Delaware and Maryland Coasts

Back in August 2015 I signed up for a pelagic birding trip out of Lewes, Delaware with Paulagics in February 2016. Coming from the Midwest, I was very excited to get out on a boat and try to see a Dovekie. Back in December the trip got bumped up to January, and my friend Kate decided she was going to come along. Everything was looking up!

Until it was time to go on the trip. Unfortunately, a strong low pressure system worked its way up the Atlantic seaboard the night before the trip. The system dumped nearly 2″ of rain on Delaware and produced some high (>12′, possibly up to 24′) seas in the area the pelagic was to visit. The boat captain and trip leaders realized the trip to sea wouldn’t run, but Kate and I decided to make the most of our non-refundable hotel rooms and bird the Delaware and Maryland coasts instead.

Screen shot from the National Weather Service showing the center of the low pressure system that ruined our pelagic trip. It eventually moved north right off the coast of Delaware.

Kate had a decent chance at about 10 life birds with our new land route, and I had a very good chance at one. I was really hoping to finally see a Brown-headed Nuthatch, but Delaware state parks inexplicably don’t open until 8am! Since sunrise was around 7:25am, we decided to start our morning on Oyster Rocks Road, which ends at some tidal marshes on the south side of the Broadkill River.

So many places to visit in only 60 miles of driving!

Our first bird of the day was a Great Blue Heron just off the road. We were surprised to find an older gentleman just sitting in his car at the end of Oyster Rocks Road, but before we gave him much thought Kate saw a mammal bounding down the road. The mammal dove into the brush, and I jumped out of the car after it. Kate spied it down the road, which let me get my binoculars onto it…a Red Fox before sunrise!

Red Fox

After watching the fox (and the older gentleman) disappear we saw a Northern Harrier well off in the distance, but we didn’t find our hoped-for Barn and/or Short-eared Owls. Before we knew it, the sun was rising on the horizon:

Sunrise at the end of Oyster Rocks Road.

While we were enjoying some Greater Yellowlegs tooting unseen in the marshes, an adult Bald Eagle ki-ki-kied and alerted us to its landing spot on a snag near where the Red Fox disappeared a few minutes prior. We started walking that way and, surprisingly, the eagle was content to stay perched even when we walked even with its tree on the road.

The Bald Eagle did eventually fly off, but this was the most confiding individual I’ve encountered outside of Alaska.

I stopped Kate on our way back to the car because I heard a bird she was really hoping to find on our trip: Snow Geese! We stuck around long enough to see several flocks fly past, but we had no idea we’d see a much more massive flock later in the day.

Oyster Rocks Road eBird checklist:

Our second stop of the day was Cape Henlopen State Park, which sits opposite Cape May, New Jersey across Delaware Bay. I was really excited to visit this park because eBird suggested it was a really good spot for Brown-headed Nuthatches! This was to be my first chance at seeing this species (and my only potential life bird of the day) since I missed them when I was in Louisiana back in January 2005.

Kate and I milled around the parking lot at the Cape Henlopen Nature Center for a couple minutes, then we both heard a bunch of squeaky dog toys about 100 feet away…Brown-headed Nuthatches!

Brown-headed Nuthatch, my 769th world life bird!

A group of ~8 nuthatches appeared out of nowhere, noisily stayed high in the pines, then quickly vanished. Thankfully, they stuck around long enough for me to get really good binocular views, and I managed a few poor photographs. Before we knew it they were gone, and we didn’t see or hear any others the rest of the day.

After the nuthatches left we turned our attention back to the bird feeder near the nature center. We briefly chatted with another person who was signed up for the canceled pelagic trip, then Kate saw a couple more life birds (Pine Siskin and Red-breasted Nuthatch). We eventually headed into the woods to scan the bay for water birds, and we were greeted by many Surf Scoters and a few Red-throated Loons (another lifer for Kate) amongst others.

I was surprised how many Horseshoe Crab skeletons littered the beach.
Kate is probably trying to see a Red-throated Loon. They kept disappearing before she could get a good look all day.
All three shell types (not sure if there were two species or three species) comprised the bulk of material at the tide line.

We half-heartedly searched the pines between the beach and the nature center for Northern Saw-whet Owls, but the only birds we saw on our walk back were more Snow Geese.

The surf looked a bit rough all day. It’s probably a good thing we weren’t on a boat.

Cape Henlopen State Park eBird checklists:

Our original plan was to stop on both sides (bay and ocean) of Delaware Seashore State Park as we drove south, but the strong (~20 mph) west wind pretty much emptied the bay of any birds. In fact, we also struggled to find many birds on the ocean side. There were more scoters and loons, some very distant Northern Gannets, and a surprise Eastern Towhee in one of the sand dunes.

Indian River Inlet was easily the best stop at Delaware Seashore State Park. We were hoping for Harlequin Duck, Common Eider, and Purple Sandpiper there, but we missed all three. I later discovered that others saw the Harlequin Duck and Common Eider while we were there, but in a location we didn’t check.

The inlet did have a small group of cooperative Long-tailed Ducks though. An immature Great Cormorant flew past at one point, and Kate found a Brant hiding along a distant jetty.

Boat-tailed Grackle
Boat-tailed Grackle
I called this a Double-crested Cormorant when it was swimming, but when it took off and flew back past us it was clearly an immature Great Cormorant!
Now I see why they’re called Long-tailed Ducks!

Delaware Seashore State Park eBird checklists:

I wasn’t holding out much hope for Fenwick Island State Park, our last stop in Delaware, but I asked Kate to stop there anyway. As we pulled up I saw a white bird with black wingtips and wondered aloud if it was a Snow Goose or a Northern Gannet. That question was answered when we stepped out of the car and heard LOTS of Snow Geese across the highway on the bay side.
Naturally, we ran across the highway and were stunned to find what I first estimated at about 60,000, Snow Geese. We started out alone, but  about a dozen others (non-birders!) eventually stopped to see the spectacle before we left.
I picked out four geese with neck collars. I submitted all of them to the USFWS yesterday, and I hope to hear back about where they were banded sometime in the next few months. I left the spotting scope in the car, so I didn’t have much hope of picking out a Ross’s Goose.
Snow Goose RJ62 – Female; Banded 11 August 2009
Snow Goose ?X27
Snow Goose TH45 – Female; Banded 07 August 2013
Snow Goose UK55 – Female; Banded 10 August 2015

The three Snow Geese with fully legible collars were banded on Bylot Island, Nunavut, Canada!

After several minutes, the Snow Geese took off, and Kate got to experience what it’s like to be in a Snow Goose snow globe! The geese reorganized themselves, and I was able to see that my original estimate was a bit low. I re-estimated about 125,000 Snow Geese! Later, we drove and found the southern end of the flock. Google Earth suggests that the flock may have been about 1/2 mile in length.

We were standing at the kayak concession stand (the brown area along the left side of the highway at top) and could see the flock extending past the northern point. We don’t really know how far up they went. When we later drove to the south end we could see the flock started just north of the houses at the end of the first access street we encountered.
I didn’t get a good video of the snow globe effect, but here are some photos that I did manage to take:
Imagine this many Snow Geese in every view through the camera for a half mile.
Snow Geese
Snow Geese
Snow Geese
Snow Geese
Snow Geese
Snow Geese
Fenwick Island State Park eBird checklist:
I don’t usually eat when I’m out birding, but Kate convinced me to go to Five Guys in Ocean City before we stopped at the Ocean City Inlet for one last try at Harlequin Duck and Purple Sandpiper. Luckily, a bunch of Purple Sandpipers were resting on a buoy just off the inlet, and a drake Harlequin Duck came screaming down the inlet with a pair of Black Scoters within seconds of setting up shop!
The Harlequin Duck (another lifer for Kate) eventually popped up along the sea wall and we were able to get good looks/horrible photos looking into the sun.
Harlequin Duck
After a brief stop at a small subdivision pond (eBird checklist:, we arrived at our final birding destination: Assateague Island.
I was really hoping to see the wild horses on Assateague, but with a population of only ~150 in Maryland I wasn’t holding my breath. Imagine my surprise when we saw a pair of them as we crossed the bridge onto Assateague Island! My 90th life mammal! We parked at the state park parking lot then walked back towards the bay so we could get some photos:
Assateague Horses
Kate photographs the distant horses.
The brush seemed to only hold Yellow-rumped Warblers (so many), so we walked back to the beach to see what was there (more of the same).
Unlimited waves
Sanderling (presumably) footprints
Since we weren’t finding anything new on the beach, we headed back inland and stumbled upon another couple horses.
I was stuck with my 400mm lens, which is not ideal for large mammals that closely approach like this Assateague Horse.
Assateague Horse
I heard at least one more horse moving in the nearby brush.
Some people did not seem to pay attention to the GIGANTIC signs warning everyone to stay at least 10 feet from the horses. This guy actually petted this horse after we walked away.
Kate and I moved back to the beach (not wanting to have to wait around for the idiots to be bitten by the horse) to take a few more photographs of the waves before we had to drive home. We both wanted to stick around to photograph the sunset, but we also wanted to get home and see our families. In the end, families won.
It looks colder than it really was.
A Ring-billed Gull was my last bird of the day.
We did stop for one last look at the sunset before we crossed the bridge back to the mainland:
Evidence of the horses was all over the place.
Assateague Island eBird checklist:
Before the trip started, I told Kate I expected to find 65-70 bird species, depending on how the weather panned out. It was a windy day (~15-25 mph), but the wind died down considerably when we were at Assateague. It was also very mild (~50°F) for mid-January. We tallied 68 bird species on the day, including 8 life birds for Kate (Snow Goose, Pine Siskin, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Dunlin, Great Cormorant, Purple Sandpiper, Harlequin Duck) and 1 life bird for me (Brown-headed Nuthatch). I also picked up Assateague Horse (feral horse), for my 90th life mammal!
The day turned out pretty well, despite being stuck at land instead of being out at sea. Maybe next Winter will finally bring me a Dovekie. I’m also pleased that I stuck to my 400mm lens (sometimes with a 1.4x teleconverter) for the entire day. I usually switch back and forth between lenses a lot, so it was interesting to try and find new uses for the big lens.

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