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7-9 November 1997

by Gary Felton

Romantic Ravings

It was cold, 25 degrees farenheight, when I began loading things in the car for our trip to Chincoteague NWR in Virginia.  The stars shone brightly in a crystal clear sky and the gleaming white, half-moon hung effortlessly over the constellation Orion.  I was hoping the Great Horned owl that had made it's prescence known the previous two nights would do so again but it remained silent.  What a fitting beginning it would have been for a birding trip.  Well so much for the romanticism.  With binoculars, spotting scope, field guides, camcorder, cameras, cell phone, CB radio, compass, altimiter, sextant, maps, wet bar and GPS firmly secured in the car we headed for the coast.  As soon as it became light enough to see the first bird of the trip, an American Crow, flew up from it's early morning breakfast of road-kill.

The Detour

We had no more crossed the state line into maryland than those dreaded words spewed forth from my wife's lips, "I have to go to the bathroom".  Never having studied the female anatomy extensively I still don't fully understand this biological phenomenon.  I on the other hand, can hop in my car with either a 20 oz bottle of Mountain Dew or a thermos of coffee and drive nearly non-stop all day.  I have to admit though that my wife has improved over the years.  She is now up to 20 minutes in between stops.  Even at that I felt that I had to devise a sure fire plan to curtail bathroom breaks or we would never get there.  What I needed was an incentive plan.  "I know", I thought, "I'll offer her money"'.  That was it, the amount of stops would be inversely proportional to increased revenues.  Even though she accepted the offer she still had to go to the bathroom.  " Well", I thought, "I'll turn this into an opportunity for more birds".  I hoped that a White-throated Sparrow or Black-capped Chickadee would appear at the edge of the woods but the only thing with wings I saw, was a jet.

On The Road Again

Shortly after biological stop number one a crow sized bird with a very distinctive appearance and somewhat of an undulating flight flew across the road several hundred feet in front of us.  A Pileated Woodpecker landed in a tree alongside the road.  By the time we got to Hagerstown Maryland we had seen Red-tailed, Red-shouldered and Coopers Hawks, American Kestrel and Turkey Vulture.  Biological stop number two at another rest area produced a White-breasted Nuthatch and a debit in my wife's account.  Greater Black-backed, Herring and Ring-billed Gulls were in the air as we crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.  I looked for Swans and loons in the bay but saw none.  By the time we reached the causeway leading to Chincoteague Island we had added Northern Mockingbird, Double-creasted Cormorant, Black Vulture and Tree Swallow.

Nap Time

As best I could I scanned the marsh along both sides of the causeway for birds.  There were other birds present but I made positive id's only of Boat-tailed Grackle, Common and Snowy Egret, Ruddy Duck and more Double-creasted Cormorants.  I got a quick glimpse of a yellowlegs but I wasn't sure which species it was.  I knew that a return trip to the causeway would be in order.  We checked into the Seashell Motel in the main part of town.  This was a strategic move on my part.  Even though my wife likes birds, she loves shopping even more.  The location of the motel allowed her to look through shop windows while I in the meantime, looked through my binoculars.  She was tired from the drive and wanted to take a nap before accompanying me to the refuge.  And BTW, it was time again for another bathroom break.  Her account was dwindling. 

I headed back to the causeway.  I love birding along the causeway because it is there that that you receive your first warm greetings from the locals.  Someone from a passing car welcomed me to the island with "Hey bird boy".  In spite of the traffic and friendly salutations I located Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Great Blue Heron, Black-bellied Plover, Forster's Tern, Northern Shoveler, American Black Duck, Mallard, Eastern Meadowlark and Savannah Sparrow.  I had hoped to see at least one of the Sharp-tailed Sparrow species but found none.

Could It Be?

JoAnne had never been to Chincoteague before so I was anxious to show her as much of it as was possible before the sun set.  The wildlife loop was open to traffic by then so we took a slow but steady drive watching for whatever came our way.  Several Dunlin were feeding on the first mudflat at the edge of Snow Goose Pool and fair sized flocks of Canada and Snow Geese could be seen farther out.  As usual for that time of year, Myrtle Warblers were everywhere.  Farther along the loop we saw Yellow-shafted Flicker, Eastern Bluebird, Belted Kingfisher and two Pectoral Sandpipers.  We next headed for the Atlantic stopping along the way to check both Swan and Tom's coves.  Several Willets were huddled together in Swan Cove and Forster's Terns were busy diving for fish.  Royal Terns could be seen flying above Tom's Cove.  I erected my scope on one of the dunes and began checking the beach and off shore swells.  

Besides the Laughing Gulls and Willets, the usual Sanderling parade was taking place on the beach.  A large number of scoters were congreated in the swells several hundred feet out and more were arriving every minute.  I started scanning both the resting flock and the incoming projectiles as well.  It was clear that the majority of the flock was comprised of Surf Scoters with large numbers of Black as well.  It occured to me that I hadn't seen one White-winged yet.  It was incredible that at least one didn't exist in those hundreds, maybe even thousands, of scoters but I couldn't find a single one.  I began a meticulous search for a White-winged but saw none.  Surely, out there somewhere, was a White-winged Scoter, but if it was there, I couldn't find it.  I checked every in-coming bird for a white wing patch but there was none to be had.  I finally gave up and decided instead to concentrate on the size of the flock.  This had to be the largest assemblage of scoters that I had ever seen and more were arriving all the time.  About that time a small ocean going vessel began plowing right through the middle of this black floating mass.  The flock was scattering, the sun was setting and I was tired.  It seemed to be an appropriate time to retire for the day.

Unfortunate Afflictions

Even though we got an efficiency at the Seashell Motel with the intention of eating most of our meals in the room, we decided to patronize Don's Seafood restaurant.  We were both tired and hungry and I was in the mood for some Chincoteague seafood and my favorite beverage with a kick, a Long Island Ice Tea.  My dear wife JoAnne has that most dreaded of afflictions, an allergic reaction to seafood (she found this out at Cape May a few years ago), so she ordered up a T-bone steak instead.  Fortunately I don't share my wife's affliction so I had the broiled seafood platter.  Neither one of us could eat everything.  That's one thing about Don's, you don't go away hungry.  We actually had enough left for dinner the next night.  So with some additional items we purchased at the grocery store, we had surf and turf Friday night as well.

Sometimes the wind just blows the wrong way.

Friday morning after a quick breakfast in our room I headed out the door in search of more birds.  A brisk walk across the causeway between Chincoteague Island and the refuge produced Louisiana and Black-crowned Night Heron, Red-winged Blackbird and Pied-billed Grebe.  I decided to check the coast again but stopped on the way out to check Swan Cove and Toms Cove.  Two Mute Swans along with flocks of Green-winged Teal, Ruddy Ducks, a few Lesser Scaup and an American Wigeon were present in Swan Cove.  A single Western Sandpiper looked like a minature carving in admidst the flock of Dunlin that it was with on one of the mudflats.  Toms Cove offered up a Common Loon and four immature Little Blue Herons were gathered together out in the marsh grass.  Semi-palmated Plovers, a Killdeer and American Oystercatchers were congregated on the mudflats.  Off in the distance a Northern Harrier was hunting.  The flock of scoters that had been assembled the previous day were still there but noticeably smaller. 

While I was scanning the distant surf, seven Brown Pelicans came cruising down the coastline.  Along with the almost constant parade of scoters flying by in both directions, came a small flock of Bufflehead.  And of course the ever present Forster's and Royal Terns were in constant attendance along with Sanderlings and Willets on the beach.  I was still seeking a White-winged Scoter but after awhile I gave up and decided to check the dunes for Sparrows.  The wind had been blowing out of the southest the entire time we were there so the landbirding wasn't the greatest.  The only thing I was able to find were more Myrtle Warblers, a few House Finches and a lone Song Sparrow.  The bay along mainstreet usually harbored Brant this time of year so I headed out there for a look.  On the way out I heard Golden-crowned Kinglets calling.  I stopped the car and found a small flock excitedly feeding a few feet up in one of the trees.  After watching them for a few minutes I proceeded towards main street.  Sure enough there were several Brant in the bay.  A solitary Ruddy Turnstone was feeding on a small shell island and Marbled Godwits were present on three others.  I was hoping to find a contrasting Hudsonian in amongts the Marbleds but never found it.

The Fainting Spell

It was time to meet back up with Joanne so I returned to the Seashell.  I got out of the car but before I made it to the door a Merlin flew by.  We had lunch and then went to Decoys, Decoys, Decoys to shop for carvings.  They had just gotten in a shipment of new carvings which included an award-winning, full sized Peregrine Falcon carving.  The detailing was superb and even though they accepted layaways, the $9000.00 was just a bit more than I wanted to spend.  After my fainting spell was over and I made it back to my feet, I examined the Peregrine further.  I'd love to have it sitting on my coffee table at home but I'd lhave to hock both of my cars to do so.  Deciding not to take a second mortgage out on my house, I looked around for something that was more in line with my meager budget.  If you're ever in Chincoteague though, a stop at Decoys, Decoys, Decoys is well worth a visit.  They have everything from antigue, working waterfowl decoys to full sized rails, shorebirds, Herons and Cormorants.

Treasures From The Sea

After drooling over the Peregrine for awhile I headed back out for more birding.  JoAnne had already left to continue her never-ending search for the ultimate gift shop so I headed directly back to the refuge.  I made a brief stop at the visitor center but since nothing was stirring I started around the wildlife loop.  There was a nice sized flock of shorebirds on the first mudflat at Snow Goose Pool so I decided a closer examination was in order. 

A quick scan with binoculars showed that the group was comprised mostly of Dunlin but there were several peeps as well.  A more magnified search with scope produced several Least, a few Semipalmated and one Western and Baird's each.  JoAnne had mentioned earlier that she wanted to do some beachcombing so I went to the motel to get her for our romatic rendezvous with shells and birds.  She searched for, "treasures from the sea", on the beach and I did the same except my treasures were to be found in the air and on the water instead.  The flock of scoters was still there and at long last a small flock of White-winged came gliding in and joined the others.  Out over the distant swells Gannets in different stages of plumage dove for their afternoon snacks.  A setting sun started turning the lights down low so we headed back to the motel.  After our meal of leftover surf and turf, we each lay down to our own set of dreams, her to more shops and me to illusuions of rarities.

A Look of Dread!

We had decided to drive across the Cheasapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel Network on Saturday so after breakfast we headed south.  I guess JoAnne wasn't paying attention when I told her that in addition to the bridges there were also underwater, mile long tunnels.  I could have swore by the look on her face when we descended into the first tunnel, that we were on a roller coaster instead.  I guess I wasn't surprised when she said quite emphatically "We are not doing this again"!  There weren't many birds to be found, just a few Sandelings and Ruddy Turnstones on the rocks and the usual assortment of Ring-billed, Herring and Greater Black-backed Gulls.  I have to admit though that the Turkey Vulture looked somewhat out of place out in the middle of all that water.  Even though there weren't many birds, the look on my wife's face when we descended into the first tunnel was well worth the price of admission.  On the way back we made a brief stop at the Easten Shore of Maryland NWR, visitor center.  I managed to accumulate Downy Woodpecker, Sharp-shinned Hawk and wren and chickadee of the Carolina variety from the parking area.

Running The Gauntlet!.

On the way back we stopped at Ray's Shanty for lunch.  The Maryland crab soup was very good but the Pork Barbecue sandwich that JoAnne ordered was not something you would want to write home about.  In fact it was quite bad.  It was the driest most tasteless piece of meat I think I have ever sampled.  We made it back to Chincoteague in time for me to get more birding in and Joanne to do some reading.  I hadn't seen a Bald Eagle since I had been there and I was beginning to wonder if I would, that was soon to change.  I had my scope setup on one of the coastal dunes and was again scanning the ocean for whatever flew by.  I soon noticed a large, dark bird several hundred feet out, my Bald Eagle had arrived.  I saw it rapidly drop, talons down, into the flock of scoters.  It disappeared behind a wave so the outcome was unknown.  It soon rose above the wave but it's talons were empty.  I continued watching it as it flew closer but eventually it disappeared somewhere above Tom's Cove as it flew beyond binocular range. 

Even though I was seeing no new birds I was being kept amused by birds of different species and sizes as they made attempts at robbing smaller birds of their meals.  Greater Black-backed gulls were harassing Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls and Herring Gulls were harassing CaspianTerns.  The most amusing of all was a Sanderling scurrying down the beach with it's prized catch of Atlantic Mole Crab, firmly clamped in it's bill.  It was like a choreographed routine of zigs and zags as it scurried down the beach avoiding as best it could, the other Sanderlings and Willets.  This seemed to be an unending ordeal as the beach contained Sanderlings for as far as you could see.  I watched it weave back and forth as it attempted to avoid the onslaught of would-be attackers until it was out of sight.  It still amuses me when I replay the scene over again in my minds eye.

The Numbers Game and One Last Look

Sunday morning as I was packing the car to leave, I heard a Robin emit it's laugh-like call.  I hadn't planned on doing a lot of woodland birding on this trip but I did want to see at least one Brown-headed Nuthatch while I was there.  With some patience and perserverance, they're almost a sure thing around the visitor center at the refuge.  So that was my first stop Sunday Morning.  JoAnne sat in the car writing one of her novel-like letters to a friend while I wandered around the visitors center.  I heard a Red-breasted Nuthatch call followed shortly thereafter by the sound of Golden-crowned Kinglets slowly working their way towards me through the trees.  Soon they, along with the Red-breasted Nuthatch were in view.  They were steadily feeding when the first sounds of Brown-headed Nuthatches penetrated my hearing.  Soon they also were in view as well.  A different shape caught my eye.  A Brown Creeper was slowly working it's way around the trunk of one of the trees.  And then, just as suddenly as they had appeared, they melted away back into the trees and were gone. 

There was time to witness one last scene on the beach before heading back to the mountains.  JoAnne, clothed in her usual beachcombing attire of bare feet, wandered off down the sand in search of more treasures.  I set up my scope and watched and waited.  Maybe, if I was fortunate, a Jaeger or Shearwater would fly in close enough to shore for a look.  I never have intentions of getting caught up in the numbers game when I set out on a birding trip but I always do.  A long list just seems somehow, to equate to a certain amount of success.  It is a fact of life in the birding world, to a degree, that the more birds the better.  I am constantly being driven to see more birds.  Sometimes this is okay but sometimes I have to tell myself to "Stop and smell the roses".  This was one of those times.  I knew at that moment that there were no more new birds to be seen, no more numbers to add.  But as I stood there, that fact no longer seemed to matter.  My wife and I both love the ocean and we always hate to leave it.  Standing on the dune, watching Sanderlings and Willets dance on the beach and gulls and terns glide gracefully across a pearl-gray sky, was like a drink of spirtual refreshment.  I am at home in the mountains but my love for the sea never dies.  Even though we were over three hundred miles from home, I knew the trip had come to an end.  I took one long last look and then drove away.  Thirty minutes later it began to rain.  It was finally a good time to stop for a bathroom break.

Gary Felton
Rowlesburg, West Virginia