Classic For the Birds: Paddling freshwater

I’m heading to New Hampshire for a few days of camping. It’s been a while since I’ve paddled any lake, pond, or river in the Granite State and I’m looking forward to seeing what wildlife will be around. Of course, I’ll let you know when I return. In the meantime, here’s a For the Birds column from 2004 about this very subject …

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Blue Heron stands on a piling along the Norwalk River on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014.

A great blue heron lifted its skinny four-foot frame out of the water and used its six-foot wing span to carry it to another spot on the lazy river. It was spotted again around the next corner.
A wood duck skulked into the vegetation and disappeared without a trace. Once a wood duck vanishes into the sea of huge green leaves, you can forget about seeing it again.

A muskrat braved a crossing at a swelled portion of the river, using its tail as a rudder. Marsh wrens proudly belted out their peculiar, almost comical, song.

Meanwhile, there were many constant companions. Red-winged blackbirds boisterously claimed various plots of the river’s edge as their own, dragonflies zigged and zagged in search of food and mates, unseen bullfrogs provided a bass backdrop among the din of buzzing insects, and painted turtles by the dozens lounged on fallen logs.

It was a hot and sunny late spring afternoon — a perfect time for a paddle in my trusty canoe. On this particular day, I was floating on the Bantam River in White Memorial near Litchfield, Conn., but similar scenes would have played out on any number of freshwater bodies in New England.

I love paddling the remote, still waters of New England — be it a snaking river, wooded pond, or vegetation-thick, buggy marsh. I love these waters because they are predictable. I love them because they are also unpredictable.

Paddle any freshwater in the spring and you’re likely to see red-winged blackbirds, mallards, Canada geese, painted turtles, dragonflies, and water lilies. There’s a good chance you’ll happen upon great blue herons, kingbirds, black ducks, cormorants, song sparrows and grackles.

Perhaps you’ll see kingfishers, green herons, wood ducks, muskrats, snapping turtles and white-tailed deer.

If you’re lucky, you’ll see loons, American bitterns, ospreys, northern harriers, beavers, otters and water snakes.

If you don’t have a canoe or kayak or aren’t able use one, a walk around a freshwater body may yield the same birds and animals.

Where you are in New England also determines what you might see in, on or around the water. Hit New England’s northern waters and perhaps you’ll come across a moose eating underwater plants. Southern New England waters will yield egrets and mute swans.

While freshwater will never compare to saltwater in terms of shorebirds, if you hit the right place at the right time, you’ll see the random shorebird such as yellowlegs or semipalmated plover.

Time of year is a big factor in what you’ll see as well. The waters will be filled with various waterfowl from late fall to early spring, but nearly void of ducks — other than mallards, wood ducks and black ducks — during the summer.

It was a quest to photograph a wary flock of common mergansers on Powder Mill Pond in Hancock, N.H. that had me in my canoe nearly every day several years ago. My “canoeing career” was just starting out and, while the mergansers were my quarry, I learned about countless other species as I stalked the fowl.

One morning while paddling to my find my mergansers, I discovered that much of the water had frozen overnight. A bald eagle alternately soared and perched near the pond while waterfowl of all sorts shared an unfrozen pool.

It was one of those amazing, unpredictable moments that nature hands you every so often.

No such magical moments occurred on my latest paddle on the Bantam River. Everything I saw fell into the “likely to see” category. But I didn’t really feel that way. Just floating on that river all alone was magical enough. It made me feel as if everything I saw should be categorized as “lucky to see.”
Photo by Chris Bosak
A foggy morning on Merganser Lake. A perfect day for a canoe ride.

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