Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Eagle eyes flock to Kiptopeke hawk count

An annual birder migration

If shorter days and cooler weather make you restless for a different kind of nature experience, head to Kiptopeke State Park in Virginia to witness the migration of hawks, falcons and eagles on their long and often extraordinary journeys from Canada and Alaska to Central and South America.

The Delmarva Peninsula funnels down to a small spit of land at its southern tip, creating a resting spot for raptors, songbirds, water birds and even butterflies before they cross the 19-mile-wide mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

That’s a major reason for the creation of the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, as well the protection of nearby land and coastal barrier islands. It’s also why the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory, a nonprofit based in Virginia Beach, has set up shop on a large elevated platform at Kiptopeke State Park, where volunteers join a trained biologist in counting migrating raptors.

Since its inception 39 years ago, Kiptopeke Hawkwatch has recorded nearly 750,000 individuals from 19 species. Hawkwatch continues this year, from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30. The group welcomes anyone willing to spend an hour, an afternoon, a day or more, to help scan the skies for hawks, falcons and eagles.

Brian Taber, president of the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory, explained that everyone — from experienced birders to first-time watchers — is welcome on the large, raised platform, located just 200 feet from the Bay.

“If you just sit there and say, ‘There’s one over there,’ that would be OK,” Taber said. “And if you’re able to point out, say, a peregrine falcon overhead, that would also be OK.”

No sign-up or volunteer forms are required because Taber said that those who show up are part of a citizen science volunteer corps who assist the paid staff person responsible for the final identification and the collecting and inputting of data.

The Hawk Migration Association of North America collects data from more than 250 Hawkwatch sites in the United States, Canada and Central America to support an understanding of population trends and other research. In the case of migrating birds, Taber said, the best way to get a handle on populations is to stand in the same place every year — year after year — and count.

Other Hawkwatch sites, like Rockfish Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Nellysford, VA, usually have an abundance of red-tailed and broad-winged hawks, as well as hawks not commonly seen at Kiptopeke, because those

species — especially the adults — use updrafts along mountain ridges to propel them southward. But, said Brenda Tekin, an avid birder and co-coordinator of the Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch, Kiptopeke is the best place to see migrating peregrines, merlins and kestrels, the smaller falcons that pass by the observation stand at Kiptopeke.

“We’ll see some birds that come in real close,” Tekin said, because the stand is only 200 feet from the water. “There are times when it seems like the bird is coming right at us.”

It can be difficult, even for seasoned birders, to make a positive identification. Birds in flight pose special challenges, and more than 90 percent of the birds passing by Kiptopeke were born in the spring and do not yet sport the adult plumage that is easier to identify.

“Kiptopeke is really good for being able to see a side-by-side comparison between different species and with more than one bird and multiple forms,” Tekin said. “You can compare notes and learn tricks from other birders who are at the stand.”

And there’s more to see than just hawks.

“Most of the people that participate in Hawkwatch, including the volunteers, love all kinds of birds. We put bird feeders up within 50 yards of the platform, so that people can also see these birds,” Taber said. “We’re seeing the songbirds come in, we’re watching the hawks fly over. We have hummingbird feeders on the platform because early fall is the time when the hummingbirds are coming through Virginia.”

And monarch butterflies: In a separate program, the wildlife observatory counts and tags monarchs as they migrate through the area, annually hiring a biologist who counts monarchs all over the southern tip of the Eastern Shore.

But the monarch biologist can’t be everywhere at all times, Taber said, so the Hawkwatch team counts butterflies, too, if overhead avian traffic is light enough to permit the additional task.

Hawkwatch has been at Kiptopeke State Park since it opened in 1992. The park is located on the former terminal for ferries that carried passengers and freight across the mouth of the Chesapeake to Norfolk.

The park — and earlier, the whole area — was named Kiptopeke (“big water”) for the younger brother of the king of the Accawmack Indians, who was helpful and friendly to early European settlers.

Though many of the hawks in flight can see the other side, they are hesitant to cross the “big water” and often stop to feast on the abundant insects and small birds that collect here.

“If you had to pick one place in Virginia to stand and watch migration, you couldn’t do any better than the Kiptopeke platform,” Taber said. “We’ve never had a ‘bad year’ because every year we have different birds, different people. It’s just plain fun, and everybody learns a lot.”

Daily counts can be tracked on HawkCount, the database maintained by Hawk Migration Association of North America. And the wildlife observatory maintains a blog during the height of the season to let people know what’s coming through. Their website has handy links to local weather, satellite images and other information for planning a trip.

Though you’ll see plenty of hawks and other birds through the season, Taber said the best time to come is

usually the last week in September through the middle of October. If possible, time your trip to coincide with the days after a cold front, when sightings might be up. The birds use the energy of north and northwest winds to cover distance.

But it’s hard to predict anything with certainty, Taber warned. Not the weather. Not the birds. One thing is for sure. Visitors and volunteers will be welcomed by Eli Gross, this year’s staff biologist and official Hawkwatch counter. And there will be a lot to watch — and count — at the Kiptopeke platform.

Join in the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch and enjoy Virginia’s Eastern Shore

  • The Hawkwatch Platform at Kiptopeke State Park (3540 Kiptopeke Dr. in Cape Charles) is operated by the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory daily, Sept. 1 to Nov. 30, weather permitting. Walk-up volunteers are welcome. For information, visit cvwo.org.
    Kiptopeke is also on Virginia’s Wildlife & Birding Trail, Eastern Shore Loop. Visit dgif.virginia.gov/vbwt/loop.asp?trail=1&loop=CES for details.
    In addition, the park offers camping and other accommodations, a boat launch and beach. Daily parking fee is $3/VA-residents and $4/out-of-staters. Visit dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/kiptopeke.shtml#general_information or call 757-331-2267.
  • The Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge has trails, observation platforms and a visitor’s center. Visit fws.gov/refuge/eastern_shore_of_virginia for details.
  • The Second Annual International Hawk Migration Week takes place Sept. 19–27, when peak numbers of raptors are counted across North America. All watch sites and raptor enthusiasts are encouraged to participate. To learn about the nearest hawk count site, visit hawkcount.org.
  • The Eastern Shore Birding & Wildlife Festival takes place Oct. 8–11 in Cape Charles,VA. Registration is $25. Ages 15 and younger are free with a registered adult, but must be registered for any trip. Trips range from $5 to $75 and include guided hikes and boat tours. For details, visit esbirdingfestival.com.
  • The Hawk Migration Association of North America collects and lists data from all Hawkwatch sites in North America. Visit hmana.org for details.

The Kiptopeke Hawkwatch platform has plenty of room for bird and wildlife watchers of all levels of experience.

At peak migration, the Hawkwatch counts have reached more than 1,000 birds per day. Raptors sighted at Kiptopeke include black and turkey vultures, osprey, bald eagle, northern harrier, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, northern goshawk, red-shouldered hawk, broad-winged hawk, red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk, golden eagle, American kestrel, merlin, peregrine falcon and Swainson’s hawk.

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Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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