The other night, I took a sunset Salt Marsh Safari on “The Skimmer,” a 40 ft. pontoon which skims the waterways just like the bird it was named for. Admittedly, I wouldn’t have thought to go on it if I hadn’t been an assignment. Why, you ask? Because birding is a huge component of the safari and birders intimidate me.
First, as I have said before, it’s about the equipment. Birders always have the tools at their disposal to see the birds. I do not have the tools. I do not have a pair of powerful Leika or Swarovski binoculars. So, already I’m out of the loop. Also, they know what to look for when someone yells “Hey, American Oyster Catcher at 11 o’clock.” Where, I say to myself. Where’s the clock? What clock? Wait, I see it’s an imaginary clock. OK. So, 11 o’clock is what right or left? I imagine hundreds of clocks. All of them digital. I follow the body language of veteran birders just like any stranger in a strange land who doesn’t understand the language, but to no avail. By the time I figure out where I’m supposed to be looking, the elusive bird has taken flight. While everyone else is ooing and aahing, I’m groaning and moaning.
Well, I have to say that Captain Bob Carlough and his able assistant and wife Linda Carlough put me at ease immediately. How? They bring equipment. I had, for the two hours we were skimming the wetlands, my very own powerful set of powerful binoculars. They even have kid size binoculars. Secondly, they explained the o’clock thing by pointing. The front of the boat is 12 o’clock. The back of the boat is 6 o’clock. Each side is…well you get it I’m sure. Also note they didn’t do that boater’s thing either because had they said the bow or the stern of the boat my head would still be swimming around like something out of The Exorcist movie. Pointing is good. I can start breathing again. Like any good teacher, Captain Bob is a strong believer in show and tell. The South Jersey wetlands are, he says, “more fertile than the Amazon.” It is the beginning of the food chain, he says, and by way of example he has a basin filled with food sources for birds and the ecosystem in general. He pulls out tiny little glass (its body is transparent) or grass shrimp, a beautiful thumb-sized crab called the Savory Swimmer with wee paddles for back legs. He has a sample of an equally small walking crab.
Once The Skimmer is out of the dock and winding its way through the canal toward the Coast Guard Base, the bird watch alert is up. The sightings are plentiful.
“Heron at 11 o’clock,” says Linda Carlough. OK. I’m still a little slow with the o’clock thing but I’m able to follow everyone else and thank the gods these birds are big and white. Even I spot the Heron, as well as the Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Black Skimmer, and the Great Blue Heron. Ahhh. At last I can sit back and relax. My next source of anxiety is that I’ve traded by binoculars for my Nikon digital camera, so you, my faithful readers can see what I see. This, however, was definitely a time for the 35 mm Nikon with the zoom lens because guess what? You have to be pretty quick on the trigger to get a really nice picture of a bird in flight, or when it’s getting ready to pounce on something. Another problem is that my digital zoom is not zoomy enough to close-in (especially while the boat is in motion) on the green eyes of the Carmorans. So, guess what? I put the camera away for a while and go back to the binoculars which are fabulous. So, no I don’t have any really good bird pictures, you’ll just have to take the cruise and see them for yourself.
Captain Bob points to an Osprey nest with three chicks in it. He is very excited about seeing the nest because he said the harsh winter ice took its toll on the wetlands’ grasses and there haven’t been as many successful nests this summer. However, because of the passage of the Clean Water Act as well as the Wetlands Restoration Acts, and similar ecologically friendly legislation, life in the back bays has seen quite a transformation. There were, he said, only 50 Osprey pairs in 1972. Last year 340 were cited. Captain Bob is not shy about his unease with the present administration which, he said seems headed in a direction directly opposite that of environmental responsibility.
Meanwhile, the Skimmer pulls up to a long blanket of green algae floating on the water. The boat comes to a stop so we can get a closer look at this wonder of nature.
We step out onto what I call the front porch of the pontoon which is level with the patch. Captain Bob skims a seaweed called Mermaid Hair from the water. Linda explains that it is called Mermaid Hair because it looks like someone’s head of hair when it floats in the water. Before we leave we see blood worms and many
birds. This patch is like feeding trough for birds. A Semi-Palmated Plover, a Black-Bellied Plover, and a Ruddy Turnstone were having their evening repast, not to mention the American Oyster Catcher.
As the boat swings around, we don’t go very far before we are in the thick of the Salt Marsh. I can see Wildwood Crest at 3 o’clock and a thick colony of long, green reed-like growth.
“The Salt Marsh,” said Captain Bob, “Is the most bio-productive ecosystem in the world.” Because of the way everything works back here – the reeds separating the salt from the ocean water and crystallizing it – the peat that forms the land mass on which the reeds can grow – and the rich fertile environment which results – all these components come together to create “the beginning of the food chain of the ocean.” And to prove his point, Captain Bob grabs a chunk of peat to show us not only the richness of the soil but the millions of microorganisms which live in it. “Life,” he says, “begins back here with the microorganisms that life here.” The peat acts like a sponge for them and absorbs them.
I am struck by how beautiful the grasses are. They are a deep, lush green. They are thick and majestic. I want to run my hand through them just to a get a sense of what they feel like. As though reading my mind, Captain Bob encourages us to touch them. In other years, they can be broken off like stalks of salt, he says, but again the odd weather of the past couple of seasons makes them feel like softer and more pliable.
The Skimmer pulls around to what looks like an island on which a mad scientist would live on. Tall gangly trees have grown there and it is thick with greenery and very weird. It is a heron rookery. I can’t believe it! Hundreds of giant birds -Blue Herons, Osprey, Egrets are checking in for the night. This is their hotel. Captain Bob says some 600 birds (just a guess he admits) will spend the night there. He says they fly in squadrons of 10-12 until it gets dark. Right now, he estimates there are only about 75 great birds.
And on top of the trees, above the herons and egrets whose plumage forms pockets of snowy white against a darkening sky and mossy green growth are hundreds of black crows menacingly perched looking as though waiting for any sign of weakness so they can pounce. Captain Bob says they coexist pretty well with the other birds. Maybe the herons have hired them as sentinels, placed there to guard them while they sleep. It is just about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.
Well, the sun really is setting now and The Skimmer begins its journey back to the Miss Chris Marina but there are still things to see in between the 150 pictures of the sunset that I compulsively keep taking. Listen, if I can’t give you good birdie pictures, the least I can do is share the sunset with you.
There are a couple of fisherman out in their boats still trying to get the catch of the day. They look so peaceful against the night sky and I think of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea – not that they were that old but the waters have turned suddenly cold and they look so small and vulnerable in comparison with the large fishing boats docked behind them.
As we pass under the Cape May bridge, Linda Carlough reminds us that we and our children (and by the way I highly recommend this voyage for children, particularly those say 8 and up) are the caretakers of the land and “I hope,” she says, “we will have the wisdom that it takes to make us good stewards” and to continue to protect nature’s precious gift to us.
The Salt Marsh Safari is truly something different for you to do with your family or even by yourself while you’re vacationing in Cape May. Hey, even if you live here this is not the usual tourist tripe (not that there’s anything wrong with tripe. Tripe is a good thing turned snoozer when you’ve seen it or done it a hundred times.)
The Skimmer leaves from the Miss Chris Marina on 2nd Avenue & Wilson Drive. There’s a Morning Refuge Cruise at 10 a.m. An afternoon Osprey Odyssey at 1:30 p.m. and the Sunset on the Marsh cruise at 6 p.m. The sunset cruise runs Sunday through Thursday but check out their web site at www.skimmer.com first for reservations and schedule changes.