Kiptopeke Challenge 2017: A Birding Big Day on the Eastern Shore

I felt completely awake despite it being two hours before dawn from the anxiousness and excitement churning inside me.  My brother Theo, our friend Tucker Beamer, and I stood in the high grass of the salt marsh at Pleasure House Point Natural Area in Virginia Beach.  The sounds of the high buzzy chip notes of migrating warblers occasionally pierced the quiet as they flew overhead.  We were competing in a birding big day known as the Kiptopeke Challenge (KC) in order to see as many species as we could in a twenty four hour day, and raise money for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory (CVWO), an important conservation and field research organization in the area.  We had registered ourselves as Team Turnstone.


Team Turnstone at Cape Charles later in the day

Over the past month, we had meticulously planned a birding route up the Eastern Shore of Virginia from Pleasure House Point, and we were thrilled to finally be putting our plan into action.  Suddenly, we heard the hoarse croak of a yellow-crowned night-heron as it flushed out of the grass somewhere off to our right.  The first identified species of the day!  The low grunting of resting mallard ducks drifted to us on the still night air from the water.  The raucous repeated “kek” calls of a clapper rail erupted out of the marsh and then died back.  We hurried back to the car, and drove to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT).

At 5:25 AM we pulled into the deserted parking lot of the first CBBT island, a famous birding spot, but not one I had high hopes for in the dark.  In the dim light of street lamps, we spotted the blobs of two sleeping shorebirds on the rocks in the surf below.  Closer inspection showed a ruddy turnstone and a sanderling, as well as two more juvenile yellow-crowned night-herons.

We were particularly excited for our next stop, a small section of bay-side beachfront in southern Northampton County called Sunset Beach.  We had heard that hundreds of warblers that had overshot during the night and found themselves on the edge of the difficult to cross Chesapeake Bay flew back up the peninsula of the Eastern Shore at dawn every day.  We found a Wilson’s warbler foraging in the brush, but not yet much else.  We arrived just as the sun was rising, and as we waited for more warblers, we birded along the beach in the half light.  We  saw common gulls, pelicans, and cormorant for the first time that day.

Coming back to the small woodlot near where we had parked, we saw that other Kiptopeke Challenge teams had gathered in expectation of the great flight.  Among them was the Blue Ridge Great Horns, the other youth team.  They were Tucker’s older brother, Baxter Beamer, Gabriel Mapel, and Max Nootbaar.   They jauntily approached us and asked how we were doing.  We asked them the same question instead of answering.  Baxter told us that they had done more pre-dawn birding than us, and as a result had some birds that we didn’t, like bobolink, Swainson’s thrush, and northern harrier.  They didn’t have Wilson’s warbler though.  All further talking was interrupted by a barrage of warbler flight calls.  We hurried to take up our position with the rest of the teams as 20 warblers streaked low over head and disappeared into the dense pines.  Over the next hour, we watched more than 600 warblers of almost 20 different species zip over the gap and up the peninsula.   It was hard to identify them from so brief a look, and to compound the problem, by KC rules, everyone in the team has to see a bird for it to be countable on the team’s list.  Even so, I enjoyed the challenge and the feeling of wonder at the sheer amount of birds.


Northern parulas were one of the most common species on the morning flight at Sunset Beach.  Photo by Tucker Beamer

When the constant stream of warblers finally began to die down, we had around 60 species for the day, and it was only 7:40 AM.  We said goodbye to the Great Horns, and headed to our next stop, the Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR.  We hoped the other teams wouldn’t stop here, and we might be able to get some birds back on them.  We saw a beautiful American kestrel as we drove in to the refuge.


American kestrel

Other notable birds at Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR included sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawk, a late eastern kingbird, and house finch, supposedly a difficult bird on the Eastern Shore.   At the Kiptopeke Hawk Platform, we were surprised by how close the migrating raptors were.  At the Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch in Augusta, the raptors appear as little specks in the sky, but at Kiptopeke most birds are low.  We saw our first confirmed merlin, as well as a tufted titmouse, a sometimes difficult species in Northampton.  We drove to Magotha Road, where we hoped to see Eurasian collared dove and marsh wren.  Sadly, the only new birds we added were peregrine falcon, least sandpiper, great egret, foresters tern, and eastern bluebird.  As we were about to leave, the Great Horns drove up again.  They asked us how we were doing again.  When they learned that we were quickly catching up to them, they left in a hurry.  We continued on to Cape Charles Beach, where we hoped to pick up the other tern species.  The sea oats on the dunes blew lazily in the midday wind.  I was beginning to feel the strain of such an intense schedule, but the terns flying by quickly distracted me.  We were only able to pick out royal and sandwich terns here, leaving us to hope we could get caspian and common at Chincoteague later in the day.  At the town of Willis Wharf’s lovely scented boatyard, (the freshest air in the place was the abandoned porta potty), we once again saw our mascot bird, the ruddy turnstone, perched atop a mountain of oyster shells.


Go Team Turnstone!

Now we had a long time in the car, as we drove all the way up to Saxis Wildlife Management Area in the most northern part of Virginia’s portion of the Delmarva Peninsula.  Seemingly endless plains of salt marsh stretched out from the road in all directions.  We got out of the car, feeling the hot sun beating down on us, and “pished” at the grass.  A seaside sparrow flew up and further away from us. We clapped half-heartedly, hoping to coax a Virginia rail into responding, but since it was literally the middle of the day, we didn’t have much hope.  After about a minute, some Virginia rail, somewhere way out in the marsh, decided it just wanted us to shut-up and let it rest.  The grunting call of the rail was barely perceptible to us, but we could count the bird.

Now we could continue to our last stop, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.  We had planned on spending most of the afternoon at Chincoteague, which proved to be a mistake, as Chincoteague just isn’t that good in the Fall.  We should have spent more time birding sites in Northampton County.  But Chincoteague is always pretty good, and we weren’t entirely disappointed.  We were disappointed by the number of people using the beach.  Why on earth does every beachgoer in the world have to decide to come out to a wildlife refuge when they could literally choose any other spot of sand?!  The beach was so crowded, you could hardly see the ocean from behind the lines of sunbathers.  We hurried past, toward the Tom’s Cove mudflats where we hoped for shorebirds.  One of the first birds we spotted was my Virginia lifer piping plover.


Piping Plover posing for photographs

Shortly afterward, we found a sandpiper flock, with some semipalmated sandpipers, sanderling, and semipalmated plovers.  There was also a least sandpiper, and many black-bellied plovers.  These were all new birds for the day, except the least.


Semipalmated Plover

As we continued down the beach, we were surprised by the lack of willits and marbled godwits, which should have been common.  Up ahead, we saw a giant flock of gulls and terns and decided to scan it.  They were mostly great-black backed, herring, ring-billed and laughing gulls and royal terns, but we were able to find caspian and common terns mixed in as well.  Suddenly, a flock of  31 red knots flew in from the ocean side, and landed nearby.  This was a day-bird and Virginia lifer for me.


Red Knots preening

We birded around Chincoteague for the rest of the day.  Highlights included an adult Lincoln’s sparrow, a bird never before seen on the Kiptopeke Challenge, that we spotted on the Black Duck Trail.


Lincoln’s Sparrow.  Photo by Tucker Beamer.

As the sun was setting, we hurried back out to the beach to give willits and marbled godwits another shot.  As we walked down the now empty beach, massive flocks of willets and red knots were everywhere.  We were able to pick out four marbled godwits in a flock of over 50 willits.  Thank goodness we eventually got those birds!  After dinner, we came back out to the refuge to try for owls and nocturnal migrants, but we came up with nothing new.  We had planned on listening for more nocturnal migrants back at our hotel, but I guess the beds just looked too good.  It was 10:30 PM, and we had been up since 4:00 AM.  We went to bed.  Our total for the day was 107 species, perhaps not as good as we hoped, but still a fairly solid number, and we’ll be back next year to do better.

Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas

I crept forward through the dense understory of spicebush, trying not to make too much noise, as I followed the soft, incessant trills of a fledgling begging call. I was birding in a small valley right next to our house in the hope of getting a wood thrush breeding confirmation, as we had heard many singing down here recently.  As I removed the final branch blocking my view of where the calls seemed to be coming from, I saw the fuzzy reddish brown backs of 3 little thrushes hopping around on the ground.  I snapped a quick photo and than left them alone.

The 2nd Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas (VABBA or VABBA2) is an ambitious citizen science project designed to document the distribution and abundance of Virginia’s breeding birds.  This year, I participated in the VABBA to learn more about our breeding birds and my local area, and to promote bird conservation through citizen science.  This year was the second of the five-year project, and my first as a volunteer.  Virginia is divided into nearly 4,400 nine square mile blocks, each of which should ideally be surveyed completely.  In recognition that complete survey is very unlikely, one out of every six blocks is a priority block, a designation given to attempt to focus efforts more evenly across the state.  There are approximately 798 priority blocks in Virginia, of which 570 now have data.  VABBA block survey consists of attempting to identify and document breeding evidence for as many species of birds as possible, across as many different habitats in the block as possible.

Through the second season of this project, I have been amazed by the ability of the birding community to contribute large quantities of important data.  The VABBA2 has received 37,669 checklists from 742 participants in just its first two years.  Atlas volunteers have confirmed 185 breeding species in Virginia.  The first VABBA, held over 25 years ago, only confirmed 196 species in five years.  So far I have confirmed 34 species in my block, with an additional 16 as probable, through 45 checklists.

This year I signed up to be the principle atlaser for the block that we live in, Greenfield Central West (CW).  It is not a priority block, but I didn’t want to have to drive somewhere else to bird and I wanted to learn more about the ecosystems around our house.   I was also happy to get to know more local property owners through asking them for permission to survey their properties.  Our immediate neighbors have been very accommodating to birding, and we have unlimited access to a large chunk of land adjacent to our own.  Participating in the Atlas was an opportunity to expand this access to other properties nearby.

I have really enjoyed my participation in VABBA2 this year, but have also found it challenging.  I learned a lot about the breeding biology and behaviors of our summer species, including the habitats different species favored, and I expect to learn much more next year.   Now I know, for example, that I can reliably find ovenbirds and worm eating warblers in the dry oak hickory forest on the Paul’s Creek Trail in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.  These are two species that I don’t expect to find breeding in the lush floodplain forest on our property in the same block, less than a couple of miles away.  Similarly, I hoped to find breeding hooded warblers as the elevation increased, and was pleased when I was able to confirm one.  I also began to learn which behaviors distinguish a bird that is likely to show breeding evidence.   For instance, a bird silently feeding in the brush or flying directly back and fourth between shrubs is much more likely to give you a breeding confirmation than a bird leisurely singing in the canopy.


These Barn Swallows illustrate the confirmed breeding code Nest with Young (NY).

As I learned more about the differences between atlasing and regular birding, I was able to confirm many more new species per atlasing venture.  Like regular birding, atlasing consists of looking for and identifying birds, but when atlasing, you must also observe and rank breeding behaviors. There are four categories of breeding behavior: observed, possible, probable and confirmed. The goal is to observe the highest possible category for each species. For example, you might see a singing male in the same spot more than seven days apart (a ‘probable’ behavior), but you aren’t done with that species until you have observed it exhibiting a ‘confirmed’ behavior, such as feeding young. To observe so much, you have to move slower, and pay more attention to any given bird than you would in regular birding.


This Northern Flicker Feeding Young (FY), was observed at McIntire Park, Charlottesville, VA.

On one atlasing trip in early spring, I made a visit to a farm in my block with some large fallow fields to look for displaying American woodcocks.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to confirm them, as they nest on the ground in dense vegetation and blend in so perfectly that even when you know one is right in front of you, it still might take you five minutes to see it.  Despite this, I was excited to get the probable display code on them and witness their strange display flight again.  Right as it was getting so dark I was worried we wouldn’t find any, the strange dry “peeent” of an American woodcock came from across the field, followed by the sharp twittering as it flew overhead.  We heard two or three more birds that night.

One of the aspects of atlasing that I found most challenging was figuring out the timing of the breeding season.  There are species breeding almost all year, with species like bald eagle and great horned owl starting as early as December, and the smaller owls and raptors soon following.


This Great Horned Owl was observed on March 9nth, at Thomas P. Grater Community Park in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which is not in the VABBA2 area.  This would be the Occupied Nest (ON), confirmed breeding code.

However, the vast majority of our breeding species, the neotropical migrant songbirds, are easiest to confirm during June and early July.  I remember feeling full of energy and having plenty of time for atlasing during March when only a few species were breeding.  In May and June, though, we went to the Biggest Week in American Birding in Ohio, and to Glacier National Park, plus many weekend birding trips around the state.  By late June when most species are breeding, I felt stressed and worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to confirm a decent number in my block this year.  My stress was exacerbated by my inexperience with the VABBA protocols because I didn’t know at the outset where to focus my effort and attention.

Overall, atlasing has been a very educational and rewarding experience for me, and although this breeding season is finishing up, I am looking forward to finishing my block next summer.