Saturday, December 17, 2016

Thanks to Baywatch and Monarch Staff

Thanks for a great season to Baywatch Waterbird Surveyer Charlie Plimpton, who monitored birds moving in lower Chesapeake Bay from our site just north of Kiptopeke, from Oct 1 to Nov 30; and thanks to Monarch biologist Clay Buffkin, who counted and tagged migrating Monarchs on the lower Eastern Shore and who gave talks to visitors about his work, from Sep 15 to Nov 1. Waterbirds face a variety of challenges, from pollution to global climate change and more information is needed to insure their conservation. Monarchs are undergoing a dramatic population decline and the Obsevatory is contributing to knowledge about Monarchs to help preserve this species. We wish Charlie and Clay the best on their next travels!
Brian Taber

Thursday, December 8, 2016

2016 Kiptopeke Hawkwatch

Many thanks to Hawkwatcher Anna Stunkel for a great season! Her skill, sharp eyesight and enthusiasm made the season quite a success. Our Educator/Hawkwatch Intern, Caroline Sankey, was equally enthusiastic...teaching visitors and helping Anna find hawks. And thanks to both for their excellent Blog posts. Anna posted the first-ever Short-eared Owl to the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch database! We wish them well on their next journeys! Also, thanks to the many dedicated volunteers who helped out with finding and photographing birds. The Hawkwatch data is all listed at, operated by the Hawk Migration Association of North America.
Brian Taber

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Le Conte's Sparrow and Season's End

On the morning of 11/25, a Le Conte's Sparrow was seen very close to the hawkwatch platform. It was skulking about low in the pokeberry patch, and I got a brief but good look at this intricately patterned sparrow. There were not any further sightings, but it is possible that this bird could be hanging around or even wintering in the area. I encourage you all to take a look at this very interesting paper by Ned Brinkley and George Armistead, which discusses Le Conte's Sparrow occurrence in Virginia in detail:

Le Conte's Sparrows (Ammodramus leconteii) in Virginia: A Review of Records, with Notes on Habitat Usage, Identification, and Interspecific Associations

I did not manage to shoot any photos, but here are some nice pictures of the species that friends have shared with me:

By Charlie Plimpton; note the very small size which is typical of this species

By Bryan White
By Bryan White
A group of 14 American White Pelicans flew past the platform at approximately 2:00 pm on 11/28. This was probably the same flock that had been seen by several birders in Virginia Beach just an hour or so earlier.

The piebald deer (or is it an escaped cow?) has made a few appearances in the last week, both near the platform and jumping out in front of me on the bike path.

Well folks, it has been an incredible fall here at Kiptopeke. Some highlights of the season have included:

  • 405 Ospreys on 9/25
  • 1460 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 354 Cooper's Hawks, 410 American Kestrels, and 2706 raptors on 10/6
  • 291 Merlins on 9/22
  • 113 Peregrine Falcons on 10/2
  • 1 Mississippi Kite on each of the following days:  9/12, 9/14, and 9/15
  • 1 Swainson's Hawk on 11/5
  • 1 Short-eared Owl on 11/4
  • 6 Golden Eagles this season

I have treasured the wisdom, sharp eyes, good times, stories, and laughter shared by the many volunteers and visitors this season. The busy days have been a spectacle to behold. And on quieter days, I've enjoyed the solace and magic of this place.

Red-tails and other species don't know that the official season is over, and some raptors should still be making their way south past the platform. Drop by and take a look- you never know what you might see.

In the spirit of Caroline's blog posts, here is a poem by one of my favorite poets:


This morning
the hawk
rose up
out of the meadow’s browse
and swung over the lake —
it settled
on the small black dome
of a dead pine,
alert as an admiral,
its profile
distinguished with sideburns
the color of smoke,
and I said: remember
this is not something
of the red fire, this is
heaven’s fistful
of death and destruction,
and the hawk hooked
one exquisite foot
onto a last twig
to look deeper
into the yellow reeds
along the edges of the water
and I said: remember
the tree, the cave,
the white lily of resurrection,
and that’s when it simply lifted
its golden feet and floated
into the wind, belly-first,
and then it cruised along the lake —
all the time its eyes fastened
harder than love on some
unimportant rustling in the
yellow reeds — and then it
seemed to crouch high in the air, and then it
turned into a white blade, which fell.

Mary Oliver

pp. 34-35 in New and Selected Poems: Volume One (Beacon Press: Boston, 1992)

Happy birding to all, and I hope to see you next fall.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Windy Weather

Raptor movement has been just trickling along for the past few days, but there are always interesting things to see from the platform. For example, we have been having some great views of Northern Harriers. Some of these birds have been hunting low over the pokeberry field, and there has been a recent increase in adult harrier numbers. Some of them may be stopping to spend the winter here on the Eastern Shore.

Adult female Northern Harrier by Steve Thornhill

Blackbird flocks have been fairly active during the mornings. These flocks contain Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and Brown-headed Cowbirds, with the occasional Rusty Blackbird (below) mixed in.

 There have been some big fluctuations in the weather over the past few days. Saturday was quite warm and calm, with temperatures reaching the mid-seventies. Insects such as wasps, stinkbugs, and wheel bugs were very active on the platform.

Wheel Bug by Steve Thornhill
However, we have had strong west winds for the past two days. This has probably been keeping the raptors hunkered down, considering our low counts. Tundra Swans braved the blustery conditions and were flying high today, with a count of 346 individuals. Northwest winds are expected to be ~15 mph tomorrow and 5-10 mph on Wednesday, and this calming should hopefully bring more raptors our way.


Monday, November 14, 2016

Turkey Vultures and Rarity Roundup

On days with northeast winds, we have been seeing quite a bit of Turkey Vulture movement. These birds often start streaming over the platform early in the morning.

Although we do not keep an official daily count of this species, it can be interesting to note vulture numbers. On 11/12, 890 of them were counted moving southwards. However, migrating Turkey and Black Vultures have a tendency to meander back and forth at our site, so some of the birds that passed by may have been counted multiple times.

a curious Turkey Vulture checking out the hawkwatchers; by Steve Thornhill
I think that vultures are some of the most underappreciated birds out there. They perform an important duty by cleaning up dead carcasses, and have an incredible sense of smell. They are also beautifully skilled fliers, and Turkey Vultures can travel for hours without flapping once. 

juvenile Red-tailed Hawk by Steve Thornhill
A few days ago, Charlie and I (along with quite a few other birders) had the opportunity to see a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in Franktown. It was originally spotted by Roberta Kellam. This beautiful bird was sitting on a wire right out in the open, and put on a show flycatching by the roadside.

This Saturday, a group of birders got together for the annual Rarity Roundup here on the Eastern Shore. They had a chance to see some fun birds as well, including a Black-legged Kittiwake, Western Kingbird, and Golden Eagle. Ellison spotted a Cattle Egret from the hawkwatch platform. November continues to be a fun month for bird species diversity. We hope to see some Northern Goshawks and Cave Swallows soon!



Wednesday, November 9, 2016

An assortment of raptors

Although the season is slowing down, we have been seeing a good diversity of species. So far, we've had five southbound Golden Eagles. One juvenile golden flew very low and close over us, allowing great views. Take a look at these incredible captures by Steve Thornhill.

We also had an immature Swainson's Hawk pass overhead recently. This species has a western distribution, but a few show up on the east coast annually. Our hawkwatch often records 1-2 Swainson's Hawks each fall. Like Broad-winged Hawks, Swainson's are long-distance migrants which fly all the way to South America.

Swainson's Hawk sketch by Anna

Red-tailed Hawk migration has also been picking up lately, with a peak count of 58 individuals on 11/7. As the season continues, we expect to have some more good days of red-tail movement.

Adult Red-tailed Hawk by Steve Thornhill

On the non-raptor front, we are also seeing nice diversity. Recently, Northern Gannet numbers have been picking up over the bay. American Robins and Red-winged Blackbirds have been coming through in full force, along with a variety of sparrows stopping over in the pokeberry patch. A few days ago, a Short-eared Owl flew over.

It has been awhile since we've seen a Red-headed Woodpecker from the platform, but these guys are still in the area and preparing for winter. Brian Taber got this nice shot of an adult storing acorns in Williamsburg yesterday.

Charlie had an amazing sighting today at the baywatch- he watched a juvenile Northern Goshawk attack and kill a Great Black-backed Gull!

Following the stress of the election, I hope that you all can find some solace in watching birds and wildlife. We hope to see you at the platform soon.

Carolina Wren singing by Steve Thornhill


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

October: From Birds on the Bay to Birds in Bronze

We wrapped up October with a count of 12,897 for the month and 
an overall total of 21,541 so far for the season. 
On the increase this past week has been the Red-tailed Hawk, with 28 yesterday on Halloween. 
(Buteo jamaicensis)

Steve Thornhill

A brave(?) Sharpie checking out a Red-tail.

Here we have a rare sighting of a Turkey Vulture actually on the Hawk Tower.

We also had our 2nd Golden Eagle of the season yesterday.

Steve Thornhill

This past week we enjoyed seeing Common Loons, this one off the pier fishing for a meal at Kiptopeke State Park.

Steve Thornhill

"Sparring Sparrows"

A White-crowned Sparrow and a White-throated Sparrow vying for lunch. 
S. Thornhill

"Over the Bay"

C. Sankey

The stark beauty of tree
shadows stretch down the slope
of the hill, while the silver bones 
of an old barn gape against 
the pale-blue winter sky

The high bare fingers of the
sycamore's gnarly branches
sift the wind as the season crawls
down gently from the north

Seven hawks circle above 
the open field as that same
wind pushes them on south 
beneath icy clouds

I watch their dance and rest
and don't tire of their weaving 
through the cold air, and for a 

moment I become the eighth, and tilt 
one wing up and one wing down to
twist into a slow, arcing dive toward 
the grass upon the frozen earth below

Some of the most amazing raptors that Anna and I saw yesterday on our afternoon excursion were of the bronze variety. I must encourage anyone visiting the Eastern Shore of VIrginia to stop in to Turner Sculpture in Onley, VA. The sculptures are truly incredible. 

Turner Sculpture 

The past 6 weeks at Kiptopeke with this crew have been simply amazing. 
I feel extremely fortunate to have had this opportunity, a huge Thank You to Brian Taber for allowing me to be this seaon's Educator, and my heartfelt Thanks to Anna Stunkel for her insight, wisdom, and patience in teaching me identification skills. 
Looking forward to seeing everyone next year! 

Happy Birding!
- Caroline 






Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Blustery Days on the Bay

Wind, wind, and more wind... only 100 birds by 3:30 today! A blustery weekend led to fairly low counts this past weekend, but fortunately we had great visitors to entertain us, including Ash and the enthusiastic crew from Dickinson College:

Clay kindly caught a Monarch on demand and demonstrated
 the tagging process.

Luckily we did have a fantastic low fly-by of an Adult Bald Eagle while the gang was here, and viewed 330 birds.

We did surpass the 5000 mark on Kestrels!
Great image caught by Charlie Plimpton, our Baywatcher. 

We are also closing in on the 700 mark for Peregrines. 
Steve Thornhill Photo

Still enjoying the Brown Pelicans that like to hang out on the WWII concrete ships in the Bay. 

Another bird of note that swung by last week...
White Ibises by Steve Thornhill

The sunsets over the bay here at Kiptopeke 
are unrivaled. It is truly a joy to be working here. I have 7 more days here with the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory crew, so we have fingers crossed for that Swainson's! 
Please come by and say hi! 
Feel free to bring doughnuts! (Thank you Tim!)

- Caroline 









Friday, October 21, 2016

20k and Counting

We hit 20,000 raptors today in our count at Kiptopeke!
#20,000 was a Cooper's Hawk around lunch time today. 
The afternoon brought in a nice steady stream of birds, and with the storms moving in and winds expected at 25+mph out of the north tomorrow we are looking forward to a big day! 

Steve Thornhill Photo 


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Close Encounters

As we are approaching the end of October, the number of raptors we are viewing is declining. However, we've had a number of close visitors to the Hawk Tower! A juvenile Cooper's Hawk did some hunting from the T-post behind the tower. 

We have had some beautiful mornings here at Kiptopeke State Park. Last week brought us some foggy mornings. Even as the raptor count has slowed down, we are seeing large numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers and other song birds. 

Visitors to the tower are still arriving! We've had a number of great groups in the past week, including these polite young men from Boy Scout Troop 911 in Suffolk.

Our visiting groups always enjoy seeing our Model Raptors then trying to identify the birds in flight. 
With help from our Hawk Counter, Anna, of course! 

Our total so far for this season is 19,691 raptors... we are creeping towards the 20,000 mark.
Still seeing primarily Sharpies this week... out of yesterday's 254 birds we had 150 Sharp-Shinned Hawks. Wednesday brought us our season's first Slate-colored Junco as well. 

One of our friends across the bay was lucky enough to have this visitor in his yard this past week:
Pretty amazing to see a Gray Kingbird in this neck of the woods!
Thanks Tim Barry for sharing. 

We love meeting new people and having our next generation of birders visit us...
Please come see us soon!
Happy Birding! 









Saturday, October 15, 2016

Golden Days

Thursday brought us our first Golden Eagle of the season, a juvenile, which certainly brought excitement to an otherwise slow week of hawk-watching. We are still seeing a number of immature Bald Eagles. Charlie Plimpton, our Bay-watcher, took this amazing shot last week:

Steve Thornhill got a great photo of this immature Bald Eagle with a meal on the go:

The Golden Eagles are quite similar to immature Balds.
"Best field marks are golden hackles, legs feathered to toes, head projection less than half tail length, and tri-colored bill and cere."
(A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors, Wheeler & Clark)

We are still enjoying seeing a steady stream of accipiters and a handful of Peregrines.
Steve Thornhill 

"The Place"

Turn back in time a thousand years or more;
An Indian stands upon this very shore.
The virgin forest that surrounds him sings 
With hidden whispers of a million wings.
No human foot before his trod this place;
The wonder of it's written on his face.
He speaks in awe, but no one hears his words,
"This place is Kiptopeke, the place of birds."

(Kiptopeke Chronicles, Walter Post Smith)

Walter Post Smith was a founding bander of the Kiptopeke Bird Banding Station and was its primary champion from the 1960s through the 1990s. 

We also viewed a lone Sandhill Crane last week, a fairly rare sight this time of year.

The Monarch numbers moving through are increasing, and have kept our Monarch tagger quite busy this week. 


Please join us at the Hawk Tower and enjoy the beautiful fall weather on the Eastern Shore.
Hope to see you soon!