John James Audubon coined the term snowbirds over 150 years ago to describe the little dark-eyed juncos. Today the label extends to people who spend their summers in the north and winters in warm southern climates. Many snowbirds pack their cars and head for the highways. Others board airlines with packed suitcases. The most adventuresome cruising snowbirds head south in their boats.
Whether under sail or power, these boaters remind me of osprey the magnificent fish hawk of virtually world-wide distribution near coastlines, lakes and rivers. The osprey’s high-pitched cry echoes throughout Bay waters in the spring and summer. But, like the steady chug-chug of the cruising snowbird’s engine, it fades as temperatures fall.
In their stamina and flight, as well as preparation and route to their winter destinations, these two Bay birds mimic one another.
Osprey fly south seeking not only warmer weather but also abundant feeding grounds and a safe environment for growth and socialization. Cruising snowbirds go south for these reasons, and a few more.
“We do it for the sense of adventure, the camaraderie of other cruisers, the getting away from everyday stress, the TV, the phones,” says Annapolitan Gerri Smith. “We do it to have time to read a book without interruption, to trade the snow shovel for beautiful beaches, crystal-clear waters, palm trees, warm sunshine, no traffic, no shopping malls, beautiful sunrises and sunsets.”
Smith and her husband, Skip, have been snowbirds since 1990. This year they set sail once more, ensconced in their Islander 36, Yellow Bird.
From North to South
Both osprey and snowbirds are in vacation mode, resting and relaxing, in their southern digs. Their northern residence is truly home, with months full of responsibilities and work.
When female osprey make their appearance in the Chesapeake spring usually eight to 10 days after the male the love-season commences. Following brief days of courtship or re-familiarization, the couple labor together to build, augment or repair their nest. Two weeks later, the female deposits her eggs. The male assists over the five-week incubation, as the birds take turns supplying each other with food. Once the eggs yield their treasures, mom and dad’s fishing and feeding duties increase. By late July, most of the youngsters are on wing, and the parents become teachers. With precious time passing, the juveniles are urged to test and strengthen their wings and learn to fish for themselves.
Cruising snowbirds wait for warmer weather, returning north later in the spring than the osprey. Their first weeks are spent in re-establishing family ties, undertaking house and yard maintenance, pursuing health check-ups, paying taxes and catching up on the local news. As the weather warms, boat maintenance becomes a priority; cleaning and repainting bottoms and testing sails, engines, electronics and on-board living conditions.
The annual trip south will take time and require stamina, often testing the mettle of its voyagers, osprey and snowbirds. In the month before departing, both species undertake final preparation. While adult and juvenile osprey are busily filling their bellies for the long flight, cruising snowbirds are filling the belly of their boats. Thinking of what they will need on the long journey and what they may or may not find upon arrival, they stock up with clothing and linens, cookware and staples, books and more to last through the winter.
“I have just spent all our money this week at Sam’s, Trader Joe’s, Safeway and Giant,” says Smith. “Now Skip is complaining there is no water line left.”
Says he: “We’ll be the first sail-driven submarine that leaves Annapolis.”
Then there’s fuel.
“We carry 700 gallons,” says former Annapolitan Bob Rogers, who with his wife, Betty, has cruised south from Annapolis on their trawler Nereid for at least a decade. “At my speed, that takes me several thousand miles.”
Completing the snowbirds’ checklist are spare parts, electronics and safety equipment, tools and charts as well as the items to be delivered to friends at their final destination. Smith cringes when she finds a last-minute email from a friend requesting a table saw.
Choosing a Destination
Osprey are unique in their choice of destination and are not bound by family agreement. They look for places where fish are abundant, since fish is the mainstay of their diet. Popular wintering grounds for East Coast osprey are Central and South America, plus the Caribbean. Dad might go to Ecuador, mom to Brazil and the chicks to Cuba, Trinidad or Venezuela.
Whatever destination they choose will draw them year after year.
“Birds that we have followed for several migrations tend to be as faithful to their wintering spot in South America as they are to their nesting area up north,” says Rob Bierregaard, a biology professor at the University of North Carolina who has been studying osprey migration for the past eight years.
Initially, cruising snowbirds don’t rely on instinct as much as they do the advice of family, friends or cruising guides to make their destination choices. With the myriad of options available, they may hop from state to state, island to island or country to country. After several voyages south, many, like the osprey, develop loyalty to a place and return there year after year. One of those places is Hope Town, in the Abacos, Bahamas.
The Abacos, comprised of Great Abaco Island and a chain of smaller islands called cays (pronounced keys), are surrounded by crystal-clear waters, gleaming, white-sand beaches, numerous snorkeling reefs and safe harbors. Peppered with 18th century villages, composed of pastel houses surrounded by rock walls and white picket fences, the archipelago is reminiscent of Cape Cod. Combine this with inviting shops and restaurants, and it’s easy to understand why this place is known as the sailing capital of the Bahamas. Little wonder that many who find pleasure in cruising the Bay from Annapolis, the sailing capital of the U.S., are drawn to return here.
When I first visited the picturesque village of Hope Town, I wasn’t aware of the strong connection between the Abacos and the Chesapeake. For like the osprey, we flew down in a plane. By the second year, while meeting cruisers in its sheltered harbor, we discovered that we weren’t the first from the Bay area to call Hope Town our winter residence.
Like us, many snowbirds discover Hope Town by themselves; others come on the recommendations of friends.
“We toured the east and west coasts of Florida, and on the recommendation of fellow Annapolitans Bill and Joan Tilley, who came there at the recommendation of Louise Hutchings, we moved over to the Abacos,” Smith says. “For several years we explored all of the Bahamas, Grand Bahamas, New Providence, Exumas, Rum Cay, Conception, Cat Cay, San Salvador. But we kept returning to the Abacos.”
For the past seven years, the Smiths’ destination has been Hope Town.
Steve Best, a former Washington lawyer, grew up sailing Chesapeake Bay with family and friends. Forty years ago he sailed to the Bahamas in a 36-foot Pearson. While in the Exumas, he learned about the Abacos, and Hope Town in particular, from a friend.
“Once I sailed into the harbor, I was hooked,” Best says. “I decided this was where I wanted to live the last years of my life.”
Hope Town, with its red and white candy-striped lighthouse, is located on Elbow Cay. It lies almost directly longitudinally south from the Thomas Point lighthouse and east of West Palm Beach, Florida, approximately 180 miles across the Gulf Stream.
The Rogers first crossed the Gulf Stream with the idea of going to Hope Town for maybe a month, then to head farther south.
“We have never gotten south,” Rogers says.
The Flight Plan
While osprey mate for life, they don’t winter together. And they never take family vacations. In fact, Mom and dad will head south on different days, leaving the juveniles behind.
“The young travel on their own when they head south,” says Bierregaard. “They do not follow their parents but work on pure instinct, apparently following a fairly simple two-line program: Go south and stay over land as long as possible.”
In contrast, most cruising snowbirds are couples; many travel with their young; some even follow their parents. Stan and Melanie Wood, of Severna Park, undertook such a journey two years ago.
“We wanted to experience life outside suburbia and take time to enjoy family,” says Melanie.
That family included the Woods’ youngsters’ grandparents, Bob and Betty Rogers, who, as usual, were headed for Hope Town on Nereid. So the Woods loaded their three children, dog and all checklist items aboard Independence, their 44-foot St. Francis catamaran, and headed south in Nereid’s wake.
Researchers have determined that migratory osprey have a genetic component that tells them when they should leave and what direction they should travel. The sense of when to go can be triggered by several different factors, most likely the changing length of daylight known as the photoperiod. Adult osprey usually depart around the end of August. Within weeks, most youngsters follow. Throughout September, osprey from the northeastern U.S. move though the Bay area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has tracked more than 100 osprey sailing over the mouth of the Chesapeake during many of these flight days.
While cruising snowbirds would prefer to follow the osprey’s flight plan, family and social obligations as well as weather and concerns about higher insurance premiums during hurricane season can delay their departure for another month or two.
“Our boat insurance gives no definite dates, but it has some restrictions and changes in deductible if you are in certain places for named storms,” says Smith. “Other insurance companies say you can’t be south of Hatteras before November. Some say Savannah before December.”
When to leave is therefore a complex decision for snowbirds. Seasoned snowbirds know that, to avoid frost and ice, they should be well out of the Bay before Thanksgiving.
The Journey South
While underway, cruising snowbirds keep friends and family up to date by recounting travels in emails or on their websites. Osprey journeys too are posted on the web. Various educational organizations follow the birds using small transmitters attached to individual birds. The captured data is shared by researchers over the Internet. (see: http://www.bioweb.uncc.edu/bierregaard/osprey.htm)
These postings indicate that osprey and cruising snowbirds travel very similar routes: the birds via the Atlantic Flyway and cruisers via the Intercoastal Waterway.
The Atlantic Flyway is a bird migration route that generally follows the Atlantic shoreline and the Appalachian mountains.
The Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway is a water highway for recreational and commercial boats. Stretching from Boston to the Florida Keys, it parallels the Atlantic shoreline. A diverse highway, the Waterway offers everything from flowing rivers to vast sounds, bays including the Chesapeake man-made canals, busy seaports and ocean inlets. Some stretches of the Waterway are among the most beautiful places on Earth; others are to be endured.
To ensure a safe journey down these ways, both cruiser and bird will use all the navigational skills, and tools, at their disposal.
While adult osprey may use landmarks to guide them, young osprey don’t yet have this knowledge; they are flying blind.
“Young birds must use other clues to navigate, such as the sun, the moon and the stars,” Bierregaard says. “In addition to sky-reading skills, they also have at their disposal certain skills that even humans don’t possess such as sensitivity to Earth’s magnetic field and low-frequency sounds created by wind and waves.”
Scientist Mark Fuller, of the U.S. Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center, compared the two way-finding compasses celestial and geomagnetic used by migrating birds. Celestial cues are more important than the magnetic ones when birds are flying long distances, he concluded. But in cloudy weather when celestial cues aren’t available, the geomagnetic ones come in handy.
Like adult osprey, snowbirds who have previously made the trip down the Waterway may be guided by landmarks. All snowbirds use navigational charts showing the nature and form of the coast and giving water depths, location of dangers, placement and characteristics of buoys and other useful features. Additionally they rely on tools such as magnetic compasses, depth finders, radio detection and ranging (radar), Long Range Navigation (Loran) and Global Positioning System (GPS).
A GPS is a great navigational aid for snowbirds traveling either by highway or waterway. This space-based radio navigational system, initiated in 1973 and operated and maintained by the Department of Defense, depends on 24 satellites. From it, receivers report accurate positioning to within about 30 feet, as well as velocity and time worldwide in any weather condition.
Because GPS signals can be received using small, relatively inexpensive equipment, humans use them to guide all sorts of travels. Scientists, for example, are using them to track the migration of osprey.
“I tagged three [new fledglings] on Martha’s Vineyard,” says Bierregaard. “This is the first year we have used GPS transmitters, and the data are already showing us some amazing details of osprey behavior.”
GPS can’t protect an osprey from the dangers of its flight, which include hunters and, for birds that get off course, exhaustion. On osprey migration, its job is only to help researchers like Bierregaard fill in the details of uniquely erratic flights spanning continents and thousands of miles.
GPS and all the other state-of-the-art navigational equipment vastly improve humans’ chances of avoiding disaster. Still, there are challenges.
“Anyone’s first trip down the Waterway is a bit intimidating,” says Rogers. “You hear all kinds of stories.”
Osprey can fly over bridges, for example, but snowbirds must go under or around. Between Norfolk, Virginia and Miami, Florida, there are about 130 bridges, two-thirds of which must be opened to allow a boat to pass. The rest are fixed bridges that generally allow a boat with 65-foot clearance to pass, though wind-driven current and tides can change that clearance by a foot or two.
“There are certain bridges on the waterway you can predict,” explains Rogers. “That bridge master, who’s been there for years, is a crank. There are some who won’t answer all the time. It eases the stress a lot if you know the patterns that the bridge masters have.”
“Bob [Rogers] knows the Waterway so well and was our mentor,” reports Wood, whose 65-foot mast rising from Independence required many a bridge opening.
Traveling Flyway or Waterway, osprey and snowbirds stop to rest along the way.
Migrating osprey are able to fly and munch at the same time, but the birds often prefer to stop to eat. A favorite dining stop for osprey is the Albemarle Sound near the Outer Banks. After eating and resting there, osprey typically head to Cape Fear, North Carolina. This is the launching point for the birds that strike out over the Atlantic Ocean with no place to land again until Florida.
Osprey are very strong flyers. They do not rely on soaring as much as other raptors, such as bald eagles, so they do not mind crossing long stretches of water. European osprey may even cross the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea.
Most cruisers are not so indefatigable. A favorite first stop for many is at Great Bridge, Virginia.
“It’s the best stop on the Intercoastal,” Rogers says. “There are good restaurants, good hardware stores. Anything you need is right there within walking distance. And it’s protected during hurricane season. Get through the lock and tie up on the other side, and you’re out of the surge.”
Some cruisers, particularly sailboaters, abandon the Waterway for the ocean to shorten the journey and reduce fuel consumption and noise.
“We do go outside, from time to time,” says Rogers. “We went outside to get around a bridge stuck in the down position. We actually saved two days that way.”
Insiders will meander down the winding, shoal-studded waterway through the Carolinas and Georgia, with choices of stopping at large cities, exploring sleepy southern towns or anchoring along coastal marshes teaming with wildlife.
Osprey that cross the ocean successfully often land in the area of the St. John’s River in Florida. The longest river in the state, it’s a popular place, with miles of quality fishing.
Nearby and just north of the St. John’s River, popular snowbird rest stops also abound. Cumberland Island National Seashore Park offers a quiet anchorage with miles of undeveloped beaches and hiking paths shaded by moss-draped live oak trees. The town of St. Mary’s, Georgia, reputed to be the second oldest city in the U.S., invites cruisers to enjoy its waterfront park, submarine museum and annual cruisers’ Thanksgiving dinner. Fernandina on Amelia Island, Florida, founded in 1811, is reminiscent of Annapolis, with cobblestone streets, an active boating community, many small shops and good restaurants.
Near West Palm Beach, Florida, Abaco cruisers and osprey part ways. Osprey by and large continue south to Miami, where they will cross the Straits of Florida and land in Cuba before continuing on to Haiti, Port-au-Prince, then across the Caribbean Sea to their winter grounds in South America. The Abaco cruisers head east across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas.
Osprey from the Chesapeake fly from between 2,000 and 4,000 miles during their individual journeys. It takes 15 to 50 days to reach their final destinations, depending on the individual’s flight plans.
It’s a long journey for human migrators, too: some 1,200 miles. “Mileage from Annapolis to Hope Town varies between 1,200 and 1,250 miles, depending on how often we are able to go on the outside,” says Smith. “It will take us three to six weeks to reach Hope Town, depending on how often we stop to smell the roses.”
The Long Journey’s End
The most taxing part of the osprey trip is making the 400-mile flight across the Caribbean. Most birds that survive the crossing stop as soon as they hit land and spend time resting and fishing. Many go no farther. Others fan out all over South America. Some go deep into the continent to hang around large rivers, including the Amazon and the Orinoco. Osprey may roam around their winter quarters throughout the season, but most birds stay in the same general region until they are ready to head north again.
The 100-mile trip across the Gulf Stream to Great Sail Cay, whether in calm or turbulent seas, takes its toll on the human cruisers. They, too, stop to rest and refuel once reaching land. From there they cruise to Hope Town, stopping at least once to complete one critical task their feathered counterparts avoid: clearing Bahamian customs.
During the winter months in Hope Town, snowbirds rest, read, beach-walk, explore and socialize. In addition they often spend hours as volunteers. Abaco snowbirds feel so lucky that many make it a point to give back to a community that gives them such amiable winters.
“There seems to be a culture among the ex-pats here to help the Bahamians,” says Rogers, who remembers how much that help was appreciated the winter following hurricane Floyd’s savage blow to the Bahamas in 1999.
The harbor rats, as the Abaco cruisers who winter in Hope Town are called, find numerous opportunities.
“We volunteer at the school, the museum and are active in the Sailing Club,” says Smith.
For cruising families like the Woods, winter days are a time for youngsters to stretch their wings.
“The children had more freedom [in Hope Town] than at home,” says Wood. “I didn’t worry about them if they would take off in the dinghy to visit their grandparents or friends or cross the harbor to pick up a bottle of milk.”
But it’s not all play for the youngsters. To continue their education, most cruising parents choose to home-school their children, adding the exploration of reefs and beaches and experience of new cultures to the curriculum.
Juvenile osprey will stay down south for an extra year before returning north, while adult birds will start north in January, February or March. Cruising snowbirds, accompanied by their youngsters, follow in April and May.
The flight pattern is reversed. Both osprey and cruising snowbirds seem to be of the same opinion on the return voyage.
“Once the bow of the boat is pointing north,” Rogers says, speaking for many, “we want to be home. Fast as we can make it.”
Maureen Miller began writing for Bay Weekly as a Galesvillian; she and artist-husband Craig Miller now make their homes in St. Marys, Georgia, and Hope Town.
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