The temperatures have dropped, the leaves are falling, and the island is quiet. No dinner reservations are necessary this time of year, and the summer beach traffic is a distant memory. High tourist season in Chincoteague has come and gone for another year, but Fall and Winter and prime time for a different type of visitor: migratory birds.
Tens of thousands of winged guests—and their binocular-clad paparazzi—flock to the local waters during the cooler months of every year. The farmlands of the Eastern Shore, as well as the protected waters and marsh of the Chesapeake and Chincoteague Bay, make for an excellent pit stop for migratory birds and waterfowl traveling along the Atlantic Flyway. Our first arrivals for the year have been cormorants (by the hundreds) and a few beautiful Blue-winged Teal.
In early November, snow geese begin to arrive. Easily identifiable, as they are all white with black-tipped wings, these geese migrate annually from nesting grounds in Canada to winter feeding grounds along the East Coast of the US and Mexico in flocks by the thousand. Their calls are also distinctive and can be heard echoing through the Winter skies.
Black ducks, a migratory species of dabbling duck, can also be found near Chincoteague in the cooler months. Black ducks are identifiable in several ways: they have dark brown plumage with a violet speculum, bordered with black. Drakes have yellow bills, while females have dull green bills. Their underwings are white, which can help with identification when in flight. Though similar in coloration to hen mallards, black ducks are darker. Prized as a game duck, due to their wariness, speed, and agility in the air, the American Black Duck is classified as a “species of least concern”—meaning they are far from endangered or threatened. In recent years, however, black duck numbers have been on the decline. Some attribute this to forced breeding by male mallards, which creates hybrid ducks, which typically do not live long enough to reproduce, leading to a decline in numbers. Others attribute the decline in numbers to loss of habitat, as black ducks require salt marshes for feeding grounds. Pristine salt marshes surround Chincoteague and provide the ideal winter feeding grounds for the American Black Duck.
Peregrine Falcons, which migrated through our area earlier this fall, are another bird that should not be missed. Though they can be found throughout the world, a peregrine is a hard bird to find for the amateur. This beautiful and fierce hunter is a treat for those who can spot it–especially those privy to its hunting behaviors. (Peregrines are predatory hawks, and are noted for their characteristic high speed dive, which has been clocked at over 200 mph.)During the 1970s, the peregrine falcon became endangered due to the widespread usage of the chemical DDT, which caused egg shells to be too fragile to protect the developing chicks. Studies were conducted at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, among other places, that show the gradual recovery of the majestic peregrine falcon.
For a complete list of birds that can be seen within a mile or two of the Refuge Inn, check out the Chincoteague National Wildlife’s “Bird Checklist” at http://www.fws.gov/northeast/chinco/PDF/BirdChecklist.pdf