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Paddle-to-the-birds

Bird watching from a canoe or a kayak can produce bird watching experiences like no others.

If you are bird watching from a canoe or kayak, you will have unique access to birds. Photo by Paul Nicholson.


Although a few birds are bold and curious, many – including sandpipers – are notoriously nervous and will usually fly away instantly from any perceived threat. But if you are paddling quietly or even just slowly drifting on the water, most birds that you encounter will be indifferent to your stealth-mode presence.

Even if you are successful in identifying shorebird species with binoculars or a spotting scope, the views from a small craft can be next level. For example, instead of just seeing the black legs of a Semipalmated Sandpiper, you may be able to observe details of the bird’s plumage or the webbing between the bird’s toes.

Through the summer, I have had some wonderful mornings paddling with birds. As a paddler who prefers flat water, I can find various great spots in and around London.

While birding from kayaks with friends at Wildwood in August, we were able to drift up to a mixed group of shorebirds. With paddles down and bins or cameras up, we simply watched Short-billed Dowitchers that were just three metres from the bows of our boats. Peeps fed nonchalantly and a Stilt Sandpiper was oblivious to us. The experience was utterly unlike birding from land.

Later, I drifted over to some gulls that were on mud flats. A Great Egret was among the gulls as were some Caspian Terns. Again, the Terns just continues to loaf as I snapped some photographs. After a time, one would lift off, go fishing, and return to its spot.

As paddlers know, being on the water gives you completely different views, plus access to some birdy locations that would otherwise be inaccessible to you. There are little hidden coves that can be explored or perhaps you can paddle to the far side of a little island to explore.

By drifting around with birds, you can often have an opportunity to observe their field marks and behaviors in remarkable detail. This Short-billed Dowitcher was just metres from the bow of the writer’s kayak. Photo by Paul Nicholson.


Apart from shorebirds, herons, and other birds, paddlers may have good success observing reptiles and amphibians as well as some mammal species and flora.

Is the fall too late to get into this mode of birding? Certainly not. The earliest shorebirds did fly through Southwest Ontario in August, but the heart of fall migration runs through September and into October. Pectoral, Least, Semipalmated, Solitary, and Stilt Sandpipers are still on the move as are Wilson Snipes. Numbers of American Coots and Pied-billed Grebes will climb now as well.

Of course the bird watching code of ethics is honoured. The welfare of the birds should always trump other interests. Also, while it is easy to become completely absorbed by the magic of the moment, never neglect boat safety.


If you decide to try paddling in London, be it on the Thames River or other bodies of water, make sure to check out the City of London's Fish & Paddle Guide.

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