Birding by kayak

I’ve been doing a lot of birdwatching by kayak. This afternoon - while my kayak was drifting a bit - I thought “does anyone use an anchor while birding?”.

I am wondering what ‘tricks of the trade’ any birders have.

After a few years of birding by kayak - I’ve figured out some things that work for me.

  1. When I’m on the East Coast (on the shore) - I bring my laminate of shorebirds (snug on the deck).

  2. I always bring a camera with a good zoom. This way I don’t have to ‘remember’ what the bird is, and can compare the pictures to the ones in my guidebook. This way I can just watch the birds and their habits with my binoculars and not worry about trying to remember every little thing about the mystery bird.

  3. The latest thing I have learned is to STAY STILL. I had no idea how many birds I was passing by because I didn’t sit in one place for long enough. Our running joke is if you stay still, the wildlife comes to you. Really, I think you just notice the birds that were already there (but more secretive and camoflauged).

    This is where I wonder if I should get an anchor to assist in the staying still.

    The next thing on my list is a field journal - haven’t gotten one of those yet.

    I’d love to hear any wisdom that other birders have!

I love watching birds and you can get quite close to them in a kayak without spooking them. Unless there is a rather strong current, however, there isn’t a real need for an anchor (IMO). Birds are not overly disturbed by the smooth motion of kayaks unless they are approaching directly at them. If your course is somewhat tangential, most will observe you and then resume their activities.

Tossing an anchor is more likely to frighten birds than graceful back paddling, in any case. When I absolutely must stop, I have been known to just drift into the shallows and ground the boat, or grab on to kelp fronds or throw them over the cockpit to free my hands.

I once found myself surrounded by a huge school of small fish which were being hunted from below and pelicans were splashing into the ocean only feet away from the kayaks (friend and I were out trying to catch the grey whale migration). Awesome experience.

If in the shallows, don’t forget to look down. In the shallows, there are huge numbers of invertebrate life to be seen (nudibranchs being some of the most colorful), even if the water is only a few inches deep, such as in Morro Bay here in Calif. Fish, such as rays are also common in the shallows. While I try to disturb animals as little as possible, it is common to have a 40-50 lb. bat ray pop out of the mud and give the boat a slap as it decides to vacate the area beneath your kayak. In murky water, they just can’t be seen.

If I were to use an anchor, I would probably just deploy a sea anchor to minimize wind drift. This is essentially a underwater parachute which keeps you bow on to whatever wind there may be. Anything that anchors the boat to the bottom is probably cumbersome than it is worth.


Bird Sounds

– Last Updated: Jun-25-12 5:54 AM EST –

Here lately I've been a bit obsessed with identifying birds by the sounds they make. I have an instructional CD:

"Carolina Chickadee: LET'S go TAR heels."

"Rufous Sided Towhee: DRINK your TEEEEEEE."

I haven't started working on shore birds; just songbirds, hawks, owls, and such. You'd be surprised how many different birds are near you that are shy about being seen.

Birding by boat
I’ve been birding by boat for years and, like you, had thought about using an anchor but dismissed the idea as too cumbersome. Sometimes I lose a bird because of drifting away, but c’est la vie.

Knowing the songs and calls is invaluable. My iphone, which is loaded with the Sibley eGuide to Birds, is in a little pelican case, should I need it as a reference.

I’d add one other thing - I don’t use a paddle with white blades. You know what Pete Dunne says - “Good birders don’t wear white!”

Sitting still in my boat, watching and listening - it just doesn’t get any better than that.

By the way, enjoy your Saranac! This is the third summer with mine, and I love it!


field journal
I don’t keep a written field journal. Instead I keep a photographic life list in the form of Power Point slides. If I see a new bird and get a picture of it I create a new slide with notes. If I get a picture of a common bird that is better than the one in my life list, I exchange new for old. I also try to get pictures of males, females, juveniles, and non-breeding plumage. My life list is a constantly changing, growing thing.

My birding trick.
The higher your profile the harder it is to get close. Using a single blade and sculling stroke lets me get twice as close. If I forgot to bring a single blade I just break the paddle in half and use one end.

Peterson 3- CD disc
I have three CDs - which is supposed to help identify birds by ear, but for some reason it doesn’t “stick” with me.

I went on a ‘birding by ear’ hike last month and learned a lot.

Maybe I just need to practice more with those CDs. I guess I know what my commuting soundtrack will be! (thanks for the motivation)

I took my Saranac on it’s maiden voyage (for me, since it is technically a used boat). It was amazing. The way it glides over the water is so different than the Old Town Castine.

I think the birds really like the Saranac. We saw yellow warblers, baltimore orioles, cedar waxwings, nuthatch, yellow bellied sapsucker, grosbeak, and the coolest was either an immature bald eagle or a moulting golden eagle. That thing was huge!

Sadly, I don’t have an iphone - but birding might just push me over the edge to get one.

I got started with the Peterson CD’s, and they were a help, but what also helped was to hear a bird and then find it. A lot of time in the field is necessary for that! There’s a second set of Peterson CD’s, “More Birding by Ear”, which delves into the less common birds. Peterson’s guides are great, though, for giving you the tools to remember - someday it’ll all click.

Great idea
Hadn’t thought of using only half a paddle. I’ll have to give it a try.

The maiden voyage of my Saranac was at Moss Lake, in the Adirondacks. It was a drizzly, chilly, windy morning in late June, but since I was leaving that day I didn’t have anything to lose by going out. There were ospreys at the nest on the island, and a loon on the water. On the shore of a little cove, sheltered from the wind, were a bunch of smaller birds foraging for food, including a magnificent blackburnian warbler. It was baby-feeding time, and they were oblivious to my presence. For me, a truly memorable morning.

I use an anchor mostly because I will get in the water and leave the canoe behind.

I have a ‘surf housing’ for my 1Ds II and a 70-200IS lens that allows me to get in the water where I can get even closer if I approach carefully. I find that not looking at the birds directly helps a lot when getting up close.

A few anecdotes
My wife and I were kayaking and we came up to a group of trees overhanging the water. The wind was blowing pretty good and there were several pelicans riding high in the branches. Pelicans are very difficult to approach on the water and this was an excellent opportunity to get very close to them. My wife went directly underneath the overhanging branches, whereas I stayed out a bit further. She got bombed and boy does their doo doo stink. I didn’t want to let he in the car afterwards to go home. Almost skunk bad. Sheesh.

The other story is just am impression that words alone cannot adequately convey. I was alone, late afternoon. There was a flotilla of loons just hanging out sort of basking in the spring sun. I was able to drift in fairly close without disturbing them. My rough count is at least 75 of them. Wow, just magic. They were perfectly happy to sit there and were not alarmed at all by my presence.

Final story, we were lazily paddling in a fresh water canal, houses on either side and came upon a duck on the bank, an Osprey on a branch looking down at both the duck and us, nobody spooked at all until all of a sudden a cat sprang after the duck from underneath the nearby bushes. The duck easily evaded the cat by going for a swim. The cat stopped short and simply sat and started preening, and the osprey swooped down and ran the cat off. Then the duck came back to the bank and the two birds sat near each other, probably goading the cat for all we could tell.

As far as anchors go, I find them awkward and not worth the trouble. For salt water use I would like to try a sea anchor (aka drogue) especially if there were a strong tidal flow. Has anyone experience with them? Can you recommend one that would be good for kayaks?

Have an app on my phone
That I can ID birds and has their songs that I can play and quite often it attracts them.

Can’t wait to go birding in the south
I’ve gone birding around New England and New York (Western btwn Syracuse and Rochester).

Looking forward to paddling in the South - and I will definitely not paddle under roosting pelicans! I’ve internet stalked paddling the Keys and Puerto Rico.

In January I’m going to New Zealand and already have two kayaking excursions planned.

I also had a sweet experience with a loon on a lake in Vermont. I was paddling across and the loon kept up with me (yards away). We were ‘parallel playing’. The loon would dive under and then pop up near me. They are beautiful. I’d love to see a flock of them.

Birding story on NPR
This was a great piece of radio. It talks about the new birding apps as well as some great audio of birders in Central Park.

You could check out the
Mitch Waite Interactive Guide for Birds. It’s available on Android or Kindle as well. It covers 950 birds with great photos, calls, and reference data.

Sea Anchor
A quick search turned up several products ranging from $13 to $534 (the cheap one being for a person in the water and the expensive being for a sail boat, which would clearly be overkill).

The anchor would be a fine idea in wind, but less so for current, since it will be carried at the same speed as the water. A quote on this effect from

"A less well-known use of a sea anchor is to actually speed up the drift. In instances when the wind and current are moving in opposing directions and making it difficult to cover ground while drift-fishing — which happens frequently near the mouth of bays and harbors — a parachute sea anchor can actually pull a boat along with the current.


Do not paddle under perched cormorants

– Last Updated: Jun-25-12 7:03 PM EST –

They WILL deliberately poop on you.

A fantastic place to do kayak-based birding is in south TX. Maybe mjamja will chime in here. He played paddling guide when I visited the area, and he ID'ed a white-phase of the reddish egret doing its drunken-sailor "dance." Very, very cool, and rarely seen. Also, I camped at Goose Island State Park, which has a superlong fisherman's dock that allows you to walk way, way out over shallow water where loads of birds hang out. You get close views almost directly OVER them as they float on the water. Also saw roseate spoonbills, which I had never seen before.

Don't forget to enjoy watching the dolphins, too!

However, one of the rarest sights was something I stumbled upon before I had binocs or was thinking about birding at all. In spring 2002 (a drought year), I was sitting and resting in my new sea kayak after finishing a paddle around Chatfield Reservoir in Littleton, CO. Something brilliant and beautiful sat erect in the trees near the swim beach, catching my eye. Looked like something out of a foreign travel movie, or from a zoo. As soon as I got home, I looked it up and couldn't believe my incredible, newbie luck. It was an eared trogon, one of the most-eagerly-sought birds in north America. It was well north of its normal range. I doubt I will ever see one again. And if I had not been in a boat I would've missed it.

I will add South TX to my list
Never really thought about it (I guess I’m East Coast Centric) - even though I read a fantastic birding book that talked about the migration over the Gulf.

Thanks for the tip!

(I have never even HEARD of the bird you mentioned - off to look it up)