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!
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: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26921710
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:
- Nature Center: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26922601
- Hawk Watch: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26922848
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.
|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:
- Tower Road: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26923431
- Keybox Road: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26923694
- Indian River Inlet: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26925085
|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.
|Imagine this many Snow Geese in every view through the camera for a half mile.|
|Kate photographs the distant horses.|
|Sanderling (presumably) footprints|
|I was stuck with my 400mm lens, which is not ideal for large mammals that closely approach like this 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.|
|It looks colder than it really was.|
|A Ring-billed Gull was my last bird of the day.|
|Evidence of the horses was all over the place.|