Embracing the Bays as a Winter Wonderland

By Maddy Goss, Communications Specialist

Cormorants and waterfowl take a rest on a pipe at the Indian River Marina.
Cormorants and waterfowl take a rest on a pipe at the Indian River Marina.

On an otherwise normal Wednesday morning, I got an exciting phone call.

The Center’s Environmental Scientist, Andrew McGowan, was heading out of the Indian River Marina and had spotted a seal. He tried quieting the boat’s engine to avoid disturbing it, offering me some hope that if I moved quickly, I might be able to spot it.

Walking along the slippery docks at the Indian River Marina, the cool January breeze made my eyes water. I strained to look through a camera lens for a whiskered face on the horizon.

When it came to the seal, I came up empty handed. But in the 30 minutes I walked along the docks, their boards still sprinkled with the morning frost where shadows had kept the sun away, I felt total peace. The water calmly rippled as gulls squawked here and there. Buffleheads gently skimmed across the water’s surface, moving as far away from me as possible. A few cormorants preened and cleaned, occasionally spreading their wings out to dry and delight me with one of my favorite birding sights.

Gulls line the docks at the Indian River Marina.


The boats have been pulled from their waterside slips at the Indian River Marina, and the nearby cabins at Delaware Seashore State Park had just a few cars out front. The visitors and tourists are few and far between this time of year–probably much more so due to the dangers of travel during the pandemic.

A bufflehead swims away from my footsteps along the docks at the Indian River Marina.

There are still quite a few visitors in the Inland Bays region during the winter months, except the visitors I’m talking about are feathered–and for this amateur backyard birder, thankfully much easier to spot and enjoy now that the trees have lost their leaves!

There’s snow geese and eiders and loons, long-tailed ducks and short-eared owls, and this year, the Center’s Science & Restoration Coordinator, Dr. Marianne Walch, tells me, there’s also an irruption of northern finches that typically are only seen father north. Local birders have seen flocks of Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, and Red Crossbills at their feeders.

An “irruption” is “a forced migration of sorts due to fluctuations in their food supply,” as the Cornell Lab at Cornell University describes it. What it means for birders in Delaware is excitement because uncommon species from way up north are heading farther south in search of food. And the Bays are just full of snacks.

This Harbor Seal was spotted in early December along the Indian River Inlet. Harbor seals migrate south from New England to enjoy some warmer waters and the fish they support from December to May each year. They can be spotted “hauling out” on beaches and rocks to warm up in the sun and rest alone or in groups. Photo by Kim Abplanalp.

This time of year, the water is also clearer because there’s less algae. The marsh plants have gone dormant, but are still holding strong against the dwindling boat wakes and never-ending tide cycles.

While we’re thrilled with the bird species we can spot — and, if you’re lucky and stay at least 150 feet away, maybe a sleepy seal sighting when they come ashore to rest — we all have to patiently wait a few more months for some of our favorites to return from deeper waters and muddy hibernation nooks.

Diamondback terrapins, blue crabs, frogs, and even some shrimp, nestle in the mud and lie dormant for months on waterways’ bottoms. Horseshoe crabs have already headed out to deeper waters to wait out winter before they return in mass to show us all what it really means to be in love under the moonlight.

While I’ll always be in love with summer days and nights, this year I’ve found a new appreciation for the spaces in between. The cool mornings and frosty blades of marsh grass have their own way of connecting us to these beautiful Bays around us. Sometimes that connection is just between your soul and the stillness in the natural world around you.

Posted Under: Staff Blog