Chris and I planned to drive over to the Eastern Shore on Tuesday, February 18 to photograph the Long-tailed Ducks at Ocean City inlet and hopefully find one of the six Snowy Owls that had been reported at Assateague State Park and Assateague National Seashore. We wanted to get an early start, but when we got up, it was pouring and showed no signs of letting up. So we canceled. By 10 it was clear and sunny, but it was a bit late to start the trip. We were a little frustrated. I looked at the weather forecast for the following week and it looked bad — too cold for Chris to sit in the car while I photographed. After some deliberation, I decided to head out the next day, notwithstanding that the forecast for Thursday the 20th was for thunderstorms in the PM.
We were up and out early on the 19th, out of the driveway by 7. It was supposed to take just over three hours to reach OC, but the traffic was surprisingly heavy on the Beltway, so it took us nearly four hours. We drove straight to the inlet and I looked out and could initially see nothing except ducks along the south jetty, far out of photography range. It was very windy, uncomfortably so. There was a man scanning through a scope from the north jetty and suddenly I saw a raft of perhaps a dozen Long-tails right opposite him. I ran back to the car, grabbed my camera and 400mm lens and headed for the north jetty. In just that short time they had “flown the coup.” So no photo.
I walked past the man out to the end of the jetty, spotting one Red-throated Loon, but never made a single image. Chatting with the birder I found that while sometimes ducks were flying close enough to the north jetty for a photograph, there were other places on the bay side where photography would be more likely on such a windy day. He drove me over and showed me the piers near the Coast Guard Station and let me off next to the Oceana Motel (closed) where he said birders and photographer were welcome. There was a sea wall in front of this motel–I guess it was actually in back of the motel — that paralleled the inlet. I walked along this concrete sea wall to the end and spotted a flock of Surf Scoters swimming right towards me. Most were drakes, for reasons that I do not understand, but this is common with diving ducks. The scoters swam towards me and then away, then to one side and then the other. I do not have any idea what they had in mind. A couple flew off and a few flew in. I caught one just coming in for a landing. These sea ducks cannot just spring into the air like a mallard or a pintail, and similarly, do not just drop down quickly. They are more like a 747.
After watching and photographing the scoters for awhile, I returned to the car where Chris had been patiently reading a book. We decided to check out 3rd Street and 33rd Street, each of which that terminated at the bay. These places, out of the wind, had been recommended by a woman who had walked by as I returned to the car.
I drove up the main drag to 3rd Street and drove to the end. There is a short road here that is right along the water, with parking places on the right side. I looked out and saw nothing. I got out of the car and walked to the guard rail and there, right in front of me, were a couple of Long -tails. Running back to the car, I retrieved my camera and returned to the guard rails. The light was right and the birds came in quite close, diving repeatedly in a feeding frenzy. The drake of this bird is one of the most handsome ducks anywhere, in my opinion.
After working the birds here, we traveled north to 33rd street and found…absolutely nothing. There was not a bird on the water here. There may well have been at some point when a report was made, but they had disappeared! It was time to eat, so we headed across the causeway to the mainland, intending to eat at Wendy’s. Instead we saw a Chick -Fil-A and so ate here. We drove off with my jacket left on the back of my chair, but fortunately recognized the problem, circled back and retrieved it.
It was time to find a motel. I wanted to stay in the Oceana right at the inlet, but it was closed. Chris had brought a page with her from the internet that listed a bunch of motels with their costs. The Quality Inn at 54th St showed a price of $45, so we jumped at this. It was right on the beach. At the desk we were told that the $45 price was for rooms on the atrium, while the beach views were $62. We chose the atrium view room. The desk woman told us that we could only have it for one night because they were booked the next three nights with a cheerleading competition. Then she upgraded us to a beach view on the top floor! It was a great room that we later found out cost over $300 per night in the summer! We were lucky.
With the motel settled, we went back over the causeway to the mainland and down the road to Assateague. It was a short drive and soon we were on the barrier island and into the park. As soon as we crossed the bridge we saw the first of the famous ponies. We continued down to the end of the entrance road where there was a large parking lot. I had thought that this was where one of the Snowy Owls had been seen. I was wrong. A man with binoculars came by and we asked if he had seen the owl. He said yes, but it had flown north towards OC and disappeared. He did tell us, however, there there was a new colt, born in December (of all times) up a trail to the east which he pointed out. (This is where he had seen the owl also.) Despite the weather, that was rather unpleasant by this time, completely cloudy and windy, we elected to take the trail. It was tough “sledding” as the sand was soft. After a bit more than a quarter mile and nearly a half hour we came to the new boardwalk the guy had mentioned. We took this to the end to the new duck blind, constructed for disabled hunters. The door was not locked, so we walked in
and there, across a small salt water inlet, were three adult ponies and the colt. Later we found out it was a filly.
What happend next was rather amazing. Two of the ponies, not including the mare with the filly, came to the edge of the water and waded right in, coming right at us. I do not know whether they thought we would be a source of an afternoon snack, or it was just time to move to this side of the water. But they both sloshed across the water and came to our side and began munching on the low quality grass on our side and then wandered into the low bushes.
Meantime, the mare and the filly became more active, and they too came to the edge of the water. The mare led the way and the filly followed closely. They came part way across, but the mare clearly was watching us and we apparently made her nervous. She paced back and forth, but never got far from the opposite shore. After a few minutes we decided to leave her alone and let her do whatever it was she wanted, including foraging on our side of the inlet.
We walked back along the boardwalk and got on the trail. When we were over half way back, Chris looked back and here, following right in our tracks, was the pony pictured to the right. He had followed us and I thought he was going to come right with us to our car. Despite regulations that prohibit feeding these wild horses, tourists regularly offer them food and they come to expect that anyone in the park is going to feed them. In this case, just before we reached the end of the trail and the paved road, the pony made some strange movements and disappeared into the brush.
The next day in the Visitors Center we learned that the filly was born on December 18 and colts could be and are born in any month of the year,. Most of us thought that they were born only in the spring. Further, the ranger advised that research indicated there was no difference in survival rate for colts born in any particular month. This was a real surprise.
We got back in the car and drove down the road that bisects the island and the park. We were looking for the owls, but also anything of interest, like Sika Elk, foxes or bunnies. Instead, we came across two more ponies, right by the road. Both were casually grazing, one of the left, one on the right. When I got out to photograph the more photogenic one on the left — that paid absolutely no attention to me — the other came right up to the car.
Chris had gotten out and the pony clearly wanted a contribution to his diet. It was not to be but he was not easily dissuaded. When I got into the car, he came right up and pressed his nose on the window. I think if I had opened the window, he would have poked his head right inside!
Following this encounter, we drove to the end of the state park and past a check station that was the beginning of federal property. We showed our Blue Hair Pass to the ranger in the guard shack and proceeded to the end of the paved road. We saw nothing of particular interest. I parked in the large parking lot at the end and walked a short ways down the so-called ORV (Off Road Vehicles) unpaved road. One has to have a permit to drive here and it requires four-wheel capability. I didn’t walk far and could find no owls, so we drove back the road and returned to OC for the night.
We had a very pleasant seafood dinner at BJ’s restaurant, which had been recommended by the desk clerk at the motel. Afterwards we returned to the motel. The atrium of this rather old motel was quite amazing. There was a koi filled pond with a fountain, tropical plants, but most alluring were six cages with various species of parrots. When we arrived after dinner, all the parrots were out of their cages and standing on the top, being fed and attended to by their caretaker woman. She told us that a macaw named “Chief” was over 100 years old (highly doubtful) and another macaw was 85, having spent the last 35 years in this motel. The birds were very amusing and quite talkative. In fact, they were calling so loudly that we wondered how anyone could sleep with that raucus noise. But at night the birds were back in their cages which were covered with sheets to ensure they would sleep.
Back in our room, the TV did not work, but it did not matter a bit. We were both very tired and drifted off to sleep without any problem. We expected to see a gorgeous sunrise the following morning right out our sliding glass door to the balcony. It was not to be. When I awoke at shortly after 6, I looked out the window and found thick fog, Not a happy development. After a gourmet breakfast in McDonalds, we drove to back to the inlet. But first I have to mention that there was a special at MickyMacs: one Egg McMuffin for $3.59 or two for $3.00. Yes, you read that right. Two were cheaper than one. The waitress told us that some people indignantly demanded only one. I took the offer and ate the second one the following morning at home.
At the inlet the fog was thick making photography very problematic. I stepped up to the seawall near the end of the jetty and there, right in front of me, were three Harlequin Ducks, one of the primary targets for
the trip. There was fog on my lens and the light was so bad that the resulting photo was not a marketable photo. Yes, a record shot for a bird that is rare in MD, but not one that I will have printed. There were a few
other birds floating about, like this Common Loon in basic plumage, a far cry from its most attractive “alternate” breeding plumage. The loons — there were several — seemed to mind us no matter and got quite close in. The wind continued, appearing to make the ducks nervous, as they were constantly flying up and down the inlet, but
most of the birds were concentrated against the south jetty, far too far for photography. I was hoping for images of Black Scoters, but the only scoters that came into range were more Surfs which took off as soon as I got close to them, unlike the day before. I soon tired of this scene because it became clear that very little in the way of good photography was going to result. So we packed up and left the island, returning to the Assateague area. The Visitors Center was open and we made a nice visit which included some engaging talks with the rangers. We were the only “customers” present. We then drove over the bridge onto Assateague Island, but what a change from the day before. There was nothing up and about. No ducks, no ponies, no anything. Much less owls. At the ORV I walked down to where the road went out on the beach, but no owl was to be seen. After a half hour of walking I returned to the car and we headed home.
We got as far as Easton where Chris wanted to visit a thrift shop. I read in the car, which was only fair after all the time Chris had waited for me. When the shopping was finished we looked for our favorite restaurant, which we found without difficulty. The ownership and name had changed and all the interior decoration had been changed. Gone were the animal heads and the stuffed birds, including the infamous Fieldfare. The menu still included the creamy clam chowder, but the recipe seemed to have changed. It was still not bad, however.
As we ate lunch the weather became threatening and it became darker and darker. Just as we stepped out the thunderstorm rolled in, pelting us with heavy rain. We had to jog to the car, and both of us got soaked. And it rained most of the way home. Not a happy ending for a generally very interesting and rewarding short trip.