Sunday, September 25, 2016

All Eyes on the Sky...

Big day today at Kiptopeke

With numerous visitors assisting with the spotting, 
we had a new high count today with a total of 1108 raptors! The day started a bit slowly, but after lunch we had a steady stream of birds, including a count of 405 Osprey! 

Photo by Steve Thornhill

Brian and I had a lovely group for the Hawk Identification Workshop, and they were able to practice their new identification skills after lunch as we witnessed 13 Northern Harriers, 16 Peregrine Falcons, and 296 American Kestrels on their flights south. 

This fantastic shot by Steve is of an adult male Northern Harrier. 

The Peregrine Falcon is always an exciting sight at the Hawk Watch. These amazing birds are such an adaptable species, they can live in almost any habitat in the world. They can be found on every 
continent except for Antarctica, thriving in cold tundra as well as hot deserts. 
The Peregrines that nest on Arctic tundra and then migrate to South America for the winter may fly up to 15,500 miles in a year!

Thanks to conservation efforts, the Peregrine Falcon was removed from the 
U.S. Endangered Species List in 1999. 

"Perhaps because of their amazing flying and hunting skills, Peregrine Falcons have had cultural significance for humans throughout history. To this day, they are still one of the most popular birds in the sport of falconry, and in ancient times they were considered the birds of royalty. Today, Peregrine Falcons that are trained as falconry birds are sometimes flown by their trainers at airports to scare off ducks and other birds that could collide with a plane and cause accidents. These falcons are helping to keep our skies safe!"
(The Peregrine Fund.)

One of the fan favorites today, although not a raptor, was the Northern Flicker,
 of which we viewed 267 today!!

Thank you again Steve for these fabulous shots! 

We are having such an amazing season, and it's not even October yet! 
It looks to be another gorgeous day on the Eastern Shore tomorrow, 
so we are hoping for another exciting day before more rain comes to the coast. 
Look forward to seeing more of you in the near future, and in the meantime, 
keep your eyes on the sky! 







Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Rainy Days on the Bay

Storms from the tropical system may have led to a back-up the past couple of days, 
but today the lanes were clear, and what a day Anna and I had... 990 birds total! 
Falcons were flying through steadily, with an American Kestrel count of 329!

 Although some Kestrels migrate all the way to Central America, 
many spend the winter in the southern United States. 

Thanks to Steve Thornhill, here we have a beautiful shot of one going over us at Kiptopeke. 

 We were fortunate to have a number of visitors at the tower today that
 helped us spot during the big rush this afternoon after the rain moved out.
Also on the journey south today were 291 Merlins. Lovely shot of one clocking us by Peter Harris. 

The weather looks to be nice again tomorrow as well as through the weekend...
 don't forget the Kiptopeke Challenge is this weekend! Hope to see you all there! 



Monday, September 19, 2016

A Fine Kettle

The sunsets here at Kiptopeke State Park are just as lovely as the sunrises...

Photo by Joe Beatty.

On Friday, the 16th, we were fortunate to view a kettle of 52 Broad-winged Hawks. Now although Anna and Brian can identify and often age these birds even as specks in the sky, I would be much happier if they would land on the tower so that I could do so. However, second best to that scenario is having a wonderful photographer, like our friend Peter Harris, send photos! 
Here we have a juvenile Broad-winged Hawk.
Note the thinly barred tail and streaking on the breast instead of the reddish barring. 
The majority of the Broad-wings that we have seen here so far have been juveniles making their first south-bound journey. 
This adult has thick, bold bars on the tail and reddish-brown barring on the chest versus streaking. Also note the more distinct trailing edge of the wing on the adult. 
I imagine the majority of readers of this blog already know these differences, but for aspiring identifiers like myself, this is extremely helpful! 
Very grateful to Peter Harris for the wonderful shots! 

Now I better get back to spotting for Anna... Happy Birding! 
We hope to see you soon! 



Sunday, September 18, 2016

Early Birds

A beautiful morning at the Hawk Tower at Kiptopeke! 
Anna is already on the lookout for this morning's migrators. 

We have had some wonderful visitors this week, including this lovely female Rose Breasted Grosbeak, who delighted viewers yesterday at the feeder. Tim Barry took this lovely shot.
I am excited to be this year's Hawk Watch Educator/ Intern, and thrilled to be surrounded by so many expert raptor identifiers... I will learn so much from this crew! Looking forward to meeting new, and old, visitors to the Hawk Tower... please come see Anna and me when you get a chance! 
Peter Harris took this amazing shot of a Bald Eagle, and Anna pointed out that this is a 4th year...
Just lovely!! 
Yesterday's count was 354...
So many amazing birds are passing through, I feel extremely lucky to be a part of the CVWO team for this year's season. Hope to see you soon at Kiptopeke! 



Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Rollicking Raptors!

The days are getting busier, with 476 raptors counted yesterday and 204 raptors today.  Kestrels and Ospreys continue to move through in large numbers, while Broad-winged Hawks and Merlins are also increasing. Yesterday, I was even treated to a beautiful view of a Mississippi Kite gliding over the platform.

A cold front is expected to pass through on Wednesday night, which should bring in many migrating birds of all shapes and sizes. If you are hoping to visit the hawkwatch platform or search for passerines along Kiptopeke's trails, Thursday and Friday should be good days in which to do so.


One of many Ospreys seen from the platform. Notice this bird's M-shaped wings, with white wing linings that contrast with dark flight feathers.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Cicadas at Kiptopeke

Did you know that there are a variety of different cicada species found on the Eastern Shore? Each species has a slightly different call, and a chorus of these insects can be heard from the platform each day. Occasionally we will also get visitors, such as the one pictured below. Cicadas begin life as nymphs which hatch out and stay underground, feeding on roots for years before they emerge and shed their exoskeletons. The shed skins can often be found attached to bark during the summer. Adult males produce that incredibly loud sound, which is intended to attract females, using ribbed membranes called tymbals located on the abdomen. A cicada's call can reach over 100 decibels!


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Raptor migration is picking up

Our hawkwatching days are starting to get busier, with just over 200 raptors counted today. In particular, we have had nice American Kestrel and Osprey movement. Both of these species have been migrating in bursts, with groups of 2-8 birds often flying together. We look forward to the really big days, which should begin in the next week or two. Stay tuned for updates, and we hope to see you at the platform.


Adult Bald Eagle. This bird shows unmistakable field marks up close, but from a distance it is easily identified by shape. The Bald Eagle holds its wings stiffly outwards in flight, in a flat, plank-like manner.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Post-storm Update and Songbirds in the Pokeberry Patch

Now that the tropical storm has passed, we can get back to hawkwatching! The raptor flight was slow today, with just 40 birds passing the platform this afternoon. However, there may be a slight delay in raptor movement following the bad weather. Hopefully the floodgates will open in the next few days.

Meanwhile, songbird activity has been busy in the pokeberry patch. Blue Grosbeaks (pictured below), Eastern Kingbirds, a Baltimore Oriole, and a Pine Warbler were among the visitors today. As migration picks up, this berry patch is likely to become a haven for many hungry migrants.


Friday, September 2, 2016

Hello from this year's fall hawkwatcher

Hello everyone! My name is Anna Stunkel, and I'm the hawkwatcher at Kiptopeke this fall season. I'm from Massachusetts and have spent seasons hawkwatching at sites in California, Idaho, and Maine. My love of bird research has also led me to work with songbirds, seabirds, and woodpeckers in various parts of the country, and I spend free time drawing and painting wildlife (here is my facebook page). I am very excited to witness the spectacle of raptor migration here at Kiptopeke, and to share the joy of watching these beautiful birds. Please stop by for a visit to the platform if you have a chance, and I would be happy to talk with you about the migration site and the forty-year-old hawkwatch program.

Also, take a look at this Red Fox who has been hanging around the platform!

Friday, August 12, 2016

August Fledglings

August is a great time to see fledglings in Virginia. The Barn Swallow and Bank Swallow below were in Portsmouth on August 10 and the Acadian Flycatcher in James City County August 6th had just been fed by a parent.

Brian Taber

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Atlas Work

Many VA birders have been very busy this spring and summer with the 5-year Atlas Project, just begun, to document VA's breeding birds. Funded by the VA Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries and coordinated through VA Society of Ornithology, it's a tremendous effort out in the field and then lots more work inputting data. Check out the VSO website and VA eBird site for more details.

Pictured is a Downy Woodpecker, but with a red cap, characteristic of a newly-hatched bird, proof of local breeding in James City County. Other behaviors used to document breeding are nest-building and feeding young.
Brian Taber

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Western Kingbird in James City County

This Western Kingbird was at the College Creek Hawkwatch site in James City County this  morning. There are few June records in Virginia for this western rarity.
Brian Taber

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Horned Grebe

Just as Horned Grebes are attaining their alternate, or breeding colors, changing from mostly gray and white in fall and winter...they return to Canada and Alaska...this bird was on the James River near Williamsburg last week. Some recent studies have suggested a population decline.
Brian Taber

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Lesser Scaup and Greater Scaup

The two scaup species are very similar and luckily, these birds at Jamestown Ferry, in James City County, were swimming together to show the comparison. The Greater, on the right, shows a rounded, not peaked head, a bill that's wider near the tip and a larger bill nail at the end.
Brian Taber

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Horned Lark

This Horned Lark was searching for food in a snow-covered field near Jamestown, just after the recent snowfall and frigid temperatures. Brian Taber

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Orange Variant Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwings normally have yellow-tipped tails, though sometimes orange-tipped variants are seen. Books often say the difference is diet-related, though it would seem that these birds, which generally move in flocks, are all eating the same things, so it's interesting that differences occur. This bird was in my yard in James City County yesterday.
Brian Taber

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Unusual Cormorants

Below are three photos of different-sized cormorants: the top one shows a small cormorant on the left, with yellow-orange skin above and below the beak next to a "typical" Double-crested; note the small bird's very small beak and legs and feet; the middle photo shows the 3 sizes in the same posture; the bottom photo shows the large bird on the right with the heavy head, thick beak, thick, brown neck and body structure like a Great Cormorant, but with yellow-orange skin above and below the beak, as with Double-crested and with no white on throat or cheek, as typical for Great, though an apparent second winter Great. While there can certainly be some individual size and plumage variation, these examples seem, from my experience, to be well outside the norm. I have not yet researched hybridization examples...Neoptropic X Double-crested?... though the small bird is a good candidate for a hybrid and I welcome any comments. I saw them today at the Jamestown ferry dock.
Brian Taber

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Cave Swallow Specimen

Cave Swallows from the southwestern U.S. have made an impressive invasion to the east coast since November. Very warm weather conditions surely helped sustain these wanderers.This one was found freshly dead in Portsmouth today by an Observatory bird research team. The delicate feather pattern on this handsome bird is hard to see well in flight, but is easily seen here.
Brian Taber

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Ross's Goose

This rare Ross's Goose was at Hog Island Wildlife Management Area, in Surry County, during the Williamsburg Bird Club's Christmas Bird Count on Dec 20th. Even with a distant view, the small body, small, rounded, unstained head, short neck and small, triangular bill, with no "grin patch," are evident. Only the main road was open, not the side trails.

Brian Taber

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Baywatch Cetaceans

Pods of dolphins have been a daily sight at the baywatch. Ocassionally the dolphins will completely jump out of the water, as pictured below. The regular dolphin show had a whale guest star yesterday: a possible humpback whale. The whale surfaced twice as it headed south towards the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT). At least three individuals were seen foraging along the islands of the CBBT later that day.

Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin breaching. Photo taken November 28, 2015 from the CVWO baywatch by Katie Rittenhouse

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Gray Kingbird continued

The gray kingbird, a rarity from Florida and further south, remained on Magotha Road into Monday. Which provided the opportunity for more people to see this rare bird after a rainy Sunday.

Gray Kingbird on Magotha Road. Photo take November 21, 2015 by Ellison Orcutt.
Gray Kingbird on Magotha Road. Photo taken November 23, 2015 by Brian Taber.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Gray Kingbird

A gray kingbird was found yesterday on Magotha Road by Fenton Day and Ellison Orcutt. The bird was perched on the telephone wires catching small insects. As of this morning, the bird was still on Magotha Road.

Gray kingbird on Magotha Road. Photo taken by Zak Poulton on November 22, 2015.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

2015 Monarch Butterfly Summary

The monarch butterfly biologist, Angela Zappalla, finished the 2015 season last week with a total of 345 butterflies tagged. One uncommon butterfly that Angela spotted was a long tailed skipper.The monarch biologist performs daily point count surveys at the Kiptopeke hawk watch platform. Angela's high count was around thirty butterflies in three hours during the peak of the migration.

Monarch butterflies and buckeye butterflies on golden rod during the migration peak. Taken by Katie Rittenhouse on October 8, 2015.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Franklin's Gulls

A strong storm in the Midwest and Great Lakes region this past Wednesday pushed large amounts of Franklin's Gulls to the eastern half of the continent. An article on Ebird ( describes the fallout and includes several links, such as a map of recent sightings. Franklin's Gulls have been identified along the Virginia coast on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT), Island 1 on the CBBT, the pier at Kiptopeke State Park, and at Rudee Inlet.

Franklin's Gull by Island 1 on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel; November 13,2015. Photo by Ned Brinkley
~Katie Rittenhouse

Monday, November 9, 2015

Ash-throated Flycatcher

An Ash-throated Flycatcher was identified by Eli Gross at the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch yesterday. The flycatcher, a rare visitor from the west, spent ten minutes perching on objects around the platform before flying away.
Ash-throated Flycatcher found on November 8, 2015 at the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch. Photo by Brian Taber

~Katie Rittenhouse

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Oregon Junco

A Dark-eyed Junco Oregon form was found at the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch feeders on October 16, 2015. More recently, on November 5, 2015; an Evening Grosbeak flew over the hawkwatch while calling. Both birds are rare on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

An Oregon Junco at the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch feeders on October 16, 2015. Photo by Ned Brinkley
~Katie Rittenhouse

Friday, November 6, 2015

Black Scoter

Most scoters detected on the baywatch are at least one mile out in the bay. Although, there are exceptions to this general flight line. One black scoter has been an exception for the past week. One individual has been seen foraging by the pound nets every morning. There were even two spotted only 50 ft from the beach the one day.
A close black scoter foraging by the pound nets. Photo by Katie Rittenhouse
~Katie Rittenhouse

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Tundra Swans at Baywatch

Migration activity has greatly increased at the baywatch. A seasonal high count of 327 Northern Gannets were detected on Sunday, migrating south towards the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Migration activity has also increased for waterfowl; now totaling 17 species. The three tundra swans pictured below were floating and vocalizing in front of the baywatch today.

One of three Tundra Swans at that baywatch this morning. Photo by Katie Rittenhouse

~Katie Rittenhouse

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Baywatch Report

Below is a quick rundown of what Katie the Baywatcher has been seeing.

"The Baywatch started on October 3rd, delayed by the hurricane that threatened to come up from the south. The weather pushed some Parasitic Jaegers into the bay and there was one detected on the first and second day of the count. Terns were abundant in the beginning of the count, and have been replaced by waterfowl. Black Scoters and Surf Scoters are the most abundant. Canada Geese, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Wood Ducks, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, and scaup have also been identified thus far. Common Loons are also becoming more prevalent."

Friday, October 23, 2015

Katie Rittenhouse, Baywatch Extraordinaire

In addition to the annual hawkwatch, Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory also funds an annual baywatch program to monitor the migration status of many different waterbirds. This year, Katie Rittenhouse is the hired watcher and she's been doing a marvelous job, sitting out there day after day keeping track of the birds she sees. Katie has also served as the hawkwatcher in previous years but decided to try something different this year.
Pictured above is Katie Rittenhouse, our baywatcher as she scans for waterbirds.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Mantis and the Monarch

Our monarch biologist, Angela Zappalla has been taking some very neat photos lately and I thought I would share on the blog.
Apparently the Monarch's less than tasty reputation didn't deter this mantis from having an afternoon snack.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Festival Weekend II

Above is our Monarch Biologist, demonstrating the tagging techiniques she performs every day.

Festival Weekend

By: Graham Scarbrough

CVWO got to help celebrate the Birding Festival this past weekend by giving various presentations which included one on raptor migration and another on Monarch Butterfly migration. Hawkwatch intern Graham Scarbrough, Hawkwatcher Eli Gross, and CVWO President Brian Taber tag-teamed the raptor presentation and Monarch Biologist Angela provided a tagging demonstration of a Monarch Butterfly. It was another successful festival and fun was had by all on up on the platform.
Pictured above is Hawkwatch Intern Graham Scarbrough as he talks about raptor migration.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Crisis Averted

By: Graham Scarbrough

As many people already know, hurricane Jaoquin had us coastal dwellers quite nervous as it arose in the south. Luckily, it changed course allowing us to breath a sigh of relief. For about four days however, we were socked in by rain and winds, causing the raptor flight to slow almost to a stop. This caused a sort of bottling effect and on the day that the skies cleared (10/5), we had quite a flight. Our total number was 4330, with Sharp-shinned Hawks taking the largest piece of the pie. Merlins also had a nice flight of over 300. We had one visitor that was particularly interesting: a tail-less Cooper's Hawk. We did get a good picture of it as it passed over the platform and I hope to get a copy to post soon. The following day (10/7) was not too shabby either with over 2000 birds total. The peregrines have not made a large push yet but we hope that will change soon.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Winged Wizard

By: Graham Scarbrough

One of the treats offered by hours upon hours spent on the observation platform is the occasional brief, intimate look into the lives of the wildlife that surrounds it. Of course, seeing 390 Merlins pass overhead in a single day is exhilarating; but for myself, it is the more personal experiences that hold a special place in my memory. I can try to describe what it was like seeing a Peregrine Falcon stoop across the sky and miss snatching a Merlin by a matter of inches as it back-flipped, allowing the larger falcon to pass just underneath. I can attempt to articulate how a Merlin displayed its athletic ability by plucking a Tree Swallow right out of the air, or how another Merlin possessed an almost puzzled look as sat on a nearby pole and picked at the aluminum band around its leg. But I know all of that would be useless. The only way to fully appreciate those experiences is to have been there and seen them with ones own eyes.
I love the modern camera as much as the next person but I must admit: I often find myself remembering the picture more readily than the memory itself. Some of my most cherished memories are only in my mind and I believe that is not a coincidence. What makes those memories so valuable to me is that they, and the feelings associated with them, remained uncaptured by video or a photograph. Whether they were moments of awe inspired by nature, or moments filled with a most profound sense of love, or friendship, they will always be in me. Not possessed by me, but filling me, and the few others fortunate enough to share in such a moment.

"All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish." - Aldo Leopold

I did my best, but I don't think a million pictures could have done this bird justice. Merlin with band on its right leg. Photo courtesy Eli Gross.