Winter Inlet Birding

by Jim Rapp

Naturalist Jim Rapp tells us about winter birding along our coast.

Birding on Delmarva is excellent year-round, and winter is no exception. You may think that most of our birds fly south for the winter, but Delmarva IS the south for some species that breed further north. If you bundle up, pack your binoculars and explore our birding hotspots, you'll be rewarded with views of birds that you won't find at any other time of the year.

Many of our Arctic breeding birds escape the frozen north to feed here during Delmarva's generally balmy winters. Even on our coldest days, Delmarva's coastal waters remain mostly free of ice and full of fish and marine invertebrates.

That doesn't mean that survival is easy. Winter still brings challenges, but birds have adaptations to help them stay warm, fat and happy.

Waterfowl and sea birds that winter along our coast wear downy feather coats under a waterproof shell. These birds have oil-producing glands that allow them to apply a waterproof coating when they straighten and clean their feathers with their beaks, a behavior known as preening.

Bird feet are mostly bone and sinew covered with scales, with very little tissue that can be damaged by the cold. Some birds have a special adaptation in the circulatory system of their feet and legs that efficiently moves blood between cold outer areas and warm inner areas.

Another strategy for staying alive in the winter is to engage in behaviors that do not require intense amounts of energy, such as defending territories, building nests, producing eggs and feeding hungry chicks. Winter birds tend to be more social and less concerned about their neighbors, which can be beneficial for those of us who like to watch them.

Some of Delmarva's best winter birding adventures occur right at the edge of the continent, where land meets sea. Cruising along the Atlantic coast from Cape Charles to Cape Henlopen, you'll find many winter birds that favor the open Atlantic Ocean and barrier islands. The islands are broken up by inlets, where the salty sea flushes the brackish bays during twice daily tides.

These dynamic transition zones are the best places to set up shop for sea birds that feed on the bountiful stocks of small fish and marine invertebrates that thrive in our winter waters. Some of these birds are rarely ever seen even a few hundred yards inland.

On weekend winter mornings, you will likely find hardy birders in protective parkas, hats and gloves peering through spotting scopes along the rock jetties at the Ocean City Inlet in Maryland and the Indian River Inlet in Delaware. Some of the maritime birds can only be seen with high-powered scopes, bobbing in the waves or flying just above the horizon.

Some of the inlet highlight birds you'll spot in a scope are known as alcids, or auks. These open-ocean birds have stocky, streamlined bodies; short, narrow wings and stubby tails; and most have a crisp black and white color pattern. Due to their similar body shape and colors, alcids are sometimes referred to as "penguins of the north." Penguins, however, are only found in the southern hemisphere, and can't fly.

Two alcids you may find at Delmarva's inlets are the large Razorbill and the diminutive Dovekie. The length of a Razorbill is just under 17 inches, and the Dovekie is about half that size. Both birds breed on sea cliffs in the North Atlantic, and migrate south to the Delmarva coast in the winter.

Razorbills and Dovekies dive into the ocean, using their wings, feet and streamlined bodies to chase their underwater prey. Both species eat fish and small crustaceans, but the Razorbill eats more fish than the Dovekie, which favors invertebrates. Razorbills dive up to 400 feet, while the Dovekie spends most of its time feeding just below the surface.

While you may catch Razorbills and Dovekies flying with rapid, flapping wing beats just above the water, scan the skies above the horizon for other winter birds. Flocks of sharp-looking white Northern Gannets can be seen engaging in spectacular plunge-dives for fish.

Hundreds of birds can sometimes be seen diving into the Atlantic from heights of up to 130 feet, creating long plumes as they hit the water surface like torpedoes and descend into the deep. Once underwater, gannets can swim up to 72 feet to catch fish.

Flocks of stocky scoters can be seen flying along the horizon with gannets, but large rafts of these mostly black, chunky sea ducks can also be found bobbing in the water closer to shore. You can find three species of scoter along Delmarva's coast in the winter: the fairly common Black and Surf Scoter, and the less common White-winged Scoter. They dive underwater to yank mollusks and marine invertebrates from the jetty rocks and ocean floor with their strong, thick bills.

Another stocky duck, the Common Eider, can also be found at the inlets. They have a distinctive wedge-shaped head with a long bill. During the breeding season in the north, eiders are quite colorful, but they normally appear drab brown to blackish during their Delmarva winters.

The elegant Long-tailed Duck can often be seen surfing the inlet waves, sometimes with human surfers in their thick, black wetsuits. Formerly known as the Oldsquaw, this medium-size duck is now named for the male's long, pointed tail feathers. The Long-tailed Duck is one of the deepest diving ducks in the world, reaching depths of 200 feet when hunting for marine invertebrates.

The Brant is a small sea goose that resembles the common Canada Goose, with its grey-brown body and black head and neck with a white, partly broken collar. It dabbles in the shallow water, feeding mostly on marine grasses, seaweed and sea lettuce with its short, stubby bill. Brant can occasionally be found grazing on grassy lawns near the coast.

For many, the favorite inlet bird is the incredibly gorgeous Harlequin Duck. Although rarely seen on Delmarva in flocks of more than two or three birds, the sight of this colorful diving duck is worth braving the winter elements. The colors of the male Harlequin ranges from slate-blue to chestnut-brown, broken by crisp white streaks, spots and stripes. This is one bird you should Google to get the full effect of its kaleidoscopic physical appearance. Harlequin Ducks prefer the fast-moving tides and rocky shores of the inlets, which is reminiscent of the New England coast.

If you want to experience Delmarva's inlet birding before these amazing animals head north in early spring, join the expert guides leading field trips during the Delmarva Winter Birding Weekend, which will be held January 29 through 31. For more information, please visit