The Borneo Post - Good English

Delmarva’s wintering birds


The snow geese arrive every fall by the tens of thousands, great, honking flocks of brilliant white birds with black-tipped wings. By the time they set down, they’ve flown thousands of miles from the Arctic reaches of Canada and Alaska to winter with countless other travelers on the Eastern Shore. Regal tu?ndra swans forage next to tiny, green-winged teal. Bobbing bufflehead­s mingle with northern shovelers.

The sight is spectacula­r, the sound astonishin­g and the experience surreal to someone experienci­ng it for the first time.

Even today, less than 100 miles from the nation’s capital, the Delmarva Peninsula remains one of the best places in the world to witness the mysteries of bird migration, as well as the consequenc­es of wildlife management laws and practices.

“For many of the waterfowl that breed in North America, that’s where they all go,” says Geoffrey LeBaron, who directs the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count program that surveys wintering birds across the country.

The waterfowl concentrat­e in the peninsula’s national wildlife refuges - Bombay Hook and Prime Hook on the Delaware Bay, Blackwater on the Chesapeake Bay - and on Assateague Island and wherever there are shallow ponds and protected habitat. The US Fish and Wildlife Service manages water levels in its refuge fields to optimize foraging conditions so the birds can survive the cold and fatten up before their flight back to the Arctic.

Sometimes these gyrating masses erupt in a squawking panic - a signal that a bald eagle is on the hunt. The raptors almost disappeare­d from the Lower 48 because the pesticide DDT weakened their eggshells, but thanks to conservati­onist Rachel Carson and the Endangered Species Act, eagles, osprey, pelicans and peregrine falcons have made magnificen­t recoveries. Blackwater now has one of the highest concentrat­ions of breeding bald eagles on the East Coast, and their population surges throughout the peninsula when eagles that breed farther north stop by for the warmer weather and duck buffet.

To keep swans, geese, ducks and shorebirds coming to Delmarva, LeBaron advises visitors to buy a duck stamp. “It’s something everybody can do, almost like a no-brainer, to help protect wetlands and waterfowl,” he says. (According to Fish and Wildlife, the Federal Duck Stamp program has raised more than $1 billion for migratory bird conservati­on since its inception during the Great Depression.)

Snow geese and eagles are the easiest way to start identifyin­g winter birds, but anyone with a pair of binoculars can find other species to appreciate. Great rafts of sea ducks called scoters float along open water next to loons and cormorants. Migrating hawks converge on the peninsula’s tip as they swoop south. And as many as 10,000 monarch butterflie­s, traveling a similar flyway, have been counted there on a single fall day in the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge.

Come spring, that refuge will be Delmarva’s meetand-greet point for returning songbirds and more, all puffing for breath after crossing the mouth of the Chesapeake on their journey north. But that’s for another season.

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