Birds can be sneaky, but so can I. Nowhere is that more apparent than when I paddle a marsh. Kayaks are the ultimate stealth birding vehicle, gliding almost silently into the shallowest waters, lightly brushing aside lily pads.
The marsh has secrets, and it’s pretty good at keeping them. There are cool birds hiding in the reeds, and most don’t want you to know where they are. But they have one big weakness. They talk. A lot.
See, the problem is that when you’re a bird hiding in the cattails, it’s hard to figure out where your mates and rivals are. The solution is to vocalize frequently. And most of the noise in a marsh is unlike the birds you hear in your backyard. Knowing just a few of those strange sounds opens up a whole world of adventure. The marsh becomes a theater.
For instance, I recently paddled the inlet to Pushaw Lake. Pushaw Stream tumbles downhill from Hudson and forms a marsh for a couple of miles before entering the lake. Reeds, cattails and sedges line most of the bank on both sides. Here’s how that adventure went.
As I entered the marsh, I had to paddle gently past a common loon. He eyed me suspiciously, then correctly assessed that I was harmless. Within a few more paddle strokes, I came to understand his wariness. His mate was on a nest just inside the stream entrance. She was hunkered down, with her head practically on the ground in an effort to go unnoticed. I backed away.
The next few hundred yards were punctuated by red-winged blackbirds calling, singing and flying all around. I noted a female carrying food, indicating that she had hungry nestlings to feed. Admittedly, blackbirds are not very secretive.
But the swamp sparrows are. I heard seven different males singing in the marsh — a slow, easily recognizable trill. They can be difficult to spot, but they can also be easily annoyed. A little noise from me was all it took to encourage one to sneak over for a peek.
The marsh wrens were harder. They make a busy chattering sound that is unlike anything else in the marsh. Worse, they do not rise to sing from the tops of reeds and bushes, so they can be harder to spot. Fortunately, they can be just as easy to annoy, so when I snuck up close enough to where the sound was coming from, I could entice one in. Altogether, I heard five during the paddle and managed a glimpse at three.
It was while investigating one of the more visible marsh wrens that I hit the motherlode. Suddenly, two Virginia rails started grunting within 15 feet of me. Rails are small, skinny, chicken-like birds that lurk in cattails. I think they had sensed my presence. They were probably mates, with a likely nest nearby, because they were mad at me, not each other. If they were rivals, they would have squabbled with each other, rather than investigate me. I caught a glimpse of both, before suddenly my attention was diverted by a most unusual marsh sound.
It’s a subtle call, easily overlooked — a quiet whisper that can be heard over a surprisingly long distance, but only if you recognize what it is. Not 30 feet from me, there was a least bittern calling. This tiny heron reacts to threats much like its better-known cousin, the American bittern, does. It freezes in place with its bill in the air, trying to look like a reed. It’s a state bird that’s so rare, it’s on the Maine Endangered Species List. And there it was, playing peek-a-boo with me.
I backed out slowly and resumed my paddle. Most of the remaining birds were conspicuous enough. Yellow warblers seemed to be everywhere, singing constantly. I heard four alder flycatchers and one willow flycatcher. There were three different pairs of eastern kingbirds, including one female sitting on an obvious nest over the water. There were thrushes and vireos singing from the woods, and swallows cavorting overhead. Now and then, wood ducks would flash out of the reeds and fly a short distance away. A female hooded merganser tried to lead me away from her chicks. But nothing could compare to that least bittern. It’s only the fourth I’ve ever seen in Maine.
I would like to say that this paddle was unique. But it wasn’t. Maine is full of marshes, and each one has secrets just like this. Paddle quietly. Listen.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.