Kayak Birding - The Untold Stories
By Tom Watson
The bald eagle, appearing as big and stout as a fire hydrant, stood statuesque atop a kelp-covered rock at water's edge. "I'll get as close as I dare so have your camera ready," I said to my client as I maneuvered our double towards this magnificent, white-capped baldy the only one we'd seen in two hours of touring among the islands just off of the city of Kodiak, Alaska.
The bird stood unmoving; unconcerned as I eased the boat around so my passenger could get a clear, steady shot. As we approached, it raised its shoulders slightly. "Better take it soon," I warned, "he's getting ready to fly!"
She raised her bazooka lens and studied the image in her viewfinder.
"What a magnificently beautiful creature," she said. The eagle fidgeted once more so again I suggested she take her shot.
As she readied her finger over the shutter button, she continued to praise the sight before her.
"It's so noble, so digni ", her sudden gasp chopped off the last syllable. That huge, powerful bird was stretched to full standing height, its wings out slightly from its massive body as it leaned forward. Several yards of thick, whitish liquid spurted out through its tail feathers like a plug had just been dislodged from a high-pressure fire hose!
"Oh my God!" cried the woman as she slowly lowered her camera. "That was utterly disgusting!" she said as she turned to me with a ghostly expression on her face.
Welcome to one of the more unglamorous aspects of birding from a kayak you don't often read about. It's natural behavior such as this that truly makes kayak birding one of the many revealing lessons we learn as perpetual students in Nature's classroom.
One of those lessons learned from years of birding from a kayak is that birds tend to relieve themselves of excessive, expendable weight upon taking off - particularly when suddenly provoked. Seagulls are especially prone to this practice, sometimes coupling need with mischievous opportunity - and often uncanny accuracy.
One afternoon as I approached a small sea lion rookery I failed to notice that my route took me right under a narrow ledge high atop a rocky outcropping at water's edge. The perch afforded chicken-sized glaucous-winged gulls that roosted there a panoramic view of the bay and surrounding shoreline below. It also provided a perfect vantage point to spot encroaching kayakers.
Seagulls are the dive-bombers supreme of the avian marine environment. I quickly veered away from the base of the cliff the moment I caught a glimpse of the feathery squadron perched overhead. Do you think, perhaps, you can out-distance a flying gull? Me neither. Nor can you out-maneuver them. Under attack, you can only make like a turtle and draw your head down within the collar of your splash jacket and hope for failed accuracy.
I had covered only about 30 yards when I heard it a distinct snap on the surface of the glass-smooth water.
*Splat! Splat-Splat! Splat-a-splat-a-splat-a! SPLAT!*
The sound of a frenzied attack on a sheet of bubble wrap ripped across the water. It was followed by the sound I had dreaded most a series of hollow smacks as fresh, hot, juicy globs of sea gull doo-doo drummed off my back deck.
In an instant the squadron veered off, returned to base. Mission accomplished! I had to decide whether to go ashore and do a quick rinse while it was still soft and fresh, or wait until I got home and try to remember where I put that old paint scrapper!
Another strafing run involved my paddling partner, Val. We launched our kayaks beneath overcast skies and headed to an offshore black-legged kittiwake (a smallish gull-like sea bird) and puffin rookery.
Val had just eased to within a few yards of the rock wall when the sun broke through and exploded in brilliance. As it did, within a matter of a very few fleeting seconds -and in one fluid motion - she reached for her sunglasses hanging from a lanyard around her neck, swung them up, and perched them on her nose. The very next instant as she looked up to witness a swarm of kittiwakes sweeping down off the rocks, ker-SPLAT! a kittiwake scored a bull's eye directly in the center of the lens of her sunglasses! Makes me think that perhaps goggles should be de rigueur kayak birding gear?
That startle reflex that causes most birds to "lose it" can sometimes threaten kayakers as well.
Some of the best birding in the entire Midwest occurs throughout the pools behind the dams on the upper Mississippi River, along side channels, the marshes and backwater estuaries. The varieties of waterfowl, stilt-legs/peepers and other riparian species number in the several hundreds. For a kayaker, the opportunities are nearly endless.
Hiking a trail along the edge of a large estuary, I had often spotted a small flock of Sandhill Cranes on the far shore. I decided to see if I could observe them from the vantage point offered in a kayak. I launched about a half mile from where I had hoped to get a closer, protected view of these tall, stately and very unapproachable birds.
I could cut my distance in half by pushing through thick clusters of floating grass mats to reach what I figured would be a good viewing point within about 40 yards from where the small flock would probably be hanging out.
That "shortcut" quickly digressed into a drag fest through a dense tangle of grasses, rushes and reeds. I found myself using my paddle as a pole in order to make any forward progress at all. I slowly and quietly nudged my kayak along a shallow sliver of water that snaked through the never-ending wall of growth.
After about thirty yards I detected a brightness beyond the shadows immediately ahead a clearing! I planted my paddle against a root clump, gave an extra hard shove and burst out onto a sun-drenched, matted island of grass.
Whomp! Whomp! WHOMP!
A brown blur exploded directly in front of me. Fragments of rushes and reeds whirled all about in a cyclonic cloud as a frenzied flurry of feathers and legs erupted skyward. I had found the flock of Sandhills! I had launched my bow out through the rushes and right between the legs of one of the four birds cloistered atop that reed mat.
It was exhilarating! It was also somewhat messy (that sudden flight/fright reflex thing). And it gave me a moment of concern for my own bodily reaction to the suddenness of it all.
Most kayak birding moments are much more satisfying. One evening, paddling in the darkening twilight hours of the North Pacific, a buddy and I encountered a dark object trailing a narrow "V" in the dark surface of the water. A tidal current edging around a wayward bulb of bull kelp perhaps? Or was it something swimming? We closed to within about ten feet of each other and positioned it between us. It didn't sway or dive, but rather kept on a steady course for several more yards. We then saw it's water trail veer casually to the right, directly on an intercepting course with my bow. I let the boat glide and waited.
Splash! Thump! Whatever it was, it sounded like it had popped from the water and landed squarely upon my deck still in the darkness beyond the reach of my eyes.
After a few seconds I began to hear the faint pitter-patter of something coming towards me along the deck. A puffin chick slowly waddled into view. It stopped about a foot forward of the coaming and stared back at me. Young puffin stay in their cliff side burrows until almost fully grown. They have none of the full brilliant beak colors of their parents, either a tufted or horned puffin. They really are butt ugly! After several moments of being pleasantly amused, we watched it as it turned, slid down the deck, plopped into the ocean and swam off into the night.
Sometimes it's the elements that provide the memories. During an Audubon Christmas Bird Count in Kodiak, I volunteered to inventory the outer shoreline of the islands skirting the downtown harbor area. It has to be pretty darn cold for sea ice to form. The waters at the heads of bays often become the first to ice over. The tide goes out and pulls the ice with it great to scope out the shoreline but bad if that ice comes back in on the next tide entrapping you behind surface sheets thick enough to gouge the heck out of your gel coat if you can break through at all.
Heeding that concern, I decided to head to the seaward islands where I knew there were an abundance of overwintering birds. So engrossed in recording these sightings I didn't pay much attention to the cold until I reached down to retrieve my binoculars hanging around my neck. They were held fast against my chest, frozen to my PFD! I then realized that my entire boat was beginning to glaze over in a coat of ice. I managed to get back ashore with my deck being about 1/4" thicker than when I left.
There are countless more interesting encounters to share about birding (see my "Judgement Day" story from the MisAdventure archives). Whether it's being witness to rare sighting of a North Pacific Auklet or sharing the water with a common Prairie River Pelican, birding from a kayak will always have its good, bad and even ugly moments. And, they will all surely be memorable.
Tom Watson is an avid sea kayaker and freelance writer. For more of Tom's paddling tips and gear reviews go to his website: www.wavetameradventures.com He has written 2 books, "Kids Gone Paddlin" and "How to Think Like A Survivor" that are available on Amazon.com.
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