The Biggest of the Big Days at Indian River Inlet

Kelley NunnRecovery Big Year

Flyover Forster's Tern at Indian River Inlet

Indian River Inlet - View from the Dunes

Indian River Inlet – View from the Dunes

The Day Before

Google Maps Image Showing Distance from my Hometown to the Indian River Inlet

Google Maps Image Showing Distance from my Hometown to the Indian River Inlet


With only three weeks remaining in 2015, the pressure was on to reach one of my primary recovery big year goals: to tally over 250 species of birds for the year. I was 6 species away, and the list of potential candidates in the local Chester County area was slim; I could add a few birds like Red-breasted Nuthatch or Black-capped Chickadee, but the likelihood of seeing one in the next several days was relatively low. There was one location, though, that could easily produce a generous helping of year-birds: Indian River Inlet in Sussex, DE. And fortunately, the Delmarva Ornithological Society (DOS) was hosting a series of sea watches at the inlet throughout the season, the second of which took place yesterday! For non-birders, sea watches are like hawk watches, but instead of looking for hawks, you scan for sea birds (ducks, loons, cormorants, gannets, etc.) that migrate down along the coast.

The decision to attend the sea watch was a no-brainer, but actually making the trip down was a whole nother question. At about 2 14 hours from my house, driving to the inlet would be the longest trip I’d taken since traveling seven hours to the Cleveland Clinic in May of 2014, when I was suddenly unable to walk and in search of a diagnosis. In the last year, I had visited Cape Henlopen State Park twice, which is just under two hours from my house, but something about the ‘over two hours’ threshold felt like a world of difference. I was feeling genuinely nervous about the journey, and to add another layer of complexity, I hadn’t been feeling too well. As a result of a persistent cold and the side effects of cold medicine, the day before had been a mostly-in-bed day, in which the whole world turned whenever I moved my head or eyes. The odds of actually making it to the inlet the next morning were low, but I had made up my mind that I wanted to do it; I would push myself through as best as I could. As I fell asleep the night before, my bed felt like it was rocking, swaying, and turning, and I was crossing all my fingers that I’d be ok and ready to go in the morning.

The Indian River Inlet Sea Watch

Indian River Inlet Sand Dunes - Where the DOS Group Was Standing

Indian River Inlet Sand Dunes – Where the DOS Group Was Standing

The morning of the DOS trip, I woke up feeling surprisingly ok. By 8am, Hannah Greenberg, me, and my copious amounts of migraine-safe foods were packed up and ready to go. The drive itself went smoothly and two hours passed by in no time! Before I knew it, we were joining the other trip attendees on the beach, who were lined up by the dunes with spotting scopes pointed towards the ocean. The trip was being led by two prominent and skilled Delaware birders: Anthony Gonzon and Chris Bennett. As we settled in and began scanning the water with our binoculars, Chris, who was sitting on one of the dunes in a camping chair like a navy lookout, was calling out distant migrating sea bird flocks and describing the specific field marks that allowed him to make a positive ID. Anthony was standing up front, keeping track of the number of birds observed, noting whether they were headed North or South, and answering questions. It was a fantastic learning experience– just what I was hoping for. The migrating sea birds were flying by at quite a distance out over the ocean. For example, the photo below shows a flock of 8 specks, or Red-breasted Mergansers, flying South for winter.

Distant Flock of Migrating Red-breasted Mergansers at the Indian River Inlet

Distant Flock of Migrating Red-breasted Mergansers at the Indian River Inlet

My hit list of potential ‘year birds’ for the day included: Long-tailed Duck, Black Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Northern Gannet, Purple Sandpiper (life bird), Brant, Harlequin Duck, and Common Eider. Right away, I picked up one year bird– there were three adult male Long-tailed Ducks floating out at the end of one of the nearby jettys. (It is such a treat to see these gorgeous white-and-brown ducks, formerly known as Oldsquaw for their outlandish yodeling calls.) In the distance, adult and juvenile Northern Gannets could be seen flying back and forth down the coast, making for year bird number 246. Then, Chris called out a flock of flyby Surf Scoters quickly followed by many Black Scoters– another year bird. It was all happening so fast. A quick glance at the inlet reminded me that I had yet to scan the jetty rocks for Purple Sandpipers! I searched the rocks, but came up empty. I asked Anthony if they had seen any Purple Sandpipers yet that morning, and he quickly turned his scope towards the jetty to join me in the search. Moments later, a wave crashed against the rocks, and sent a handful of shorebirds hopping away from the spray and in perfect view. One of them was the sandpiper, of which we got great looks through the scope. What an awesome life bird! I had been hoping to see this one for quite some time, and was thrilled to finally set my eyes on this stocky shorebird.

Long-tailed Ducks Landing by the Jetty at Indian River Inlet

Long-tailed Ducks Landing by the Jetty at Indian River Inlet

Migrating Surf Scoter at Indian River Inlet

Migrating Surf Scoter at Indian River Inlet

As we were scanning the ocean for migrants, an endless flurry of foraging Forster’s Terns were flying up and down the inlet, diving head first and full-force into the water like arrows in pursuit of fish. Within the flock of Terns, we were able to pick out a late Common Tern– another year bird! I was so excited to be learning about tern identification from Anthony, who explained how the Common Tern could be differentiated from Forster’s Terns by the dark mass of feathers on the back of their heads. As Anthony and I were talking terns, Chris shouted, ‘Jaeger!’ I had absolutely no expectation to see a jaeger on this trip, but there it was! In the even more distant distance, a Parasitic Jaeger was flying speedily to the south. This made for a totally unexpected year bird and life bird! How cool to see one of these guys fly by.

Flyover Forster's Tern at Indian River Inlet

Flyover Forster’s Tern at Indian River Inlet

Common Tern with Forster's Terns, Dunlin, and Ruddy Turnstone at Indian River Inlet

Common Tern (center) with Forster’s Terns, Dunlin, and Ruddy Turnstone at Indian River Inlet

The entire field trip went so quickly! It was year bird after year bird (and in two cases, life bird) in rapid succession for over two hours, until it was 12pm and the count was over. The whole morning had exceeded my expectations and been downright fun. As everyone was packing up their scopes, Chris, Anthony, and Frank Rohrbacher generously sent Hannah and I off with a handful of fantastic suggestions for what we could do with the rest of our day in Sussex county. We took a moment to walk down to the water’s edge and snap a photo of a Great Cormorant that had just landed on the jetty tower before heading off towards our next destinations. As we left the beach, I had already exceeded my goals for the day; I added 6 birds to my year list (Long-tailed Duck, Northern Gannet, Black Scoter, Purple Sandpiper, Common Tern, Parasitic Jaeger) and another two life birds! I felt so relieved and elated to be at 250 species for the year, and to have reached another one of my recovery big year goals!

Great Cormorant on the Jetty Tower at Indian River Inlet

Great Cormorant on the Jetty Tower at Indian River Inlet

We spent the rest of the morning stopping for quick visits at locations like Burton’s Island and Silver Lake until it was early afternoon, at which point we decided to walk the Gordon Pond trail at Cape Henlopen State Park. The location of the pond at the base of Cape Henlopen, essentially bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, makes it a fantastic place to search for interesting ducks and other water birds (and to see migrants en masse). The trail from the parking lot to the pond’s observation tower was about 34 of a mile, and I felt 100% up for the walk. On our way to the tower, we heard the rubber ducky squeaks of a small Brown-headed Nuthatch flock, and were treated to good looks at these adorably tiny nuthatches. One bird that I was taking photos of turned its head to the sound of my camera shutter. From the observation tower, we saw a large flock of over 150 Bufflehead ducks– the largest homogenous group of this species I’d ever seen.

Trail to the Observation Tower at Gordon Pond

Trail to the Observation Tower at Gordon Pond

Brown-headed Nuthatch at Gordon Pond Trail, Cape Henlopen State Park

Brown-headed Nuthatch at Gordon Pond Trail, Cape Henlopen State Park

View from the Observation Tower at Gordon Pond

View from the Observation Tower at Gordon Pond

Our final stop of the day was to take a quick drive up and down Port Mahon Road at sunset. The motivation for stopping at Port Mahon was two-fold: it marked the half-way point on the trip back from Indian River Inlet, which made the two hour return trip seem shorter, and we had a good chance of seeing a Short-eared Owl hunting the marshes. As the sun was setting, fog was settling in over the Delaware Bay, blurring the line between sky and water and giving the landscape an eerie look. On our way back up the road, we parked our car and began scanning the marshland for hunting owls. We spotted many Northern Harriers, one of which was giving off ‘squee!’ calls– I had never heard this species vocalize before, and was pleasantly surprised to hear the sound. Eventually, we were able to pick out one distant Short-eared Owl, but the looks were short-lived. Hopefully I’ll get a good look at this species sometime soon!

Fishing Pier at Port Mahon Road

Fishing Pier at Port Mahon Road

At the end of the day, I was elated to look down at my pedometer and see that I had taken over 6,000 steps on top of traveling for nearly 4 12 hours. And to make things even better, I still felt ok! All in all, I’d consider our trip to the Indian River Inlet to be the biggest day of my recovery big year so far. While there were other days in which I was more physically active, the traveling itself was an accomplishment. On our way home, I started to think about my goals for next year’s recovery big year, and what sort of physical milestones I could accomplish in another year’s time. To go from bedridden to birding over two hours from home in a matter of months is mind-blowing. I feel so lucky and thankful to be improving, and am so endlessly grateful for days like these, spent adventuring outdoors.