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Spring Migration Signals Arrivals & Departures - March 15, 2015

The clocks have sprung forward an hour and the weather is starting to warm up, which means spring is well on its way here.

Spring in the coastal bays means a changing of the guards. Animals that spent the winter here will be leaving soon or have already left, and animals that spend the summer in our watershed will soon be here or have already arrived.

This means it is a great time to go out and explore the coastal bays area to see new arrivals and say goodbye to our winter guests.

Nothing says spring in Maryland like the distinctive call of the Northern spring peeper frog. This frog breeds between February and June and the male’s loud call, a single loud chirp once per second usually repeated in rapid succession, is one of the signature sounds of spring on the Eastern Shore. The frog itself only grows to around an inch in adulthood, so it might not be seen easily in its wetland habitat, although it can definitely be heard at dusk and during the night.

Another sign of warmer days to come is the arrival of the osprey. This beautiful fishing hawk usually arrives at the end of February and into mid-March. Once the bird arrives it will find a nesting spot, often using the same nest from last year if it has not already been claimed, and pair up for the breeding season.

Many osprey nests can be seen on channel markers in our coastal bays, which allows experienced and novice birders alike, as long as they have boats, to take an up-close look at the birds, their nest and their offspring.

The majestic great blue heron is not only a symbol for the Chesapeake Bay, but also the return of spring and summer. While some great blue herons will overwinter in Maryland, the majority will travel south for the winter to places like Florida and Georgia.

Starting in mid-February, the great blues return to our area to start establishing rookeries: large breeding sites for many pairs of great blue herons to start a nest. These rookeries are usually established in uninhabited areas such as marshes and small islands. While it may be difficult to find a great blue’s nest or chicks, these large herons can be seen hunting and foraging in our coastal bays throughout the warmer months.

Horseshoe crabs are another indicator of spring and summer. These prehistoric animals never truly leave, however during May they come ashore to spawn. This spawning coincides with the full moon and spring tides, and occurs on sandy beaches throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

This mass spawning is not only an amazing sight, but it serves an important purpose for migrating shore birds. Horseshoe crabs lay thousands of tiny eggs during mating. Many of these green eggs are eaten by migratory shore birds for fuel to continue their flight northward.

Spot fish entering our bays and rivers is yet another sign of warmer days to come. These small fish overwinter offshore, where they spawn in late fall and winter. During spring, these fish return to our bays, with juveniles leading the charge. Adults stay in areas with a slight salinity, but juveniles can be found in areas with completely fresh water. These fish will feed in the rivers and bays until fall, when water temperatures drop and food starts to become scarce, at which point they will swim back to the Atlantic ocean for the winter.

Another aquatic animal making its way into our bays is the Blue Crab, a staple for spring, summer and fall here on the eastern shore and Maryland in general.

The blue crabs undergo a migration, although it’s not as long as the migrations of some of our Shore bird visitors. The crabs will overwinter toward the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, burying themselves in the mud throughout the winter months and coming out when the weather starts to turn warmer. Once the water starts to warm and the plankton population increases due to the extended amount of sunlight, the crabs dig themselves out and make their way up the bay to feed and grow.

While some animals are heading up to our coastal bays for the spring and summer, some are getting ready to migrate northward.

While there are some flocks of “resident” Canada geese, there are still many flocks of migratory Canada geese that will travel north to Quebec for the summer. The migrating flocks will head north to take advantage of the food available due to warming weather and longer sunlight hours, and will not come back to the Eastern Shore until fall.

Grey, harbor, hooded and harp seals are all winter visitors to our coastal bays. These seals, usually seen by themselves, tend to be juveniles and will return north for the summer. They will return to various parts of Canada and the arctic and will feed on the explosion of life in the northern seas caused by the warming weather and longer sunlight hours.

While we do not having a breeding population of seals in the coastal bays, throughout the past few years we have seen more and more seals visiting our bays to rest during the winter.

Our migrating animals will not stay here forever, so go out and enjoy our seasonal visitors before they leave!


Harrison Jackson is the Coastal Stewards Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 


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