One of the reasons many of us like to paddle is that there’s an exciting chance we’ll get up close and personal with some winged friends while we’re on the water. Waterfowl, with their webbed feet and water-resistant feathers seem to paddle from the comfort of their own bodies, while we humans have to lean on kayaks and bladder shafts to accomplish the same. What a wonder it is to witness these highly adapted hydro-creatures in their natural, splashy habitat. Fishing, swimming rapids or brooding on nests of driftwood, east to west, north to south, from all the four corners of North America, keep an eye out for this curated list of common avian friends as you paddle this spring.
Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
Found: North America, Central America, Caribbean, and the Galapagos
Mirroring a crane or egret in cadence, to admiring paddlers the Great Blue Heron is also known as GBH or pterodactyl. Wading in the shallows and spearing fish with its extra-long beak, the great blue heron moves with a statuesque, calm and cool demeanor. In flight, its wings are so large, and its head, sternum and legs remain so still, one imagines the bird to be moving in slow motion. Its body is a dusty periwinkle or blue-gray, with a long, lean neck with mixed white and gray beard feathers connecting the two. A dark stripe or mask across its eye extends into a rooster tail eye-brow that could be mistaken for a masquerade mask. Great Blue Herons are hearty birds and inhabit saltwater marshes, mangrove swamps, flooded meadows, lake sides and shorelines as well as freshwater environments. They are widely adaptable.
Sandhill Crane, Antigone Canadensis
Found: North America and extreme reaches of Northeastern Siberia
With a red forehead, white cheeks, and a long, dark, pointed bill, both sexes of this bird look similar. Resembling an elegant arrow in flight, they stand two and a half feet tall with a wingspan of nearly 6.5 feet. When not in flight, they nest (they lay one brood per year) and fish in the reeds at the river or lake’s edge. Listen for their frequent and loud, trumpeting call which can be heard at a distance. Mated pairs will stand close and unison call a complex, synchronized duet. Its namesake comes from a Platte River habitat located within Nebraska's Sandhills, in the Great Plains.
Common Merganser, Mergus merganser
Found: Europe, Asia, and North America
The Common Merganser is perhaps most notable for its crest, which resembles a mohawk. Both sexes also have a reddish-brown head and mostly gray to white bodies which can change during breeding when males don a sleek black and iridescent green head. Male torsos have a variable salmon-pink tinge becoming more robust with a crustacean consumption. Habitats like rivers, lakes, and sometimes salt water in forested areas satisfies this large sea duck. Nick-named sawbill, they dine on mollusks, worms, insect larvae, amphibians, small mammals, and birds. If not diving, Mergansers are navigating rapids, swimming, and scouting from rocks midstream. In their absence, one can assume they are hidden among riverbank vegetation or nesting in holes in trees.
Osprey, Pandion haliaetus
Found: All continents except Antarctica
Also known as the sea hawk, river hawk, fish hawk and white belly, osprey are large raptors.
Ospreys typically make nests and fish from dry snags near or on the river’s edge. They are also able to live in a range of environments including cities (as long as they are near water). An adapted fisherman, osprey are the only raptors whose outer toe is reversible which allows opposable grasp of prey. As they dive for fish, their nostrils are also closable. It isn’t uncommon to hear a splash first, and then look to notice an osprey emerging from the water with its talons full of fish.
Found: All continents except Antarctica
Pelicans are characterized by a long beak and a large throat pouch used for catching prey and draining water from the scooped-up contents before swallowing. They have pale plumage, with the exception of breeding season when bills, pouches, and bare facial skin are brightly colored. Pelicans frequent inland and coastal waters, where they feed on fish. Gregarious birds who travel in flocks, they hunt cooperatively, breed colonially, and nest on the ground or in trees. To remain buoyant, they possess air pockets throughout their bodies including in their bones and to stay dry, pelicans secrete oil from their preen gland which they then coat over their feathers.
Found: Southern Hemisphere
Ok, Penguins aren’t found in North America, but they are too cute to leave out. This ocean-fairing flightless bird feeds on krill, fish, squid, and other sea life. Their coloring resembles a tuxedo or panda while their behavior mirrors a jolly beaver. Species range in facial distinctions from the yellow-eyed penguin to the crested penguin, which poses with dramatically feathered lashes. Almost all penguins live in colonies and couple into monogamous pairs for the duration of the mating season. Some will re-couple in future seasons. Many species lay two eggs per clutch. When not submerged in saltwater, playing or fishing, they are often found scuttling about on the beach (or ice sheets) in the tidal zone.
Conservation note: When we see these magnificent birds out in the wild, they are in their homes. Let’s roll out the red carpet for them and treat them with all the same pleasantries and respect that we would want to be treated with in our home. Give them a wide berth and avoid loud noises so as not to disturb them. We would encourage you to research any wildlife conservation groups in your area to learn about more ways that you can get involved with protecting the wildlife in your community.