Despite Its Woes, Bay Still Thrives


A long week's vacation along the Chesapeake Bay provided a vivid reminder of the bounty and beauty that is this magnificent 200-mile long estuary, refilling hope and spirits of this jaded Momus.

The trip began near Ocean City and ended back in Havre de Grace, watching the waves of pyrotechnics explode in a summer night's sky from the best seats in the house -- on a boat in the gently lapping waters of the bay.

It was a dazzling display of fireworks to please everyone, young and old, no matter where they were located to observe this celebration of our nation's birth. Despite the various televised "live" fireworks extravaganzas, it's the in-person show that truly excites and draws us into that common appreciation of the event.

More thrilling than those short-lived, man-made sky-scapes, however, were the natural attractions of the bay that were on full parade during the holiday week.

Despite the publicized wailings about the early-summer scarcity beautiful swimmers, aka blue crabs, we found the greedy, fat creatures unceasing in their lust for the decaying chicken necks on our lines and in the crab pots.

The unending supply of legal-size side-crawlers was evidence of the bay's sustained productivity. At a crab restaurant, we ate our fill of succulent, tasty crustaceans, at last year's prices. We wondered whether the direful predictions were aimed at bolstering early-season prices for seafood merchants.

The inlets and marshes were alive with finfish, as well, the warm surface waters puckered and broken by the swarms of underwater creatures. Fishermen rejoiced in their catches of perch, spot and croaker.

The herons and gulls were celebrating their luck, too, as they plucked their live meals from the waters with dizzying strikes of their pointed beaks. The abundant diversity of bird life in the bay was a joyful reassurance that nature's balance has not been turned upside down.

We stayed near a thick stand of tall marsh grasses that were home to the cheerfully busy red-winged blackbirds, and their distinctive "cheeek" call.

Although numerous and widespread in the United States, the red-winged blackbirds always seem to bring a special joy of recognition for me that even the first robin of spring can't equal.

Perhaps it is the electric brilliance of their vermilion and yellow epaulets, against a coal-black body, that captures and leads the eye wherever these creatures fly. Maybe it's because they seem to keep to themselves or in family pairs, not flying in groups and flocks (although they are said to mingle with starlings and cowbirds and other nuisance fowl in the winter.)

Long the symbol of the old Junior Audubon Society, the red-winged blackbird rekindles a childhood fascination with birds. In any case, their playful presence brightened our vacation days.

So, too, did the family of mallards that swam around the dock, unbothered by human waders and fishers, and shared the sandy spit to eat their lunch from picnic scraps.

A more cautious neighbor was the white heron that only occasionally ventured for h in daylight from the marsh grasses on spindly legs for feeding. His patient immobility made him invisible in the gleaming surface of the water and the grasses. But at night, he and a couple of Little Blue herons would smoothly glide into the shallows for a more vigorous assault on the unsuspecting fish that swam right up to be speared for dinner.

The small green heron was a more convivial visitor, sitting stoically upon a piling of the wooden pier as gulls and crows swarmed noisily overhead. He was a confident sentinel, watchful as the waters began to ripple with fish and then seizing the moment.

As we finished the week boating off Aberdeen, enjoying the sights of the Upper Chesapeake, the waters were more crowded. The small open runabout had to carefully maneuver between the courses of power and sail craft. The Havre de Grace marina was jammed with holiday traffic for the carnival.

Yet waterfowl mingled freely with the human revelers: Flocks of ducks and geese swam with great aplomb amid the boats, unperturbed by the noise and commotion.

And along the shore, plentiful heron stood in wait for their evening fishing excursions. Their luminescent eyes drilled into the twilight like tiny, eerie beacons along the way.

Overhead, a flight of snowy white egrets soared over our vessel, then broke up as several of the birds peeled off to follow their own inclinations. A small sparrow hawk darted from a hidden perch in the trees and sailed low across the bay.

As we floated after dark, waiting for the fireworks show, more winged wonders flew around us, helping to relieve us of the assaults of pesky insects. These much maligned bats showed how useful they can be to a healthy ecosystem.

Each cove and creek, each part of the mighty Chesapeake has its own patterns, its own story to tell. But the small slices of the bay we sampled this summer vacation provided a refreshing enjoyment and ample grounds for optimism that the estuary and its biological treasures are still thriving.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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