Why You Need to Try Paddle-Birding

We came around a bend in the marsh and backpaddled hard and fast. Five metres in front of us sat a great blue heron. It’s hard to say who was more surprised: me and my paddling buddy Steve, or the bird. After about five seconds, the heron decided it was best to leave and we watched it rise straight up from the marsh into the air.

That event, many years ago during a canoe trip in Algonquin Park, Ontario, was my first close-up look at a heron. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was also my first taste of “paddle-birding.”

What is Paddle-Birding?

KayakingPhoto by John Geary

Birding, of course, is the observation of birds in their natural habitat. For some, it’s a hobby; for many, a passion. The same can be said about paddling. When you combine the two, you can enjoy the best of both.

It can be easier to see wildlife while paddling, as you’re more part of the landscape—or perhaps better put, the “waterscape”—and birds don’t seem to be as wary (unless you surprise them in a marsh). While you should never try to get too close to birds (especially those with babies), they do seem to feel more comfortable swimming or flying closer to someone else floating.

Paddle-birding on calm lakes, ponds or marshes does not require highly technical paddling skills, but there are a few things that make the experience better. Binoculars are certainly handy to have. If you plan to take photos, a long lens is important. Be sure to have a dry bag or pelican case to protect your camera. I prefer a bag, as the loud “snap!” of a case opening may frighten off your subjects. If you’re not an experienced birder, a field guide or bird ID app is helpful.

5 Awesome Places for Paddle-Birding in Canada

Double-crested cormorantDouble-crested cormorant | Photo by John Geary

During a three-day kayak trip to Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, I managed to see some shipwrecks, an abandoned lighthouse and plenty of seals. The birds were sometimes difficult to spot, because the first day, rain poured all day. The second day, we paddled along the shore of Ross Island, a small island off the coast of Grand Manan, and a thick fog made viewing difficult. But we did spot cormorants—some drying their wings on shore, others flying past us through the fog. As on any Canadian coast, bald eagles perched on treetops and soared overhead. Gulls and terns rounded out our avian sightings. Although we did not see eiders or cliff swallows, they do nest on the “Duck Islands”—Great, High and Low Duck—which often attract bald eagles.

If you don’t have your own kayak, you can arrange guided tours or rentals through Adventure High.

Trumpeter SwansTrumpeter Swans | Photo by John Geary

Canoeing the entire length of Ontario’s Rideau Waterway can be done, but it does require several weeks. I’ve spent a few days paddling portions of it near Perth, Ontario during autumn and saw plenty of birds, even in mid-October (and the colours were spectacular).

Paddling along the shore near Narrows Lock, we encountered a young loon who seemed unperturbed by our presence. It kept surfacing right around our canoes, watching us, diving, then surfacing again. The same was not true of a group of trumpeter swans that decided to go airborne as our canoes came close, climbing against a backdrop of autumn foliage.

Later that afternoon, paddling a different portion of the Rideau, we watched a female common merganser dive for fish as we paddled past Hog Island, near the Rideau Ferry Conservation Area. We also saw a double-crested cormorant provide us with the same kind of performance the young loon did—until a beaver scared it off. A great blue heron and a pair of buffleheads rounded out our bird sightings.

Just as there are numerous places to put-in to the Rideau, there are numerous places to rent canoes. Both Parks Canada and the Rideau Info Site can help with planning.

Common MerganserCommon Merganser | Photo by John Geary

The Oak Hammock Marsh and the Harry J. Enns Wetlands Discovery Centre sit 20 kilometres south of Winnipeg on the Canadian prairies. Canoeing through the marsh gives you the best opportunity to see some of the 296 different bird species recorded there.

During an early morning paddle, I spotted an American coot with its babies. I also saw my very first yellow-headed blackbird. Franklin’s gulls and black and Forster terns glided lazily overhead. In contrast, shiny blue tree swallows darted quickly around, chasing insects.

The day’s highlight came as we paddled quietly toward a small island covered with American white pelicans. Despite our care, as soon as we came within a specific distance, it was like someone pressed a button and they took off en masse, a white cloud of feathers rising up into the sky.

Bring your own canoe (register first!) or rent one of the canoes at the centre.

Yellow-headed blackbirdYellow-headed blackbird | Photo by John Geary

Seeing pelicans take off never gets old. I experienced that again while paddle-birding in Elk Island National Park. A half-hour’s drive east of Edmonton, Elk Island is part of the Beaver Hills geo-region. Astotin Lake, an example of a kettle lake, is pretty shallow, an average of three metres (10 feet) deep, is usually pretty calm and contains more than 20 islands.

That park holds the distinction of being the first place I saw a wood duck. If you paddle there long enough, you’ll see plenty of other waterfowl, including coots, loons and several species of grebes. Ditto, shorebirds like sandpipers, yellow legs and dowitchers.

American white pelicanAmerican white pelican | Photo by John Geary

It’s tiny. It’s surrounded by suburbs. But Burnaby’s Deer Lake can be a great place to go paddle-birding.

Oh, you’ll see the usual avian suspects like mallards and Canada geese, but there are several other species there, depending what season you go. I’ve paddled there many times, but only once watched a cormorant diving in its waters, in early July. My best day of paddle-birding there was an early spring outing. There were great blue herons fishing along the shore (a rookery on the opposite shore is off-limits to the public while they’re nesting later in the spring.)

That same day, we saw some American coots, American widgeons, a bald eagle and a few wood ducks.

Like most of the other destinations featured here, you can bring your own boat or rent canoes or kayaks.

Wood duckWood duck | Photo by John Geary

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