by Caitlyn Johnstone
December 23, 2020
The Chesapeake region boasts sandy beaches, breathtaking meadows, wetlands and forests that delight millions of visitors and residents year-round, but one particular trait makes the Chesapeake Bay the winter destination for every birder within 500 miles: the Atlantic Flyway.
As seasons change, many bird species migrate, moving over long distances to breed and feed in different regions. No one knows the exact migration trigger for each bird species—it could be the duration and intensity of daylight, biological urges, temperature, changes in food sources or a combination of any of these factors. Whatever the cause, thousands to millions of birds leave their northern habitats in the Arctic and Canada and head for warmer temperatures along North America’s East Coast, a route we call the Atlantic Flyway.
Birds on this long flight often need at least one stop to rest or eat, and many choose the rich habitats of the Chesapeake. In hopes of glimpsing these rare travelers, humans also flock to the birds’ rest stops. Understanding where these spots are and what birds to look for when you get there can help you optimize your winter birding.
Where to spot winter birds
Hundreds of species use the Chesapeake as a stop on the Atlantic Flyway, but not all seek out the same type of habitat. Dark-eyed juncos are forest-dwelling winter visitors from the sparrow family, so you may see them in the forest understory on a woodland walk. The black duck, a winter-visiting dabbler whose population declined steeply in the mid-twentieth century, relies on tidal marshes and can be spotted in sheltered wetlands. Those willing to brave a winter boat ride and venture offshore may be rewarded with a view of the rare and elusive Arctic Tern, a champion migrator that undertakes an annual 25,000 mile journey from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Let’s take a closer look at some of the bird species that visit the variety of habitats that make up the Chesapeake Bay.
Waterfowl are of the most prominent birds that winter in the Chesapeake Bay region. So many species visit the Chesapeake that identification can be daunting, but a key behavioral trait can help you begin to narrow your bird options. Birds that go all the way underwater to catch their prey are called diving ducks, while the ones that go only halfway under the surface are referred to as dabblers. Try to differentiate divers from dabblers as a good first step to becoming a winter birder.
Diving ducks venture into deeper water than dabblers, so you will find them further out from shore. They can be subcategorized into “bay ducks” and “sea ducks” by whether they tend to stay in the relatively calmer waters of the Bay’s tributaries and near-shore areas or venture out to ride the choppy waves of open water. Their rear-located feet are perfectly positioned for diving but make walking on land an awkward undertaking. When attempting to take flight, diving ducks gain momentum by pattering across the water’s surface before liftoff.
Diving ducks sport striking physical attributes, from the blue bills of scaups to the fanned-out head feathers of mergansers. Birding beginners can easily spot the charmingly chunky buffleheads, whose small but stout body earns them the nickname “butterballs.” Buffleheads are strikingly colored in dark and white feathers. Males sport a bonnet-like patch of white on the back of their heads, while females have white cheek spots resembling the icy duck versions of porcelain dolls. Other diving ducks include scoters, ring-necks, goldeneyes, canvasbacks and the short-tailed ruddy ducks. A rare but exciting diving duck sighting is the striking long-tail, who more often winters in the Great Lakes but can be seen around the Bay watershed. These ducks are incredible divers, venturing up to 200 feet deep and spending longer underwater than most other divers.
As their name suggests, dabbling ducks stick close to the surface and gently paddle their feet in the water, tipping up their tails as they dip their faces to eat vegetation and insects near the surface. Their feet are located centrally under their bodies, putting them in the perfect position to tip over in the water, and making them somewhat competent at walking on land. As they spend most of their time near the surface, dabblers are better suited at taking flight than the diving ducks. When a dabbling duck wants to take flight, their broad wings help them lift right off.
On a drab, gray winter landscape, several dabbling duck species offer pleasing pops of color and pattern. A favorite winter wetland visitor is the northern pintail, a dapper bird sporting sleek patterns of distinct lines. The male has a stripe down its head and detailed houndstooth-like body patches that fade seamlessly into white chests, while the females have a sharply elegant brown and tan feather pattern that gives an overall bronze effect to her color. Shovelers look similar to the common mallard, but their feeding patterns make northern shovelers the duck to watch. Bristles on their bill help them filter small seeds and crustaceans as they zip through the water, even occasionally spinning in circles for a whirlpool effect. Other dabbling ducks include blue and green winged teals, gadwalls and wood ducks.
Who is that white bird?
Winters bring large, snowy-white visitors that can be tough to tell apart at a distance. Look for variations in color and behavior for confidence in your identifications.
If you spot a sea of milky white birds blanketing a farm field, you are likely looking at snow geese. Snow geese are flock-forming herbivores who enjoy grains and grasses they pluck up with their serrated, pink-hued bills, so you can often find them in fields and marsh flats. In flight, you’ll know a snow goose by the black tips of its wings, which make the otherwise white bird appear to be wearing gloves.
Other flurries of flocking birds on barren grounds are likely buntings, an Arctic songbird. Snow buntings breed in rocky crevices in the Arctic, where their white plumage helps them blend into the landscape. In winter, they reveal sandy colors in their feathers and fly south, where they blend in with the mix of snow, debris and sand along shorelines. Buntings have a rolling flight pattern that is mesmerizing as it tumbles, resembling a wave. Watch these little birds in flight throughout the winter but catch them early if you want to see both males and females. Nesting sites are limited in their freezing breeding grounds, so males head back early to claim a spot. The ladies will join about three weeks later, staying in Chesapeake habitats to forage on seeds and berries. Female buntings are a rusty hue to help blend in—distinguish them from other songbirds by the always-present snow-white patch on their wings.
Tundra swans are another Arctic visitor, though they prefer shallow waters to farm fields. Their straight necks and black bills distinguish the tundras from the invasive mute swans, birds that have set up a permanent residence in the Chesapeake and can consume more than eight pounds of underwater grasses in a day, roots and all. Though they’re also large and white, mute swans have an orange bill and a curved neck.
Great egrets, snowy egrets, cattle egrets and white-phase blue herons—actually all types of herons—are large white birds that live in the Chesapeake region, but at different times than the snow geese and tundra swans. These herons like slightly warmer weather and spend spring through autumn in the Bay but head further south when winter arrives. (During those summer months, look to leg color to differentiate these species).
Winter may bring new feathered visitors, but it is also the season to view the showstopping colors of year-round songbirds. Barren or snowy backdrops provide a striking contrast for colorful locals like the cardinal, while the relative scarcity of food in the wild brings an influx of small birds to feeders.
Whether you fancy large birds or small, newcomers or locals, wintertime in the Chesapeake is one of the best times to be a birder. Brush up on the birds you might see, find some new and unique places to visit along the Chesapeake, bundle up against the cold and get exploring.