The sky is gray, the wind blows cold, and all the earth seems devoid of life. It’s winter in the Chesapeake Bay region. But if you venture outside, you’ll likely catch a glimpse of many critters that are most common during the coldest months. Some of these animals only visit our region this time of year. (That’s right – they actually like our winters!)
Get your winter critter-fix by learning about these six beautiful Bay animals. Then leave us a comment letting us know about your favorite wintering Chesapeake Bay critter!
Chesapeake Bay locals experience their fair share of sea nettle stings during summer swims. But very few of us have been stung by a lion's mane jellyfish: the largest known jellyfish species in the world! Thank goodness that these jellyfish only visit the Bay from January to April. But if you're doing a Polar Bear Plunge, be careful!
Lion’s mane jellyfish prefer to hang out in the northern latitudes, and travel to the Bay in the winter because the water is cold. The further north you travel, the larger the lion’s mane jellyfish becomes! The largest recorded specimen washed up along a beach in Massachusetts in 1870, had a bell (body) with a diameter of 7.5 feet and tentacles 120 feet long.
(Image courtesy Vermin Inc/Flickr)
Sure it gets cold here in the winter, but it’s even colder in the Arctic! That’s why these beautiful white waterfowl take refuge in the Chesapeake Bay from late October to March. Tundra swans, also known as whistling swans, breed in the Arctic and subarctic tundra's pools, lakes and rivers. They fly in a V formation at altitudes as high as 27,000 feet before arriving at their wintering habitat, which is usually coastal marshland and grassland.
Looking for a place to view tundra swans? The coast is best (I've seen them near Salisbury as well as Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge in Rock Hall, Maryland), but if you're inland, you may be in luck, too! Last winter, I was lucky enough to see a flock at Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland.
(Image courtesy oakwood/Flickr)
The bald eagle is not only the national emblem of the United States, but also the face of an environmental movement born out of its near extinction. Pesticides (particularly DDT) and increased development left this beautiful raptor on the brink in the mid-20th century. But bald eagles have since made a remarkable comeback, enough so that the federal government removed them from the "threatened" species list in 2007.
Winter provides an excellent opportunity to view bald eagles. They are often found perched on the highest branch in loblolly pine forests, scouting for prey in nearby fields and wetlands. Although these birds prefer areas that are not human-heavy, one bald eagle family moved into Harlem in New York City last February. Closer to the Chesapeake, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, Maryland, and the Conowingo Dam near Port Deposit, Maryland, are excellent places to view bald eagles in big numbers.
(Image courtesy InspiredinDesMoines/Flickr)
If you see large, reddish-brown heads out on the Bay this winter, they may be canvasbacks! These diving ducks spend winter in the Chesapeake Bay before returning to the Prairie Pothole region to breed. Why do they fly across the Mississippi River Valley to splash around in the Chesapeake all winter? One reason may be food: the canvasback (Aythya valisineria) was named for its fondness of wild celery (Vallisneria americana).
However, diminished populations of wild celery and other bay grasses has meant decline in "can" populations, too. In the 1950s, the Chesapeake Bay was home to 250,000 wintering canvasbacks – about half of the entire North American population. Today, only about 50,000 winter in the Bay. But these numbers seem to be increasing.
(Image courtesy Dominic Sherony/Flickr)
Unlike most mammals, bobcats don't hibernate during the winter. In fact, female bobcats increase their home range during the coldest time of year, meaning there's a greater chance one will end up near you! These cats start breeding between January and March, when males begin travelling to visit females. These winter warriors also have padded paws, which act like snow boots to protect them from the cold weather. They are excellent hunters and are most active during dusk (before sunset) and dawn (before the sunrises), often travelling between 2 and 7 miles in one night!
Bobcats may be found in Spruce Knob and Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, and other natural areas in the northern and western portions of the watershed.
(Image courtesy dbarronoss/Flickr)
A brilliant flash of red can brighten up any dreary winter scene. The northern cardinal is a permanent resident of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and its plumage never dulls like some birds. The female cardinal is one of the only female birds that sings, although it is usually during spring, when she tells the male what to bring back to the nest for their young. In the winter, cardinals can be seen foraging for seeds in dense shrubs near the ground, usually in pairs.
(Image courtesy Bill Lynch/Flickr)