Savanna and I decided to venture outside the friendly confines of New England and take a short drive to the Bashakill Wildlife Management Area. It’s a beautiful area teeming with wildlife, great scenery and surprises around every bend as you paddle along the narrow serpentine river. It is a New York state Bird Conservation Area and located between the Shawangunk (“Gunks”) and Catskills mountains.
I discovered this gem of a place when I worked for a short time in Middletown, N.Y. about 20 years ago. I’ve returned now and then ever since, but it had been quite some time since my last visit. So one day last weekend we strapped the canoe on the car the night before, rose before dawn and headed west.
Other than my usual access road being closed due to construction, everything was as I remembered it. The water channel was a bit more narrow than usual, but that’s because it was August and it hadn’t rained in quite some time.
Wood ducks, as usual, were the dominant species. There must be thousands there and we must have seen a few hundred of them. Red-winged blackbirds and a lone kingfisher were other usual sightings. At one point we saw a bush in the distance in the swamp that was literally bursting with swallows. The swallow migration has begun and this bush looked like a Christmas tree covered with live ornaments.
But the most memorable sightings were of the resident adult bald eagles. We saw the male first and then the female. As with most birds of prey, female bald eagles are larger than males. A man we met in the parking lot later — who identified himself as the “local eagle guy ” — who said there were two young eagles that year, too, but they like to stay hidden in the woods away from the open swamp. It was good to hear that the adults continue to have breeding success there.
Bald eagles are making a strong comeback throughout the U.S. and New England and nearby N.Y. are no exception. Just like the tremendous comeback of the osprey over the last few decades, it’s nice to witness another iconic species on the rebound. Now, let’s just keep it that way.
It started with a bird pooping on my forehead and finished with me tipping over the canoe in a mucky, heavily vegetated part of the lake. The adventure was well worth it, however, as we successfully untangled and freed an eastern kingbird from the death grip of abandoned snagged fishing line.
Photo by Will Bosak Kingbird rescue, Danbury, CT, 2019.
I was sitting in my home office writing away about something or another when I saw out the window my 12-year-old son sprinting up the road and turning onto the driveway. He was fishing with two of his friends at the nearby fishing hole so I briefly panicked that someone had gotten hurt; perhaps a barbed hook embedded in a thumb or something like that.
I opened the window and yelled down: “What’s wrong Will?”
“There’s a bird stuck on fishing line dangling from a tree,” he said. “Come help it. It’s freaking out. I feel so bad for it.”
I rushed to the car and drove to the spot, even though it’s literally only a few hundred yards away. Nagging tendonitis in my foot has prevented me from making that walk — or any other walk for that matter — for weeks now.
“I think if we go through the woods we can get to it,” Will said as he pointed out the bird.
I recognized the bird as an eastern kingbird. The white band at the tip of its tail gave it away.
“I don’t think so, Will. All that vegetation is growing from the water so we’ll never reach it from land. We can probably get it with the canoe.”
I hobbled back to the car as quickly as possible and fetched the canoe. I used only one strap around the middle of the canoe to fasten it to the car since I was going such a short distance.
Back at the fishing hole, Will hustled to help me get the canoe off the car and to the shore.
“I’ll sit up front, you sit in the back and paddle us to the bird,” I told Will.
“I’ll take photos, too, dad. Where’s your phone?”
Will got us into the weeds and immediately the frantic bird crapped right on my forehead above my left eye. I didn’t even notice it, but Will let out a huge laugh to let me know.
“Guys! The bird pooped on my dad’s head!” he called excitedly to his friends.
I didn’t care about it at the moment. I just wanted to help the bird, which was now even more frantic with us closing in on it.
I grabbed some sturdy stems and pulled us into the vegetation even more to prevent us from drifting as I was soon to have a knife and, hopefully, a bird in my hands. We stopped right below the bird. I stood up carefully and extended for the bird. It was just out of reach.
“Give me the paddle, Will.”
I used the paddle to pull down the branch a few inches. I grabbed it and pulled the branch, bird, and tangled mess of fishing line toward me. Wow, that’s a lot of fishing line, I thought to myself. With my free hand I used the knife of my trusty Leatherman to cut the line above the bird’s wing. I closed the knife, tossed it on the floor of the canoe, and sat down with the highly agitated kingbird in my hand. It bit at my hand and made me thankful that it wasn’t a great blue heron.
A length of fishing line immediately came free but there was still line wrapped tightly around the wing. I held the bird and pulled gently on the end of the line. Will used the knife to cut the line as close to the wing as possible.
I dug in a little more to make sure there wasn’t a hook stuck in the wing. The kingbird obliged by extended its wing to expose the wound. Thankfully, there was no hook and the remaining piece of fishing line that had held the bird captive fell to the floor of the canoe. The wound did not look serious and I breathed a sigh of relief that a hook was not involved.
Satisfied that the bird was free from all fishing line I opened my hand to see if it was able to fly. In about half a second the kingbird burst out of my hands and disappeared into the woods.
The kingbird was lucky. Lucky that Will went fishing that afternoon and was able to spot it. Lucky that we had a canoe handy to access the water. Lucky that it was tangled relatively close to the water instead of higher up and out of reach. Lucky it was only tangled and not hooked.
I looked around and noticed that the trees in the area were riddled with abandoned lines, bobbers, hooks, sinkers, and lures. Will steered me to them and I pulled down the ones that were in reach. I pulled down the tangle that had snared the kingbird and noticed the bird’s nest was in a branch about a foot above the twisted line.
Thankfully we were only a few feet from shore when I got a little too confident in my reaching and swamped the canoe. Swamped is a good term because we tipped over in thick, slimy aquatic vegetation. My legs felt for the bottom of the lake but only dug themselves deeper into a spaghetti bowl of slippery stems, roots and goodness knows what else.
Will, thankfully, had the wherewithal to immediately take my phone out of his pocket and toss it onto the shore. The phone was fine and Will scored points with his father for acting so quickly despite being dumped into a mucky mess.
We lumbered onto shore — me very gingerly on the uneven terrain — and dragged the half-full canoe onto land. Our legs were blacked by bits of partially decomposed leaves that fell into the water over the last several years.
Once on land we had little laugh and rejoiced as two kingbirds flew and chattered among the trees just off the shore.
It’s not quite on par with the great osprey rebound, but the recovery of the bald eagle has been fascinating and fun to watch.
Ospreys, once nearly extirpated from New England, have greatly increased their population over the last few decades. They are now common sightings along New England coastlines. Inland bodies of water are also seeing more ospreys but the increase is not as dramatic as along the coast.
Bald eagles are also becoming a more common sighting. I took a canoe ride on an inland lake in Connecticut yesterday and saw two bald eagles — one immature and one adult. (It takes four or five years for an eagle to get its trademark white head and tail.) Later in the day I drove past Danbury Fair, the state’s second-largest shopping mall, and saw an immature bald eagle perched in a snag in a nearby marsh.
I can’t remember the last time I saw three bald eagles in one day. Now that the weather is getting warmer (kind of) and days longer, eagles will be heading north soon. Many eagles, however, will remain in New England to return to nest sites or start new ones. In recent memory, there were no bald eagle nests where I am in southern Connecticut. Now there are several.
Here’s what All About Birds, a website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says about the bald eagle population: “The Bald Eagle’s recovery is a spectacular conservation success story, and numbers have increased between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 250,000, with 88 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 31 percent in Canada, and 8 percent in Mexico. The species rates a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2016 State of North America’s Birds’ Watch List, but are a U.S.-Canada Stewardship Species. Once abundant in North America, the species became rare in the mid-to-late 1900s—the victim of trapping, shooting, and poisoning as well as pesticide-caused reproductive failures. In 1978 the bird was listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Since 1980, gentler treatment by humans along with the banning of DDT (the bird’s main pesticide threat) have led to a dramatic resurgence. By the late 1990s, breeding populations of Bald Eagles could be found throughout most of North America. In June 2007, the bird’s recovery prompted its removal from the Endangered Species list.”
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.