Birds, Aids to Navigation

By Vladimir Brezina

What’s wrong with this picture? (Click on it to examine it in more detail.)

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There’s a bird standing right where we are headed!

Nigel Foster, in his book on Florida kayaking, tells a humorous story about his researches into the length of various birds’ legs, with a view to using them as a measure of the depth of water in which the birds were standing.

I thought it was just a good story—but that was before we started paddling in Florida. Then I realized that it is actually a very practical measure.

There is so much shallow water in the Florida Everglades—especially in Florida Bay, where it is often just inches deep—and so many birds, that it sometimes seems that all shoals have at least one bird standing on them. You can see the birds from far off.

And if you see a standing bird, you want to keep clear of that spot. The water is too shallow, even for a kayak.

Bird and dolphin

On the other hand, if you see a dolphin, you can probably pass ;-)

A more practiced eye, like Nigel’s, will notice the length of leg immersed. If you don’t see the knees of a large egret or heron, you might be OK.

Heron standing

But if you see gulls standing, you really don’t want to go there!

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This last photo was taken on Long Island, NY—so the rules seem to apply beyond Florida, although more research in the field is clearly required… ;-)

41 responses to “Birds, Aids to Navigation

  1. Like crossing guards on the water. :) The photo with the dolphin is extraordinary. Do you worry when a dolphin gets that close?


  2. the many useful reasons to observe wildlife!


  3. great posy it :) no go where gulls go :) hehe ..right on willrememebr that …next time im kayakin down the san juan river lol…


  4. It is a great story, Vladimir. I like the detail with the knees :-)


  5. George Fatula

    Much more attractive than the man made markers. Perhaps not as reliable? Very interesting. Thanks.



  6. I’m pretty sure birds are an aid to anyone in the sea, I mean fisherman can tell where theres game when they them too, so yeah, friends!


  7. Great post. Those leggy birds act like live buoys!


  8. Interesting information. It only shows how useful birds can be. They are very important and not just pretty faces.


  9. really nice post!!


  10. Like I used to say in my long-gone sailing-days, “It’s time to come about when the seagulls start walking instead of swimming.”
    Best regards from a now-landlubber,


  11. That’s a helpful navigation aid :)


  12. Excellent observation skill… and your relating of it!


      • I was reminded of a story from my days as a merchant marine sailor on the Great Lakes:

        Navigating in thick fog an old amphibious landing craft converted to carrying gasoline in 55 gallon drums from the mainland to an island; the captain (knowing they must be getting close to land) called out to the deck hand posted on the bow “Do you see anything yet?”

        “Yeah, a seagull!” came the deckhands response.

        “A seagull? What’s it doing?”

        “Standing on a rock!”


      • Great story! I like that dry sort of humor…

        It seems that this post has drawn the old sailors out of the woodwork, each with his stories—see Pit’s comment above :-)


  13. Funny and useful post. You ever forget to watch the tides and get stranded as it goes out? Often, kayakers will be like “oh, I’ll just drag my boat down this beach to the water” And they wind up knee deep in mud, covered in strange insects. It happens in the northwest all the time. ;P


    • Well, now that you mention it… there was that one time on Cape Cod—

      (the full set of photos is here)

      But generally we pay a lot of attention to the tide (and even more to current), especially when we know it really matters. Like in the Everglades and especially Florida Bay, where it’s not just a matter of sinking into the mud up to the knees, but up to the waist or worse. So on the Everglades Challenge we were never caught out, but others certainly were—our friend Rawhide, for instance, spent five hours stuck on a mudbank just outside Flamingo in the middle of the night…


  14. Enjoyed the ride! Great pictures as well.


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