Virginia is for Birders
The Delmarva Peninsula juts southward towards North Carolina like the appendix of the eastern seaboard. It’s southernmost third, given to Virginia by accident of history rather than geopolitical intention, lies apart from the rest of the state both culturally and geographically. It’s connected to the mainland from the south by the Chesapeake Bridge Tunnel, a 17 mile long causeway that transects the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. And it’s on this marvel of engineering that I arrived for the recent American Birding Association Rally held at Kiptopeke State Park, on the very southern tip of the appendix.
I’d never done any birding in Virginia prior to this trip, if you don’t count county birding on the highway to DC, and a look at my list suggests you probably shouldn’t, so I was excited to be involved with the rally and to see what made this part of the Mid-Atlantic such a popular site for nature lovers. The birds themselves were not any species that would be entirely out of place where I live in North Carolina, but the geography of the peninsula is such that huge numbers of individual birds course southward with the wind at their backs this time of year. Standing at the hawkwatch at Kiptopeke State Park, as I did for a significant amount of by visit to Virginia, was a humbling experience, not just for the word-class birding raptor watching but for the enormous numbers of passerines passing overhead at any moment.
Perhaps the most impressive movement I personally witnessed were the Red-breasted Nuthatches. Everyone in the know was predicting this to be a Red Nut year, and I had seen a couple in various spots throughout North Carolina and had heard of reports as far south as Louisiana, but the magnitude of a Red-breasted Nuthatch irruption didn’t hit me until one morning I watched a parade of Nuthatches, in groups of 2 to 5 crossing over a clearing nearly constantly for half an hour. We counted over 250 individuals in a 30 minute period. It may not sound so impressive just looking at the raw numbers, but brother, that was a whole lot of nuthatches.
Palm Warblers, in both the plain gray western and brighter yellow varieties were moving in decent numbers as well. Their peak had passed, and they were swamped out by the incredible numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers passing by, but that they seemed so few was only a function of the armies of Yellow-rumps. On any other trip this would have been a big Palm Warbler day.
And about those Yellow-rumps? All save one were the expected eastern Myrtle populations, but that one, discovered by Doug Gochfeld and Todd Day, was a very exciting bird to those of us eastern US based birders. This was only the 6th ‘Audubon’s’ Yellow-rumped ever recorded for Virginia. A closer look at the individual suggests that, with that white edging right under the bill, this bird probably has a bit of Myrtle in it. Intergrades between these two populations (some might say species), are fairly common in the middle of the continent and even many Yellow-rumps that appear phenotypically to be pure Myrtle or Audubon’s probably have a bit of the other’s genes from way back when. In any case, I don’t think anyone is worried too much about the ancestry of this bird. It certainly appears to be Audubon’s “enough”.
Thrushes were in the air too. Big flocks of American Robins 200+ strong would pass over with some regularity, but the shrubs were also full of Hermit Thrushes like the one above and a little late-night listening suggested other species of thrushes were in the air too, but I’m not keen enough with my nocturnal flight calls to be certain about any of them. Something to work on, I guess.
The raptors were great fun, though. With all the passerines on the move you can bet that there was no shortage of Accipiters in the area too. The feeding station by the hawkwatch would constantly be bombarded by passing Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks. All three species of expected falcon, including lots of big, beautiful Peregrines like the young bird above were everywhere. A Northern Goshawk even made an appearance but I missed it (a shame, that would have been a lifer for me), and the kettles of Turkey Vultures occasionally held surprises, like a Golden Eagle that hung around for a couple days. The big movements of Broad-winged Hawks like they get in the Appalachians are impressive, no doubt, but there’s something about a hawkwatch that’s constantly hammered by spead-freaks and eagles (Buteos were surprisingly scarce), that really excites.
If you find your way to eastern Virginia, and you really have to be waaay out of your way to get there, make sure you make that trip in the fall. The birding is phenomenal, and the sheer mass of migration is something you’ll never forget.