Go to any body of water large enough, and you'll find migrating birds coming home, or dropping by for a rest, or checking the place out for possible residency. How large is large enough? Sometimes a big puddle will suffice for a pair of ducks. But to see a variety of birds, you need a pretty big pond, a lake, a marsh, or a decent-sized stream, preferably not too fast and furious.
It's a different crowd of birds you see in watery habitats than the gang that hangs in the woods. There are the expected ducks on the water, and with them, geese and swans. Herons sail in with slow-mo grace to pose in sedge and reed beds.
If there are mud flats, as there are in shallows of the Hudson River, look carefully and you will probably see some sandpipers. These little shore birds - common species include spotted sandpiper, solitary sandpiper and the familiar killdeer - blend in well with the look of flats and shores, their streaked or speckled feathers matching the dark to pale brown mottling of mud and sand and dead plants. Once spotted, they're delightful to watch, with their stuttering strut, head bobbing, and frequent probing of the ground with their skewery beaks.
Sandpipers are wary, and will usually dart off at the slightest provocation. Even a sharp-eyed viewer may not see one until it takes wing. Not always, though. Whether it's the bird or the situation, sometines getting close is easy. We've seen sandpipers go about their business as we came closer and closer, even to within a few yards of the birds. It's the luck of the draw, and with the best luck, we've been able to sit for a while and take pictures. If there's any pattern to the birds' flightiness, it seems perhaps to have to do with the time of day or angle of the sun. For some reason, late afternoon seems to be the best time to cozy up to "peeps" (as birders call these sweet, speckled shore birds).
Not all the birds characteristic of ponds, lakes and streams are water birds. Swallows, flycatchers and cedar waxwings like open water for insect-hunting. So do bats, which you might see toward sunset. The open air space above the water makes insect catching much easier than in air space with obstacles like branches and tall weeds. Some aquatic habitats do have trees and shrubs sticking up, but even there, birds that catch bugs on the wing generally fare better. This is because aquatic habitats produce large hatches of ephemeral insects such as mosquitoes, mayflies, stoneflies and the pesky blackflies of the present season. Though some of these (like the blackflies) are small fare for birds, they attract predatory insects such as dragonflies and damselflies, which birds relish. These insects also come to water to lay eggs, and later in the summer, their offspring will transform and exit the water, some becoming more bird food.
Probably the greatest variety to be seen in any group of water birds is to be found in the ducks, especially in fall and spring migration times. The number of duck species that breed in our area about half the species that only pass through on migration. So far this spring we've seen mallards and wood ducks (local breeders), as well as common and hooded mergansers, ring-necked duck, and bufflehead, a strong contender for cutest duck on the planet.
Our waterbirding sojourns have been spontaneous, "let's go" occasions, or scheduled at times convenient for several friends, often late in the day, after standard working hours. Yet there hasn't been a lack of birds to see and enjoy. It seems whereas songbirds and their cohorts are most active at the crack of dawn, birds that hang at the watering hole are active at most hours of the day. So if you want a double day of birding fun, why not hit the dawn patrol for the warblers and wrens, then after your busy day, move on to the wetlands for some water-birding? Don't forget to strap on the canoe or kayak before you set out.