Our Animal Sightings over Summer 2014

Here in Illinois, we are wrapping up the end of the semester and looking forward to escaping south for a few weeks of boat work and relaxing with family. This past Wednesday, we had a little faculty party at our house to celebrate the end of classes. There, a friend asked about the wildlife we had seen over the summer while on the boat. I figured some other people might be interested in the answer to that question as well, so I decided to write up this post on the topic.

Most of the wildlife we saw, or at least paid attention to, while along the East Coast were birds and fishes, both of which we saw in abundance. However, a few different times, including while off Gibson Island in the Chesapeake’s Magothy River and while transiting the Alligator-Pungo Canal, we saw deer. Unfortunately, we never saw a bear or alligator, despite closely watching for them as we passed through the wildlife refuges, rivers, and marshes along the ICW south of Norfolk.

We are not ornithologists, or even avid birders, but we did see quite a few bird species. Throughout our the summer, ospreys entertained us daily, including from what seemed like nests on every channel marker in the Chesapeake. It was cool to watch the babies grow up and then fledge as the summer progressed, and many evenings were spent with beer in hand watching ospreys circling overhead, waiting for them to dive for a meal. I think I actually witnessed four dives over the course of the summer, two of which were successful. However, it seemed like far more often than not, I narrowly missed an osprey plucking their dinner out of the water when I glanced away for a moment. While anchored in the Sassafras River in the northern Chesapeake for the Fourth of July, we were treated nightly to a bald eagle tormenting a few ospreys bringing fish back to their nests. The eagle would dive after the osprey, trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to get the osprey to drop its hard-earned dinner. Our osprey watching was particularly enhanced by reading David Gessner’s Return of the Osprey: A Season of Flight and Wonder, which I had picked up at a library book sale in Deltaville. His descriptions of Osprey behavior helped me develop a better understanding and appreciation for these magnificent birds.

Just after this photo was taken, this turkey at Teddy Roosevelt's house in Oyster Bay attacked those tourists, hissing and chasing after them.

Just after this photo was taken, this turkey at Teddy Roosevelt’s house in Oyster Bay attacked those tourists, hissing and chasing after them.

As you can imagine, there were tons of shorebirds, terns, and gulls along the way, but neither Margaret nor I are very good at identifying species. I know we saw some black skimmers off Cape May and cormorants just about everywhere. Blue and white herons were also in abundance, and Vicki (who was the only real birder we had aboard over the summer) and I had a particularly memorable encounter with a night heron while exploring the Domino Sugar factory in Baltimore by dinghy. Down in South Carolina, my Dad and I watched as a handful of roseate spoonbills, pink from their diet of shrimp, passed overhead, which was quite cool. Pelicans were also in large numbers nearly everywhere.

We occasionally had to decipher paper birds from real ones.

We occasionally had to decipher paper birds from real ones.

Fish also were in evidence nearly the entire summer. In Long Island Sound, bunker schooled around us on a number of occasions, especially in Manhasset Bay. Then, a few days later, anchored off Sandy Hook, we were literally surrounded by a massive school of snapper blues. We continued to see bluefish in large numbers as we headed down the Jersey coast, though some of them might have been menhaden as well. Menhaden made their appearance from time to time during our two months in the Chesapeake, though we mostly only saw this fish in the talons of Osprey. Into southern North Carolina and through South Carolina, we began seeing quite a few Spanish mackerel, often jumping two or three feet clear out of the air. I kept hoping one would land in the dinghy so that we could have some sushi. We also saw cow-nosed and, perhaps, other species of rays as we came south. On the Cumberland Sound in Georgia, a ray jumped into the air and pirouetted a foot off the water after clearly chasing after some baitfish. But our coolest encounter with rays was when we anchored off Tangier and dinghied into the island over the flooded tidal flats. As we made our way, first motoring and then rowing, rays shot out in front of us, stirring up the mud and giving us some excitement. Of course, we also saw quite a few fish on the end of lines, including some type of shark, about four feet long, in Charleston Harbor.

Ray off Tangier Island

Ray off Tangier Island

Our two other significant animal sightings involved dolphins and jellyfish. At various times throughout the summer, moon jellies floated by while we were at anchor. And, we did not miss seeing sea nettles in the Chesapeake, first encountering them in St. Michaels. However, we did not catch a glimpse of any of the dangerous box jellyfish that made their appearance in a few places along the coast this summer. As for the dolphins, we first saw them as we transited the Jersey coast. They continued to entertain us during our stay in Cape May and as we headed up the Delaware, with the last pod saying goodbye just a few miles south of the C & D Canal. It was not until we were on Hampton Roads that we again saw dolphins, circling off the naval base there, making us only half joke that they might be naval operatives. A hundred or more miles south, on the Neuse River in North Carolina, dolphins made their appearance again, becoming daily, sometimes constant, companions the rest of the trip.

A moon jelly with Margaret's reflection

A moon jelly with Margaret’s reflection

With other marine mammals, we did not do as well. Off the Jersey coast, Margaret thought she may have caught a glimpse of a whale, though it was only later when we heard there had been whales reported in the area that she really took the sighting seriously. And, despite my best efforts, I never saw a manatee down south.

I certainly have left a lot of animals off this list, including all sorts of crabs and marsh species that we saw on various dinghy excursions in the Chesapeake. But, for the most part, the above is a fair representation of our wildlife sightings this past summer. Come May, we hope to eye quite a few more species, especially once we arm ourselves with a new pair of binoculars, remember to take along our nature guides, and begin exploring some of the Georgia and South Carolina marshes by dinghy as we make our way north in a little more relaxed fashion than we headed south. We will try to improve our wildlife photography skills a bit too.

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