Late autumn, then winter is fast upon us. The sun rises low in the southeast and sets low in the southwest. That is if the sun comes out at all and is suppressed by low threatening clouds. All the excitement of pleasure boating on our bays is eradicated accept for a few hardy fishermen shooting through inlets for cod and ling, duck hunters freezing their - - -s off in a duck boat or blind and bay men chasing clams, oysters, eels and what ever they can cull from the cold waters. Most pleasure boats are pulled out early and shrink wrapped in marinas and driveways. Those remaining in slips are owned by the hardiest of year round boaters, fishermen, bay men, or fools that abandoned their vessel after the last trip with their friends to that trendy dockside restaurant in late August. Good luck with all those exposed vinyl cushy things come next summer!
Autumn, then winter comes to our bays in fits and starts. We have a run of cool weather with a North wind then suddenly heavy humidity and 80 degree temperatures flit back as if summer is waiting for a proper good-by. Meadows of emerald green salt grasses and phragmities turn ochre and rust while the heather dries out to be used as decorations in mainland houses. Poison ivy, which is so prevalent on our shores, has leaves that now turn fire red then to yellow as they fall. When the water and air chills, summer birds begin to form large flocks practicing for their trips south. Starlings, black birds, meadow larks, bank swallows and many other species form impressive patterns in the sky when they finally decide to be on the move.
The Canadian geese move on and are replaced by their stouter cousins, the brants. The majestic elder ospreys depart in August leaving their juveniles to grow stronger until they have the confidence to take their first long trip south to Florida and some make it all the way down to the amazon. The tufted mergansers, who swim and dive like clowns on the bay, eventually replace the cormorants. Hawks of every type-red tails, kestrels, harriers and coopers and many others fly over our bays with some choosing to stay through the winter. Late autumn and winter attracts horned, barn and short-eared owls who spend their days lazily high in bay island tree branches or hunkered down in the bushes until they can hunt at night. In the deep cold of many winters, beautiful snowy owls take residence amongst the dunes. All these raptor type birds give the small mammals that reside on the bay islands anxiety when they venture forth to forage for a meal in the cold. Muskrats, moles, raccoons, rabbits, juvenile fox and field mice beat a hasty retreat when they suspect an ambush. Where the water meets the shore, the snowy and great white herons leave the wetlands to the more adventurous great blue herons who continue to eek out a living in winter. Plovers, sandpipers, terns and skimmers leave making way for mallards and black ducks.
Beneath the surface of our bays great changes are also taking place. The summer flounders (fluke) leave the bays along with sea bass, bluefish, snappers, porgies, and weakfish. Even the sea robins, the bane of fluke fisherman, exit the bays for the warmer and deeper waters of the ocean. The schools of menhaden and the youthful peanut bunker move out and with them go the majestic striped bass, although in warmer winters all these fish can take their own time leaving.
The snappers that have amused many a young fisherman at the town docks or a sandy beach head out. The striped bass and larger bluefish have occasionally been caught in the inlets in January but they have said their Au-revoir to bays and creeks by then. They are replaced with schools of herring, perch and whitefish that can occupy the snow bound angler on occasion from any of the many fishing piers. Eels are plentiful and provide a delicacy for many a holiday gathering. (They are delicious if they are smoked properly).
Clams, oysters, mussels and conch continue to thrive even when the bay finally freezes over. Bay men work all winter on the water. Even a short snow squall doesn’t impede them from making their living. Crabbing that was so plentiful in late summer and early fall migrate to the deeper muddier areas of the bay to keep from freezing. Some areas of our bays are stilled graced with autumn runs of scallop but in most areas sadly this has become a rare occurrence. Even when the bays completely freeze over there are still a few hardy souls that will venture onto the thick ice and cut a hole to rake up clams or eel in a frozen creek.
In the last few years we have been privileged to have seals in our bays that arrive in autumn and stay until spring.
They pursue the herring, whiting and juvenile winter flounder. Being mammals, should there be a solid freeze over in the bay, these seals leave for the ocean until the ice dissipates and then they return. If the ice breaks up during a mid-winter thaw you may spot a large ice flow with a seal on top taking a free ride. It is worth the effort to bundle up on a cold winter day and walk along a bay or inlet beach, preferably at low tide, and see if you can spot seal heads popping up in the water. On warmer winter days they will haul out on a beach and sun themselves. Some times they can be found in large groups but don’t approach to closely as they are more agile then you think and will bite if they feel threatened. You may be really lucky to witness one or two of them taking themselves airborne in the water, which is a sight to remember.
The hardiest of us who have functional boats in the water can view the bay in late autumn and winter from your vessel.
This gives an entirely different aspect then being beach bound. Seals approach close and swim under your boat when you cut the engine and quietly drift. You can access remote areas of bird and fowl life and even get surrounded by a large school of herring. You must know how to navigate without the assist of buoy markers that have been removed for winter and be equipped with a functioning marine radio. Topped out cell phone and supplies to stay warm, hydrated and fed out there while you await Sea Tow or BoatUS if you run aground or have a mechanical malfunction.
Once winter is set in solidly there is one aspect of our bay environment that cannot be ignored - even if you wanted to. It’s the sky. Nothing is as beautiful as the sky over the bay in winter. On clear days the sun pours down turning each wind driven wavelet into a flashing crystal. Any thick broken ice flows, thrown up on the bay beaches, glow with a pure aqua blue center that is mind expanding. When northern high pressure speeds down from Canada, magnificent puffy clouds pass across the evening sky-making sunset a blaze of red and burgundy. If a Nor’easter comes calling, waves whip to a frenzy of white foam in contrast to the deep dark clouds. When snow arrives it is both refreshing and inspirational to find a secluded upland area with trails through the woods and wetlands to the shores of a bay. I have been out hiking these areas as the white crystals fall and I make my way through the powdery blanket with not a soul around. It’s so quiet except for the wind rustling the trees, the crunch of my footsteps in the snow and the occasional calls of birds and fowl.
As I finish this article I realize how almost indescribable all these changes and beauty are. Yes, the bays and their beaches is the place to be in the summer. From fishing, boating, nature watching, swimming to just hanging out at a bay front pub sharing laughs and drinks. -It’s all good! But don’t ignore or forget the incredible natural changes and beauty that our bays give us from late autumn through the winter-When it’s quiet and beautiful beyond measure.
Contact Mark C. Nuccio at firstname.lastname@example.org