Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Sounds of Summer

 [Herring Gull chick, west of Avalon today.]

I don't mean sounds you hear, though there are plenty of them: the laughing of gulls, keee-aaahrr's of Common Terns, drone of flies, music of the ice cream truck driving the streets of North Cape May, crash of waves and laughter of children at the beach. The sounds I mean have water in them, at least at high tide: sound, noun: an inlet, bay, or recessed portion of the ocean.

Of both sounds, Cape May has many. Of the aquatic kind, Great, Grassy, Jarvis, Jenkins, Richarson, Townsend (who were these people?) fill and empty with the twice daily tides. Today I paddled Stite's Sound and down to Townsend's Inlet; tomorrow it will be Taylor Sound, on a falling tide, passing the marsh shack  hosting an Osprey nest on the roof, the one, I fancy, that Witmer Stone stayed in 100 years ago or so. He wrote of visiting such a place, and the location matches, roughly, though without maintenance a shack in the marsh falls down several times over in the span of a century. According to the plan, I'll pass "Stone's" shack again on the way back in as the tide rises and gives me a lift to the landing. That's the theory. We'll see what the wind says, but one thing I can tell you is you don't want to wind up in a kayak fighting both an outgoing tide and the wind at the same time. At least not in the narrow channels, where the tidal flow can outstrip a small outboard or weak kayaker. In bigger channels, the water spreads a bit and you can go against the flow, but it's not much fun.

The sounds are shallow, so shallow that at low tide they won't float a kayak in places - which means they won't float a boat, or, hallelujah, a jet ski. But on the mud left behind at low tide there are shorebirds, foraging gulls, terns, egrets, and night-herons, and the myriad creatures that are the supermarket for these birds.

More on the shorebirds later. Today I checked in on another gull colony I know, a large gull colony, by which, as Tony Leukering made me clarify, I mean a colony of large gulls: mostly Herring, a few Great Black-backeds.

Herring Gulls on an isolated sandy spit, higher than the surrounding marsh and safe from flooding, with high-tide bush for the chicks to hide under, and shelter from the swelter of late.]

[Herring Gull egg. 2 to go; the norm is 3 per clutch. ]

[Mobile Herring Gull fledgling.]

[Still older juvenile Herring Gull, with parent.]

Mike Crewe told us over crab cakes and beer tonight that in the U.K., gull chicks are banded by teams of people,because the chicks so effectively disappear when approached. And it's true: there had to be dozens of chicks in the gull colony I visited this morning, yet a quick but careful walk-through yielded none apparent to the eye. Mike said the teams use radios, with observers guiding the banders: "Okay, put your hand down next to that shrub, the chick is right there." I stepped away from the colony to watch, and sure enough, chicks started reappearing from their hiding places, including the one pictured above.

[This group of Black-crowned Night-herons accreted around a salt marsh pool as the tide fell, concentrating prey.]

 [Clappers, Clappers everywhere. I could have reached out and picked this Clapper Rail up.]

[Rigged for battle. The black bag is a waterproof bicycle pannier adapted for kayaking, and holds the camera. I would prefer a camo kayak, but anyone who's been out in south Jersey coastal waters knows you want to be visible, lest a jet ski or inattentive boater run you down. . .]

It was 94 degrees next to the water near Avalon when I came off about 10:00 a.m. The outside thermometer reading, according to my truck, peaked at 99 in the center of the Cape May Peninsula a little later, dropping again as I got close to the bay. Who knows what the high was; mowing the lawn at midday left me soaking, and the birds visited the water drip constantly, lawnmower running nearby or not. I got on the water before sunup this morning and swam several times to cool off, watching schools of silversides flee in front of me.

These sounds teem with life. When people ask me why Cape May is so good for birds, that's part of the answer.


  1. Great blog Don! I've been visiting everyday for 3 three weeks now. I visit cape may often and just started researching kayaks for birding. What kind of boat are you using?

  2. @ FlipFlopJoe, my boat is an RTM Tempo sit-on-top. The only things I don't like about it are 1) it's a bit heavy and 2) the storage behind the seat is a bit irregular in shape, would have preferred something designed to accomodate say a cooler and 5 gallon bucket. It tracks well, handles waves well, easy to get in and out of. In a heavy chop you'll get wet, so I wear waders in the cool months. I've used it canoe camping on the Delaware, too.

  3. @ Don Freiday, I've been going back and forth between a 12' sit on top and a 14' sit-in kayak. The tempo is at 15ft, do you find it hard to turn in the back waterways?

  4. @ FlipFlopJoe, the Tempo is a bit hard to turn in tiny channels, and turn in general, but I've never been prevented from going as far as I want up a tidal creek because I worried about turning around - you usually find a wide spot to spin in, or you can just go backwards a bit. The length gives you tracking and speed, and nice hull capacity (i.e. if you want to carry camping gear). I've done a lot more canoeing than kayaking, and the rule of thumb I applied for open boats is use the fastest (=longest) boat that will let you do the other stuff you might want to (i.e. maneuver). I'd definitely opt for the longer boat if you're thinking tidal creeks, bay, and ocean. If you want to do tight Pine Barrens streams, it might be a different story. Having kayaked a while now, I might well opt for a sit-in, and get a spray skirt and learn how to roll for that matter, though getting in and out of the sit on top is so easy. I've practiced falling out in open water and its a cinch to climb back in - but not fun if it's cold.