Birding by Canoe

As my canoe soundlessly eased downstream, I heard squawks, croaks and clattering noises. Suddenly a pair of large flapping wings caught my attention; then I saw a pile of sticks in the fork of a big sycamore tree. My vantage point changed as the boat drifted along, and breaks in the tree canopy revealed dozens of "stick piles," the nests of great blue herons. There must have been close to 50 in all-a pretty substantial rookery.

Canoeing Ozark streams is one of my great joys, and a big part of what makes it enjoyable to me is the wildlife I encounter along the way-especially the birds. A canoe makes the perfect floating, viewing blind to enjoy birds and other wildlife.

Canoes are quiet, and if you avoid our more popular streams at popular times, a canoe allows you to hear and see wildlife without scaring it off. A gently drifting canoe also is stable enough to allow you to use binoculars; with a little practice a floater can watch birds as easily from a boat as standing on shore.

Many species of birds use the river and its streamside habitat. Around the time the redbuds bloom and bluebells carpet the riverbanks many species of songbirds are returning from a winter in tropical climes. This is a fruitful time to enjoy birds. The trees have not leafed out to block the view, and the newly arrived songbirds are vocal-intent on using their songs to find mates and establish breeding territories.

By July, singing begins to drop off for many songbirds, and some species, including several of the warblers, are on the verge of their annual southward migration. Summertime can provide special bird sights, such as broods of wood ducks or an elegant white egret wading in the shallows.

Paying attention to the sounds of birds and tracking down their source is a great way to learn birds and will reveal many more than relying on eyesight alone.

Some birds make it easy by telling you their name. A good example is the eastern phoebe, a small dusky flycatcher that repetitively calls out its name-Fee-bee, Fee-bee. The phoebe also has a habit of constantly flicking its tail up and down. Phoebes arrive in March and are common around bluffs and caves. In fact virtually every bluff shelter or cave entrance of any size will have a mossy phoebe nest anchored in a sheltered area. Bridges also are favorite phoebe