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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.