Chincoteague and the Eastern Shore hold a very special place in my heart, and not just because of the fantastic birding and wildlife watching. In September of 2001, my mother, who lives in Utah, was visiting me, and we decided to spend a night or two at Chincoteague. On the 11th we enjoyed a wonderful early morning of birding and then returned to our motel room to check out. The person at the service desk had her television on and told us that planes had crashed into each of the Twin Towers.
It took a while to make sense of that and make the connection in our brains that this was an act of terrorism, but once we did, we did what everyone in America was doing – listening intensely to every second of the news reports as if our lives depended on it. We sat there in my car at The Refuge Inn and listened to Peter Jennings on the radio as he told us live that the towers were collapsing. He talked about the Pentagon and said something about Pennsylvania; who could wrap their head around this stuff? You all know what I’m talking about; we all lived it and remember precisely where we were and who we were with on that day. I’m so glad I was with my mother.
I go to Chincoteague at least once or twice every autumn for the fall bird migration. Every time I drive through Onley I look at the motel where my Mom and I stayed the night of the 11th. Mom was afraid to cross the Bay Bridge-Tunnel to get back home, plus we were worried that it would be closed, so we stopped at the first motel we could find and planted ourselves in front of the television for the night. I look at the KFC when I drive through Onley because I remember we ate Kentucky Fried that night. And in Chincoteague I always give a nod to the Refuge Inn.
Last week, on September 29, I drove up the Eastern Shore to Chincoteague to see what migrant birds I could find. I spent the night in Chincoteague, a real splurge for me, so that I wouldn’t have to feel rushed. Here are just a few of the beautiful things I saw:
At the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge hawks were migrating south for the winter. The southernmost tip of the Delmarva Peninsula is one of the best places in the entire country to watch the hawk migration anytime between mid-September and the end of October. Thousands of hawks follow the coastline to navigate their way south during this time. The Delmarva Peninsula narrows from a wide body of land in the north to a small point at the southern tip, funneling these hawks into a concentrated area, where they are relatively numerous and easy for us to view. The hawks often stall here because they are reluctant to cross over the water to Virginia Beach, making for even better viewing for us.
The photos above are of Broad-winged Hawks. These migratory hawks breed to the north of us and in the mountains to the west of us, but not here in southeastern Virginia, so the only time we are likely to see them is during migration. These hawks migrate communally in “kettles” of anywhere from a handful of birds to many hundreds.
Other raptors that I saw that day included all three of “our” falcons (American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcons), both of the accipiters (Sharp-tailed Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk), many Osprey (photo above), Northern Harrier, and Bald Eagles among others.
At the back pond of the refuge, I saw about fifty Snowy Egrets gathered to feed before their flight south. Snowies are migratory waders, although I have seen a very few overwintering birds here. The individual in the photo above is of a juvenile Snowy Egret; you can tell this by the yellow “racing stripes” on the back of its legs. The adults have yellow feet but not this coloring on the legs.
Wintering sparrows have just started to return here. The Savannah Sparrow above is a somewhat plain little bird, but it was stunning in the morning light. One of the most useful field marks for this species is its yellow “lores,” the area right in front of the eye.
Common Green Darners, a large species of dragonfly, were everywhere, frantically breeding and laying their eggs before the temperatures drop. The adults will die very soon, but their eggs will survive to produce nymphs, which will emerge as adult dragonflies next year. The photo above is of a male; notice he has vivid green upperparts and a bright blue abdomen. Gorgeous!
I continued north to Chincoteague, and stopped at a little pullover along the causeway that is a reliable spot to see lots of American Oystercatchers at a low tide, when the oyster shoals are exposed. These stunning birds are true to their name, and use that enormous red bill to pry open oysters.
Everyone is familiar with the Great Blue Heron; less familiar is the Little Blue Heron (photo above). Little Blues are much smaller than the Great Blues, about the same size as the Snowy Egret. Their habitat preferences are in more secluded, less populated places, and you probably won’t see one at your neighborhood pond in the suburbs.
Many of the migrant tern species have already left Virginia by the end of September, but a walk on the beach south of Tom’s Cove produced Royal and Caspian Terns, our largest two terns. They are similar in appearance to new birders, but these photos show the differences between them in their winter plumages:
Note the Royal Tern’s bright orange bill. The bill is slender when compared to the Caspian Tern’s, below.
The Caspian Tern’s bill is bright red, and heavier than the Royal Tern’s. The bird is stockier and heavier looking overall than the more streamlined Royal Tern.
Chincoteague is where I remember most poignantly all the sadness and confusion of 9-11. But it’s also a place that is very healing. Nature is where I experience my version of spirituality, and even though the natural experience doesn’t erase the evil and horror of that day, it serves as a balance or counterpoint to it that reminds me there is much that is good in the world.