Last updated on December 19, 2022 by Wandering our World

The term Chesapeake loosely translates to “mother of waters,” and that name is certainly a fitting description of the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the U.S. As is the case for estuaries, Chesapeake provides a mix of habitats that include wetlands, tidal marshes, mudflats, underwater grass beds, and open water, making it an ideal place for vast plant and animal wildlife.

In fact the bay has over 3700 plant and animal species, including over 300 species of finfish, over 150 shellfish, and roughly 30 species of waterfowl.

A complex ecosystem, the Chesapeake Bay boasts many wildlife spotting opportunities, from common animals to rare species.

Below is your Chesapeake Bay wildlife spotting guide, as we show you the animals you could spot and where to find them!

CONTENTS:

  1. Common Animals In The Chesapeake Bay
  2. Dangerous Animals In The Chesapeake Bay
  3. Rare Animals In The Chesapeake Bay
Susquehanna River on a hazy fall morning. It is a major river in the northeastern US. At 444 miles long, it is the longest river in the East that drains into the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.
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12 Common Animals In The Chesapeake Bay That You Could Spot

1. Striped Skunk

The striped skunk is a common animal in the U.S., Southern Canada, and Northern Mexico. This skunk is commonly mistaken as being aggressive, yet the reality is that it is a docile animal that is likely to leave you alone when you encounter it.

The skunk’s scientific name is Memphitis Memphitis, which is Latin for ‘bad odour’! True enough, this creature lets out a bad smell that can be detected up to 1.5 miles away. Its sulphuric spray can range up to 10 feet.

The skunk prefers to live in forests, grasslands, meadows, and suburban areas, so you will likely find it around Chesapeake Bay.

Beautiful striped skunk in warm morning light.
iStock.com/Layne VanRhijn

2. Eastern Gray Squirrel

The eastern gray squirrel is a grayish-brown, bushy-tailed squirrel that lives in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This rodent has a grayish body, a whitish belly, and white or brown fur. Some gray squirrels are completely black, whereas others have bushy tails ranging from pale gray to brown.

The Eastern gray squirrel can be as big as a cat and weigh up to 1.5 pounds! This highly intelligent creature also has an excellent sense of smell which they use to locate food they’ve hidden away.

They also smell their fellow squirrels to gather information and communicate with each other through sounds and body movements. The squirrel becomes very noisy when angry or alarmed and starts chattering, rasping, or barking.

A cute selective focus profile shot of a grey squirrel sitting on the base of a tree trunk against a blurred grey background.
iStock.com/Nigel Harris

3. Common Muskrat

The common muskrat is a one to two foot long rodent with a round head and a long, scaly black tail that’s 7 to 12 inches long. It resembles a huge mouse with a flattened, scaly tail.

The muskrat is a semi-aquatic animal that prefers to live in the bay’s watershed marshes. It’s an excellent swimmer that would put the best human swimmer to shame as it can swim backward, frontwards, and hold its breath for 15 to 20 minutes! The muskrat’s body is adapted to swimming, having webbed back feet and a laterally flattened tail.

The common muskrat prefers wet areas and cool burrows over hot, dry habitats. It loves spending time on the water and even mates underwater. You’re likely to spot it on Chesapeake Bay’s shallow waters and marshes.

Muskrat in sunset light. Autumn season.
iStock.com/USO

4. Beaver

Similar to the common muskrat, the beaver is a large semi-aquatic mammal with a distinctively flat tail for paddling.

They are the largest rodent in North America, with a head and body that grows about 25 to 30 inches long. The creature usually weighs 25 to 30 inches, with webbed feet and large front teeth.

The beaver is an interesting animal as it builds lodges of sticks and mud on riverbanks, shorelines, and islands. It uses its front teeth to quickly chew down a small tree to repair its dams and lodges.

They also build dams to protect their lodges and help them safely transport their food and logs. You can spot this hard-working animal in the bay’s streams and wetlands.

Beaver sitting on banks near water
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5. White-Tailed Deer

The white-tailed deer is one of the smallest members of the deer family, and it derives its name from the white color found underneath its large tail.

This deer has a reddish-brown coat in summer, which turns grayish-brown in winter. The males have huge antlers, which they shed off in the winter. Females tend to be one-third of the males’ weight, and the young have a reddish coat with white spots on the back.

You can spot this lovely creature in the farms, forests, parks, and backyards throughout the bay’s watershed.

white-tailed deer and baby beside bushes in sunlight
iStock.com/madsci

6. River Otter

As the name suggests, the river otter is a playful semi-aquatic mammal that lives in rivers but can also be found in streams, lakes, and estuaries.

It has a thick protective fur that keeps it warm in cold waters and its body is adapted to swimming as it has short legs, webbed feet, a flattened head, and a long, narrow body. The otter’s long, strong tail helps propel it through the water.

Otters can stay underwater for up to 8 minutes! They can also dive 60 feet deep underwater and have the habit of washing themselves after a meal. You’re likely to see the river otter in the bay’s lakes, streams, rivers, and marshes.

Pair of otters in grass
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7. Red Fox

The red fox lives in diverse habitats, including human environments like farms and suburban areas.

This intelligent hunter derives its name from its yellowish-to-reddish-orange fur from the upper part of the body to the head and tail. Its eyes are yellowish with dark, elliptical pupils, whereas its toes have blunt claws.

The red fox also has a long, bushy tail, and the tip of its tail and the face, muzzle, throat, belly, and chest are white. Its slender legs, feet, nose, back, and ears are black.

An interesting fact about the red fox is that it has excellent hearing ability, as it can hear a mouse squeak from over 100 feet away. This creature is monogamous, meaning it mates with one partner for its life. Its tail is usually over half its body length too.

You can find this dog-like mammal in swamps, forests, and farms throughout the Chesapeake watershed.

Red fox, vulpes vulpes, approaching on meadow in autumn nature. Wild beast going forward on green field in fall. Front view of predator with orange fur walking closer on grassland.
iStock.com/JMrocek

8. Black Bear

The black bear is a common animal across North America, Alaska, and much of Canada. This bear can live in almost any habitat due to its versatile diet. They love to stay in habitats that provide cover, such as coniferous and deciduous forests.

Black bears are approximately 4 to 7 ft from nose to tail and 2 to 3 ft in height. Whilst black bears are common, this shy and secretive creature can be spotted throughout the bay’s watershed.

A Black Bear walking through the forest seems amused.
iStock.com/mountinez

9. Coyote

The coyote is one of the poster childs for North American wildlife. This creature is native to North America and has adapted to surviving in both wild and human environments.

Coyotes resemble a wolf, with the difference being that wolves are larger with bigger snouts/muzzles and more rounded ears, unlike the coyote. Also, wolves have shorter tails and tend to have a bushier look, whereas coyotes are shorter, sleeker, and swift on their feet.

Coyotes have existed in the bay region for 50 years. They migrated eastwards to the bay as the population of other larger predators declined and have lived in the bay since then.

On a spring day, a coyote is standing on top of a hill and looking at the camera.
iStock.com/Cybernesco

10. Opossum

The opossum or ‘possum’ is a small to medium-sized marsupial that’s endemic to the Americas. This creature is one of the earth’s oldest surviving mammals, having been around for about 70 million years.

The most common species in Chesapeake Bay is the Virginia opossum, also known as the North American opossum. This creature has a long head with a pointed snout, large eyes, long whiskers, sharp teeth, and rounded ears. It also has white fur with long gray hairs and a prehensile tail.

Opossums are nocturnal and omnivorous. An interesting fact about this animal is that it can hang on its tail, albeit not for long.

They are excellent climbers and love to spend their time in trees and live in hollow logs, burrows, old nests, rock piles, tree cavities, under decks, and buildings. The opossum lives throughout the bay watershed.

A close up of Baby Opossum learning to climb.
iStock.com/JasonOndreicka

11. Groundhogs

Groundhogs or woodchucks are the largest rodent in the squirrel family and a member of the marmot species. This animal has fur that ranges from yellowish-brown to black. It has short, powerful limbs, thick claws, and a bushy tail. It also has small ears and black eyes.

Groundhogs are found in various habitats, but they prefer meadows, crop fields, pastures, and yards near trees. They also love weedy areas along fence rows.

The groundhog is usually spotted on the ground, but it also climbs trees and can swim. This animal lives on a feast-to-famine lifestyle as it gorges itself in summer to build up fat reserves and goes into fasting while hibernating during spring.

Every second of February is groundhog day. Legend says that if a groundhog sees its shadow on that day, there will be six more weeks of winter. It’s believed that this holiday emerged from the fact that groundhogs would often re-enter hibernation after leaving their dens prematurely.

A Groundhog in a Hole Looking Curiously
iStock.com/bahadir-yeniceri

12. Horseshoe Crabs

The horseshoe crab is a creature that’s been around for more than 300 million years! This unique creature looks like a prehistoric crab, although it is actually a relative to scorpions and spiders.

The creature has a hard, brownish-green exoskeleton and spike-like tail. It can grow up to two feet in length and has widely spaced eyes that look like bumps on its exoskeleton.

The horseshoe crab visits Chesapeake Bay every spring and summer to spawn.

horseshoe crab in a shallow water
iStock.com/viktor2013

Five Dangerous Animals In The Chesapeake Bay To Be Aware Of

Just as there are many interesting and beautiful animals in the Chesapeake Bay, there are also dangerous animals that you should be aware of.

1. Copperhead Snake

The copperhead snake is one of the most venomous snakes found at the bay. This snake is medium-sized and usually ranges from 2 to 3 feet. It gets its name from its copper-red head.

Its venom is not deadly to human beings, but it is harmful and you should be checked by a medical practitioner straight away if bitten.

Copperhead snakes tend to be active in spring when temperatures rise. They prefer to live in woodlands, along streams, and on rocky fields and hills. This snake mostly feeds on mice and birds, and will only attack you if it feels threatened.

An atmospheric edit of a Copperhead Pit-Viper. Found in the East of the USA.
iStock.com/Oriaz

2. Jellyfish

Chesapeake Bay is home to three types of jellyfish; the moon jellyfish, sea nettles, and lion’s mane jellyfish. The largest out of the three jellyfish is the moon jellyfish.

Jellyfish have transparent, gelatinous bodies with an umbrella shaped bell on their tops known as a medusa. From that bell stems tentacles which have stinging cells known as nematocysts.

Jellyfish don’t go out looking for an encounter with humans. Rather they use their stinging tentacles to capture and paralyze their prey that include fish, shrimp and other small animals. An encounter with a jellyfish however leads to a painful sting.

The best way to avoid a jellyfish sting is to wear a wetsuit when swimming. In case you get a sting, avoid rubbing the area and instead wash it with vinegar. If you think you’re having an allergic reaction then see a doctor immediately.

many blue jellyfish swimming in the water
iStock.com/VictorHuang

3. Sharks

Chesapeake Bay is home to at least 12 kinds of sharks, and they include the bull shark, spiny dogfish, sandbar shark, sand tiger shark, and the smooth dogfish.

These sharks rarely pose a threat to humans and as far as we know there have been no recorded shark attacks at the bay. Still, it’s important for you to keep a watchful eye to avoid any unwanted encounters.

Bull shark jaws detail ready to attack
iStock.com/izanbar

4. Black Widow Spider

The black widow spider is one of the only poisonous spiders in the bay area. This spider is distinctive as the females are shiny black with a bit of red at the bottom of their abdomen while males are more vibrant with red and white colors on their abdomen.

Black widow spiders prefer to live in undisturbed, dark, moist places located in forest areas, rocks, woodpiles and sheds. A bite from this spider feels like a prick at first. But if left unattended, the pain intensifies and you may experience symptoms such as sweating, vomiting, and nausea. It can even be fatal in some cases.

Black widow spider dangling from a bush
iStock.com/JasonOndreicka

5. Hornet & Wasps

Hornets and wasps also live in the Chesapeake Bay. A sting from these insects can be painful and even deadly if you have a severe allergy.

It’s advisable that you back away slowly if you stumble into a hornet or wasp. Avoid panicking, flapping your arms or swatting at the insect as this will likely make them more aggressive and increase your chances of getting stung.

Side view of black and yellow hornet on the ground
iStock.com/HappyNati

Four Rare Animals In The Chesapeake Bay You Could Be Lucky To See

Chesapeake bay is also home to some rare species. Those include:

1. Florida Manatee

Named Florida state’s marine animal, the Florida manatee is a large aquatic animal that has been spotted as far north at the Chesapeake Bay.

It loves to move slowly in the water while feeding on seagrass, algae, and other vegetation that occurs in freshwater and estuarine systems. This creature’s closest living relative is actually the elephant and they can weigh between 1000 pounds to 3500 pounds.

It has an elongated, round body with paddle-shaped flippers and a tail. Their skin is wrinkled and leathery and flakes off continuously. It’s common to see a manatee with greenish or brown-looking skin as algae tend to grow on it too. Barnacles also love to attach themselves to their skin, and when they leave, round scars remain.

The Florida manatee is quite rare so many people wonder if the sightings of this manatee in the Chesapeake Bay are correct. However typically manatees are exploratory creatures, and although they like the warm waters of Florida and the Caribbean sea, they have a habit of wandering off in search of other habitats.

As such, in the past two decades manatees have become seasonal visitors of the bay area, especially during summer. If you’re lucky enough to spot one, you’re advised to contact the National Aquarium’s Stranded Animal Hotline to report your sighting.

manatee floating in the water
iStock.com/NaluPhoto

2. Virginia Big-Eared Bat

Named for their distinctively large ears, the Virginia big-eared bat is an endangered species found in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina.

In 1950, the number of Virginia big-eared bats you could spot began to decline significantly, leading to the federal government listing the species as endangered. The protection of the bats’ habitat areas in recent years has helped its numbers to increase, although the species still faces threats from disease.

You can spot this species in the Chesapeake Bay area, particularly in caves where it loves to roost during summer.

3. Sturgeon

Sturgeons are a prehistoric species of fish that have existed for more than 120 million years and have lived in the bay for more than 70 million years. These fish were once an abundant food source for residents but are now extremely rare.

The Atlantic sturgeon is the biggest fish native to the Chesapeake bay as it can reach a length of 4.5 meters (14 feet)! The Shortnose sturgeon, a smaller sturgeon, has become increasingly rare than its counterpart, the Atlantic sturgeon. Still, researchers have spotted these elusive species in the bay area.

A large sturgeon floats under water and looks to the side
iStock.com/FlashMovies

4. Puritan Tiger Beetle

There are only a few spots in the world where you can find the puritan tiger beetle; one of those is the Chesapeake Bay.

This endangered insect lives in naturally eroding cliffs and sandy beaches with low vegetation cover. The building of dams, reservoirs, and shoreline alterations has destroyed its habitat.

The adults of this insect tend to be active between mid-June and mid-August. Since they are endangered, Federal law prohibits the collection of this beetle.