by Caitlin Finnerty
November 25, 2011
Gulls call to each other, belted kingfishers swoop down into the seagrass, monarchs chase the wind, and Alicia and I snap photographs of as much of it as we can. Fisherman Island is only open to the public during this time of year, and it is very likely that this trip will be our only opportunity to visit the tiny island at the southernmost tip of the Delmarva Peninsula.
Although thousands of motorists pass over the 1,850-acre land mass each day as they drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, few of them know that this area is one of only 17 sites classified as a “wetland of international importance.” Thousands of migratory birds stop here each fall and spring, and monarchs feed on native plants as they make their winter trip to Latin America.
The refuge is closed to the public because many of these species, such as brown pelicans and royal terns, are sensitive to threats from humans.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, manages Fisherman Island. Refuge law enforcement makes sure that the public – and yes, even fishermen – stay away.
Alicia and I were afforded access to Fisherman Island through Chesapeake Experience, a non-profit organization that offers summer camps, eco paddles, corporate retreats and experience-based environmental education for educators and students. Chesapeake Experience Director Jill Bieri and two refuge staff members led a morning walk on the island’s nearly unspoiled beach and an afternoon kayak tour from the Chesapeake to the Atlantic.
But this trip is a different kind of Chesapeake experience for us, coming from Annapolis, where the Bay’s brackish water forms a distinctive landscape.
Most of the tour participants are avid birders and have come prepared with binoculars. We see many yellow-rumped warblers, or “butter rumps,” (Dendroica coronate) squeaking back and forth across the path.
There are plenty of other interesting features to observe at Fisherman Island, including:
- The spiky bark of the Hercules club tree (Aralia spinosa) standing out among its softer surroundings of beach grass and loblolly pines.
- Horseshoe crab skeletons littering the sand. These crabs are often referred to as “living fossils” due to their resemblance to a similar species that lived 250 million years ago.
- Fish and Wildlife staff have collected dolphin skulls, conch shells, whale bones and dozens other treasures found on the island’s shore, placing them together along the path for hikers to view.
- A refuge volunteer found a striped burrfish skeleton and passed it around to the curious crowd.
Although we find treasures that we’re not likely to see in Annapolis, we also saw something disappointing: plastic bags that have washed up on shore and are now buried deeply in the sand.
To me, this illustrates why efforts to restore the Bay need to collaborative, involving agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service, non-profits like Chesapeake Experience, and regular people like you and me. Although this tract of land is hardly touched by the public, and managed meticulously by the government, it is still vulnerable to the pollution that is happening throughout the Bay.
That afternoon, we paddle to where the Chesapeake Bay pours into the Atlantic Ocean, following the meandering path of the water through the marsh. Sitting on my kayak in this water, I feel it drift in and out of the Bay, and realize that the boundary lines between ocean and bay are fuzzy, or even, invisible.
A great blue heron watches us kayak into the waves. Our group slowly paddles to him, waiting for his five-foot wing span to cast a shadow over us. His flight makes our cameras snap and mouths hang open.
Jill instructs us to turn back before the waves get too rough. After all, we’re only novice kayakers!
Our homeward bound drive along Route 13 reveals abandoned homes alongside tents selling Virginia pecans, fireworks and cigarettes, all of them advertising their products with home-made, home-painted signs dotting the side of the road.
Mobile homes, their porches decorated with pots and pans and people in rocking chairs, sit on large tracts of land that I imagine to once have been profitable tobacco or cotton farms.
As the sun sets, these surroundings disappear, and we have only the stars to look at until we reach Annapolis.