It is the fascinating concept of the Eastern Shore funneling millions of songbirds and thousands of raptors toward its southernmost tip that lures me. Every fall, the birds bottleneck here, resting and replenishing before executing the long flight across the open water of the Chesapeake as they head south.
This area is one of the most fascinating wildlife areas on the East Coast, for it includes tidal wetlands, barrier islands, maritime forests and the Chesapeake Bay. It is part of a great global network of places recognized for their outstanding value to bird conservation.
I recently led a caravan of family and friends down the peninsula, heading for the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge and nearby Kiptopeke State Park, both members of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.
While the songbirds seek refuge in the dense thickets of myrtle and cedar, we'll head to a most unusual dwelling-a yurt or round Mongolian hut. Kiptopeke is the only Virginia state park to offer this accommodation to campers. It is the ideal base for a bird outing or explorations of the marsh and dune trails, whether on foot or by boat.
Kiptopeke is a Native American word meaning "big water." It was also the name of the younger brother of the king of the Accaumach Indians, who had befriended early settlers in the area.
It is Virginia's only state park located directly on the Eastern Shore. Big water plus big wind equals big waves, exactly the conditions we encountered on our first day. Small craft warnings forced us to keep our sea kayaks strapped to our roof racks and seek other means of entertainment.
Fortunately, the Kiptopeke State Park Trail Guide offers more than four miles of hiking and biking trails.
Close to our yurt, a long boardwalk travels across the dune to the beach. It offers a breath-taking view of the Bay and the unusual breakwater.
A row of World War II concrete ships form a 1,500-foot long breakwater for the ferry that united the Eastern Shore with the rest of Virginia. The state park was originally the northern ferry terminus. The land was purchased by the Virginia Ferry Corp. and served travelers until the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was built.
These 4,690-ton concrete ships were originally manufactured by McClosky & Company of Philadelphia for the U.S. Maritime Commission to serve in the new South Pacific fleet. Two of the fleet of 24 ships ended up being sunk as blockships in the Allied invasion of Normandy. The war had used up a lot of the country's steel resources, and when it was over, nine more ships were sunk at the old ferry landing at Kiptopeke. These ships are home to ospreys, their great twiggy nests decorating the sunken relics.
Fish congregate around their bowels too, creating one of the best fishing reefs in the Bay. Flounder and gray trout can be found in the spring; then croaker, spot, speckled trout and tag later in the season. The ships also make a great paddling destination.
We followed the Raptor Trail past a reforestation project where a variety of native trees have been planted to create habitat for migratory birds. With songbird populations in serious decline because of habitat loss, forest destruction, wetland drainage and urban growth, these species need all of the help they can get.
It only makes sense that the hordes of migrating warblers, vireos, shorebirds and hummingbirds are followed and pursued by the raptors, which feed on them during their journey south.
We climb an old bunker to the overlook platform, where we are thrilled to spot a bald eagle and a peregrine falcon. Kiptopeke boasts one of the most impressive autumn raptor flights on the Atlantic seaboard. Visitors can witness throngs of hawks, eagles, vultures and falcons as they follow the ancient pull south to distant lands. Scott Weidensaul states this natural phenomena so eloquently in his book "Living on the Wind":
"Bird migration is the only true unifying natural phenomena in the world, stitching the continents together in a way that even the great weather systems, which roar out of the poles but fizzle at the equator, fail to do."
The best time to see large numbers of migrating raptors at Kiptopeke is in late September through early October. It is considered to be the best place in the world to see migrating merlins and peregrines. A "hawk watch" is operated at Kiptopeke from Sept. 1 through Nov. 30, with observers scanning the skies seven days a week. A trapping and banding operation also takes place, averaging more than 900 captured hawks per year and totaling 500,000 birds of prey since 1977.
The Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory sponsors these fall bird population studies. Birds from the trapping blinds are regularly brought to the hawk watch platform for visitors to see close-up before they're released. There are also mist nets set up to capture and band the songbirds and collect important data. The park offers a fall interpretive program to help its visitors understand why this research is so important.
On the way back to the yurt, the children beachcomb. The beach is littered with pearly common jingle shells-the fragile, translucent shells range in color from iridescent white to vivid orange and yellow. The children watch for crabs that scurry in and out of their 2-inch-wide holes. We spot some white-tailed deer tracks in the sand, coming down to the beach for much-needed salt.
A fishing pier provides 1,000 feet of fishing and crabbing opportunities, while the 4,276 feet of beachfront offers excellent swimming and surf-fishing left for another visit, as we're finding there is much to do here. The sunset creates a beautiful backdrop of color as we climb up the wooden stairs to our yurt.
One of the best features of the yurt is its round design, which promotes a sense of community inside. Everyone's conversation can be heard. There are no walls, no doors to close to isolate an inhabitant; it is truly living together. This is extremely rare in modern family life. Even when one goes camping, multiple tents separate one another.
Kiptopeke's yurt is a modern adaptation of this ancient shelter, combining a beautiful wood frame and durable, insulated fabric. Functionally speaking, it is a cross between a cabin and a tent. It has a large wooden deck, picnic table, exterior floodlight and an outside water spigot. Inside, our yurt sports a fridge, sink, cooking and eating utensils, beds with mattresses for seven, table and chairs, lights and electric heat. Visitors must bring their own linens, food and cooking utensils. Showers and flush toilets, as well as running water, are located at the nearby bathhouse.
First on the agenda for day two was driving a few miles to the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. Excellent displays explain that this peninsula tip also hosts clouds of migrating tree swallows and orange and black monarch butterflies. They, too, funnel down and pause in their migration before crossing the big water.
Ranger and kayaking addict Dorie Stolley spends a generous amount of time directing us to the best places to paddle in the salt marsh. The winds have not let up so we must resort to paddling in the protected waters of Raccoon River that braid throughout Raccoon Island in the tidal marsh. Stolley shows where to put in for free, and outlines the tide map so there is enough water in the channels to allow our long kayaks to float.
We depart just as the tide is coming in, and have fun navigating the snaking channels. The high reeds break the wind, and we are able to maneuver through the water trails. We accidentally spook a couple of egrets and ospreys that wheel into the sky above us. Tiny crabs poke in and out of holes dug out of the mud banks, which are riddled with holes and thick with reeds. In some places, the banks are blanketed with enormous beds of mussels.
After our paddle, we hike the refuge's short trail and climb to the observation deck for a sweeping view of 1,123-acre Fisherman's Island. This southernmost barrier island, which is off-limits to the public, is covered with birds on the shore as well as swirling in the air. Thousands of brown pelicans and royal terns, as well as American oystercatchers, make this island their nesting haven.
Recent development is threatening this area, but the Southern Tip Partnership, a combination of public and private agencies, is working hard to secure and save properties. They purchase land and establish easements and are addressing the need to preserve this wilderness for the bird and nature lovers.
We lift our heads and silently wish the birds a safe passing as they continue their incredible journey south to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Like them, we will return once again, to witness this great spectacle at Kiptopeke State Park.
Kiptopeke State Park & Eastern Shore NWR
- Kiptopeke State Park is open year-round. Parking and admission is $3 Monday through Friday and $4 on Saturdays, Sunday and holidays. For information, call 757-331-2267 or visit www.dcr.virginia.gov/parks/kiptopek.htm.
- The Eastern Shore Birding Festival takes place at the park Sept. 18-21. Sponsored by the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce, it features workshops, guest speakers, children's programs, boat tours, exhibits and other educational activities.
- The Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge is open daily from a half-hour before sunrise until a half-hour after sunset. The Visitor Center is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily April to November; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily December and March; and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday through Sunday January and February. There are no fees to visit the refuge and visitor center. For information, call 757-331-2760 or visit http://easternshore.fws.gov.
- For information about the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Service, visit: www.cvwo.org.