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Suggested Trip

Kiptopeke: A Migration Superhighway

 

A note about COVID-19 and visiting parks: Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.

I had driven for four straight days and nearly three thousand miles across the country to work the fall season at a very special place, Kiptopeke State Park. The Eastern Shore of Virginia narrows at the southern end to a point where the marshes and woods and farms finally give way to the ocean. Kiptopeke State Park sits right here, smack bang at the end of a huge geographic funnel that forces hundreds upon thousands of birds during their southward fall migration to pass through this unique area. 

I'm unashamedly a bird nerd; more than that, though, a bird evangelist who loves sharing my passion for birds and their conservation. Working for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory fit my work criteria and sense of adventure perfectly. It’s an amazing place, and one of the best bird migration sites in the U.S.

My job: Count all the migrating raptors that pass Kiptopeke State Park’s viewing platform from September 1 to November 30.  Not difficult, right? Just imagine dashing merlins streaking across at tree height.  You have less than a second to spot them.  Sometimes they pause for a moment to grab a dragonfly as they continue south.  Turn to the left as a small forest hawk, a sharpie, is spiraling up in a thermal to join larger Cooper's hawks, and more sharpies, too… and wait, there are two peregrine falcons up there as well.  Oh gosh, look even higher – 3000 feet up – and osprey after osprey are following each other into the distance. Wait! I almost missed that kestrel, the distinctive string of white pearls decorating its trailing edge to the wing  Now there is a "kettle" of broad-winged hawks appearing out of the haze – maybe sixty in this group – soaring on flat wings, their next stop 400 miles down the coast on their journey to Argentina.  It's totally intoxicating.  It's addictive.  The energy among the visitors is at a fever pitch and there are cheers and woops as birds come crashing through, skimming the tree line.  You don't need to be a birder, and there’s no better place to start this sport that's rapidly spreading faster than any other in the country, no better place to feel that you are in the middle of a dizzying array of migrating birds, no better place to meet an amazingly varied and interesting group of people.

Kestrel, photo by Steve Thornhill

Peregrine falcon, photo by Steve Thornhill

Mid-September to mid-October is the peak, when the frenzied hawk migration is at full throttle and you can see more than a thousand birds in a day.  But migration is happening all the time, every day. As the season shifts from summer to winter, the bird species and stories change. 

Cooper's and broad-winged hawks, photo by Steve Thornhill

Red-tailed hawk, photo by Steve Thornhill

I arrived at the end of August.  It's hot and large cumulus clouds tower high.  Birds are already on their way south.  Tens of thousands of barn swallows stream overhead, hardly noticeable until you realize that the swarms are not insects but birds!  Thousands of Eastern kingbirds fly in open loose flocks, beak to tail, their winter destination the tropical lowland forest of the Amazon.  Orchard orioles are passing, soon to be replaced in a parade of later migrants like their closely-related cousins, Baltimore orioles.

As a cold front passes, migration steps up a notch and birds flood through.  By mid-September streams of raptors are passing, catbirds are calling from every bush and warbler diversity is fantastic.  As October rolls around, clouds of tree swallows drift over the shore like smoke.  I've seen them land by the thousands in bushes to glean insects while still fluttering their wings, causing a living ripple to bustle through the trees. By mid- October myrtle warblers are pouring by ten or twenty or thirty thousand per day.  Their "seep" and "chip" calls draw attention to their tiny forms dashing overhead.  And these are just the diurnal migrants.  Go out on a clear night with a large moon and just listen … there are hundreds of thousands of small songbirds passing overhead. 

As the season moves on, we enter the time of the seed eaters: sparrows and towhees, jays and nuthatches. By November the raptor numbers are dropping and more concentrated to the warmer parts of the day.  However, this is when local birders dream of one of those northern vagrants to perhaps head a little further south than normal.  Each year a golden eagle is spotted, always a young bird with its majestic bowed wings with discreet white patches.  Maybe this year we will see a goshawk or a rough leg …  maybe a snowy owl will drift by.  As the season turns cold, long formations of tundra swans fly overhead.  Loons and ducks are offshore and who knows what unusual birds will be found during the rarity roundup when local birders search the area for birds that should be in far-flung corners of the continent.

For this is a great place for unusual visitors.  Each year people come from all over the Mid-Atlantic to chase a rare sighting, even a “first," a bird species never recorded in the area before.

While the rare and unusual is fun, it's the pure magnitude and variety of the migration that is so very impressive.  There are other bird enthusiasts like me, counting the raptors and keeping track of the migrating birds at sites throughout North and Central America.  We are part of the Raptor Network and enter all our counts into a public database where population trends can be tracked, and the migration phenology monitored.  Kestrel and sharp-shinned hawks are in decline; red tails are no longer migrating so far south; Mississippi kites are moving north. We can see climate change affecting bird populations in real time.  Check out hawkcount.org to catch the raptor migration and see what's happening at Kiptopeke on a daily basis.

Kiptopeke.  What a great place to become familiar with a group of notoriously-difficult species to find and identity.  Enthusiastic bird nerds like me are on hand at the park to help visitors spot the raptors and suggest other great local birding spots.  It really is one of the best places in North America to see falcons, the most enigmatic of all the raptors.  There are not many places where you have the chance to see a hundred peregrines in a single day.  There really isn't any other place like Kiptopeke.

Kiptopeke State Park

Kiptopeke State Park's location near the tip of the Chesapeake's Eastern Shore makes the park a prime location for bird-watching. Migrating birds congregate at this point on the Delmarva before moving on to breeding or wintering grounds.

Steve

Steve Dougill travels with the birds, migrating with them wherever they take him. Last fall he was studying seabirds and sharks on the Farallon Islands, that spring banding songbirds in Israel. He's currently working at Kiptopeke for Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory.

October 28, 2021

Main image: Kiptopeke Hawk Watch platform, photo by Steve Thornhill
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