Every November, I start watching for the arrival of Double-crested Cormorants to Austin’s Lady Bird Lake. On the occasional stroll around the lake’s hike and bike trail, I thrill at seeing the cormorants dry their wings while perched high in bald cypress trees at the water’s edge. From a variety of vantage points along the trail, I love watching these big, athletic birds ride the small swells in the middle of the lake and then dramatically plunge beneath the surface.
When driving across any one of the lake’s bridges at dusk, I crane my neck, watching for the trademark, almost V-shaped formations of cormorants flying home for the night to their tall-tree roosts. The cormorants’ wings beat impossibly fast, as if the birds are competing in a race that can never be won.
For me, the cormorants signal a solemn change of season; a time of reflection and pause. My heart plunges to a familiar melancholy depth when the first cormorants arrive. Strong swimmers, they survive by diving for fish. Otherworldly in appearance, the cormorants lend a prehistoric feel to Lady Bird Lake during their winter stay.
I recently tried photographing cormorants from the hike and bike trail. I was not successful. I realized I had to get closer: I had to get on the water, with the birds. So this past Friday, on January 15, I rented a kayak from the Texas Rowing Center on Lady Bird Lake, determined to sidle up beside cormorants and other birds and wildlife on the water.
Considering this was only my second time in a kayak (my timid maiden voyage came on a summer day several years ago at the Texas Rowing Center), I was nervous for me, and for anyone else on the water.
Grappling with my camera gear, worried about a bum knee, and horrified at the very real possibility of unceremoniously dunking myself in the lake, I slid on my butt from the wooden dock into my one-person kayak. To the stoically quiet employee who assisted me: Thank you for not laughing. At least not in front of me. Fortunately, save for a mother and daughter who pushed off in a double kayak from the Texas Rowing Center dock just moments after my departure, the late-morning lake was largely void of human activity.
More than two hours later, riding the calm lake alongside cormorants, American Coots, and a wide variety of ducks including scaups and Buffleheads, I had forgotten to be afraid.
I wasn’t graceful, but the lightweight kayak was. The slender boat allowed me access into many a tight spot.
Time and again, as I skirted the shoreline, edging up next to egrets and turtles, the latter strung out on small limbs like beads on a necklace, the forgiving kayak got me out of jams. I banged the boat’s nose into low-hanging branches. I scraped tree roots. I hung up on the lake’s gravelly bottom in shallow water. But with the kayak’s double-bladed paddle I found easy to use, I learned to push myself back into deep water.
I learned, sort of, how to stop the kayak, or at least slow my progress long enough to get better views of wildlife lingering at the water’s edge as I drifted past.
I learned that reclusive Wood Ducks don’t take kindly to clumsy kayakers coming up on them, especially at much too fast a pace.
I learned, from two fishermen on a small boat, below, that the bass were biting.
I observed, at the corner of Lou Neff Point, that cormorants sunning themselves on low-slung limbs will let you take lots and lots of pictures as long as you don’t come too close — say three feet while cradling the kayak paddle in your lap, grasping a branch knob with your left hand, and somehow holding and focusing the camera with your right. For sure, that scenario is enough to make any cormorant, such as the one that tolerated me for a good 10 minutes, flee the branch for the safety of the water.
I can’t wait to go kayaking again on Lady Bird Lake. I’m eager to learn how to step into the kayak, with the elegant confidence of an egret, instead of sliding in on my behind. I can’t wait to gently rock on the water in the middle of the lake, paddle resting on my lap, as I watch the wild, wild life fly, and swim, all around me.