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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Water-Borne Naturalist

Going to the Birds

By Tamia Nelson

August 2, 2005

I don't listen to the radio very much these days. Still, now and then I brush the dust off the old receiver near my desk and switch it on, usually when my Internet weather sites go down. And on rare occasions I'm glad I did. Not long ago I got lucky, stumbling across the tail end of an interview with ornithologist Donald Kroodsma, a pioneering researcher in "avian vocal behavior" (bird calls and songs to you and me). The interview wasn't much to listen to, in all honesty, but it did bring Kroodsma's new book to my attention, and that was enough. I lost no time in borrowing a copy of The Singing Life of Birds from my local library. Oh, yes. I shut off the radio. I'd rather listen to the birds any day.


I'm not quite sure what started me going to the birds. Maybe it was watching fledgling mourning doves strutting on the branches of the big maple that towered just outside the window of my childhood bedroom. Their plaintive Who? Who? hung in the air like an urgent question, and I often wondered what the answer might be. Then again, maybe it was the chorus of song that greeted me on my first solitary ventures into the fields and woods behind my grandparents' old farmhouse. Whatever it was that kindled my interest in birds, though, it smouldered quietly throughout my early years. Then I got a 35-mm camera with a telephoto lens, and the embers burst into flame. I was immediately transformed into a hunter. I searched forest and hedgerow in single-minded pursuit of feathered quarry, and I dreamed of snapping the picture that would launch me on a career as a wildlife photographer. With my camera and a copy of Henry Hill Collins' Field Guide in hand, I pursued the tiny birds whose calls teased me from dawn to dusk, sustained in my quest by the boundless energy of youth. Though the perfect picture continued to elude me, it wasn't long before I'd captured the gregarious sparrows and finches on film. But other, more reclusive, birds — including many among the bewildering community of warblers — lured me on. I thought they had the most beautiful songs of all, yet they seemed always to hover just out of the reach of my lens. Many of them inhabited the tangled second-growth thickets that bordered a nearby stream. Try as I might, impervious barriers of alder and spruce defeated even my most determined land assaults. As I thrashed about in the clinging branches, unseen warblers mocked me from their shadowed retreats.

This changed when I bought my first canoe. Things soon took a turn for the better. It wasn't long before I discovered that my new boat was a movable blind. From then on I spent endless pleasant hours capturing heretofore hidden birds on film. Once I was afloat, my days as a noisy, bumbling terrestrial intruder were behind me. Drifting silently downriver in my canoe, I was simply part of the watery landscape. I no longer had to struggle to come to the birds. Instead, they came to me. Beneath the overhanging limbs of riverbank pines, a mother mallard shepherded her downy chicks as they fed among algae-covered cobbles. A kingfisher rattled away from a branch and returned with a small trout in his bill. A troupe of chickadees flitted around my head and shoulders, lighting in nearby trees just long enough to pick off a recent hatch of mayflies. In the distance, a gang of blue jays scolded a cat owl perched high above the water. The harassed owl flew away as quietly as he'd come.

The stream widened into a marsh. In a weedy bay fringed by cattails, a great blue heron stalked his prey, plucking a leopard frog from the shallows with all the fluid precision of a master swordsman. The stilt-legged bird tossed his head, and the frog slid down his gullet. Satisfied with this late breakfast, the heron struggled into the air with languid, flapping wing beats, his long legs trailing behind. Turtles sunned themselves on half-submerged logs just off my bow, plopping into the water as I drifted past, while red-winged blackbirds kerrrrCHEEEed from the cattails, no more than a paddle-length away. But my greatest triumph was yet to come. I learned to imitate the songs of the elusive birds who'd mocked me earlier. Then, while ghosting alongshore, I called to them and waited. My patience was rewarded. One by one the little songsters popped into view: white-throated sparrows, ruby-crowned kinglets, ovenbirds and other warblers. Sometimes they even flew out to land on my deck or gunwale, where they'd cock their heads to inspect me as I aimed my lens at them. The loud clunk! of the mechanical shutter usually sent them flying away, but I was satisfied. I'd reduced their image to my possession. At the time, that was what mattered most to me.

Many years later I lost my prized Nikon in a fire, along with all my wildlife transparencies. In time, I replaced the camera, but the photos were gone for good. Seeking solace, I sought it in the company of birds. Now, however, I saw them as companions, not subjects. I was heartened by their matter-of-fact courage and soothed by their buoyant songs. And something else happened along the way. The birds taught me to see. I'd learned their names while I was a photographer. As soon as a camera no longer came between us, however, I got to know them as individuals, not simply as representatives of a labeled species. For the first time since I'd watched young doves parading before the window of my bedroom, I felt I was close to answering their insistent question: Who? Who?

I still had the urge to capture the moment, of course. Luckily, sketchpad and pencil, along with paints and a block of watercolor paper, proved more than equal to the task. As I drifted alongshore, the birds seemed happy with my choice. So was I.


The earth has music for those who listen.

These words form the invocation to Kroodsma's excellent book. He attributes them to Shakespeare. I think he's wrong there, but that doesn't matter. The motto suits the book, just as it captures the essence of my own journey from a stalker of birds to a fellow traveler. That is who I am. The doves have their answer.

If you've never gone to the birds in a boat, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. There's even a possible triple play here. Kroodsma often chases bird songs on a bike, and as readers who've been following my Amphibious Paddler series know, I've been exploring the no-octane synergy between boats and bikes for a while now. Add birds to the mix and you're really on to something. The amphibious paddler becomes an amphibious birder. It's only natural. Birds flock to (and around) water, and any canoe or kayak can become a mobile observatory, a passport to an ever-changing world of beauty, grace, and song. If these things matter to you, and I'll bet that they do, it's a world you'll want to visit often.

A few cautionary words in parting: If your travels take you among birds, remember that you're a guest in their homes, and like all guests, you can easily outstay your welcome. So let the birds come to you whenever possible. In particular, give them the space they need during the critical times of year when they're raising their young and preparing for their strenuous fall journeys. (You don't like being interrupted when you're working, do you? Birds are no different.) Good binoculars make this easy. After a canoe or kayak, there's probably no other tool that pays such big dividends in the life of an active outdoorsperson.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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