Afloat and Aloft
Looking for birds from the seat of a kayak
A National Park Service-guided trip down the St. Croix River was a great way to enjoy one beautiful summer morning.
Everybody else is able to see the Great horned owl that Elsa has just spotted sitting in a tree by the St. Croix River, except me.
“It’s in that tree there,” my fellow kayakers tell me. There are a lot of trees there.
Elsa is excited because in several years of being a professional naturalist, including a stint at Wolf Ridge on Minnesota’s North Shore where she carried a captive Great horned owl around for demonstrations, she has never seen one in the wild.
Finally the owl tires of our gawking (and likely my obtuseness) and swoops off its branch and across the backwater behind its perch. “Oh, there it is!” I exclaim.
Floating and Flying
Our group of 10 kayakers had only been on the water for 20 minutes when we saw the owl. That was doing pretty well – we were out there to see birds, but August is not typically known for seeing lots of birds.
That didn’t stop us from looking. The morning paddle was offered by the National Park Service in partnership with the St. Croix River Association as part of a 2012 effort to get more people out on the river with Park Service rangers (the St. Croix River Association is a St. Croix 360 partner). Elsa was one of our rangers for the birding kayak trip, accompanied by colleague Caroline and the rest of us.
The rest of the group was for the most part new to the pastime — eager for the chance to paddle and learn about the river from knowledgeable guides.
When we launched our kayaks at the Osceola landing, great clouds of fog were drifting across the water. The sun was only starting to rise above the tall bluff on the Wisconsin side.
The river was in fine form. Early morning sunlight filtered through the white and purple mist where the warm water met the cool air. My fellow kayakers drifted in and out of obscurity around me. I paddled slowly.
The St. Croix’s magic can be elusive, and it is deep as the water. Many thousands of people experience the river frequently, by driving across it on a bridge, or strolling alongside it in Stillwater or Hudson, or at one of the parks along its course. But only a handful know much of its complex nature, such as the varieties of swallows that eat the mosquitoes, the anonymous islands that host Great blue heron nests, the status of the young Osprey being raised at a nest on a 100-year-old railroad bridge.
To know the river’s little secrets is also to know its true grandeur.
I have paddled the stretch we paddled on this trip a few times every year for more than a decade and I saw it with brand new eyes in the company of fresh companions and our passionate guides.
The rangers made a good pair. Caroline grew up along the river in Afton and was spending her fifth summer as a seasonal ranger on the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway. Elsa was from Oshkosh, Wisconsin originally and had worked at National Parks in the western United States and Alaska over the previous few years – this was her first summer at a Midwest park. Elsa loved birds and interpretation, while Caroline seemed passionate about the idea of a National Park in her backyard.
As we paddled past the Great blue heron rookery, quiet and still with no sign our sound of the inhabitants (my theory was they were all sleeping in because it was Saturday), we spotted some long-legged shore birds dashing around muddy flats.
Elsa quickly identified the birds as killdeer. She said she had first identified them while paddling alone on the river above St. Croix Falls – it had taken her 20 minutes but now she would never forget. You always remember when you identify a new bird. When you see the bird again and recognize it, you recall where you were and who you were with that first time.
When we had introduced ourselves at the start of the trip, everyone had shared their favorite bird. As far as I’m concerned, that’s like trying to name your favorite Bob Dylan album, but I said “Osprey.”
As we approached the Cedar Bend railroad bridge, everyone’s attention turned to a nest situated on top of it, and two wide-winged birds wheeling in the air. They were Osprey parents, and we interpreted all the activity as them showing their offspring the wonders of flight.
A few of us dawdled in our kayaks just below the bridge, watching the big raptors fly and listening to their keening cries.
As an aspiring angler, this unique bird which eats almost exclusively the fish it catches is an inspiration to me and my amateur efforts (they on average take 12 minutes to catch a fish). But as someone who also loves to travel, osprey offer an even more ambitious model: the birds are known to log as many as 160,000 miles migrating during their 15-20 year lifespan.
Perhaps it was the cool morning, but the Osprey seemed to be pretty enthusiastic about getting their young ones airborne for the first time. They would need strong wings soon for the journey south. We left them to their labors and paddled on.
When our group stopped on a sandbar just downstream to stretch our legs, the geese were the entertainment. Caroline and I were talking when we stopped to look up at a couple dozen of the birds attempting to fly in formation. I say “attempting” because before our eyes their shaky V completely disintegrated, each bird seeming to fly suddenly in its own direction. I’m pretty sure I saw a couple birds collide mid-air.
We agreed they had better get more practice before beginning their migration.
Interstate Flyway System
The St. Croix has been used by people for centuries as a transportation route, but birds have been doing the same as long as there’s been a river. They travel by the thousands up and down the river in the spring and fall, en route between their wintering grounds and summer breeding areas in the north.
A 1981 paper by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Craig A. Faanes reported identifying 314 bird species in the St. Croix River valley. In the study, the author notes Osprey as endangered and uncommon, due to pesticide use. Today, the birds are plentiful and considered a success story once DDT and other harmful chemicals were banned in the 1970s.
The day had become gray and overcast when we continued our trip downstream. There were no more significant bird sightings, but we did try to figure out the little swallows which flitted from bankside branches out over the water to snatch bugs.
The great mystery there is how a tiny insect can provide enough justification for the burst of energy required by the bird to catch it in mid-air.
When we pulled up to the landing where our trip ended, it was not yet noon. We had some time before our shuttle back upriver, so I stood in the shallows talking about the river with ranger Caroline and other kayakers.
We had seen a few great birds during the trip, but only a tiny fraction of the river’s 314 species. Caroline and I got to talking about mussels, of which the St. Croix’s 40 species make it among one of the most notable rivers in the world, and then of course there are the fish and the frogs and the furry animals.
A few hours was just enough to scratch the surface of the St. Croix, and what shone through was misty and radiant and swooped from a tree limb across a still backwater and into deeper woods.