American Oystercatcher: Pursuit of an Oddball Bird

On a Port Isobel wave

On a Port Isobel wave

I can’t forget the first time I saw one.  In 2007, I was kayak fishing around Rigby Island  on the White’s Creek side.  It’s body was a slightly bit chunky.  The striking colors of the brown and white body was offset with its black head and orange bill and eyes.   While I was devoted to saving croaker from drowning that day, I hoped that I would see this bird again when photography was the only thing on my agenda.

 The American oystercatcher is one of the most attractive birds along the Atlantic coast and Chesapeake Bay.  It is a member of the sandpiper family and , hence the name, has a reputation for feeding on mollusk.  Unlike it’s dunlin and sanderling relatives, I have never seen more than 3 or 4 oystercatchers at one time.  The Eastern Shore is the best place in the state to see them in large numbers.  But, I have come to enjoy tracking them on this side of the bay.

  The Bethel Beach Natural Area Preserve is a good place to look for the bird as is Rigby Island (no trespassing, view from your kayak). DameronMarsh and Hughlett’s Point are good locations for them too.  Low tides are best for finding oystercatchers as they have more area to roam and feed.  I have my best luck in evenings, mornings, and before storms.  Stalk very cautiously if you shoot with anything less than a 400mm lens.  Use a monopod for added stability; a tripod if possible.


Love the Bay by Learning

The more you learn about something you care about, the more you love it.  Chefs who understand the alchemy of food and flavor combinations tend to be far more passionate about their craft than a burger flipper who is only seeking a few dollars to buy some electronic gizmo.  Musicians who study various genres to add to their depth of creativity make far better compositions than those who just want to make a hit or two to sell units. 

The same holds true for those who live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Sure, people love to eat succulent crabcakes and go swimming at the beach.  But, from the Susquehanna Flats to Fisherman’s Island, there are a wide variety of museums, visitor’s centers, research facilities, and other places where the general public can learn more about the bay through the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.  Most of these places cost about as much as the parking fee at an amusement park.  Yet the information and interpreters in there can give an informal education that is far more valuable than a roller-coaster.

Dawn from Tangier Sound © John Gresham

Dawn from Tangier Sound © John Gresham

For example, the Tangier Island Museum is a fascinating place to learn about (and meet) some of the most unique people in the region.  How does an isolated community maintain a heritage and dialect in a modern world that threatens their way of life?  Browse through the displays and talk to the locals and you will find Tangier to be a place where people are very concerned and also very friendly.

Next door to Tangier is Port Isobel.  This island is a research facility of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and is open for hikers as well as those who participate in CBF led field trips.  I was fortunate to be a part of the Watershed Educators Institute training on Port Isobel and explored the marshes and shoreline.  Our interpreters also gave crab and oyster dredging demonstrations so that we could identify the various creatures in aquatic environments. 

Crab from the eel grass © John Gresham

Crab from the eel grass © John Gresham

For those who don’t fancy a trip over the open waters of the Chesapeake, there are other places in the region that are more than worth a road trip for education, scenic beauty, wonderful people, (and good food).  Among my recommendations are:

  • Virginia Institute of Marine Science (Gloucester Point) – The premiere research facility on the bay has aquariums, a touch tank, and holds public seminars year round.
  • Gwynn’s Island (Mathews) – Home to a quaint museum and fine sunsets on the Piankitank River.  There is plenty of lodging as well.
  •  Tappahannock – The historic center of town leads right down to a public access waterfront.  Visit the museum and do some antique shopping too.
  • Virginia State Parks – The parks in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have unique displays and interpretive programs led by staff who friendly and knowledgeable

I hope you take the time this summer to visit one or two of the many points of interest along the bay in Maryland and Virginia.  Escape for a day, or plan a family vacation to learn and love the Chesapeake.

Before You Go To OBX: Sandbridge

Sandbridge is that little space between the Oceana Naval Air Station and the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge that people tend to overlook.  Aside from the rental condos, there aren’t any options for cheap, creature-comfort lodging on the beach.  Many people prefer the nightlife and people watching on the main strip of Virginia Beach.  Others head south to the under-developed shores of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  While getting a Euro-style OBX on your car may be something of a status symbol, I recommend making Sandbridge a day trip, if not vacation destination. 

A Moment at Sandbridge

A Moment at Sandbridge

Little Island Park is the kind of small town beach that you thought was paved over completely.  The rest rooms are well taken care of and life guards are ready for rescues and suggestions of where to stay and what to do in town.  The park boast a massive fishing pier where almost anything can be caught (I saw a guy come off the pier with pompano, a more southern species, in his bucket).  Surfers and kite boarders have plenty of room to play.  Kayakers can launch into Back Bay across the road.  Visit during the off-season (before Memorial and after Labor Day Weekends) and there is no parking fee.

Flight in Refuge (© John Gresham/DCR)

Flight in Refuge (© John Gresham/DCR)

Cameras were invented for places like Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  The abundance of wildlife and scenery is breathtaking.  Walk along a nearly deserted Atlantic Ocean Beach and see everything from humpback whales to ghost crabs.  Hike the trails and dirt roads (you can’t drive your private vehicle beyond the parking lot) for a glimpse of great and snowy egrets.  Wild horses can be found occasionally and do keep an eye out for the cottonmouths.  The Visitor’s Center is a great place to learn about all that can be found in the refuge.

Viewing a Back Bay Sunset (© John Gresham/DCR)

Viewing a Back Bay Sunset (© John Gresham/DCR)

Now, if you really want to stay on the beach in the most remote way possible, False Cape State Park is the answer to your prayers.  You must hike, bike, or paddle in.  Needless to say, your camping gear had better be lightweight.  Your efforts are greatly rewarded with perhaps the most secluded stretch of public waterfront in the entire commonwealth.  Back Bay is on the other side of this narrow strip of land for more aquatic adventures.  Be sure to stop at the Visitor’s Center for info on guided programs and kayak rentals.   

Dawn on a Dune (© John Gresham?DCR)

Dawn on a Dune (© John Gresham/DCR)

If you can’t scrape up enough money to rent one of those beach condos and lack the nerve to camp at False Cape, don’t feel forsaken.  Sandbridge is less than eight miles from the resort area of Virginia Beach.  Secure an affordable hotel in town and drive down to the pier for some fishing and fun on the beach away from the crowds.  Call the NWR or State Park and reserve a tram or terra-gator ride for an adventurous day trip.  All of the great eateries on the strip await you at the end of the day.  That is, unless you choose to dine at the iconic Margie & Ray’s Crab House instead (and I think you should).

Bay Trails Outfiters: Memory Eternal

There wasn’t a kayak yard like it anywhere.  Yeah, you could pick up one from big box chain store from some high school kid that thinks a blade is something to shave with.   And I know of one dealer with a great reputation and mind boggling selection.  But, the shop isn’t located where customers aren’t free to try before they buy.  This yard was located on a small cove of an expansive salt marsh giving rookie paddlers a calm place to learn new skills and veteran kayakers access to the Chesapeake Bay.  The owners also lead guided tours in a few choice locations in their water encircled county.  A simple red barn with a zillion fiddler crabs scurrying around roto-molded plastic and Kevlar composite hulls ready and waiting for adventures.  This was Bay Trails Outfitters.


The Kayak Yard

The Legendary BTO Kayak Yard (© John Gresham)


There was nowhere else I was going to buy my first kayak.  The owner, Shawn Towne, had a “day job” as he was running BTO.  Talking with him, I understood I should make my first boat versatile in my two major interest, fishing and exploring.  Of course, he allowed me to put his suggestion to the “test paddle.”  I found the recreational/touring Wilderness Systems Pungo 140 as the kayak with the right combination of stability for hauling up large croaker and the speed to get to where the were swimming.  Not long after buying the boat (he let me put it on lay-away), I added outdoor photography to my list of interest.  The Pungo served that purpose as well.

Too "up close and personal" (© John Gresham)

Too “up close and personal” (© John Gresham)

After making the purchase, I would often stop by BTO just to see what was new.  I’d pick up brochures of the new models from Necky, Perception, and the like.  Sometimes I’d come home with a new whistle, t-shirt, or some other what-not.  It was just cool walking among the fiddler crabs daydreaming of being able to buy a 16-foot sit-on-top, or one of those sleek performance touring boats.  Unfortunately, the dream died for Shawn and his wife a couple of years ago.  One of our park guest gave me the sad news that Bay Trails Outfitters went out of business.

Another croaker saved from drowning (© John Gresham)

Another croaker saved from drowning (© John Gresham)

Had it not been for BTO, I would have never seen and experienced the wonders of kayaking.  Paddling against an incoming tidal current on the Mattaponi River, slaying croaker with Berkley Gulp jigs, seeing dolphins jump and splash with me in their home, losing that huge croaker (or red drum) on Horn Harbor; these are the things Shawn and Jan gave me.  Coupled with my photography and writing, they also helped to lay the groundwork for me to obtain the most enjoyable secular job I have ever had. 

My Last BTO T-Shirt (© John Gresham)

My Last BTO T-Shirt (© John Gresham)

Here’s to you Shawn and Jan Towne.  Thank you so much for providing me with a seed that has bloomed into this flower of a blog called Baystride and planted me at York River State Park.  Your work was not in vain.  I pray that our economy will turn around and you will resurrect the best kayak yard this side of the Eastern Shore.  Until then, Bay Trails Outfitters – Memory Eternal.

What’s In Your Backyard?

Some years ago, I remember telling someone who my wife and I were going to Norfolk for our vacation.  She turned up her nose, as if the city was not a worthwhile destination.  undeterred by my critic and spurred on by a good deal I got on the hotel room, Brenda and I had a ball in Norfolk.  We enjoyed sunrises and sunsets at Ocean View, visited Nauticus and the Chrysler Museum, and ate at one of the best restaurants in the commonwealth, Freemason Abbey.  No, it was not the Bahamas or some other luxurious place people take cruises to.  But, we found a great little spot to get away and didn’t have to go far to get there.

Dunes on the Ocean (John Gresham/DCR)

Dunes on the Ocean (John Gresham/DCR)

For those who can afford to travel out-of-state and overseas, go for it.  We should all experience life away from our normal circles.  But, it is not unusual to find something different in a 60 mile radius of one’s home.  To save up for years for a “dream vacation” and not burn a tank of gas on a weekend road trip is a bit shameful. 

Within an hour or two from my town are a charming set of watermen communities on the Northern Neck.  I can visit the Eastern Shore or Back Bay and Sandbridge from metropolitan Hampton Roads.  On the other side of the James River is the land of peanuts and pigs.  Making my home base in Charlottesville, the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge are at my fingertips.  Each region has its own local flavor from the great seafood of Willis Wharf to a tasty little sandwich shop in Nellysford.  The Hampton Coliseum is a popular venue for major recording artist.  Or, a little bluegrass performance can be heard for pocket change in a Northumberland County church yard.  The same things that we are willing to spend hours en route to experience can be had by checking print and online weekend guides. 

Window of the Blue Ridge (John Gresham)

Window of the Blue Ridge (John Gresham)

Here is a New Year’s Resolution that may help you appreciate what you have here before going off to elsewhere.  Find five places in Virginia that you have never been to (or haven’t visited in a while) and go there for either a day, weekend, or longer.  If you prefer mountains or seashore, big cities or small towns.  Whatever floats your boat.  Make at least 3 of those visits before taking that major trip and compare the experiences.  Even if that dream vacation was all that you ever desired, at least you will know that there adventures and memories to be had right in your own backyard.

Your Corner of the World

Yes, after way too long, I am back on the blog that started my career.  While my other works on religion have been important, I should have never lost sight of the fact that Baystride Images Journal is my original creation.  This is where I expressed my passion to photograph and write about the corner of the world that I love.  I have been re-inspired by a great speech from a wonderful conference.

I am in Hampton for the National Association of Interpretation National Workshop learning skills to become more proficient at my job.  This morning’s address was given by Ned Tillman.  Ned has been a leader in conservation projects along the Chesapeake Bay for years.  Hearing him speak about the beauty of the bay, the problems and threats to its health caused by us humans, and the reasons why we must restore this precious waterway back to health could not have been given by some mere academic who doesn’t know a “rockfish” from a rock lobster.  The man is a native of the Maryland stretch of the Chesapeake and speaks from the heart.  I will soon dig into my autographed copy of The Chesapeake Watershed:  A Sense of Place and a Call to Action. 

Ned Tillman (© John Gresham)

All of us who heard his address were reminded of the reason why we are park interpreters.  Part of our job is to encourage people to love our corner of the world.  I have met Alaskans, Pennsylvanians, and colleagues from places in between.  I am sure that when they return to their workplaces, a part of Tillman’s message will be shared with each one of their guest.

I believe with my blog articles in Virginia Outdoors, I have been effective in showing people how special of a place the York River State Park is.  But, my corner and love extends past Croaker and Riverview Roads.  I have seen snow geese take off from Hughlett’s Point, croaker get hooked on a lure near  the Parrot Islands, falling water near the Blue Ridge, and a beaver dam beside my parent’s house on Jacks Creek.  The Virginia State Parks will not pay me for this blog.  I have to make the sacrifice of time and effort to show how much I care about these and other places.

I apologize for taking so long to write here.  I’ll be back in two weeks.   New photos will be posted around Thanksgiving.


The Baystrider

Escaped to Mathews!

It used to be a bi-weekly thing.  I’d throw my kayak on top of the car, grab my fishing and camera gear, put a few bucks in my wallet and hit Route 14 until I couldn’t go any further east.  For years, Mathews County has been my summer hang out.  The public beaches attract wild birds more than sunbathers.  Kayak anglers can find almost anything swimming in the marshes.  The Saturday farmer’s market offers a variety of food and crafts.  How could anyone hate a mostly rural county surrounded by water and possessing no traffic lights?

At Low Tide (© John Gresham)

I barely stepped foot in Mathews in about a year.  Work caught up with me.  Being a ranger and pastor doesn’t lend me to much free time.  Oddly enough, I have been a bit more interested in hiking in the mountains rather than hunting for Oystercatchers.  Constantly shooting and blogging for the park and my recent pursuit of Orthodox Christianity has made my passion for pleasure photography dwindle.

Untitled (© John Gresham)

I couldn’t let the summer pass by without reigniting my love for the place (and the blog) that led me out of a basement in Richmond.  With the Pamunkey Baptist Association Annual Session out-of-the-way and having to lead a canoe trip on Thursday, I made sure the lawn and other chores were taken care of Friday.  Even though my time was limited by other responsibilities, I had to make an escape to Mathews Saturday morning.

Marsh Master (© John Gresham)

I was expecting higher winds.  But the Chesapeake Bay was rather calm at Bethel Beach.  I probably could have launched my kayak in it.  The colors at sunrise were fine for a couple of good images.  Returning to my car to switch lenses, an Osprey was kind enough to pose perfectly with the sunlight at it’s back.  I was a bit frustrated with myself for letting my skills wane a bit as  a couple of Dunlin and Wilson’s Plovers fed along the gently crashing waves.  Even at low tide, I couldn’t cross the narrow channel that cut an island from the rest of the beach.  But, I thought the sand flat would be a great area to create a panorama or two.

After a couple of hours, I pulled into Winter Harbor Haven and saw that a few kayakers had already hit the water.  If it weren’t for a sermon and eulogy I had to develop, my Pungo 14o would be in Horn Harbor hunting for croakers, red drum, and speckled trout.  Driving back through town, I had to make two stops.  A couple of guys were selling fresh Carolina shrimp from the back of a truck.  Eating the farm-raised variety for over a year, it was refreshing to taste the real McCoy again.  A little sugar baby watermelon from the farmer’s market made a good desert with grilled shrimp.

BBQ Shrimp (© John Gresham)

My Saturdays in August and September will be booked at work.  So, I will take a couple of days off during the week those months and make more escapes to the land and waters of my ancestry.  I hope some fish will be there to greet me as well.