Birding While Sailing on the Chesapeake

Rhodes 19

KISS on San Domingo Creek; the island in the background is a favorite sight for perching Bald Eagles.

Two of my most favorite pastimes are birding and sailing, and I can’t seem to find enough time for either.  That’s until it dawned on me that maybe I could do both at the same time. I accomplished that the last week of summer during perfect conditions; gentle SW breeze at 5-10 knots, 75 degrees, and blue sky.  Heaven must be something like this.

KISS on Broad Creek; click on any photo for zoom

KISS on Broad Creek; click on any picture to zoom

I’m a small boat guy and sailing the Chesapeake for me is a day-sailer exploring the myriad creeks of the Eastern Shore. These are not the “creeks” most people envision as gurgling rivulets, barely deep enough to wet your knees, but rather wide tidal waterways with countless coves and Loblolly Pine-covered islands, giving great habitat for birds and interesting sailing.  I owe my small boat preference to my father and our humble cottage in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York where we had a small harbor of various sail, row, and power boats, most quite old and nothing longer than 15 feet and no outboard greater than 28HP.  Dad’s philosophy was minimum investment and maximum pleasure, hence the name of my Rhodes 19, KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).  For high school graduation my parents gave me a new Scorpion sailboat, with the stipulation that I always leave it at the cottage.  It’s still there 46 years later.

Family boating, Kueka Lake, 1961

Family boating, Kueka Lake, 1961. That’s me in the rowboat, with my brother helping Mom board while Dad hoists the main.  She did make it aboard.

You’re right.  Birding while sailing is not quite the same.  I don’t dare bring my good camera and lens and usually don’t have binoculars.  With solo sailing your hands are full just manning the tiller and sheets, and in the Chesapeake dodging the  crabbing watermen working their trot lines.  Our creeks are full of the white workboats and their trot lines crisscross virtually the entire river.  I learned the hard way that they, as commercial craft, have right-of-way over everything, even sailboats.  Stay clear.

Waterman crabbing San Domingo Creek

Waterman crabbing San Domingo Creek

So birding while sailing is different.  You are observing the birds from a distant, IDing by size, shape, flying style, wing flap, and general behavior, just like we are suppose to do in the field.  The quiet sailboat does allow you to occasionally sneak up on an unsuspecting gull or duck.  Generally you’re seeing ducks and geese, gulls and terns, cormorants and crows, and maybe an occasional flyover by an eagle, heron, or songbird.

Canada Goose

Canada Goose

The watermen do create a birding opportunity.  At the end of their work day, usually late morning, while they are heading home, they apparently throw overboard their unused bait.  This quickly brings a large flock of gulls, following the boat, squawking and fighting over the tidbits.  A chance to observe.  Invariably one gull get a mouthful and then the chase is on with several others in hot pursuit, nipping at his tail, trying to get him to drop it.  These are Herring, Laughing, and Ring-billed Gulls.

Double-crested Cormorants

Double-crested Cormorants

I also saw 4 Monarch butterflies, each flying alone over open water, apparently starting their great migration to Mexico.  But they were each flying NORTH.  I yelled at them and waved my arms trying to get them to turn around, but to no avail.  Maybe they were taking a circumpolar route.  So be it.

Forster's Tern

Royal Tern

The Osprey have also left the neighborhood, leaving it definitely more quiet, as the migrating Canada Geese have yet to show up.  I did see one lone procrastinating Osprey fishing over Broad Creek.  He apparently did not get the memo and has some catching up to do.  I saw two cocky cormorants drying their wings on a channel marker and old Osprey nest.  They would not have dared do that a few weeks ago.  “When the cats away, the mice will play”.

Laughing Gull

Laughing Gull

The creek and our cove is quiet these days waiting for the large flocks of migrating geese and ducks to arrive.  I’ll have a few more chances to sail after they arrive, but then the boat must be hauled and birding will be done “on the hard”.

Herring Gull

Herring Gull

While I thank my Day for sparking my interest in small boats, it was Mom who planted the birding seed.  She told me she won a birding ID competition in grade school in the 1920’s.  She always had a Golden Book of birds handy and pointed out all the backyard birds that came our way.  She didn’t trek through the woods or fields, but rather kept an eye out for birds while going about her household tasks–sort of like birding while sailing.


8 thoughts on “Birding While Sailing on the Chesapeake

    1. Cap’n Smith was right when he first laid eyes on the estuary and said something to the effect that God undid himself creating this pleasing combination or land, sky, sea, and wildlife, which we’re still enjoying 400+ years later. Thanks for your comments Eva.


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