Fall migration is an excellent time to spot a wide variety of birds, and identifying a few birding hotspots can help fledgling birders — as well as experienced ones — know where to go. During fall and well into winter, bird watching groups in the Chesapeake region often flock to Cumberland Marsh Natural Area, about 35 minutes east of Richmond by car.
The 1,100-acre preserve, one of 45 in Virginia, overlooks some of the most pristine tidal fresh wetlands along the Pamunkey River and often yields unexpected sightings. In fact, this stretch of the river is so full of year-round birdlife that the National Audubon Society has designated the preserve and surrounding marshes an Important Bird Area.
The Nature Conservancy manages the preserve in partnership with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Sam Truslow, preserve manager for the Nature Conservancy, and Zach Bradford, his counterpart at Virginia DCR, walked a sandy ridge rising 20 feet above the marsh on one of the trails on a late February afternoon.
“It’s simply an iconic landscape,” Truslow said, stretching his arms out toward the acres of marsh, matted with swaths of southern wild rice, textured and stunning even in the dormant season.
Bradford agreed. “It’s one of the few places that you can go in Virginia where it feels totally wild.”
At that moment, a bald eagle was chased down the ridge by a pair of crows. The eagle nest on the edge of the preserve’s woodlands has been occupied for years.
Other raptors are easily spotted traversing the open fields that hug the preserve’s wooded areas, according to John Holden, a Virginia master naturalist who leads birding trips on the preserve. Red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks especially are common.
“There are so many different types of habitat here,”
Holden said. “We see so many birds, so quickly, that we often don’t get very far from the parking lot.”
This is especially true in winter, when most of the trees are bare. Holly trees, whose green shiny leaves brighten the winter forest, offer food and shelter.
Holden once saw — all on one holly tree — cedar waxwings, ruby-crowned kinglets and four species of warblers, including black-and-white warblers.
“It must be a really comfortable place for the birds where they have good sources of food and protection from predators,” Holden said.
The first stop on many birding trips to the preserve is the handicap-accessible platform on the bank of Holts Creek, a tributary that joins the Pamunkey River two miles downstream.
At eye level from the platform, Cumberland Marsh stretches in all directions, and its ecosystem continues to support a rich variety of plant, bird, fish and animal life four centuries after the English colonists first made their mark on the Chesapeake region.
A spotting scope can be helpful, but binoculars can be enough to view hooded mergansers and other winter waterfowl rafting in small pockets of open water amid the marsh grass across from the platform. Black ducks and buffleheads share the marsh with blue– and green-winged teal and greater and lesser yellowlegs. Tree swallows and sora rails in the thousands stop in the marshes of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers during their fall migration.
Cumberland Marsh Natural Area Preserve overlooks a section of the Pamunkey River where tides from the Chesapeake Bay lift and lower the river level an average of 4 feet every day, one of the greatest tidal ranges in the Bay.
This stretch of the river is unique, said ecologist Garrie Rouse, because it is both tidal and freshwater. Rouse has spent years on the Pamunkey and nearby Mattaponi River surveying vegetation for federal agencies and local organizations.
He’s also led numerous canoe trips through wavy pastures of wild rice, arrow arum and other wetland plants that thrive where fresh and brackish water meet.
“There are plants and animals found here that you won’t find upriver or downriver,” Rouse said.
One of those is the sensitive joint vetch (Aeschynomene virginica). This annual plant of the legume family paints the marsh yellow in the late summer and spreads its seeds into the river in the fall.
Cumberland Marsh hosts the largest stand of sensitive joint vetch in Virginia and one of the largest in the world. This is one reason that The Nature Conservancy harnessed resources in 1993 to protect the land.
In 2011, the Nature Conservancy and partners restored a small creek that slices between two ridges of the preserve. Earthen dams had been built to collect the water but, once removed, the area evolved into a wetland that is now populated by sensitive joint vetch. The banks of the creek are stabilized with trees and other plantings that provide even more habitat for birds and wildlife.
The vetch and the marsh that it lives in are the focus of three longterm studies — by the U.S. Geological Survey, University of Mary Washington and Virginia Commonwealth University — and help to drive the restoration strategies for the preserve.
Historical changes in the landscape around the preserve are less easy to see.
The marsh is named for Cumberland Town, a trading center and port in the 1700s and 1800s. Schooners travelled the Pamunkey’s deep channel, using the strong tides to arrive and depart with lumber, flour and tobacco. The port was significant enough that the Virginia House of Burgesses discussed making it the seat of government before Richmond replaced Williamsburg as the colonial capital.
The fertile, broad fields adjacent to the river were used to stage supplies and house the wounded during the Revolutionary War. In 1862, the Cumberland plantation house was Union General George B. McClellan’s headquarters. The fields below were transformed into a tent city for 110,000 troops during the Union army’s advance up the river toward Richmond.
But before the colonists came, the fertile land was home to Pamunkey Indians, who fished and harvested wild rice and arrow arum, as well as hunted muskrat, beaver, turtle and other game. Today, the Pamunkey Indian Reservation sits on a bend in the river opposite the preserve. There, tribe members live, work the fields and run a fish hatchery for American shad, the anadromous fish that returns every year to its natal waters to spawn.
Pamunkey chief and tribal administrator Bob Gray worries about how a rising sea level, compounded by subsidence from local groundwater depletion, will impact the land along the river. Drinking wells and septic systems are in peril, and tribal lands are subject to increasing erosion from the swift currents of the river.
The landscape of Cumberland Marsh preserve is also at risk. According to Truslow, sea level rise is the greatest concern, especially for the sensitive joint vetch.
“This is a specific plant that is small and rare and beautiful,” Truslow said, and sea level rise is going to totally change where and how much it survives.
As if to punctuate this warning, a downy woodpecker pecked and spiraled its way down the tree looking for a meal, while Truslow spotted a northern flicker high above. The woods, like the marsh, are alive even in the winter.
On the far side of the loop trail, two master naturalists from Prince George County, VA, were clearing the trail of encroaching branches. They are part of a volunteer team that helps The Nature Conservancy monitor the preserve. They discovered the preserve on a naturalist field trip, and come back every month to enjoy the outdoors and help maintain the preserve.
Another volunteer, Frances Lee- Vandell, visits almost every month from Charlottesville. The Conservancy calls the property The Vandell Preserve at Cumberland Marsh in honor of her late husband, Robert Vandell.
“He loved everything about being on the water,” she said, and “though he never visited here, I know he would have loved it.”
For now, Cumberland Marsh continues to provide safe harbor for the birds and fish that return season after season, year after year. And it also beckons birders and others who appreciate the preserve, especially in the fall and winter, when it offers silence, long views across field and marsh, and trails through the forest that will see yet another wave of migration come spring.
Birding & Beyond at Cumberland Marsh
The Cumberland Marsh Natural Area is open year-round.Duck blinds in the nearby marsh may be actively used, so caution is encouraged during hunting season.
- The nearest launch site for paddle craft is four miles downstream at the Whites Landing (Lestor Manor) ramp, just downstream of the Pamunkey reservation.
- Paddlers are encouraged to plan trips in accordance with tidal currents, which can be very strong along this section of the river.
- A set of river maps can be ordered from the Mattaponi and Pamunkey River Association at mpra.org.
- The Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center offers displays on the tribe’s history, culture and subsistence over 12,000 years. It is open select hours during the summer and fall.