Shorebird Habitat Conservation on the Eastern Shore of Virginia

Some of my favorite birding areas in the entire state of Virginia are on the coast: Virginia Beach and Northampton and Accomack Counties on the Eastern Shore.  Back Bay NWR, Pleasure House Point, Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR, Magothy Bay Natural Area Preserve, Kiptopeke State Park and Chincoteague NWR are some of the best spots.  My friends and I have done a January Eastern Shore and Virginia Beach birding trip for the last two years, and both times it’s been one of the highlights of my winter.  Another annual birding event that takes place in the region is the Kiptopeke Challenge (KC), which my friend Tucker, my brother and I participated in last year.  The Kiptopeke Challenge is a birding big day that takes place in the Coastal Plain of VA in the height of fall migration and also serves as an important fund raiser for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory (CVWO).

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The ruddy Tturnstone (Arenaria interpres), our Kiptopeke Challenge team mascot.

This year — on September 22nd — Tucker and I are excited to be doing the Kiptopeke Challenge as Team Turnstone for the second year in a row.  Not only does the KC offer fantastic birding, but I’m also happy to be raising money for the CVWO because their mission is important to me. The CVWO’s mission is “protecting wildlife through field research, education, and habitat conservation.”  Some of their more well-known research programs include the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch and Baywatch — a survey of migrating water birds, including raptors, gulls and terns, waterfowl and shorebirds.  They also conduct regular shorebird surveys at Craney Island in Portsmouth and Grandview Beach Nature Preserve in Hampton.

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Sanderling (Calidris alba)

The CVWO’s research, education and conservation projects benefit one of my favorite kinds of birds.  Shorebirds are not only very beautiful and diverse, but also perform awe-inspiring migrations twice each year.  They often sport beautiful plumages, from the stunning plumes of breeding male ruffs to the subtler but still striking buffy orange color of a non-breeding marbled godwit or buff-breasted sandpiper.  They also come in many different sizes, from the tiny least sandpiper up to humongous curlews, godwits and oystercatchers. Many species of shorebirds fly incredibly long distances each spring and fall, some moving from breeding grounds in the Arctic all the way to South America.  The greater yellowlegs, for instance, breeds in Canada and winters as far south as Argentina and Chile.

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Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca)

Shorebird habitat conservation is critically important. Shorebirds need places they can safely stop to rest and refuel during their migrations.  Lower Northampton County on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is one such stopover location where birds rest before making the potentially dangerous crossing of the Chessapeake Bay.   Further, as CVWO states on their webpage, the area, “represents a significant stopover bottleneck for millions of landbirds migrating along the Atlantic Coast [with habitats] essential to their survival.”  Preserving coastal habitats not only helps birds but is also important for a resilient coastline, protecting against severe weather and flooding.

Please help CVWO continue its important research and conservation efforts and support our KC team, Team Turnstone, by donating here. All money raised will go directly to the CVWO.  If you can’t donate, please share this post.  Thank you!

Birding Coastal Virginia: Fleeing from the Snowstorm

Four homeschooling birder friends, my brother and I woke up at the crack of dawn on January third in Virginia Beach, having driven in late the day before.  Over our hotel breakfast we learned that up to eight inches of snow was forecasted to start around 7 PM, centering around the Cape Charles area, with only about two inches in Virginia Beach and Chincoteague.  Our plan had been to bird Virginia Beach that day and then head over the bridge into Northampton County the next day, but now the snow might make it impossible to get there.  We decided to skip VA Beach and bird Northampton County immediately instead, and spend the night in Chincoteague, so if we got stuck, at least we could walk into the National Wildlife Refuge there.

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Map of coastal VA.   The marker is Cape Charles.

It was just getting light as we drove across the 23 mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT).  We spotted large rafts of surf and black scoters from our car, as well as two year birds, great cormorant and peregrine falcon.  Soon after crossing the CBBT, we came to Magothy Bay Natural Area Preserve, our first stop.  The leaves of the wax myrtles and grasses were frozen, with tiny ice shards coating them, creating a silvery glitter wherever I looked.  Yellow-rumped warblers flitted about everywhere, no doubt trying desperately to eat enough myrtle berries to keep them alive in the frigid weather.  As we turned a sharp corner in the path, an American woodcock exploded out of the brush by our feet, its wings whistling.  The trail continued into an old pine woodland, where we heard brown-headed nuthatches, before opening into expansive salt marshes lining Jones Cove.  We worked our way along the edge of the water, listening for salt marsh or Nelson’s sparrows and scanning all the waterfowl we could find.  I got on a flying female common goldeneye, but I couldn’t get anyone else on it before it disappeared.  A flock of fifteen common mergansers flew over us, more than double the previous county high-count for the species.  As we continued our search for sparrows other than swamp or song, a cacophony of geese honking filled the air, and nearly five-hundred Canada geese descended from the sky.  Mixed in with the geese were a few duck flocks, with northern pintail and American black duck.  Despite continued searching, the only marsh birds we could find were a sedge wren and an orange-crowned warbler.

Our next location was Cheriton Landfill, the site of Virginia’s first state record of Lucy’s warbler, which we saw last year.  Fifteen hundred Canada geese swam in the little pond next to the landfill, but there wasn’t one single rare goose among them.  Mixed in with the geese, however, were twelve species of ducks, including redhead, green-winged teal, American wigeon, and northern shoveler.  We walked down the road behind the landfill, seeing song and savannah sparrows, but not much else.  As we walked back toward the car, over fifty black vultures circled above our heads, catching the morning thermals.

As we were driving to the Cape Charles harbor, we got an update on the weather.  They were now calling for over a foot of snow, and up to eight inches in Chincoteague.  We also learned that our hotel in Chincoteague did not have a generator.  With much regret we decided it would be better to abandon the coast at the end of the day, and spend the rest of our trip in Northern Virginia.

As we walked through the dunes to the harbor, two pale white sparrows flew up onto a sign.  We quickly saw they were “Ipswitch” savannah sparrows, a range restricted coastal subspecies that was new for most of us.  Forty American oystercatchers rested on a long rock jetty projecting in to Cape Charles harbor, and purple sandpipers, ruddy turnstones, and sanderling fed around their feet.

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American oystercatchers and purple sandpiper.  Photo credit: Theo Staengl

We watched bufflehead, surf scoters, greater scaup, and ruddy ducks fly around, and practiced getting flight shots of them.

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Bufflehead flight shot

As we were leaving, two flocks totaling 13 common mergansers flew over us, leaving us to wonder why there were so many of them in Northampton that day when they are usually fairly rare.

Our final coastal location before we had to head inland was the Kiptopeke State Park Fishing Pier, where two snow buntings had been hanging out.  The fishing pier is a rather dreary place, a large artificial projection into the bay with an inch of dead yellow grass on top.  From it, you can see a chain of ancient naval vessels out on the water, stripped of any useful material and left to rot.  Finding the white snow buntings in a flock of savannah sparrows and yellow-rumped warblers was not hard, and we observed these cute birds for a long time.

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Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) Photo by: Theo Staengl

Snow buntings breed in the high arctic tundra, and according to wikipedia have the farthest north distribution of any passerine.  In the winter they migrate down into boreal Canada and New England, and a few overshoot and end up in places like Virginia.

We were disappointed that we wouldn’t be going to Chincoteague, but our coastal birding had still been productive, and with any luck birding Northern Virginia would be too.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.