16th Annual Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival Cape Charles, VA
Sept. 18-21, 2008

by Bill Burnham

A wide swath of sand bars, marsh, mud flats, lagoons fill in the north side of Fisherman Island. At low tide, opportunistic wading and shore birds range across exposed flats and inch-deep water, knowing intuitively they have only hours to scour the wet muck for crabs, snails and tiny fish before the tide rises again.

A rising tide is the best time to poke about Fisherman Island's salt marshes in a kayak or canoe. All it takes is a half-hour trip across open water from the boat ramp in the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge. Enroute, I waved at a few cars passing back-and-forth along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. A group of brown pelicans flew so low, I could hear the rush of air as they flapped their wings.

A small channel, no wider than our boats and dug out by the tides, is enough to sweep our boats into an unbelievable landscape and soundscape. Our approach rouses the oystercatchers, which swoop about with chattering calls. Tiny shorebirds - plovers and sanderlings - scuttle about the mud flats, peeping all the while. From hiding spots in the tall saltmarsh cordgrass, gulls and terns rise up and swoop above our heads in aerial gymnastics.

Then we saw the mystery bird. It was some kind of wading bird, judging by its size, but the dull brown plumage, sprinkled with white specks and streaks down the back and breast, threw me for a loop. My partner and I traded binoculars and a bird book for ten minutes, all the while trying (in vain) to keep our gaze steady and boats upright in windy conditions.

"Ahhaa!" my partner finally exclaimed. "Look here." She pointed to a now-damp page in the bird book. "It's a yellow-crowned night heron?" she said, her voice rising in slight doubt.

I'd hoped for something a little more sexy, but had to agree: the bird described as a juvenile yellow-crowned night heron was brown (or "fuscous," which means a brown-to-grey color). This bird lacked the long neck of a great blue heron or great egret. Its feet were yellow, but so were its legs, knocking the snowy egret out of consideration.

I had a sudden wish that this bird should speak to me.

"Hi, I'm Bob, a rarely seen, partly exotic visitor to your shores. I look like my cousin the yellow-crowned night heron, but check me out more closely -- see those buff legs?"

Of course it did not speak, and I'm left to apply insight gained over time spent in the field observing. Bird plumages change year to year, season to season. Females are drab colored during nesting. Males are striking and showy. How they appear in flight, posture, color, feeding methods and calls - it all forms a suite of characteristics that, hopefully, adds up to an identification.

Walking with someone who knows birds is often the best way to learn. In the years we've attended the Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival, I learned the phrase "All egrets are white -- except for the reddish egret" from one witty birder. Another identified a peregrine falcon from other birds of prey by its flight pattern.

“They look like they’re rowing with their wings,” said Paul Smith, a refuge volunteer who crouched low to demonstrate on a bird walk on Fisherman Island.

Whether by foot or boat, there’s no denying that the Eastern Shore of Virginia, in the heart of the Atlantic Migratory Flyway, is the place to be for fall bird-watching. Sometimes its a rare seasonal visitor. And sometimes it’s a typical year-round resident.

With miles yet to cover on our exploration of Fisherman Island, we paddled quietly past our “mystery bird.” I gave it a small nod. "We're 90 percent sure you're a yellow-crown night heron," I said silently. I'm not sure, but it may have winked.

(Story on the 2006 festival, published in the Sept. 2006 issue of The Washingtonian)
By Mary Burnham

Wide-eyed, Paul Smith crouches low and stretches his arms forward. He scoops the air with his hands, then draws them back to his sides, simulating a bird in flight.

“They look like they’re rowing with their wings,” says the wildlife refuge volunteer, explaining the difference in flight between a Peregrine Falcon and other birds of prey.

The falcon disappears behind tall loblolly pines. Farther up the trail, I re-join a knot of bird-watchers busy scanning a marsh. White heads of the American Egret bob amid autumn-brown salt marsh grass.

Nearly every other day of the year, Fisherman Island—the northern toehold of Virginia’s 20-mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel complex—is off-limits to the public. But October through mid-March, the public is treated to free Saturday morning guided tours in search of bird life. (Call 757-331-2760 to reserve a spot) .

Our two-hour hike came during the Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival. The once-a-year event, this year October 6 to 8, draws thousands of birders during prime migration season.

Fisherman Island and the nearby Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge are strategic spots on the Atlantic Flyway, a type of interstate for migrating songbirds, shorebirds, raptors, and butterflies.

A bird checklist denotes hundreds of species and the likelihood of spotting them. I check off Double-crested Cormorant, Tree Swallow, Black-crowned Night Heron, and Brown Pelican. All are commonly sighted here.

I’m surprised to find an Osprey nest close to the ground. Apparently, no humans are here to disturb them. Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons also nest here.

Smith points out a crumbling concrete structure partially covered by brush and sand. Once used as a quarantine station for European immigrants on their way to Baltimore, Fisherman Island passed through several branches of the military before becoming a wildlife refuge in 1969.

All this is learned in hushed snippets of conversation between bird sightings enroute to the beach. Traffic on the nearby Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is drowned out by the wind and surf. A pod of eight to ten dolphins play offshore. Out come the binoculars and scopes on tripods, all pointed at a congregation of what appear to be ordinary gulls standing on the beach.

“There’s a Black Skimmer,” calls one watcher. “And there’s a bunch of Laughing Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls in there,” adds another. Someone else mentions Caspian Terns and Royal Terns. I quickly check the list: all common.

Then comes the jackpot. “Those are Sandwich Terns,” a watcher whispers. I check the list. Sure enough, it’s only occasionally seen here, just one notch up from “rare.” I’m satisfied.