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Volume 16, Issue 51 - December 18 - December 24, 2008
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Voyages of Discovery
by Lynn Teo Simarskiand Guy G. Guthridge

The Gift of a Chesapeake Winter

Nature puts on a seasonal, free display


A tinkle of bell-like notes wafts across the quiet water on a December afternoon. It’s the long-tailed ducks, signaling their arrival from the Arctic to spend a Chesapeake winter. Their exquisite call has long captivated us, helping like a piper to lure us into spending what is now our third winter aboard.

            From our trawler, Bright Pleiades, anchored in a creek off the Choptank River, we see a distant cluster of black and white forms — the longtails — dart back and forth. Their gabbling energy and gregariousness reminds us of their politically incorrect and now discarded name of oldsquaw. They’re in winter dress, almost the inverse of their breeding plumage, with white feathers where summer blacks were.

            The Bay’s seasons mean different things to different animals. Jet-skis, muscleboats and most sailboats have long retired to winter storage. Many species of birds and fish also visit the Bay for a summer purpose — to breed, feed, rear young — then migrate.

            The winter entourage of Chesapeake birds, refugees from the north, finds a different sustenance in our Bay.

            We feel a kinship with the longtails, which embody winter’s arrival to us. We’ve grown used to jaws dropping when we mention that we winter aboard. Our icon has become the Chesapeake winter, including its metaphorical meaning — the loss of the Bay’s almost unimaginable historical abundance.

            We cling to the idea of a new Chesapeake spring, though our own eyes tell us otherwise as we travel the Bay, witnessing increasing destruction of the natural soft shoreline. An ecologist did tell us that the Bay’s “memory” for pollutants is still short: the system could recover fairly quickly in some ways — if given a respite.

            Now mostly alone except for freighters and barges and the occasional oyster dredger, we celebrate the signs of the season. Loons dive in winter dress, one still voicing a fragment of its northwoods call; tundra swans cross with their melodious barks overhead; black-and-white scoters — diving seabirds — bob and plummet out in the Bay. These birds a summer boater never sees.

            In a sheltered slip, we watch the diving ducks from the bird blind of our boat: red-breasted and hooded mergansers, plump round buffleheads, magnificent canvasbacks and even a few redheads.

            Winter duck numbers on the Bay have plummeted, while Canada geese, able to adapt to farmland foraging, have increased. Canvasbacks — nicknamed King Can for their beauty and taste — have switched their diet from once plentiful Bay grasses, especially wild celery. They now eat animal matter like small clams, and hunters say they don’t taste as good. Their cousins, the redheads, didn’t make the switch, and now there are so few that it’s a red-letter day to spot one on the Bay. We saw just one the other day.

            Each species begins its feeding dive in a distinctive style. With practice we begin to identify the divers at a distance. The loon, for example, is large, often solitary, and makes a graceful, wheel-like turn downward. The buffleheads are almost always in groups and make a quick, bobbing dive.

            Other birds that move in and out of our region provide natural holiday decorations in the trees along the shore: a bare tree with a few berries is festooned with crested gold and black-masked cedar waxwings. Another day, a maple is chirping with living red ornaments: hundreds, maybe thousands, of robins migrating en masse along the Chesapeake flyway, pausing to await a favorable wind.

            By day a juvenile northern goshawk, arrived from northern forests, guards our marina’s cove. By night a great horned owl hoots a winter carol at the edge of our sleep.

            A thin sheet of ice forms in our little cove, decorated with perfectly spaced bubble clusters. One day, we have to break ice with the boat to get fuel for our furnace at a nearby dock.

            Last Christmas Eve morning, we left our slip and headed up the Choptank River, which we had almost to ourselves. As we rounded a turn, we felt uncomfortably boresighted: face to face with two hunters sitting in a duck blind, waiting for their Christmas goose to pass by.

            As Dover Bridge opened for us, we sent holiday cheer over the VHF radio to the bridge tender. We were the only boat of the day. Dusk came early, and we anchored out in a bend of marsh. Soon the Christmas lights came on around most of the horizon: streaks of red and burnished gold giving way to shadows of lavender and mauve.

            After Christmas Eve dinner, we climbed to our flying bridge to greet the Pleiades, the star cluster of celestial sisters that is the namesake of our boat. Yes, our own land-bound family ties tug on these holidays. But happily remote from catalogues, advertisements and malls, we celebrate the winter of our content.

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