Winter Water’s for the Birds
by Mark McCaig
In the gloaming of a cloudless November day, the Chesapeake’s vast expanse is still. As a lone sailboat trims her sails on the way to the harbor, I remembered how the estuary changes with the seasons. The scores of summer’s boats are in dry-dock, their captains telling tales and watching football. A single Canada goose honks overhead, harbinger of winter’s Bay reality.
Countless waterfowl fly from Canada to over-winter on the Bay, replacing the churning boats of summer. From the thousands of snow geese on the Eastern Shore to discrete bands of grebes, 28 species of ducks, geese and their allies arrive here every fall. Having procreated in ponds and lakes to the north, they’ve journeyed to our shores ahead of the hard northern winters.
Join me as I scan the indigo vastness. Beneath a crimson horizon, the southern end of Kent Island gives way to the blue opening named Eastern Bay, then Tilghman Island. One powerboat passes the sailboat. Like objects in space, these craft highlight the emptiness. Closer to me in Herring Bay, a fisherman stands in his johnboat, slowly trolling the dim shallows for rockfish. When he guns his motor, the cold-water occupants show themselves in sudden flight.
Two dozen black and white bufflehead shoot away from the departing boat, small, speedy ducks flying inches above the calm waters. These are diving ducks that eat underwater, feeding primarily on mollusks and amphipods. While a flock is diving for food, often at least one bird hugs the surface watching for danger. As they often feed close to shore, often co-mingling with goldeneye, these frisky birds provide many opportunities for hearty observers.
In deeper water a larger bird floats for a moment, then disappears into the murky water. This is gavia immer, the common loon, famous for its plaintive song on northern lakes. Loons are extraordinary fishers, diving up to 250 feet beneath the surface. On the winter Chesapeake they are solitary and unmistakable for their size and stout bills. Smaller red-throated loons also winter here. John James Audubon wrote about diving loons:
Whether it be fishing in deep water amid rolling billows, or engaged in eluding its foes, it disappears beneath the surface so suddenly, remains so long in the water and rises at so extraordinary a distance, often in a direction quite the reverse of that supposed to be followed by it, that your eyes become wearied in searching for it, and you renounce the wish of procuring it out of sheer vexation.
A flock of black ducks, dabblers akin to mallards, arise as one from a tidal pond next to the Bay. I scan the sky and find the reason for their sudden liftoff: an adult bald eagle flying by, resplendent in both its plumage and the stately cadence of its wing beats. These epic predators perch atop the Bay’s food chain, so an abrupt emergence of a flock often heralds an aquiline fly-by.
As the sky darkens and I watch two last bufflehead skidding into the water. When I head for home, visions of canvasbacks, scaup, swans and ruddy ducks flash in my mind. Keep your eyes on the water this winter.
It’s for the birds.
Mark McCaig, of Fairhaven, returns to Bay Weekly pages after a hiatus of almost a decade.