When the winter winds sweep up the Potomac River, Richard Culver walks to the beach behind his house here and calls for some of his friends.
"All right, biddies. Come on, biddies. Come on, biddy, biddy, biddy. Come on guys, it's all right. Come on," he sings out. Fourteen Arctic whistling swans, joined by 20 ducks, swim over to where he stands with a can of feed corn.
If anyone else approaches, they turn tail, but Richard Culver is their special friend far from home.
It's been that way for seven or eight winters now, ever since Culver, a New Jersey-born waterman, moved to this quiet Charles County island community of small retirement homes and summer cottages.
"The first winter we came down was bad," he recalled. "The birds couldn't get through the ice to get enough to eat. I went to the end of my pier and coaxed the ducks. Then the swans finally came in. They got to trust me."
His wife Doris and his neighbor, James W. Jenkins, who has lived here most of his 74 years, scare the birds off. But when Culver calls, they come.
Naturalists say the birds migrate by the thousands every year from the northern rim of the continent to the warmer Chesapeake Bay region. But seldom do they warm to humans. Culver is an exception.
"They're just like pets to him," Jenkins said.
"I just feed 'em to have 'em around to take care of and talk to," Culver said. "They're my buddies. . . . I go down and talk to the ducks."
A heavyset man of 56, Culver was raised on a farm in Monmouth County, N.J. His father shot ducks for sale.
Culver left home at 16 and headed for Alaska, where he worked on the Alcan Highway, in the gold mines, on the railroad and as a hunting guide.
Culver worked as a commercial fisherman and lobsterman in the Jersey rivers and bays and on the Atlantic Ocean, and in construction.
"I loved an adventure. I'm still trying to live one as I get older," he said. "I wish I had two or three more lifetimes just to do it all over again.
"But I had to settle down. There comes a point in your life when something means more to you than roaming around."
Since 1965, the Culvers have lived in Maryland, where Doris works at Andrews Air Force Base and Richard has continued to follow the water. He catches crabs from spring into fall and normally gathers oysters in between. This winter, he is spending his time making crab pots.
Culver wrote in his spiral notebook journal for Jan. 16, "Built eight crab pots. . . . Ducks were hungry today. They ate all the corn I could feed them. Guess they sense a change in the weather. Birds and squirrels also. They ate up a storm."
"It's a good life," he reflected the other day. "Sometimes, it gets a little lonely, but I try not to get depressed. Sometimes, it gets too quiet. So I go down and talk to these biddies."
While he has no children, he said, there have been "two boys I more or less take care of who worked with me on the water. I made 'em some money so they could go to college." Culver considers them family.
He is a gentle roustabout, this birdman of Cobb Island. He is sometimes accompanied on his rounds by his cat Bobtail.
"I've just loved nature all my life," he said. "I think I can talk to animals better than to people . . . .
"I used to hunt and trap all the time. I've given up hunting, now. I don't think I could hit a small duck if I was starving . . . . I'd just as soon see 'em swim now and take pictures of 'em."
Culver is no birder, equipped with books and binoculars, although he has an Audubon book his sister gave him for Christmas.
"I was never much for worrying about a name," he said.
To be technically correct about names, Culver's whistling swans are called tundra swans, according to Audubon Society naturalist Mark Garland. The American Ornithologists Union changed the name a few years ago, he said, when research showed the whistling swan and the European tundra swan were the same. "But the new and old names both remain in common use," Garland said.
Culver's swan perch is no further than his back yard, which faces the Wicomico River where it enters the Potomac. The northeast wind blows hard here. In last November's storm, the pier was almost destroyed.
"Weather real bad. No crabbing and no market," Culver wrote in his journal. "This is the hardest east wind I have ever seen . . . . "
Each storm also washes away the aquatic grasses the birds eat, which is where Culver comes in. His feeding supplements what the birds can find and helps "keep their body fat up" for the trip back north, he said.
The disappearance of the grasses has meant far fewer swans here than the 400 or 500 that showed up when Culver began his feeding ritual.
"They appreciate me helping them out, getting their strength back up," Culver said. The whistling swans go "whoop, whoop, whoop," he said, making the sound. "When they fly, they go whoo, whoo. I call them whoopers."
By Culver's reckoning, the birds were two weeks late this winter, arriving in mid-November.
"They're testing their wings now," he said. "They'll do that for about three weeks. They'll be fussing around, like they're trying to build their strength, their wing muscles. They'll fly around a little.
"Then, all of a sudden, one day, they'll sail around for a day or so, to tell you they're going away. Then, all of a sudden, they'll flock out of here, and one day you go out in the morning and they're gone, and you won't see them until the following fall."
It could be a sad day for Culver, but it isn't. Wherever they're going, he has done what he could to help them get there. And, so long as he's around to help them through the winters here, he figures they'll be back.