Monday, December 27, 2010

The Blizzard

We thought we were getting out of the mountains for a more temperate holiday experience. We were wrong.
Sue and Sally (her mom) at the height of the storm.

By Wednesday of last week, the meteorologists were hinting at a significant low pressure system to affect the Southeast by Christmas. Right before Sue and I hopped in the car to go to her parents' place on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, I staked up the wire cages around the little fig tree and our gardenia, filled them with dead leaves to ward off the frost and bid them good luck. The forecast was calling for scattered snow showers starting Saturday afternoon. It was wrong.

The day before Christmas, Sue and I did some birdwatching on the ocean side of the peninsula. During my time as an itinerant field biologist, I spent several falls and one spring on the Delmarva. After Sue and I met and she decided my company was tolerable, she joined me for a field season at Kiptopeke State Park, where I was trapping and banding migrating raptors for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory. She signed on as the official migration counter and, in addition to falling in love with one another, we fell in love with the Eastern Shore that autumn. It's a very roundabout way of explaining to you that we knew where the hell we were going.

I was hoping to see waterfowl and raptors, as the Blue Ridge Mountains are lacking in both departments. At the tiny fishing village of Oyster, we hit the tides wrong so the mudflats in the creek were underwater.

common loon (non-breeding plumage)
High tide at Oyster doesn't leave much to look at. We scanned through the flock of gulls loafing on the waterfront and picked out herring, ring-billed and great black-backeds. These aren't special gulls by any means, but when you haven't seen them for six months, they seem like old friends. At the mouth of the marina, a pair of common loons was diving for lunch.

We took our time driving up the seaside on Hwy 600 - a rural route that wends its way gracefully across the rather ungraceful dichotomy of culture on the Eastern Shore. It's hard to imagine a place where the rich whites and poor blacks live in such close proximity, yet live such distant versions of the human experience. It is a beautiful place though and, much like when we left it for professional opportunities elsewhere, the Delmarva is still a haven for birds in winter.

Along our way, we stopped to admire a male northern harrier coursing over a harvested cornfield. Red-tailed hawks seemed to be everywhere, along with a few red-shouldereds and an immature Cooper's hawk speeding across open ground, just a foot off the deck as it hoped to take some unsuspecting songbird by surprise.

Atlantic brant
The waterfowl I longed for were there as well. I can't remember ever seeing Atlantic brant (or any brant for that matter) feeding away from the shoreline, but Sue and I watched a flock of 40 or so fly in from the seaside and pitch down in the middle of a green field. Later in the day we saw more, though they were in loose association with a couple thousand snow geese doing what snow geese do - eating cover crops.

All in all, it was a very satisfying afternoon of birding for a couple of coastal hearts. Lucky for us, we went before the now infamous storm of the season slammed the East Coast late Christmas Day and took a full 24 hours to pull out.

By noon we were looking at 8 inches on the back deck. Sue's mom, Sally, couldn't keep the feeders filled for all of the blackbirds pillaging the seeds through the middle of the blizzard.

The common grackles, red-winged blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds monopolized the feeders in the yard, leaving a tiny, suction-cupped window feeder for everyone else. Turns out, American goldfinches are pretty tough customers once they take a stool at the bar - much to the delight of the cats.

By the time it was all over, the house on Church's Creek had 14 inches of snow. When I called back to Asheville, my parents had measured 10 inches in the back yard. So much for escaping winter's icy grip. I have to admit though, with no place to go and the  roads unnavigable, it's been awfully nice to hang around in pajamas, making turkey soup and doing puzzles for the last two days.

Hope your holidays were exactly the way you wanted them. I know mine were.


  1. Once again, you have painted a wonderfully evocative picture of the beauty of your neck of the woods, what it is like to live there and its diverse wildlife. Being married too a black girl, however, I found it sobering to read about the sad and evidently wide economic divide between white and black.

    Our Christmas was hot and wet, oh so very wet!

  2. Hippo,
    looking back at this post, I feel I didn't do enough to explain the socio-economic situation on Virginia's Eastern Shore. It is a deep, colorful history that is worth far more research than the mere mention I gave it. That said, it's unfair of me to single out that region as being particular for white/black division. It exists all over America and, I daresay, much of the rest of the world.
    As always, thank you for checking in and your thoughtful comments.
    Here's to a Happy New Year.