Another Way: Birding by Kayak on Lake Champlain

by Margy Holden

My stereotypical vision of birding used to be an individual or group, strolling slowly, and then stopping, binoculars pointing to a sound or movement, ears cocked to identify, binoculars tilted upward. After kayaking around Lake Champlain, I want to add another version of this passion: the seated floating birder.Another way of birding

A small, human-powered paddle craft, kayak or canoe, allows access to places that may be denied the walker. Yes, for the birder, there is the same occupational hazard of the neck that gets tired tilted back, but there are distinct advantages. There are no leaves or sticks to crackle underfoot, no soft mud holes to sink into while looking above. At the same time, I have to admit there are disadvantages. Just try to prevent a paddle craft from rocking gently while trying to pin binocular focus on a flitting object. Oh yes, binoculars – even the kind that float don’t always like to be dropped into water, much less the kind that don’t float. Using a spotting scope would be kind of a tough act. Slippery rocks or mucky clay challenge each attempt to enter or get out of the boat. But, even given all this, it’s a great way to go.

The Missisquoi Wildlife Refuge, accessed by Route 78 in West Swanton, is one of my favorite places to paddle and observe birds and other wildlife. It has also been designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. While trails abound, taking to the water offers access to places unreachable on foot. Civilization disappears in this watery world. The 6,642-acre refuge provides a rich habitat for nesting and migratory birds as well as other forms of wildlife. The 88-mile Missisquoi River, that drains 1,200 miles of Vermont and Quebec land, has over the centuries since the glaciers, Lake Vermont, and the Champlain Sea receded, created and is still building a delta with three river mouths and numerous side channels. In a few centuries, barring unnatural occurrences, the delta will reach the Canadian border. Charcoal Creek, Dead Creek, which are former channels, and the current main channel of the Missisquoi with its three mouths, all can be easily accessed from marked launch sites. While this is certainly not the place to see some of the species that inhabit upland areas and the Green Mountains, shore birds, ducks, grassland birds, other lower altitude species, and other wildlife abound.

Black TernWhen looking for a beautiful and easy paddle on protected water, I’ll choose Dead Creek. A short paddle up the Missisquoi from Louie’s Landing on Route 78, Dead Creek meanders directly north into reedy Goose Bay. And meander it does. This former channel of the Missisquoi offers little current between banks of overhanging silver maples and occasional willows draped with spider webs. It’s a safe setting for mergansers to raise their young and leopard frogs to perch. Swallows swoop, an occasional kingbird watches, an osprey cruises overhead. The shallow water provides perfect fishing ground for great blues that lift off as we approach, only to circle back as we continue. Watching that bird spread its wings and take flight has to be one of life’s great gifts. Belted kingfishers lead the way, chattering. On one paddle, I concentrated on photographing a blooming reed for later identification while my paddling partner Cathy spotted and successfully took a picture of a much less common, perfectly posing black tern.

Depending on the time of year and the often predictable water level, the paddler looks across surrounding fields and marshes in high water or up at the banks with little visible land behind in low water. Choose your season.  In high water, the sand bar at the Goose Bay mouth of Dead Creek is submerged and of little interest. In low water, the scene changes radically and the sand bar which emerges can be a haven for shore birds as well as egrets, native and migrating gulls, and of course cormorants and Canada geese.

From the Goose Bay end of Dead Creek, turning around and retracing the roughly five miles back to Louie’s Landing, gives an opportunity to savor the river again from the other direction – something I really enjoy. For the very energetic on a day with little wind, another return route heads north, traces the shore of Goose Bay, rounds Martindale Point, follows the shore of Gander Bay to the first mouth of the Missisquoi. The kayaker can then paddle upstream back to the landing, a trip of roughly nine miles, almost half of which is upstream although in low water the current is not strong. The bays of this route are reed-lined and a haven for what the Refuge lists as 20,000 migrating ducks, particularly on the fall days when the wind is from the south. Fall foliage often comes early because the trees along the shore have wet feet. In fact, I challenge you to even determine where the water stops and the shore begins.

In addition to the migratory birds, nesting ducks include wood ducks, green and blue winged teal, common goldeneye, hooded mergansers, and black ducks. The Refuge is the only place in Vermont that the black tern is known to nest. One spring/early summer day many years ago, we left Louie’s Landing and paddled north down the Missisquoi to Shad Island. The water was high enough that we could paddle over a submerged bank of the river into a low land that had become a pond surrounded by trees. We were near the great blue heron rookery that at one time numbered more than 600 nests. What an experience watching them land on a tree limb. The limb bends, wings flap, the limb rocks up and down, until at last: equanimity. The herons ignored us sitting stock still in our canoe. They were not the only nest building, mating species. Fish thumped our canoe, invisible in the murky water, swallows and flycatchers chased each other, and dragonflies attached and detached. It was a regular bacchanalia! We drifted for a couple of hours, enchanted at the re-creation of the life around us.

Late in the afternoon, we paddled back upstream stopping to watch a beaver work. Swimming to the far shore it left the water and selecting a thin branch, quickly gnawed through, dragging it back to into the river and to the far shore. That must have been a special tree. A little further on, we didn’t see the deer at the edge of the water before it saw us and disappeared in a flash of white.  We could hear a wood thrush singing in the distance. What had started out as a simple paddle turned into an incredible experience which I can still picture clearly even years later.

I’ve only scratched the surface. I haven’t even mentioned the turtles. I may – or may not have seen the prehistoric-looking spiny soft-shell turtle. Well, I did see one. But was it real? Back during the Route 78 bridge construction when the state constructed platforms on which the displaced turtles could sun themselves, we had launched kayaks next at the state site adjacent to the bridge. We neared the first platform with great caution and at a distance. Much to our amazement, a spiny soft shell was sunning itself within photographic range. We later learned that some of the platforms had decoys to encourage the real thing to climb aboard. Did we see the real thing? Since then, I’ve seen quite a few, and I do believe. Just paddle out into the refuge on a sunny day and it won’t only be the spiny soft shell variety you can catch catching the rays on every available log and rock.

On the basis of these and other experiences in the Missisquoi Wildlife Refuge, I’d consider designating a new species – or maybe it would be a sub, sub species. How about the Magnificent Northern Sitting Floating Birder? To give this new species a push, I’ll even volunteer that I am one - at least in the Missisquoi Valley Refuge. Oh, and don’t forget to stop at the Refuge headquarters before you leave the area. They have bird lists, reference books and displays, and trail maps in case you want to be one of those traditional standing birders.

Margy Holden is a Board member and former President of the Green Mountain Audubon Society and the coauthor with Cathy Frank of the book A Kayakers Guide to Lake Champlain.