The Haw River Paddler
“The wonders of the world, the beauty and the power, the shape of things, their color, light and shade. These I saw. Look ye also while life lasts.” From a gravestone in Camberland, England
For the canoeist or kayaker, rivers become alive in April and May each year. To quote Laura Gilpin, “A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself.” Perhaps there is no better time to see that magic then when plants start to grow and animal activity returns to the Haw River. I suppose, for me, the first sign that spring is back is the presence of cormorants, a bird that you would expect to find along the coast. In April these large black birds tend to roost together at sunset in tall trees up and down the Haw River. One tree might contain over 50 cormorants spending the night together. In a way, it seems odd to me that these birds that are so comfortable on and under the water would choose to spend the evening high up in a tree, but that is the way they avoid predators.
The next bird to appear is the belted kingfisher, a small bird that reminds me of Woody Woodpecker. It’s head is very large when compared to the rest of its body. You first notice its chatter as it swiftly flies close to the water surface along the river banks. It is one of the few bird species where the female is at least as colorful as the male. Their nests are holes in mud banks just above the river. For the life of me I cannot understand how they survive predation by snakes which can easily get into their nests or the many high water events we have in the spring. Survive they do, and I cannot help but smile every time I hear them chattering away. Its like they want everyone in their neighborhood to listen in on their gossip.
One of my favorite birds that returns to our area in the spring is the osprey. It is sometimes called fish hawk or sea eagle and does resemble bald eagles a little except for its all-white underside. It is another bird you would expect to find along our coast, but we are lucky to have them here throughout the summer and into late fall. They are easy to identify with their six foot wing span as they circle above the water and then plunge toward the water to catch a fish. It is so funny to watch young osprey learning to fish. Like their parents, they will plunge from high above, but at the last minute pull up. You can almost hear them scream to their parents, “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it”. Eventually, they do catch that first fish. If you listen closely, you can hear the parents sigh, “finally”.
Not many people know that the greatest concentration of bald eagles in the eastern United States can be found along and near Jordan Lake in April, May and June. Most fly south for the winter, but more and more remain to nest each year. We see them on the Haw River “picking off” sea gulls in late winter before the gulls fly off in the spring to their coastal habitat. Whenever you see a large flock of floating gulls on the Haw River behind the dams at Bynum and Saxapahaw that suddenly take off in mass, just look upriver and you may see a bald eagle with its sights set on dinner. The slowest gull doesn’t have a chance. With a seven and a half foot wing span, it doesn’t take long for an eagle to catch up to a gull. When gulls aren’t around for eagles to eat, there is plenty of fish in the Haw River. Eagles either take to fishing like ospreys or they use ospreys as fishing poles. One of the nice things about canoeing or kayaking is that you see things you normally can’t see from the land like watching an osprey with a fish in its talons trying to fly faster than the eagle that is about to catch up and simply take the fish away.
Of all the birds, it is the great blue heron that seems to characterize the Haw River. When you are paddling your canoe or kayak, the bird takes off from its perch or wading position just before you reach it and flies down river just to repeat the process as you approach it again. It seems to be beckoning you to follow it down river. Standing almost five feet tall with a wing span of six feet, the blue-grey bird is easy to distinguish from white-colored egrets that have a similar shape and habits. Like the river itself, great blue herons have been around for a very long time. Their beginnings go back to the time of dinosaurs. When one takes off, the sound it makes catches you by surprise since it sounds like a dinosaur. You can almost see them living together in harmony. I suppose the question now is can we mammals live in harmony with great blue herons? They are part of the magic we should not lose.