Of Birds and Butterflies (from Window on the Chesapeake)
Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network

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Image from Window on the Chesapeake
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The wind is howling. Whipping down the Chesapeake, whistling past the concrete ships that serve as breakwaters at Kiptopeke State Park, it funnels up the road that leads from the fishing pier and beach and hisses through the grasses and loblolly pines. For the hawks, bald eagles and turkey vultures overhead, the wind is a glorious engine powering their effortless, soaring flight. For the members of the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory, it’s a pain in the neck. It’s not even eleven in the morning, and they’re already closing up the songbird banding station; the long rows of nets used to catch the birds are flopping around too wildly, and most of the birds are lying low anyway. The butterfly garden is pretty, but empty of fluttering visitors. And up at the hawk-watching platform, all this wind and cloudless sky make for a lot of stiff necks and strained eyes. Brian Taber’s among them.

“We need clouds,” he says. “Hard cold fronts concentrate the birds, and clouds help in seeing them. Gives contrast. They’re 4,000 or 5,000 feet up today. Makes it hard to pull them out.”

Cover from Window on the Chesapeake
This story is an excerpt from Window on the Chesapeake by Wendy Mitman Clarke. To order this book, visit the Mariner's Museum.
“Nice adult red-shouldered over here,” calls a fellow hawk watcher, his eye glued to the Leica scope mounted at one end of the platform. Taber’s binoculars, whose strap one suspects is surgically attached to his person somewhere near the nape of his neck, immediately assume the position to pierce the cloudless blue. Hang around birders for awhile and you’ll quickly learn not to stand anywhere near the parabola defined by the length of their binocular strap—they could take your nose off with that thing as they snap their glasses to attention and, depending on the situation, either shout or golf-whisper something like, “Nice Cooper’s above the trees!” or “My God! A vermilion flycatcher!”

You should expect this sort of behavior here at Kiptopeke State Park and nearby at the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, for this is one of the best spots in the country to watch birds and butterflies on the move. Yellow-rumped warblers, Savannah sparrows, indigo buntings, brown thrashers, merlins, Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, American kestrels and peregrine falcons—from August to December, millions of migrants heading south for the winter fly down the funnel that is the Delmarva Peninsula. When they get to the end—where Kiptopeke hugs the Bay side and the wildlife refuge the ocean side—many pull over and fuel up before undertaking the daunting fifteen-mile trek across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Others backtrack north to try and find another crossing, and still others stay for the winter. Whatever their decision, it all makes for a smorgasbord of species for the researchers and volunteers of the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory (CVWO).

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