers by the fishing. Belted kingfishers dive headlong into the water to snatch small fish with their beaks. These year-round residents excavate nest chambers in a vertical dirt bank, usually tunneling 3 to 6 feet or more! The entrances are strategically positioned where predators have a hard time reaching them from above and floodwaters don't reach them from below. The rattling call of the kingfisher is a familiar river sound.

Great blue herons are the most common wading bird along the river, but not the only one. The much smaller green heron stealthily stalks the river's edge. This little heron looks short and compact until it shoots out its long neck to snatch an unlucky minnow. Other waders occasionally encountered on the river include the yellow-crowned night-heron, the little blue heron and the all-white great egret.

The osprey catches fish in an entirely different manner. This large bird of prey soars overhead looking for fish, then tucks its wings and plunges from great heights into the water with a splash-a sight no floater will soon forget! Osprey migrate through Missouri on their northward migration in March and April, then again on their return trip south beginning in late August. Bald eagles catch fish, too, but snatch them from the surface of the water instead of "taking the plunge" like the osprey.

The red-shouldered hawk, a bird of rivers and forested bottomlands, is smaller and slimmer than the familiar redtail hawk and has black and white horizontal bars across the underside of its tail.

The most common soaring bird seen on summer floats is the ubiquitous turkey vulture. Vultures love to perch high on rocky bluffs that provide good vantage points and funnel warm thermal updrafts for effortless soaring. Vultures will nest in bluff shelters and cave entrances, and an observant floater can sometimes spot a large, homely downy nestling in such a place.

Floaters may also drift past a group of vultures roosting and sunning-wings outspread-in a dead snag. If you are quiet, the big birds likely will stay put-heads turning curiously as you go by.

Several items are available to help you learn to identify birds. Binoculars and field guides are a must for birding by canoe. Also, consider using a "dry bag" to keep your books and binocs dry, yet readily accessible. Learning to recognize birds by ear is fun, challenging and will greatly add to your enjoyment of the river experience. The Conservation Department sells a tape, "Missouri Bird Calls" that contains the songs of the birds mentioned in this article and many more. The tape costs $5 plus $2 shipping and handling. Missouri residents add 6.225 percent sales tax. Order from Nature Shop, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City MO 65102-0180. Telephone (573) 751-4115, ext. 325.

You'll also need sharp eyes, good ears and a healthy dose of curiosity. For the optimum experience, allow plenty of time when planning your trips down river. You can't hurry your way through birding by canoe.

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