Birding by Canoe

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Published on: Jun. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

Great Blue Heron

As my canoe soundlessly eased downstream, I heard squawks, croaks and clattering noises. Suddenly a pair of large flapping wings caught my attention; then I saw a pile of sticks in the fork of a big sycamore tree. My vantage point changed as the boat drifted along, and breaks in the tree canopy revealed dozens of "stick piles," the nests of great blue herons. There must have been close to 50 in all-a pretty substantial rookery.

Canoeing Ozark streams is one of my great joys, and a big part of what makes it enjoyable to me is the wildlife I encounter along the way-especially the birds. A canoe makes the perfect floating, viewing blind to enjoy birds and other wildlife.

Canoes are quiet, and if you avoid our more popular streams at popular times, a canoe allows you to hear and see wildlife without scaring it off. A gently drifting canoe also is stable enough to allow you to use binoculars; with a little practice a floater can watch birds as easily from a boat as standing on shore.

Many species of birds use the river and its streamside habitat. Around the time the redbuds bloom and bluebells carpet the riverbanks many species of songbirds are returning from a winter in tropical climes. This is a fruitful time to enjoy birds. The trees have not leafed out to block the view, and the newly arrived songbirds are vocal-intent on using their songs to find mates and establish breeding territories.

By July, singing begins to drop off for many songbirds, and some species, including several of the warblers, are on the verge of their annual southward migration. Summertime can provide special bird sights, such as broods of wood ducks or an elegant white egret wading in the shallows.

Paying attention to the sounds of birds and tracking down their source is a great way to learn birds and will reveal many more than relying on eyesight alone.

Some birds make it easy by telling you their name. A good example is the eastern phoebe, a small dusky flycatcher that repetitively calls out its name-Fee-bee, Fee-bee. The phoebe also has a habit of constantly flicking its tail up and down. Phoebes arrive in March and are common around bluffs and caves. In fact virtually every bluff shelter or cave entrance of any size will have a mossy phoebe nest anchored in a sheltered area. Bridges also are favorite phoebe hangouts.

The Acadian flycatcher is more commonly heard than seen. This little flycatcher arrives in May and hunts and sings from the middle layers of streamside trees. Learning its startled, quick whistle is the best way to identify it. All the flycatchers hunt by darting out from a perch-usually a dead branch-snatching an insect, then returning to the perch.

Swallows also hunt flying insects. The most common species of swallow on the river is the brown and white northern rough-winged swallow. Rough-wings nest in the nooks and crannies of bluffs and cave entrances.

Several of the earliest arriving warblers are river birds, including the prothonotary and yellow-throated warblers, the northern parula and the Louisiana waterthrush. Waterthrushes are also warblers, but their ground-dwelling habits and brown plumage are thrushlike. What the waterthrush lacks in color, it makes up for with its beautiful song-three clear, sweet notes followed by a descending jumble of twittering notes.

The Louisiana waterthrush is common in spring and summer. Look for it constantly dipping and bobbing its tail as it walks along the shoreline among rocks and rootwads in search of insects.

Beautiful yellow-throated warblers have a song similar to the Louisiana waterthrush, but this species will be singing from high in a sycamore tree. In fact, some birders refer to them as "sycamore warblers."

Another beautiful treetop warbler is the northern parula, which has a distinctive buzzy zip that slides up the scale. The cerulean warbler is a species of conservation concern and not commonly seen. However, recent spring surveys have found healthy numbers of this blue and white jewel along Ozark streams, such as the Current River. Its call is sometimes confused with the parula's.

What a cardinal is to the color red, the prothonotary warbler is to yellow. This gorgeous golden bird likes backwater sloughs and other places with sluggish water and standing dead trees. It is the only warbler in the eastern U.S. that nests in cavities. Its song is the stereotypical bird song: tweet, tweet, tweet-but loud and emphatic.

April also sees the arrival of two river birds that are not songsters. The spotted sandpiper-a small shorebird with a spotted breast-prefers open gravel bars, where it hunts along the water's edge.

Spotted sandpipers bob and dip their tails conspicuously, like the Louisiana waterthrush. They have a fluttery flight and look like they are only moving their wingtips. Spotted sandpipers are polyandrous-meaning females mate with more than one male. In this rare 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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