Is there a socially distant, sanity preserving “pandemic pastime” which helped you survive the Covid-19 year?
While some may negatively characterize the monastic misery experienced as being “for the birds,” others coping with quarantine’s limiting confines found a source of soothing yet stimulating salvation by finally having the homebound downtime ideal for observing feathered backyard visitors.
The Delmarva Peninsula, after all, is perfectly located along the great Atlantic Flyway migratory route traveled seasonally by birds seeking optimal temperatures for feeding and breeding purposes.
For folks interested in a safe space featuring a veritable birdwatching feast above and beyond their own backyard feeder, the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center provides an ideal ‘hot spot.’
According to the CBEC website (bayrestoration.org), the site, established originally as Horsehead Wetlands Center on a 315-acre Grasonville farm property by the Wildfowl Trust of North America, has operated as a protective educational sanctuary since 1985. Currently containing 510 acres, the site caters to habitat requirements of common, uncommon, and migratory birds, with lakes and ponds, marsh, forest, and shoreline.
In fact, as many as 600 bird varieties may be viewed throughout the premises at various seasons of the year, according to the Cornell University Ornithology Lab’s eBird app.
Specimens currently or soon to be returning include Sparrows, Bluebirds, Wood Ducks, Great Snowy Egrets, and Ospreys.
But several breeds, such as Yellow-rumped and Black-and-white Warblers, Chickadees, White-breasted, Red-breasted, and Brown-headed Nuthatches, Cardinals, Mockingbirds, Mourning Doves, and Sharp-shinned, Red-shouldered, and Coopers Hawks, have succeeded in putting down year ‘round roots in our region, a phenomenon a number of us can relate to.
Anne Brunson and husband Dave, native mid-Westerners, retired to a Kent Island condo several years ago after a stint working in D.C. Unable to set up feeders at their residence, they found an optimal outlet for their birding “fix” at nearby CBEC. The couple now serve as Volunteer Coordinators for CBEC, assisting Executive Director Judy Wink.
The 78-year-old Wink, aptly described both as dedicated nature lover and dynamic force of nature, brings nearly a lifetime of field experience to her position, having started birding at the age of 4.
Wink spent her childhood on a farm outside of New Ringgold in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, later relocating to Carbon County’s Jim Thorpe area in the Poconos.
“I basically went to school in the woods, Wink confided, adding that she was home-schooled until 9th grade when “I realized I wanted to go to college one day,” Wink confided.
A neighbor, Maurice Broun, happened to be the first curator of Kempton, Pa’s Hawk Mountain Wild Bird Sanctuary, from 1939-1968. Taking her under his proverbial wing, he guided her steadily growing knowledge of the birding world she was eager to learn, becoming an inspiration and lifelong mentor.
Throughout her career Wink has channeled and paid forward Broun’s remarkably detailed and finely honed knowledge of endless avian characteristics, as well as the fundamental skill of patience he practiced and preached.
Prior to COVID, CBEC regularly hosted 20,000 visitors annually, including school groups and summer camps. Despite health restrictions curtailing organized programming on the premises last year, 40,000 people still flocked to the Center on family outings, picnics, kayaking (with legs not visible, birds are less wary and may come closer, Wink advised), and photo ops. They came during every season, especially at sunrise and sunset, when the birds are most active, Wink added.
During a two-hour guided tour of the area last week, Wink and Anne Brunson’s fact filled play by play brought the serene landscape to life. Once, I would have passed by a smattering of decayed loblolly pine remnants, unimpressed. Now, I was able to spot the pockmarked portals identifying the remains as primo real estate preferred by the discerning Brown-headed Nuthatch, a “cavity dweller” who desires “broken rotten snags” in primitive locales. No neatly “manicured” tree lined streets for him!
While both women have enjoyed birding adventures in far off places (Wink visits Costa Rica several times a year), they eagerly revel in comparing notes about the eagles nesting high above trees surrounding Lake Knapp, whose freshwater is a “huge draw” for migrating birds scoping out bathing and drinking sources.
In early Spring Lake Knapp’s mudflats provide wading birds such as plovers and sandpipers inviting spots for scavenging food to subsist on for a day or two stop-over. During low tide, Wink has enjoyed seeing mama otters offering their young offspring swimming lessons.
From the Lake’s wooden lookout viewing stand (one of numerous Center projects crafted by area Eagle Scouts), Route 50 traffic is visible off in the distance. The very real proximity of civilization’s ever encroaching danger serves as a daunting reminder just how precious a little thing like bird watching can be, for them, and for us.
For more information visit Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center at bayrestoration.org or call 410-827-6694.
Debra Messick is a retired Dorchester County Public Library associate and lifelong freelance writer. A transplanted native Philadelphian, she has enjoyed residing in Cambridge MD since 1995.