While half the country was brought to a standstill by fearsome snows, ice storms and gripping cold temperatures yesterday, somehow Virginia was spared. Yes, of course, I spent the day outdoors! There was no need to wear a jacket with an amazing 71 degrees under a warm winter sun. The breezes were brisk off the river but balmy and they seemed to beckon me to the waterfront and the activities around the water. This time of year it’s impossible to imagine the river without waterfowl. The Chesapeake Bay is located along the Atlantic Flyway for migratory water birds that winter along these coastal waters.
Camera in hand, I sat quietly on the end of the pier enjoying dozens and dozens of diving ducks, the bufflehead, canvasback, ruddy ducks and a gaggle of geese floating off the end of the pier in about 10-12 feet of water.
Plump ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis) bobbed close, diving deep and long for crustaceans and plants. Their heads are large with a wide dark bill. In the summer, the male’s bill will turn a lovely blue and their mating plumage will turn ruddy. This time of year, the plumage is shades of browns and grays.
I could hear the low wailing call of the common loon (Gavia immer) far out on the river, haunting and eerie. These long-bodied birds look like ducks with their webbed feet but they are unrelated. Its bill is straight and pointed and during the winter it wears its non-breeding plumage of browns and blacks and white around the throat. In the summer when I visit my daughter in Maine, I’ll see common loons in their breeding plumage, a distinctive black/white checkered back.
On this river, it has always been a standoffish and evasive bird, swimming to the middle of the river by the time I reach the end of the pier. I have never gotten a close view of these winter visitors. Yesterday was a different story. From a neighboring pier I spotted a solitary loon swimming slowly in my direction. I simply froze in place and watched with the camera at eye level until the bird was directly beneath me. Yikes! What a beauty!
The loon feeds by swimming underwater with powerful legs positioned toward the rear of their bodies. I watched as this loon repeatedly dove for long periods underwater, each time surfacing closer to me. And each time he surfaced, it was with some food. What was he eating?
Click the photos to see the tiny meals.
I watched the loon dive for long periods, then break the surface with four small blue crabs that had been attached to the pilings of the pier. Before I knew it, the show was over and the loon was moving toward deeper waters. I could exhale….
Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester