For the Birds: Sights and sounds of a fall canoe ride

Photo by Chris Bosak
A great blue heron perches on one leg in a tree in Brookfield, Conn., during the fall of 2018.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers.


The fall drawdown on large New England lakes can make it a challenge to launch a canoe. The shoreline is often soupy and mucky, making it a dirty and dicey proposition to get in a quick paddle.

A little dirt and muck have never deterred me, however, especially when the possibility of good duck watching lies ahead. Such was the case last week when I braved the Lake Lillinonah shoreline in southwestern Connecticut to launch my canoe. Lillinonah is considered a lake because of its width, but it is really part of the Housatonic River.

Thankfully, it hadn’t rained in a few days so much of the shoreline was hardened mud. It got muckier the closer I got to the water, but I was able to leave the tail end of the canoe out far enough that my feet only sunk down about 2 or 3 inches before jumping in.

The bottom of the canoe’s interior was smeared with mud, but what the heck; it’s a canoe, a little dirt won’t hurt it. I lifted up my butt, dug in the paddle and pushed off hard. I was on my way and instantly felt the cares of the world disappear as I glided over the glassy water, surrounded by New England’s famous fall colors.

I turned the first bend and was bombarded by a cacophony of lawn mowers, leaf blowers and construction equipment. The noises came from both shorelines and the cawing of several crows flying overhead was almost completely drowned by the machines. It was 8:05 a.m.

I paddled quickly and eventually put the noises behind me. I came across a family of white-tailed deer munching on leaves from a tree that had snapped in half. The top half of the tree now dipped into the shallow water of the lake’s edge.

Two young deer stood up to their bellies in water and picked off the leaves, while the mother deer stood on the shoreline to keep watch. She didn’t seem too worried about me and let the youngsters eat. She did keep an eye on me until I had drifted well past the ill-fated maple.

Around the next bend, a great blue heron strutted along the shoreline looking for morsels. Unlike the deer, the large bird was worried about me and fleeted to a nearby branch overhanging the water. I tried to retreat from the bird before I spooked it, but I didn’t see it in time as I rounded the corner. It wasn’t too stressed as it stood one-legged on that branch for several minutes as I observed from below.

As I admired the bird in the tree, another heron several dozen yards downstream took off and flapped slowly and deliberately across the river and landed on the opposite edge.

Herons, most of them anyway, will be heading south before long. They are typically the last waders to leave New England in the fall and the wader species with the most overwintering birds.

I’ve done a Christmas Bird Count in southern Connecticut for many years and there are always a handful of great blue herons. There have also been great egrets, black-crowned night herons, and yellow-crowned night herons, but nothing close in number to the great blues.

A flock of mallards flew across the scene and landed in the distance. I was hoping to see migrating ducks such as common or hooded mergansers, bufflehead or scaup, but had very little luck in that department. At the very end of the trip, I saw a lone male common merganser flying overhead along the snaking river.

It was a fleeting glimpse, but enough to build extra excitement for my next canoe ride, muck and all.

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