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Tuesday, May 1, 2007 - Page updated at 02:18 PM

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Boating for the birds: See wildlife from the water

Associated Press

MORGAN CITY, La. — Growing numbers of binocular- and camera-toting birdwatchers are taking a different approach to their colorful pastime: Birding by boat.

Waterborne observers can move more quietly. Boating eliminates many property and access problems. And boats can deliver birders to species unlike those normally glimpsed high in the tree canopy, or hidden in grass and shrubs along roads and walkways.

"Kayaking or canoeing is one of the few ways to reach habitats that otherwise are inaccessible," said Melanie Driscoll of the National Audubon Society in Baton Rouge, La. "It's a good way to count birds by ear. You can even get to birds migrating through. Warblers and other birds that nest over water are more approachable."

Birders and other wildlife watchers often complain that canoes and kayaks are "tippy." But some newer kayaks, particularly the surfboard-like "sit-on-tops," are very steady in the water, making them outstanding viewing platforms.

The Hobie Cat Co., which earned an early reputation for innovative sailboat design, offers a line of kayaks propelled by foot, much like a bicycle. It's the closest thing a kayaker can find to walking on water: There's no paddling required, just pedaling. The kayaks also have rudders you can steer with your fingertips, but generally your hands are free for more important things, such as shooting a camera, logging a bird sighting or working a fishing rod.

Many touring or special-purpose kayaks are maneuverable, skim easily across shallow water and float as much as 400 pounds. An outrigger-like accessory, Hobie's "Sidekick," can be attached to the back of a kayak for additional stability.

Another accessory is a fabric cover that screens the lower half of the kayaker's body, converting the boat, in effect, into a floating photo blind.

"That hides most of your movement," Console said. "And not having to flash and splash any paddles makes these real stealth boats."

If you'd rather not buy or rent a boat, then booking a ride with a knowledgeable tour operator is a good way to go. Ginger Rushing operates Attakapas Adventues from Napoleonville, in southern Louisiana's bayou country. She uses a 20-foot pontoon boat to take clients around the wildlife-rich area.

"It's very comfortable for six people," Rushing said. "They can get up and walk around. We have an ice chest on board and a sturdy top to keep them out of the sun. I can show them a lifestyle as well as wildlife. We still have people out this way trying to live off the land."

Rushing seeks out the unusual during her marsh and swamp forest tours.

"I've seen Roseate spoonbills, which are unusual in this area. Their population was way down at one time. (Bald) eagles, of course. Great egrets, green and blue herons, purple gallinule. You never know what you're going to find."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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