Nature Corner – Joe Fehrer, Bay Creek Naturalist 

Right now, Bay Creek and the stunning Eastern Shore area that surrounds it are alive with activity. Joe Fehrer, Bay Creek on-staff naturalist, is a keen observer of nature. From burgeoning spring blossoms to the sounds of returning birds and awakening wildlife, Joe enjoys sharing the big changes and quiet moments of nature with others. This month, he offers an on-the-ground update about the arrival of spring among the Nature Preserve, waterways and shores of Bay Creek.

The Sights and Sounds that Spring Brings
“Spring is here and things are happening fast,” says Joe. “The weather has been quite mild lately. We’re several weeks ahead of where we normally are for herbaceous plants and trees revving up for spring. We’re not fully into the big flowering-plant season quite yet, but we are starting to see a lot of little field pansies and henbit, a member of the mint family with tiny purple flowers. It’s like a carpet of purple! And there are a lot of native shrubs here that are ready to pop, too.”

“Our winter birds are beginning to head north, which typically happens in late March. Many of the wintering waterfowl have already left, Bay Creek had a lot of blue herons all winter. These and many other migratory birds stop off here, and now they’re moving north again. We’ve just come out of an interesting period between the winter birds leaving and the spring birds arriving,” explains Joe.

From its waterways and shores to the Nature Preserve, Bay Creek serves as a haven for hundreds of species of birds and wildlife. “Now, I’m seeing some of the shorebirds come back into the area— oyster catchers, yellow legs. I also have some reliable reports that the ospreys are back. That’s always a sure sign of spring because, as fish eaters, ospreys tend to show up when they expect the fish to show up, and fish show up when the water warms.”

“We also have a few great horned owls that call the property home,” says Joe. “They’re probably sitting on eggs right now.”

Joe tells us the tree swallows have also returned…a little earlier than usual. “The swallows are back and are scoping out the nesting boxes here on the property.”, He and a group of residents and Stewardship Club members went out recently to clean bluebird boxes and check the wood duck boxes to make sure they were ready to accommodate returning feathered friends.

The Stewardship Club is an all-volunteer group that enjoys nature and lends time and talent to preserving it at Bay Creek and beyond.

“It’s really satisfying to me when you have a group of people who will volunteer their time as they do, to take ownership of maintaining a natural area,” says Joe. The Stewardship Club is joined by other Bay Creek residents who enjoy learning about and preserving nature.

“We’ve recently had an event where we gathered to put together blue bird boxes for the property.,” “We were also there to help residents build boxes to install on their own property. Ranger Stan and I are happy to help facilitate people putting up bluebird boxes. It’s just another way to help do the right thing by this property.”  “We have many residents who give freely of their time to do something positive that benefits not only the Bay Creek community but also Cape Charles and the entire region that is the southern peninsula,” says Joe. “I find that really gratifying.”

Observing, Learning & Appreciating Nature, Great and Small
It’s Joe’s work and passion to conserve and observe nature and share it with others. His fieldwork keeps him in tune with what’s happening in nature, both big and small. Joe’s schedule of nature walks and talks allow him to share this with guests and residents and show them parts of nature they may have otherwise overlooked.

“I’m a detail-oriented person. I like the big picture, but it’s the small details that I really get excited about,” says Joe. “Recently, I was on the beach and saw a moon snail sitting atop an oyster. The moon snail dissolves the shell of the oyster so it can eat the meat inside. It’s nature in its rawest sense but it’s something that’s been going on for thousands, maybe millions, of years.”

“That’s the kind of detail we find when we take walks, whether its bird watching and learning about a specific bird, its habitat, its nature… or whether it’s picking up an oyster on the beach and talking about oyster aquaculture, which is a big thing here on the Eastern Shore. These details are all around us. It’s just how close you want to look. That’s what I try to do with my walks—to help people see these things in a way that they can appreciate those small details, too.”

Joe hosts many participants on his themed walks. Areas of focus are diverse, from a program where he goes through the history of the Lower Peninsula and then the Bay Creek property specifically, to walks that focus on specific species like waterfowl and wading birds, to ‘full moon’ walks where Joe leads guests on a night journey through the Nature Preserve to observe and learn.

“When the weather warms up, we may be adding a New Moon walk, too. This would be a dark night walk which allows different senses to take over.” Being out in nature after dark is, indeed, an interesting experience. “People who join me for the full moon walks really enjoy it. They appreciate the fact that it gives them a reason to get out in nature at night and do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do,” smiles Joe.  

And though Joe’s nature walks are planned events, you never know what you might discover. “I’ve been doing some walks outside the Preserve area, too,” says Joe. “These are protected areas that are a little less accessible. We’re not walking on trails; we’re trekking through the woods. Last time out, we found little native orchids and bird feathers. Almost every time I’m out there I see something really unique,” he adds. “This winter, we had a Eurasian widgeon on one of the ponds in the Preserve area. That bird ordinarily migrates across Eurasia — and here it is showing up on the east coast! It’s amazing.”

There are so many interesting things and meaningful moments to experience in every season when one slows down to take time to observe.  “Recently, I was leading a full moon walk,” recalls Joe. “We were out there in the darkness, and we heard tundra swans that were migrating north. You can’t see them in the dark, but you can hear them overhead. It’s a bit haunting, but beautiful… it’s music that comes out of nowhere, passes by, then slowly disappears in the distance.”

In nature, there is beauty to be discovered in both the monumental and the minuscule. So, in this time of spring renewal, unfolding petals, emerging leaves, winter birds flying away north and new ones arriving from the south, Joe encourages us to stop…to observe…to simply be, as nature reveals its magnificence all around us here on the Eastern Shore.

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