Birds of the York
Birds of the York River are fascinating to watch, every day and any season. Rob and Share Breitenstein of Pensacola FL took their three beautiful children sailing on breezy York River, where we saw dolphins hunting schools of fish. Either that or they were just playing; it’s hard to tell with dolphins.
Overhead about 300 feet flew two osprey in lazy circles. It was if they were trolling the dolphins in search of fish for their fledglings. They swooped down with a vengeance but we didn’t see them catch anything. When they do snare a fish, which is 70% of the time, the osprey quickly flex their talons inward to make the fish aerodynamically poised to fly, like a bomb underneath a B-52.
Come May, the osprey are about to give birth, so we tend to give them wider berth when turning past their nests high atop the channel daymarks. Once the fledglings are hatched, the mother will sometimes attack a boater who steers too close. It’s a sight to see since the boater is clueless about what he did to attract such hostility.
Rob recalled, “While driving here on vacation, we saw two vultures in the road picking at a carcass. One of them flew at us and almost flew in the window. The air conditioning in our van is broken, so we had the windows down. It was a close call.” He paused to let us contemplate a confused vulture inside a van full of people.
Share added, “The same thing happened with a duck on the ferry from Scotland Wharf to Jamestown. The duck flew up and almost came in the window. What is it with these birds in Virginia?”
As winter fades into early spring, the first faint sounds high in the air of birds on the York are Ducks returning north. Or so it seems. The ducks were here all along, as attested by hunting season running mid-October through January. Yet it seems like they’re migrating back, at least the majority of them. Their V-formation flight is glorious to behold, because we can behold spring and the beginning of sailing season. Ducks populate Sarah Creek around York River Yacht Haven. Their ducklings love to paddle between boats in the docks.
Heron are found along the shore of the York and in the creeks and other estuaries. The majestic height and lean appearance of the Blue Heron belie a substantial size. Mark Garland’s guide, “Birds of the Mid-Atlantic Coast,” describes the Tricolored Heron as 26 inches tall with a wing span of 36 inches.
The Osprey is king of the York. They migrate back from South America (Argentina in our case) in early spring, taking roost in the day marks along the channel. The male fetches the sticks for the nest, and the female arranges the nest (just like our house). The existential question I pose to guests of Let’s Go Sail is: How do they get the first stick to stay? Once completed, the nests are weatherproof up to hurricane-strength winds. It takes a crew from the US Coast Guard to remove them in the fall. The video below shows the hazards that plastic bags pose to birds, in this case osprey chicks. What’s sadly hilarious is that it takes a VIMS student to rise to the rescue, literally.
Hawks co-exist with osprey, who are really glorified hawks anyway. The distinction is that Osprey rely 99% on fish while hawks will eat most anything. The fish dependence requires that baby osprey learn how to dive 3 feet into the water to find and catch the fish. Problem is, the refraction of light in the water throws off their view. It’s some sort of miracle that it works so well. Eagles do not play well with Osprey, so we see few of them. Eagles are found along the James River instead. Osprey dominate among birds of the York.
Flying close to the water
Cormorants, aka Loons, are found along the shore and are notable for swimming with their head and neck above the waterline, rather like a submarine. They gather in flocks, but the ones we see on the York seem more scattered and independent. They fly close to the water, within inches of tripping. What’s more, they have to get a running start to gain flight. Loons come in two forms, black and white. The whites are freshwater birds whose white is more of a lapel. Ours are saltwater loons, black all over.
Pelicans fly the close to the water, except when they rise up to dive. They rise three stories up and then WHAM! into the water. Oddly, they come up empty much of the time, compared to ospreys at 70%. Pelicans, seagulls and loons tend to move on in spring and summer because the osprey are so dominant. It’s not that they fight each other, but they compete for fish. Come fall, they’ll all be back.
Egrets are a wading bird like the Blue Heron, only smaller and white. Garland describes the Great Egret as one who “stalks fish patiently.” They stand in the water like a statue for long minutes at a time before striking.
Finally, Seagulls as shown in the illustration above are few and far between on the York. They portend bad weather, having flown inland from the sea for safety. Cormorants, pelicans and seagulls avoid the York in summer because, like the eagle, they don’t coexist with osprey. Come fall when the osprey leave, the river lights up with other birds. The seasonal cycle continues.
Then there is the most famous bird of Tidewater. I told the Breitensteins the story of the personality Fabio, who in 1989 was the Hollywood celebrity hired to open a new ride at Busch Gardens. At the coaster descended from the top, his face collided with a Canada goose flying by. It broke his nose and splattered blood all over several vestal virgins who accompanied him on the ride. He was a good sport about it and continued with the promotion all day.
Let’s Go Sail to Birds of the York
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Birds of the York
A primer describes the birds who dominate the York River.
Capt Bill ODonovan
Williamsburg Charter Sails, Let's Go Sail