Birding by Kayak

A flock of barn swallows nest beneath the boathouse.

A flock of barn swallows nest beneath the boathouse.

One of the great joys of quietly paddling on the water is that other species don’t react to you as a threatening human, so you can observe wildlife more closely than you can on land. It’s also an immensely relaxing experience; the calmer you are the more you will see and hear. The music of the birdsong, the dance in flight, the colors and patterns of feathers, and the surrounding environment of water, shoreline, cliffs, and marsh are an unrivaled spectacle of art and science. The essential investments are inexpensive waterproof binoculars, a bird guidebook (or app), and a little practice balancing your paddle while you pause to listen and watch. 

A large flock of barn swallows—master masons—build their cup-shaped nests from river mud and raise their young under the Inwood Canoe Club boathouse every year. These gorgeous blue-backed birds with tawny chests and cinnamon heads are avian acrobats, trailing their long forked tails as they careen just above the surface of the water to catch insects. Double-crested cormorants often perch on the pilings near our dock. The shrubby path along the river to the boathouse and beyond is an excellent area for spotting migrating warblers, cedar wax wings, orioles, and other beauties. 

Even birders must acknowledge that some birds can be a real nuisance. Look out for a beautiful but nasty pair of swans that appear every year in our basin. Last year, we finally defeated the “pooperazzi”—the large flock of Canada geese that eternally slimed our old dock with green poop. Our new dock was engineered to ride higher on the water. So far, the geese have stayed away and left us with a safer, dryer launch and landing for kayakers.

Ospreys and bald eagles are frequently spotted fishing the Hudson. One morning, we watched an osprey plunge feet first into the river and soar back up with a fish in its talons. The pads of an osprey’s feet are tacky, like Velcro, helping the bird grip its prey as it positions the fish for an aerodynamic flight back to the nest. But sticky feet are no match for the talons and sheer bulk of bald eagles, who are famously opportunistic and lazy hunters. From above the boathouse, a few of us watched an eagle muscle an osprey in flight and make off with the prized catch of the day.

A frequent paddle destination, and a great one for birders, is the salt marsh bordering the canal between the Hudson and Harlem Rivers. These brackish waters teem with crustaceans and other grub that support herons, egrets, the occasional ibis, several species of gulls, and other water fowl. One morning, we counted 16 great egrets. Their lacy white feathers were stretched out like the wide skirts of formal gowns on debutantes at a ball. When a great blue heron has its eye on breakfast, it is indifferent to birdwatchers. We’ve watched a heron silently ply its long, stilt-like legs through the marsh and then plunge its immense beak in the water, emerge with a fish in its bill, and then swallow it whole in one gulp.

Sunset paddles are opportunities to catch good sightings of the night heron. These round-shouldered birds like to perch on rocks or low branches and sometimes dart low over the water in pursuit of dinner. Their profiles remind me of Alfred Hitchcock’s hunched silhouette.  One evening, a night heron flew right into the boathouse.

The abundant bird life indicates the health of the Hudson River. Other sightings last year offer more testimony. A harbor seal played in the waters off Columbia’s boathouse dock for a couple of weeks last summer. Sturgeon have been found sunning themselves at the surface of the Hudson in our area.  And an alligator crawled out of the Harlem River not far from the Peter Sharp boathouse. While I love the wilds of Inwood, I think I might want to be afloat in something more formidable than a kayak for a run-in with an alligator! Perhaps the ICC’s war canoe!