A res­i­dent Ch­e­sa­peake Bay bird nerd ex­plains why our feath­ered friends make boat­ing bet­ter.

Soundings - - Contents - By Gary Re­ich

Iam an over-the-top geek for birds. If the four nest boxes and five bird feed­ers in my back­yard don’t suf­fi­ciently bol­ster my bird-nerd cre­den­tials, then the four pairs of binoc­u­lars and half a dozen or so bird field guides scat­tered about my house do.

I’m happy to re­port that some of my fish­ing and boat­ing friends share this af­flic­tion. Watch­ing and pho­tograph­ing birds is as much a part of our time to­gether as fish­ing, crab­bing or creek-hop­ping. And luck­ily, Ch­e­sa­peake Bay is one of the finest bird­ing ar­eas on the planet. Ly­ing smack in the mid­dle of the At­lantic Fly­way — an avian su­per­high­way, if you will — the Ch­e­sa­peake of­fers su­perb, year- round bird­ing, es­pe­cially from a boat.

The first vis­i­tors we of­ten see each spring are the thou­sands of ospreys that de­parted the Bay in late sum­mer for warmer climes. Th­ese longdis­tance endurance fliers win­ter as far away as the Caribbean and South Amer­ica, which sounds like my kind of va­ca­tion. Ev­ery spring, th­ese fish-eat­ing preda­tors re­turn within a week or so on ei­ther side of St. Pa­trick’s Day. They come to nest, breed and raise their young. Many folks on the Bay take their ar­rival as an op­por­tu­nity to cel­e­brate: Win­ter is fi­nally over.

Osprey are a de­light to watch when they go air­borne in search of food, call­ing to one an­other with a dis­tinc­tive, high-pitched tewp, tewp,

tewp! They soar grace­fully un­til they spot a fish, then crash down to the water — talons first — at ter­mi­nal ve­loc­ity. They con­tact the water with a huge splash and then lift them­selves out with their wings, shak­ing the water from their feathers once they’ve gained a bit of al­ti­tude. The osprey’s next or­der of busi­ness is to sit­u­ate its meal head-first to get the best aero­dy­namic ef­fi­ciency on the way back to the nest.

This year I saw some­thing I’d never seen off my home port of An­napo­lis, Mary­land: a pack of about seven ospreys work­ing over a school of break­ing striped bass to which my pals and I were cast­ing flies. The event served as a tes­ta­ment to the re­cov­ery of th­ese once-en­dan­gered birds. I smiled as they crashed one af­ter the other into the ball of bait the striped bass had herded. It’s some­thing I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t been in a boat.

As spring leans to­ward sum­mer, Ch­e­sa­peake Bay fun­nels all sorts of north­bound song­birds to its shores. This is when a trained eye can spot kinglets, gros­beaks, spar­rows, ori­oles, tan­agers, fly­catch­ers and war­blers flit­ting in and out of the trees. War­blers can be an es­pe­cially hum­bling species, at least when it comes to iden­ti­fy­ing them. I can never seem to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween a pro­thono­tary war­bler and a palm war­bler, or a com­mon yel­lowthroat from a hooded war­bler. Still, I have fun try­ing.

I usu­ally see th­ese col­or­ful, an­i­mated and vi­brant birds when I’m waist-deep in one of the Bay’s north­ern trib­u­taries, cast­ing flies for river her­ring and hick­ory shad on their an­nual spawn­ing runs. The con­nec­tion with the water makes the pas­time all the more en­joy­able.

Sum­mer’s a great sea­son to spot rap­tors. Red-tailed and red-shoul­dered hawks, as well as Cooper’s, sharp-shinned and broad-winged hawks, are a de­light to watch, even when some hap­less ro­dent or song­bird be­comes the star of the show. But it’s the north­ern har­rier that I’m al­ways ex­cited to see on our fish­ing trips. We of­ten see them el­e­gantly glid­ing only inches above the marsh grass, seem­ing to float in midair.

An­other species we see in the marsh is the great blue heron. Th­ese large birds with legs like stilts are out in force through the sum­mer months, many of them gaz­ing trance­like into the shal­lows, hop­ing an inat­ten­tive fish will swim by. (They of­ten have much bet­ter fish­ing luck than we do.)

As the first Arc­tic cold fronts plunge south each fall, mi­gra­tory sum­mer res­i­dents are re­placed by vis­i­tors from the tun­dra. Whitethroated spar­rows and slate-col­ored jun­cos lead the spar­row charge, closely fol­lowed by Canada geese, tun­dra swans, north­ern shov­el­ers and an ar­ray of other mi­gra­tory wa­ter­fowl. If we’re lucky, we might even get a few vis­it­ing snowy owls to the East­ern Shore’s sea­side bar­rier is­lands.

Win­ter can put a damper on boat­ing-re­lated bird­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, but we still man­age to see some in­cred­i­ble bird life when we do get out. Bad- weather days can be filled with a visit to one or more of the Bay’s many wildlife refuges. Among the birds we see — on and off the water — are court­ing bald ea­gles gath­er­ing nest ma­te­ri­als and get­ting down to the busi­ness of ro­mance.

This year, on the Black­wa­ter River, I saw a bald ea­gle and his mate make a tac­ti­cal strike on a flock of feed­ing black ducks. With one fan­tas­tic poof, a bl­iz­zard of feathers went fly­ing, and the male ea­gle flew off with his catch. I watched as the pair took the vic­tim up to a long- dead pine tree for dis­mem­ber­ing. Though the whole gore-filled scene made me gri­mace, it was amaz­ing to hear the pair call back and forth, their eerie chat­ter­ing sounds boom­ing across the calm, cold river. If you’ve never heard a bald ea­gle call out across the water — trust me — you need to put it on your bucket list.

Maybe your next boat­ing ad­ven­ture will in­clude ob­serv­ing a few birds along the way. It’s an easy bug to catch, and for more than 40 years it has made my time on the Bay more plea­sur­able.

Ospreys are fish-eat­ing ma­chines, as any­one who has had to clean a boat af­ter a visit knows well.

The great blue heron — shown here with a with a chain pick­erel — is a year-round res­i­dent of Bay wa­ters.

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