When I graduated from library school and was deciding upon places to apply for work, I chose Chesapeake as a possibility even though I had never been here. But I did know of some of the excellent natural areas nearby, and for me that was a big draw in choosing my future home. The Dismal Swamp, the Eastern Shore and especially the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, the 17-mile engineering wonder which connects Virginia Beach to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, are nationally known “hotspots” among people in the birding community, and I knew of these places even when I lived on the left coast. When I did move here, I started taking birding trips to the Bay Bridge-Tunnel and the Eastern Shore at least once a week. (Photos of Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, left and below: courtesy http://www.cbbt.com/)
The Bay Bridge-Tunnel, a hotspot? Absolutely! During bird migrations, many birds land on its four “islands” to rest as they cross the water, especially if the weather is rough. (The islands are the manmade areas at each of the points where the road descends from the bridge down into the tunnels). And during the winter, these islands are an outstanding spot from which to scope wintering ducks and seabirds that are difficult to find from land. I’ve heard that over 400 different species of birds have been seen from these islands, including many impressive rarities.
For years, anyone who wanted to bird from the three northernmost islands would write to the Bay Bridge Authority and request authorization to do so for the coming calendar year (the southernmost island has a gift shop and restaurant, and anyone can stop there anytime). Each time we wanted to bird, we would show our letter of permission, vehicle registration, and driver’s license at the check-in station, and be able to bird to our heart’s content; I loved birding there. Unfortunately, everything changed after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The Bay Bridge Authority withdrew permission for anyone to stop on the three northern islands unless they are accompanied by a security guard that costs $50 an hour. For me, that’s prohibitive, so I’m not able to bird at one of my favorite places anymore. It’s a real sore spot among birders, because any yahoo with a boat and a cooler of beer can pull his boat up to the islands to fish, with no restrictions. But that’s another story…
Harlequin Duck at Bay Bridge-Tunnel
On to the Eastern Shore-- The southern tip of Delmarva is renowned as a major concentration point for migrants. Think about it: Delmarva tapers from a wide body of land further north in Delaware and Maryland down to its end at Wise Point, where the Bridge-Tunnel terminates. Birds that are migrating south down the peninsula reach Wise Point and are reluctant to cross the Chesapeake Bay, especially in rough weather or when a front is coming through, so they stall until conditions improve. There is actually a bit of a reverse migration when the birds stall; many reach the water in the morning (songbirds migrate mostly at night), turn around, and circle back north a few miles to land and seek refuge for the day. That’s when every birder who has a beating heart wants to be at the Eastern Shore, to witness these “fallouts” of migratory birds. The best-known places to search are the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, Sunset Beach, and especially Kiptopeke State Park, all within five miles of Wise Point. Early morning is the best time, by far.
The Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory (http://www.cvwo.org) maintains a songbird banding station, a hawk banding station and a hawkwatch research station at Kiptopeke. Anyone can visit these stations during the August-November bird migration period; their volunteers and staff provide free daily public education about the birds they band, and it’s fascinating to watch them at work. They set up special mist nets in strategic places (these are like very fine volleyball nets), and capture birds that fly into the nets without doing any injury to the birds. Every fifteen minutes or so, staff retrieve the birds from the nets, and take them to the banding station, where they weigh, measure, and band the birds before releasing them again into the wild. The whole process takes only a few minutes. The scientific data they gather is critical to our understanding of the health of our bird populations. For people who don’t often observe birds in the wild, this is also a wonderful way to learn about and see different bird species up close and personal. My friend Nancie and I visited them last September, and she took all the pictures that follow:
Top left: Warbler in a mist net / Top right: Blowing the belly feathers to check the bird's fat reserves / Second row left: Weighing the bird / Second row right: Checking the bird's condition and health / Third row left: Black-throated Blue Warbler being banded / Third row right: Ovenbird / Bottom left: Yellow-breasted Chat with something to say / Bottom right: Gray Catbird being measured.
Kiptopeke is also the home of a famous hawkwatch, where experts come every day in the fall to count migrating raptors, including hawks, falcons, eagles and osprey (photo, above, courtesy of www.cvwo.org). The peak of hawk migration is probably late-September to mid-October but extends well into November. Kiptopeke regularly posts the largest bird numbers of any hawkwatch station in the entire country! Again, this is owed largely to the physical geography of the Delmarva Peninsula, which funnels the migrating birds and concentrates them in a small area at the peninsula’s tip, where the hawkwatchers and hawk counters await. These experts are amazing, and so skilled; they can identify a raptor that’s half a mile in the air by its wings shape and flight pattern alone. You can learn so much by spending a little time listening to these guys.
(Above : Merlin at the Eastern Shore: see the band on its leg?)
The best time to witness the bird migration on the Eastern Shore is now. To be sure, there are many days even in September when there is little bird activity, but there are also days that are a nature watcher’s dream, and the trees and skies are filled with birds. Everything depends on the weather. If the weather is warm, sunny and stagnant, the birds are less likely to stop and they fly right over the Eastern Shore. If there is some turbulence or a cold front, chances are you’ll see some good birds. Try taking a trip to Kiptopeke at 7:00 a.m. sometime this month, and let me know what happens!