Birding on the Chesapeake Bay

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT) is a great birding hotspot, with over three hundred species recorded from it.  It’s one of the more reliable places in the state to see white-winged scoter, harlequin duck, common eider, purple sandpiper, razorbill and even Iceland gull.  Since the closure of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel Island One in October 2017, the only way to bird the Tunnel Islands is by boat.  The Williamsburg bird club often charters a large fishing boat and spends the morning out on the bay.  My brother and I were lucky enough to go with them in early February.

We arrived at Lynnhaven Inlet, where the boat was leaving from, five minutes ahead of schedule, and Theo and I walked down the dock to look around while our dad got tickets.  A harlequin duck was diving with a bufflehead next to a nearby boat.  Usually harlequin ducks are only found out by the islands in the middle of the bay, but this bird had been hanging out in the inlet for about a week.  Several cormorants roosted on a rock out in the inlet, and a common goldeneye hunted in the water next to them.

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Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis)

The water was glassy and smooth as we started out into the Bay, with barely a ripple to speak of.  Red-breasted mergansers, surf scoters, and the occasional long-tailed duck flew away from our boat over the water.  Suddenly two small, compact seabirds flew right in front of the bow, beating their wings rapidly.  Razorbills, and some of the closest ones I’d ever seen too!  The winter of 2018/2019 has been a good year for razorbills — an irruptive species — which are much more numerous on the Virginia coast during irruption years than non irruption years.

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Razorbill (Alca torda)

We continued along the Bay Bridge Tunnel into the Bay, stopping around the islands where birds concentrated.  At the first island, more long-tailed ducks, red-breasted mergansers, buffleheads and surf, and white-winged scoters flew past us.  Several lesser black-backed gulls sat on the rocks.  At further islands, the birds were similar, although we added great cormorant, brant and purple sandpiper.

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Brant (Branta bernicla)

I raised my binoculars to look at a large sea-duck under the bridge.  I assumed it would be a surf scoter, but to my surprise it had the long, sloped forehead and distinctive profile of a common eider.  Eiders are one of my favorite ducks, because the summer males are gorgeous.  This was a female, so it was mostly brown, but it was still nice to see as I’d only seen four others in my life.

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Common Eider (Somateria mollissima)

On the way back, people threw bits of fish off the back end of the boat to attract gulls.  Although nothing really rare showed up this year, it was exciting to see gannets diving at the fish pieces close to the boat, along with many lesser black-backed and herring gulls.  Further excitement was provided by the appearance of a humpback whale part way back to Lynnhaven Inlet.  We got to watch the whale’s back slowly sliding through the water, and see the plumes of water it exhaled.  We watched it for a long time — probably a little longer than necessary — before heading back to the harbor.

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Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus)