I walked down a narrow strip of compact, damp sand, my brother Theo a few paces behind me. The air was crisp and cool, and when the wind gusted it ripped through my three coats. My fingers, even inside my gloves, burned from the cold as they gripped the legs of my spotting scope tripod. To my right, low sand dunes stretched into the distance, only sparsely covered with vegetation. To my left, the Atlantic Ocean disappeared over the horizon. Above me, the sky was brilliant, depthless blue, unbroken by cloud or bird.
My brother and I were at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, in what has now become a yearly tradition. For the past four years, we have spent several days in the first week of January birding Coastal Virginia, arguably the crown jewel of which is Chincoteague. Chincoteague is always one of the most fun days of the trip, because its size and varied habitats allow us to spend more time in one place, which encourages slower, less frenzied birding and more attention to details of identification and counting. Over the years it’s become a tradition for us to try to get as many species as possible on an all-day eBird checklist from the national wildlife refuge. So far, my personal record is 90, which was set in 2019.
We started our visit to Chincoteague the same way we did all our others — with a walk down the beach between the Atlantic Ocean and Tom’s Cove. We saw giant flocks of snow geese wheeling in the sky, and long-tailed ducks, black and surf scoters, horned grebes, and common loons diving in Tom’s Cove. Eventually, we reached the abandoned coast guard station at the far side of Tom’s Cove. We watched an Ipswich savannah sparrow forage in the sand dunes from an old, wind bleached boardwalk, the color of the weathered boards closely matching that of the sparrow. At the coast guard station, we faced a choice. Either we could go back up the beach to the parking lot and bird the rest of the refuge, or we could push on along the beach a few more miles to the mythical mudflats at the very southern tip of the island known as the hook. We’d been to the very edge of the hook once before, but never seen the massive shorebird flocks that were rumored to haunt this hard to access area. Our curiosity was too great, so we set off down the beach, our hopes high.
As we approached the end of the island, the beach widened out, so that we were looking out over a large expanse of sand. Large pieces of driftwood dotted the landscape. A thick line of shells, wood, and human trash ran along the edge of the beach. My brother and I split up so we could search the plain of sand more effectively for shorebirds. I walked along the edges of the dunes, keeping my eyes out for snow buntings or more Ipswich sparrows. We walked for a long time, but the landscape didn’t change, and there were few birds to be found. Finally, I heard the sound of my brother’s voice on the wind. Running out from behind a dune, I saw his distant wind-blown form hunched over the spotting scope, gesturing for me to come. When I reached him, he pointed out a flock of several hundred dunlin huddled together next to the ocean. Looking farther down the beach, I saw several similar flocks. All the dunlins were huddled close together, and most were sleeping with their heads tucked under their wings.
I carefully scanned the dunlin flock, searching for any irregularities in size or color that could give away another shorebird species. Several pale gray sanderlings were clustered near one end of the flock, along with several slightly smaller shorebirds. On first glance, they looked almost like miniature dunlin, but closer inspection revealed they were slightly paler, and when they raised their heads to look around, they had different facial patterning and shorter, straighter, bills. They were western sandpipers, a species we’d never seen at Chincoteague before, despite extensive searching. We lay on our stomachs on the sand and photographed the birds as they preened, until the cold wind compelled us to keep moving.
While I’d been scanning the shorebird flock with the scope, Theo had been searching the ocean with his binoculars. He drew my attention to a common eider among a flock of surf scoters and common loons. It was a beautiful young male, with a white body and a brown head. Surprisingly, it was the seventh of our trip, many more of this uncommon sea duck than we had seen on any of our previous Coastal Virginia trips.
We continued down the beach, scanning and counting the dunlin flocks as we went. By the time we turned around, we had seen more than one-thousand dunlin, and nineteen western sandpipers. We also encountered a large gull flock with lots of herring, great-black backed, and ring-billed gulls, and one lesser black-backed gull. Ruddy turnstones, sanderlings, dunlins, and black-bellied plovers foraged around the gulls’ feet.
Eventually, we started hiking the several miles back up the beach towards the rest of the refuge. It seemed to go on forever, the uniform plain of sanding stretching nearly to the horizon. I became hot in my coats, and thirsty. Other than the occasional flock of scoters over the ocean, there were almost no birds to distract us. The wind whistled, blowing sand into our legs. When we did get back to the car, we just sat there for several minutes, eating, drinking, and recuperating before we birded the rest of the refuge.
The rest of our trip to Chincoteague followed a more typical path. We scanned Swan Cove, seeing marbled godwits, Bonaparte’s gulls, tundra swans, and hundreds of dabbling ducks of various species. Then we drove around wildlife loop, counting hundreds more northern shovelers, gadwall, American black duck, and green-winged teal. Finally, we stopped on the boardwalk bridge on the way out of the refuge to pick up a seaside sparrow, forced to the edge of the marsh by the high tide. We ended with 71 species on our eBird checklist, and had another fun day of birding adventure.