Every autumn I make at least one day trip up to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge hoping to catch some of the fall bird migration (I would go every week if I could).  Longtime birders and naturalists bemoan that Chincoteague and Assoteague Islands are “nothing like they used to be in the good old days,” before people invaded the area, but even though this is unquestionably true, Chincoteague is still one of the best places on the Atlantic Coast to witness birds as they migrate along the coast, from their breeding territories in the north to their southern wintering grounds.  It also a “hotspot,” a place where rarities are almost always an annual occurrence. Rarities are birds that have taken a wrong turn somewhere along their normal migration route, and have found themselves in a place where they do not normally occur. Birders live for sitings of rare birds and will often drive hundreds of miles to chase a rare bird that has been reported.  Chincoteague is often their destination!
In October a report of a Black-tailed Godwit siting at Chincoteague spread like wildfire throughout the birding community, via birding listservs, blogs and other means that birders have set up to share  their findings with each other. This large shorebird species breeds in Iceland, Europe and Asia, and winters in the southern regions of those countries plus places like Africa, India, Indonesia and Australia. They very very rarely appear on the Aleutian Islands and the Atlantic Coast of North America.
Most of us birders keep lists of birds that we have seen in specific locations: life lists (birds seen anywhere in one’s lifetime), North American lists, “state” lists, and even county and “yard” lists. A report of a bird that  you have never  seen before gets you crazy, especially if it is within driving distance, and unless you are in bed with pneumonia or working (sigh!),  you give chase! Like many other birders, I made the drive to Chincoteague on October 14, and added the Black-tailed Godwit to my life list – and to all my other lists, for that matter.

The Chincoteague Black-tailed Godwit, 10-14-12. Its breeding plumage in the spring is much brighter than what you see here; this bird is in its basic, duller winter plumage. Maybe not the sexiest-looking bird to some, but to all the birders who saw it, it was beyond beautiful!

It was easy to find the bird, because a few dozen birders were set up at the location where it had been seen the day before. I joined them, and in an hour or two, the bird finally appeared; it was just suddenly there, feeding in the shallow waters! It remained farther away from us than we would have liked, but it was close enough that we could view it and identify it. There was much celebrating, picture-taking, reveling and observation of the bird over several hours. It was also an opportunity to meet fellow birders whose names you recognize but you have never met. It is here that I met Lee Adams, a great friend of my library’s director, Betsy Fowler. Betsy has told me on several occasions that I should contact and meet Lee since we have the same passion for birding and nature; now we have finally met, and I will always associate her with the Black-tailed Godwit!  

The Godwit was obviously the star of this year’s Eastern Shore fall migration, but I took photos of some other migrating birds as well:

By the second week of October, most of the Black Skimmers have already migrated out of Virginia, but a few still remain at Chincoteague. Skimmers are very strange birds, larger than the gulls and terns with which they associate, and with very striking black and white plumage. But the feature that really makes them stand out is that enormous bill, which is half red and half black. More striking still is the bill’s structure: the lower mandible is much longer than the upper mandible! They feed by flying open-billed, low over the surface of the water, with the lower mandible actually in the water scooping up dinner! In the photo above you can see both the adult and juvenile birds (the juvenile plumage is a paler version of the adult’s).

The Clapper Rail, above, is a bird of coastal saltmarshes, and lives under the thick cover of marsh grasses and reeds. It is heard far more oftern than it is seen, and it usually does not come out into the open unless it is a low tide and the mudflats are exposed. I intentionally planned to arrive at Chincoteague at low tide so I could try to photograph one of these rails out in the open — and it worked. The only problem is that at low tide, the mud and the grasses are a murky, muddy, slimy gray, so that is what my mostly colorless picture looks like too!

Chincoteague is one of the best places to get a really good picture of an Osprey, also known colloquially as a “Fish Hawk.” This is a raptor of coastal waters, lakes, and ponds; it is the hawk that you see hovering over the water, then plunging “feet first” into the water to catch fish with its powerful, huge talons. It is often confused with the Bald Eagle because of its size and the white on its head, but if you look at pictures of both species you will easily be able to see the differences between the two. Ospreys are common breeders in our area during the spring and summer, but most of them migrate south to warmer wintering grounds.

One of the most common shorebird species in our area is the Greater Yellowlegs. Yellowlegs are easily identifiable by their bright yellow legs (below) as well as other, more subtle, field marks. There is also a “Lesser Yellowlegs” species that migrates through Virginia, and it does take some practice to distinguish the two from each other. The Lesser Yellowlegs is smaller and daintier than the Greater, and its bill is smaller and more “needle-like.”

Leaving the water and the marshes, there are also a lot of songbirds and migrants to be seen on the Eastern Shore in the autumn, on land and in the woods. They are much harder to photograph than the birds that are out in the open, because they’re usually flitting in and out of heavy cover. Here are a few that I managed to capture:

I call this photo “Catbird Heaven” because Gray Catbirds eat berries and this one is just surrounded by them! You will see Catbirds in southeastern Virginia year round, but they are most numerous by far during fall migration.

This Eastern Phoebe, a member of the flycatcher family, is also a fall migrant through this region. Eastern Phoebes are quite plain in appearance, but are entertaining to watch as they are very active insect hunters. When perched, they pump their tails constantly. They are a bright-eyed, energetic, and fun bird to watch for a while!

This little guy is a hatch-year Magnolia Warbler. Like many warblers, Magnolias look much different in their fall and winter plumages than they do in the spring, usually a bit more plain. When birders talk about migration and “fallouts” of songbirds on the Eastern Shore, warblers are usually at the top of their “want list; they are colorful, active, and “cheerful,” the jewels of the birding world. Birders will often describe a good day of birding by citing the number of warbler species that they saw, e.g. a “20-warbler” day.

This is another of the warbler species, a North Parula. This tiny species has a large breeding area, including southeastern Virginia, so when you see Parulas in the fall they include local populations and migrants too. They are one of the more common and widespread warblers, and most of the warblers I have seen this year in my suburban yard have been Parulas.

Most of the migrant songbirds have now passed through our area. They will be replaced soon by the species that winter here, including White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Kinglets, Brown Creepers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and seemingly thousands of Yellow-rumped Warblers; some of these winterers have already arrived at my feeders. One of the Baltimore Orioles that wintered in my yard last winter showed up yesterday, to my delight. Time to switch gears, fill the feeders more often, and enjoy the new guests!

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