Nature Corner

Joe Fehrer
Bay Creek Naturalist

December 28, 2022

LEARNING HOW TO ‘LOOK’ AT WINTER NATURE
Winter slips into the Eastern Shore little by little. Golden hues of autumn become a little more subtle, and deciduous trees start letting go of their crisp brown leaves as days countdown to winter. The fresh bay breeze gets a little cooler and Bay Creek dons a quieter, subtler landscape.

Each season on the Eastern Shore is lovely in its own right: neon greens and vivid first buds in spring, lush greens and showy blooms in summer, and the flaming golds and reds of fall. Says Bay Creek naturalist, Joe Fehrer, “Winter brings a different kind of color and nature, and it often requires a different kind of looking.”

When exploring Bay Creek’s nature in spring and summer, there’s exuberance at every turn— bright blooms, canopies of deep green trees, meadows of color, butterflies, seabirds, and songbirds.  According to Joe, who is both an expert nature guide and an excellent conversationalist, winter at Bay Creek may have a softer voice, but it has many meaningful things to say to those who will pause and listen.

“As winter approaches, the water temperature cools just a bit. That means the game fish have changed,” explains Joe. “We’re seeing less speckled trout and red drum. Now, the cold-water fish, like rockfish, are moving in, and if you’re an angler, that’s a good thing. In the skies, we’re seeing the last few migratory songbirds, the long-distance tropical migrant birds, and warblers come through,” Joe adds. “We’re in the winter bird season now, so we’re seeing more sparrow species in the meadows, woods edge and lake areas. The yellow-rumped warblers have shown up in big numbers in the last few weeks. The chickadees, titmice, and downy and hairy woodpeckers and many others are here, too.”

Here to Stay is … the Bluebird?
Bluebirds are actually short distance migrants, meaning there will be many bluebirds throughout the winter at Bay Creek. “They may only go short distances south—they may come from New Jersey, for example, down here to Virginia,” says Joe.

Because of this, the bluebird boxes around the property, built and installed by a dedicated group of Stewardship
Club members and residents, are in high demand as the bluebird population remains strong. 
“Near Base Camp, there’s an area that looks out over Plantation Creek and the Chesapeake Bay,” says Joe. “I saw no less than fifty bluebirds as I walked that area the other day. It was incredible.”

Bluebird boxes aren’t the only welcoming man- made accommodation for birds at Bay Creek. There are also wood duck boxes. “We’ll be installing more wood duck boxes on some of the ponds, soon. The existing wood duck boxes haven’t hosted any wood ducks yet, but they may be utilized by screech owls who are looking for a place out of the wind weather in the upcoming months,” says Joe.

As for birds, this time of year, Joe says, there are more waterfowl moving in on the ponds—the puddle or dabbling ducks—and then the diving ducks on the Bay and in the creek. “On the beach, I’ve recently found some feathers of Common Loons, and on a still day, when the Bay is calm, you can walk the beach and sometimes hear the calls of the loons in the Bay,” Joe says. “It’s beautiful.”

Making Connections
From loons on the Bay to seeds in the meadow, there will be a lot to observe this winter for those who are willing to take a closer look. Joe’s ‘Field Work with a Naturalist’ walk offers a deep dive into what’s growing, and what birds and wildlife are in the community. “On the winter “Field Work” walks, we’ll talk about the birds we see, where we’re seeing them, and then make connections: ‘why do the sparrows like the meadow areas this time of year,’ for example, and ‘what are they finding to eat there?’”

“I’ve been curious my whole life as to how things work: why does a particular bird or butterfly need a specific host plant, and then seeing
the relationships in nature,” explains Joe. His themed walks have this ‘curiosity’ quality, too, by design.

“This is the time of year I like to look for little details. We’ll walk through the meadows and gather different seeds and look at the shape
of the seeds and how they disperse. Winter is a good time of year to look at the minutiae of detail. In the spring and summer, there’s such abundance that it can be hard to focus. This time of year, I tend to get more reflective on the nature walks. It’s a good time of year to just slow down, to look at and study a single leaf or seed.”

When observing winter leaves and foliage, Joe offers this advice for winter at Bay Creek:

 

“Some of the sweet gums will retain a few of their colorful fall leaves through the early winter.
You might see some peeking through here and there. But really, this is the time of year when the evergreens stand out: the pines, the hollies, some of our greenbriers, all native plants. This is a great time of year to go explore for those. The Yaupon Holly is a native plant covered with bright red berries and smaller rounded leaves, and the yaupon is the only naturally caffeinated plant in North America,” he says. “It’s a very pretty plant. You can buy dried yaupon, just as you’d buy tea leaves and steep it for a caffeinated beverage.”

“You’ll also see the red berries and sharp leathery leaves of the American holly, or ‘Christmas Holly’. Besides that, you may see some late blooming golden rods here and there, nestled down in the meadows protected from the frost, if you keep your eyes open for them,” Joe says.

History, Helping Hands, and Paying it Forward
Joe continues to do the popular Full Moon walks, beach walks, and walks focusing more on the upland areas now that the weather has cooled. In early 2023, he will be leading people to explore areas that are within the larger Preserve area— but places where most guests may not venture on their own. “There are some really beautiful areas here on the property,” says Joe. He also continues to share the area’s rich history with his fellow nature walkers.

“It’s important to me that people new to Bay Creek, who didn’t grow up on the Eastern Shore or who are not that familiar with it, understand the natural and cultural history of the Shore. Hopefully, in these nature walks, they’ll take something positive away and perhaps be inspired to give back, too.”

On the property, winter brings the need for special tasks to help natural areas thrive. In late winter we’ll be mowing the areas that were once golf fairways. It’s a difficult task but the payoff
is in the variety of plants that come up and the many different animals and insects that depend on these open meadow-like habitats. We’re so well placed on the Eastern Shore peninsula … Bay Creek is in the process of becoming a stellar habitat with the restoration of these natural areas. It’s very exciting,” Joe says.

Bay Creek Stewardship Club members have already volunteered to help with these important restoration tasks. In early December, Joe, Ranger Stan, and 10 members of the Stewardship Club planted close to 100 long leaf pine trees in one of the former golf fairways.

“We planted the trees and did a tutorial about the long leaf pine, their history and importance to the ecology. A few extra trees plugs were offered to Stewardship members who helped with the planting, so they could take one to establish as a yard tree,” he said.

“Some of the planting volunteers asked, ‘will we ever see these trees get big?’ My answer was ‘yes, you’ll see them get taller, but we most likely won’t see them get big and old. But your grandkids will.’ So we’re just paying it forward,” says Joe. “I can’t say enough good things about the folks who volunteer and give freely of their time here at Bay Creek… just like the volunteers who helped plant the saplings, and who may never see them reach their full size. In a world of instant gratification, that kind of patience, and faith, is a very pleasant thing.”

Like saplings beginning their journey to become towering pines, time marches on and nature with it. “When winter eventually fades to spring,” says Joe, “we’ll lose our winter birds and welcome the spring and summer birds, and the cycle just begins again,” says Joe. “Nature and the change of seasons are like a slow-turning wheel.”

Rolling through one beautiful season to the next is part of the absolute wonder of nature here at Bay Creek. And when you’re thoroughly familiar with an area, as Joe is with Bay Creek, “You know what to expect and where to look,” says Joe. “It’s all about seeing things in a different way, and helping people learn to observe and appreciate nature in winter and every season.”

3335 STONE ROAD
CAPE CHARLES, VA 23310
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