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Fun on a Wing

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Common terns are favorites of  birders.
photograph by Larry Graff, courtesy of Delmarva Ornithological Society 

 

The fall might be known as a shoulder season at the beach, but there are still plenty of reasons to return. Those looking for something new should try a hobby that’s, well, for the birds.

Grab those hiking boots and a pair of binoculars, then go birding. This past summer at the Governor’s Tourism Summit, the notion was presented that tourism in Delaware could flourish by letting out a secret residents already know: The state is a prime spot for birding—especially near the beaches.

You don’t have to tell that to Sally O’Byrne, president of the Delmarva Ornithological Society. She’s been touting the fact for years. She thanks Delaware’s geographical diversity for the wide variety of birds that make the state a resting spot.

“In Texas you’d have to travel three or four hours to get what we can get in a much smaller place,” O’Byrne says. “We have the piedmont, which is like the rolling foothills of the Appalachian. We have the coastal plains. We have salt marsh. We have freshwater marshes, and we have the Delaware River and the ocean.”

If the success of “March of the Penguins” taught us anything, it’s that learning about the natural rituals and habits of animals can be fascinating to observe on screen or first-hand. Jeffrey Gordon, an author and bird expert from Lewes, says birding offers a connection to a world busy people might not see.

“It’s a great way of keeping up with the natural world. There’s a real sense of change and movement, a sense of history, rituals that have been going on forever,” Gordon says. “It’s kind of an antidote to the modern world, the schedules and routines and the pace. Seeing this, getting out to nature, really helps to plug people back into the natural order of things.”

 



A green heron is a find for birders.
photograph by Chris Bennett, courtesy of Delmarva Ornithological Society

For bird enthusiasts, varying landscapes mean a rich assortment of terns, gannets, herons, ducks and sandpipers. And because of migration, the kinds of birds you see change with the seasons. The best months to go birding are October and May, when you’ll see birds of the north coming to enjoy milder Mid-Atlantic winters and snow birds flying by to go farther south.

“So in the winter, for example, a lot of the birds which nest in the far north, like a lot of ducks, spend their winters here,” O’Byrne says. “If you see a line of birds that are flying in a line or in a V along the ocean, those are probably going to be scoters, which are a kind of duck. Another line of birds you might see migrating south would be cormorants. Gannets, a white seabird with orange-tipped wings, are always up and diving into the water. They’re not always there, but when they are, they’re really cool to watch.”


An osprey carries its catch at Assawoman Wildlife Area.

photograph by Maurice Barnhill, courtesy of Delmarva Ornithological Society

 

Keep your binoculars focused for large predatory birds such as osprey. The osprey is one of the largest winged hunters in the area. These are the birds that you often see nesting on top of buoys. They thrive along the water, as their diet consists almost exclusively of fish.

 



Snowy egrets are a common sight.

photograph by Larry Graff, courtesy of Delmarva Ornithological Society 


But they aren’t the only fishing birds. Herons and egrets can be seen—and sometimes closer than you think. “Herons and egrets, which are birds that stand in water and fish, are very tall and graceful,” O’Byrne says. “In fact, herons and egrets are also the ones who will go through the ponds in your backyard and eat your goldfish.” Among them are the great blue heron and the snowy egret, which, in the early 1900s, was hunted to near extinction because its feathers were coveted by hat makers. Egrets are since well-protected, thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

One endangered bird that makes its home along the Delaware coast is the piping plover. This bird, recognized by its short bill, sand-colored feathers, black banded forehead and a black ring around the neck, often blends with its background. But the real reason birders may not notice them is that there aren’t many left. Piping plovers come to Delaware to make nests—small depressions in the sand—and hatch eggs, but foxes, off-road vehicles and beach-goers often destroy the nests. If you do see them, do not disturb the birds while they are feeding or nesting.

 



A red knot wades at Indian River Inlet.
photograph
by Larry Graff, courtesy of Delmarva Ornithological Society 

 

Red knots are another rare find. The small birds with long bills flock to Delaware in spring, when they feast on the eggs of horseshoe crabs to fuel up for their migration. They sometimes stay till early September. Year-round birders know that red knots can be quite eye-catching, with red plumage along the head and neck during the breeding season. But as early as August, the birds trade their red plumage for brown and gray feathers.

If you head out in November and December, you won’t have to work too hard to find birds. That’s because snow geese descend on areas like Bombay Hook by the thousands. “[Seeing them] can be a spectacular thing,” says Matthew Bailey, a biologist for Delaware Natural Heritage.

 



The Indian River Inlet attracts many breeds of terns.

photograph by Chris Bennett, courtesy of Delmarva Ornithological Society 

 

 

Birders can get all the scoop on where to go from tours and trips hosted by groups such as the Delmarva Ornithological Society. (Find a schedule at www.dosbirds.org.) The outings are a great way for novice birders to learn from experts and perhaps experience the feeling that bird lovers everywhere get from watching.

“I think for many people that birding can be spiritual,” O’Byrne says. “When you’re by yourself and you’re walking, you become hyper aware of what’s around you—the sounds of the forest, the wind in your face. Then you catch just a little movement in a tree, so you look up with the binoculars, and there’s a flash of color.”

Looking to strike out on your own? Here are some of the best locations:

Cape Henlopen State Park: Near Lewes, Cape Henlopen State Park offers many trails, fishing piers and sand dunes where people can spot birds and enjoy majestic scenery. This past year has seen an abundance of hawks, which attracted birders from all over the area. Gordon suggests that visitors check out the Gordon’s Pond area of the park. “There’s a nice loop for walking or biking, there are observation platforms, and you can see so much—herons, bald eagles, song birds, shore birds, ocean birds. It’s really great because there are so many diverse spots just in this one area.”

Bombay Hook and Prime Hook national wildlife refuges: “Bombay Hook (near Smyrna) has always been the best known, but Prime Hook, which is east of Milton, is just as good,” Gordon says. “Bombay Hook is great because it’s easy to figure out. It’s one big chunk of land with one road leading in, and you know it when you get there. Prime Hook is a little harder, because of all the state roads that run through it. It can be a little harder to navigate, but it’s really outstanding.” Bald eagles and American avocets have been spotted at Bombay Hook during the summers. American woodcocks appear during the spring at Prime Hook. New trails and viewing areas are being built at the refuge to make it more birder-friendly.

 



The great black-backed gull is common in the area. 
photograph
 by Larry Graff, courtesy of Delmarva Ornithological Society 

 

Indian River Inlet State Park: “Indian River Inlet is a nice place to go birding because there are certain gulls and terns and other birds, which are

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