Bird-watching from a Kayak around Assateague Island

by Bill & Mary Burnham

Assateague Lighthouse is visible from the launch

This paddle started on a falling tide with hopes of exploring the small guts of Horse Swamp and Black Duck Marsh on the backside of Assateague Island south of the causeway. Overcast skies lent a grey feeling at launch. Light rain pit-pat-pit-pat on my kayak and dimpled the water. It is hard to get motivated on a weather day like this, but without fail, there is a silver lining. Today, it's a world of gentle wind and rain, shared with birds unfazed by either.

From the East Side Boat Ramp on Chincoteague Island (a Virginia Seaside Water Trail kayak launch) you're thrown immediately into a mix of oyster beds, mud flats and saltmarsh. (Composite boat owners beware: your gel coat will suffer a bit on this trip!).

Various types of sandpipers

I had trouble making out Sheepshead Cut, a route north toward the island causeway. Paddling right from the ramp, I entered Assateague Channel and turned up into the current to trace the mud flats and oyster bars left bare by the outgoing tide. Sandpipers worked thick matts of seagrass and algea, zigzagging across the bar their heads bobbing in rhythmi poking for food wiht needle sharp bills, a display both methodical and frenetic. Which sandpipers were they? I wouldn't even begin to guess; at this stage, they're all "LBB's" to me... "Little Brown Birds."

I did recognize the willets and yellowlegs, which are considerably larger. I also logged two shorebirds new to me: Dunlins (black patch on stomach) and Godwits. Whether bar-tailed or black-tailed godwits, I do not know. Most striking was the beautiful orange/red colored necks. My book says that's breeding plumage. Very cool.

Snowy egrets (with their golden slippers) and Great egrets were plentiful. I saw no Great blue herons. Considering this is nesting season, they may be foraging closer to their rookeries; there are at least two nesting sites in Chincoteague NWR. A first for me this spring were the Little blue herons foraging in shallow water. This bird is a solitary hunter: I never saw one in the company of another, or with other birds nearby.

Bird-watching at low tide

As low tide neared, my access up into the guts of Horse Marsh became limited to a few hundred yards. I returned to the channel and rode the last of the outgoing tide down to Black Duck Creek. It winds up into Black Duck Marsh and has enough water to pass even at the lowest tides. Ahead of my boat, Snowy and Great egrets worked the stream sandbars and shallows (Snowys seemed to forage in pairs, the Greats were solitary). I finally shoaled out at a deep bend. The creek bed is firm sand, so I had good footing when I hopped out and turned the boat around. I stood straight and soaked in the sight of the wider marsh. Egrets that I'd scared away with my progress up the creek were now a good quarter mile away, white dots on a grey afternoon amid this wide, greening marsh.

Oyster catchers

I exited the creek and paddled south toward Toms Cove. This is more of an open water environment, although if you stick close to the Assateague shoreline you'll remain good and shallow. At low tide, shoals at the mouth of Toms Cove will force you farther out into the channel. I took this as a hint I should cross to the north side and explore Black Point marsh, a saltmarsh at the south tip of Chincoteague. With some guesswork, I found Andrew Landing Gut.

This is a creek that is not apparent upon approach until you're right there. [For those appoaching from Toms Cove, sight on the southernmost duck blind as a landmark.] I ventured up only a few yards, far enough to see a few Diamondback terrapins poke their heads from the water.

Bird ID

Moving back up Assateague Channel, I skirted the edge of Black Marsh, passed Toms Cove Campground and Memorial Park (there is a boat ramp at Memorial Park as well) and returned to East Side Boat Ramp via the local channel.

Approaching the ramp, it struck me how quickly an incoming tide covers up the mud flats and oyster beds. Sheepshead Cut is a perfect example. When I launched, I could not see the way into this cut for all the oyster bars. With fresh and rising water, I could now discern a route. I followed it north from the boat ramp, dodging oyster beds enroute. [A note to paddlers who might want to make this cut the first leg of your loop: Follow the willow poles and crab pot buoys carefully; these mark the deepest water.]

Bird ID

Retracing my way back to the ramp, omnimpresent grey clouds overhead lifted and the setting sun dropped into a clear horizon. In this sudden glare and brightness, I stopped to find my bearings. My ears heard the marsh soak up water like a person gasps a full gulp of air. I offered thanks for the clouds and rain, the marsh and the birds, the wind and the water, the sun and the sky, with whom I'd shared this day.

Read more about paddling the barrier islands of Virginia's Eastern Shore.

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