Bay Journal

Bountiful birds beckon at Bay’s lower Eastern Shore

  • By Kathy Reshetiloff on July 01, 2005
The great blue heron is often seen at the edge of a pond or marsh waiting for a frog or fish to show up for dinner. 
 (Lee Karney / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) The population of the brown pelican, above, was decimated until the ban on the pesticide DDT.  (Gary Stolz / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) The great egret, left, which was once hunted down for its magnificent feathers, is now protected. It can be seen in shallow water stalking frogs, fish, snakes and crayfish.  (Lee Karney / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

People may not think of the lower Eastern Shore counties as affluent, but for some men and women, the counties of the middle and lower Bay are rich: rich in birds that is. Seabirds, wading birds, shorebirds, hawks, eagles and waterfowl inhabit the lush wetlands and coastal shores.

Here’s just a smattering of the birds one might see while birding on the water or along the shoreline.

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis): Brown pelicans, the smallest of pelicans, are 42–54 inches long, weigh 8–10 pounds, and have a wingspan of 6.5–7.5 feet. They are recognized by their chestnut and white necks, white heads, pale yellow crowns, brown backs, grayish bills and pouches, and black legs and feet. Suspended from the lower half of a pelican's long, straight bill is a pouch that is used as a dip net.

Diving steeply, pelicans usually come up with a mouthful of fish. A pelican holds its catch in its pouch until the water, as much as three gallons, is squeezed out. While flying, they draw in their head between their shoulders, stretch out their broad, webbed feet and fly in perfect silence.

Double-Crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus): This large, gangly bird, 26–32 inches, is widespread throughout the United States and is adaptive to many habitats. Adults are black with iridescent green and purple above. A large, unfeathered throat patch is yellow-orange and the bill is black.

When flying, the double crested cormorant can be identified by a distinctive crook in its neck and long head and tail.

Out of the water, one often sees them in a spread-wing posture. This is to dry their wings. Unlike other waterbirds, their feathers are not as waterproofed. This helps the cormorant reduce its buoyancy and helps in its underwater pursuit of prey.

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias): Easily distinguished from other herons, the great blue is 4 feet tall and sports a dark gray body, chestnut thighs, and white crown, cheeks and throat. Two long, tell-tale black feathers rise from the black crown stripe. Typical of herons, great blues have a short tail, extremely long legs and neck, and a sharp bill.

While in flight, its legs trail behind and the bird is kept aloft by powerful wings that can span 6 feet. Whether flying majestically overhead or standing motionless at the water's edge, the great blue heron embodies grace and elegance.

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus): With its down-curved bill, this wading bird looks like it belongs in the warmer reaches of the country but it’s quite at home in the marshes of the lower shore. In spring and summer, this bird sports a rich chestnut plumage with metallic purple on head, neck and underparts. The lower back wings and tail are more greenish. A medium size bird, the glossy ibis stands at 19–26 inches.

The glossy ibis flies with rapid, duck-like beats holding its neck and legs slightly drooped.

Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola): This small, energetic diving duck prefers the Bay’s open waters to the shallows. Buffleheads are feisty birds, in constant motion, swimming along the water’s surface or bobbing underneath in search of food.

Despite its size, 12–14.5 inches, the bufflehead's disproportionately large head makes it easy to identify. Males or drakes, are striking birds, with dark green-and-black or purple heads tinged with a bronze iridescence. A white patch extends from the eye to the back of the head, and their necks and undersides are also white. Their backs are black and their tails, gray. Females have a subtler coloration, with a grayish-brown head, back and wings, and gray underbelly.

Forster’s Tern (Sterna forsteri): In breeding plumage, the Forster’s tern is a handsome bird with a black head, black-tipped, orange bill, white breast and silver back. The feet are orange and the outer edge of the tail is white while the rest of the tail is gray.

The Forster’s tern’s flight is graceful and swallow-like, with a distinctive snap to the wing beat.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus): The osprey occurs in nearly every corner of the globe, but nowhere as abundantly as the Chesapeake Bay.

Ospreys announce their presence with a distinctive call, a series of high-pitched whistles. Also known as the fish hawk, this brown and white bird feeds exclusively on live fish. When in flight, their long narrow wings take on the shape of an outstretched “M.”

They have distinctive, dark brown patches at the bend of each wing and dark brown eye stripes. Ospreys are large birds, with bodies about 2 feet long and a wingspan of 4–5 feet.

Other birds sighted on the Chesapeake include: common loon, great egret, little blue heron, tri-colored heron, Canada goose, mute swan (non-native, invasive), American black duck, northern harrier, American oystercatcher, willet, spotted sandpiper, sanderling and great backed gull.

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About Kathy Reshetiloff

Kathryn Reshetiloff is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kathy Reshetiloff

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