Cruising the waters of the U.S. East Coast on our 40-foot sailboat, Folly, we have willingly suffered the motoring required to transit the Intracoastal Waterway for the pleasure of experiencing the amazing wildlife, and especially bird life, on this journey. Over the past 15 years, my husband, John, and I have completed a circumnavigation in our Van de Stadt-designed sloop, built by ourselves in aluminum, but of all the waters we have visited, we are drawn back to one of our favorite cruising grounds — the eastern seaboard of the United States.
Used to the coastal and freshwater flora and fauna of England, we’ve been delighted by the tropical and exotic (to us) species that we have encountered on our voyages between southern Florida and Rhode Island. Motoring close to osprey chicks while they watch suspiciously from their nest on an ICW marker post, with heads nervously bobbing up and down, is such fun.
Our East Coast transits have been in the steamy heat of summer, in the freezing depths of winter and in the beautiful shoulder seasons of spring and fall, allowing us to enjoy both migratory species and year-round residents. Armed with our National Audubon Society Field Guide to Birds (Eastern Section for North America), our boat binoculars (8×50) and a guide to flora and fauna, we have added to our enjoyment of the cultural attractions and wonderful landscapes of the East Coast.
Below is a brief description of our personal experience of a few of the many, many species that we have encountered, in the hope that you find as much pleasure in sharing the ICW with them as we have.
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West Indian Manatee
Trichechus manatus: 10 feet long; 800 to 1,200 pounds Kerry Pears
These elusive, gentle, slow-moving mammals, found in Gulf waters and on the U.S. East Coast, from Florida to the Georgia-South Carolina border, are said to be the “mermaids” described by ancient mariners, although “sea cow” seems a more appropriate nickname. Anchored well off to the side of the ICW in a shallow sound in Florida waters, on a still, steamy night, the peace of the evening can be punctuated by frequent grunts and electronic-sounding beeps of manatees communicating. Although these creatures can’t survive in waters below 68 degrees Fahrenheit, there have been summer sightings as far north as New York City, Narragansett Bay and even Cape Cod!
Tied to a dock on a creek near Savannah, Georgia, we decided to flush the sulphuric-smelling mud out of our anchor-chain locker with fresh water. As the stream of muddy liquid dribbled out of the drain near the waterline, we noticed a small, gray whiskered creature nuzzling the outlet. We stared, and gradually our eyes adjusted to the massive underwater shape attached to what we realized was the muzzle of a manatee using Folly as a soda fountain!
American Brown Pelican
Pelecanus occidentalis: 4 feet tall; wingspan 7 feet 6 inches Kerry Pears
From North Carolina south, the brown pelican is a year-round resident and often provides an honor guard through ICW bridges, preening while perched on the fenders. It is the only nonwhite pelican in the world, and regularly entertains with its seemingly clumsy, but effective, dives for fish. On winding ICW tidal sections, shingle islands are heavily populated with grooming, squabbling flocks of these comical birds.
American White Pelican
Pelecanus erythrorhynchos: 4 to 5 feet tall; wingspan 8 feet Kerry Pears
The larger American white pelican is found south of the Florida-Georgia border and on the Gulf Coast. Rather than diving for fish, flocks of white pelicans often drive fish into shallow water to feast on them. Their huge wings of snowy-white are tipped with black, and they are an impressive sight when flying in formation, alternately flapping and gliding, playing follow the leader.
Butorides virescens: 16 to 22 inches tall
One of America’s most common herons, this bird’s name is misleading, since it’s more blue than green, with a striking chestnut neck in mature adults. As usual in the heron family, this small, well-camouflaged bird stalks the muddy shore of waterways, or fishes from low branches, docks or even from mooring lines, suddenly darting out its long neck to spear a fish. When disturbed, it emits a raucous croak, revealing its presence.
While we were moored in a creek off the Wilmington River in Savannah, a young green heron regularly patrolled our dock, even using our lines and pushpit rail as a perch. This bird can be spotted all along the East Coast south from Canada, but prefers the warmer weather from South Carolina to the Gulf Coast in winter.
Pandion haliaetus: 2 feet tall; wingspan 4 feet 6 inches to 6 feet Kerry Pears
In England, ospreys are rare, but in the United States, their numbers have increased dramatically since the ’50s and ’60s, and they’re omnipresent on the East Coast. In the spring and summer, you are virtually guaranteed to see this impressive bird on ICW transits.
In the winter, they migrate south to warmer climes but can still be seen in Florida and on the Gulf Coast. Huge nests made of branches and twigs are visible in commanding positions near the tops of large, dead trees, and are often also found crowning ICW marker posts. Unfortunately, they are not averse to using sailboat mastheads as a fish-spotting perch!
American River Otter
Lontra canadensis: 2 to 3 feet 6 inches long All Canada Photos / Alamy Stock Photo
We’ve been lucky to see otters on a few occasions on the varied waters of the ICW. Anchored in a Georgia creek for the winter, we regularly saw an otter cleaving the calm surface of the water, crossing from one bank of the marshes to the other on his daily forage for food. Later in the year, heading north after a night spent at anchor in Mile Hammock Bay, North Carolina, we surprised an otter with pups on the water’s edge. Unfortunately, they are very camera shy! The best time to catch sight of these elusive creatures is dawn or dusk as they prey on fish, frogs and crustaceans.
They can be found in all marine and freshwater environments, as long as the water quality is good and an abundant supply of food is available.
Great Horned Owl
Bubo Virginianus: 2 feet tall; wingspan 4 feet 6 inches Matthew Cuda / Alamy Stock Photo
The large great horned owl, resplendent with distinctive ear tufts, which give this bird its descriptive name, is resident throughout the United States and appropriates the disused nests of other large birds. Approaching the St. Johns River in Florida from the north, on Sisters Creek, we were taken aback to see one of these dignified birds perched on an abandoned osprey nest on the ICW marker post. With his imperturbable, unblinking yellow-eyed stare, he watched us glide by with the flow, swiveling his head to follow our progress, completely unafraid. Found even in urban habitats, such as city parks, these birds eat a wide range of prey, from insects to grouse and rabbits.
Hirundo rustica: 5½ to 7½ inches Kerry Pears
At our berths in Georgia and the Chesapeake Bay, these chattering, active little birds have often woken us at first light, their noisy chirruping reaching us through the hatch overhead. Using our lifelines for a perch, they take off on flying sorties before swooping back to inform their companions of their success in fly catching! Nesting under the docks in lieu of barns, they are constantly on the move in daylight hours, and very vocal. They are recognizable by a long, forked tail and chestnut throat and forehead. In late spring and summer, they can be seen on most of the East Coast before they embark on a huge migration to spend the winter as far south as Argentina.
Anhinga anhinga: Approximately 3 feet long Kerry Pears
Known as the snake bird, due to its unusually long, slim neck, the anhinga is a bird of the swampier Southern states. They spend winters as far north as South Carolina, and in the breeding season will be found further north still, in North Carolina. They swim with their black body submerged so that just the head, with a long spearlike bill, and neck are visible. When drying themselves after fishing, they resemble a cormorant, but with a much wider fanned tail.
Ceryle alcyon: 1 foot tall Age Fotostock / Alamy Stock Photo
What waterway would be complete without kingfishers? This large, strikingly patterned black-and-white bird frequents freshwater rivers and saltwater estuaries throughout the country, feeding on fish, crustaceans, lizards and small mammals. They regularly patrol their favored stretch of water. Often we would see a bird perched on a branch overhanging the water as we motored slowly past, then he would decide we were close enough and fly on ahead to his next perch.
Great Blue Heron
Ardea Herodias: 3 to 4 feet tall; wingspan 5 feet 10 inches Kerry Pears
If you see a tall, gray shadowy shape, still as a stone sculpture against the marsh grass or riverbank, then it is probably a great blue heron, watching the water intently for prey, head sunk into its shoulders. When it explores the muddy shoreline, it moves deliberately, with serene, stately grace, before spearing a fish or a frog with its pale yellowish bill. Largest of the herons, they are found all along the East Coast. In Florida, you will also find a subspecies, the great white heron, which is all white.
Alligator mississippiensis: 8 to 13 feet long Kerry Pears
We scoured the waterways for an alligator or crocodile on our first trip north on the ICW, and had many false alarms before we saw what looked like a log traveling upstream against the flow and knew that we had at last found a gator. Our mistaken identifications were nicknamed “croco-logs”! A full-grown alligator is generally a little smaller than an adult crocodile, with a broader snout and overlapping jaws so that the lower teeth are covered by the upper jaw when the mouth is closed.
American crocodile (Crocodylus Acutus) crawls in shallows, Chinchorro Atoll, Mexico
Crocodylus acutus: 13 to 16 feet long Image Source / Alamy Stock Photo
The alligator prefers cooler water than the American crocodile and is less tolerant of salt water, so it can be seen from the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia to Everglades National Park in Florida and across to the southern tip of Texas. The American crocodile needs the warmer tropical waters of southern Florida, and prefers salt or brackish waters. Both eat fish, water birds, reptiles and small mammals, including the occasional raccoon.