October 14, 2008

Hawks, Beauty On Eastern Shore

By Mcgonigle, John

KIPTOPEKE STATE PARK, Va. - Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For decades, the woodlands, streams and lakes of northern Pennsylvania, New York's Adirondacks and Maine have shaped the form of natural beauty sought by this fair-skinned Celt. The shadows of the forests provide a softening for the senses, an innate quietness, calming to four-legged residents and two-legged visitors alike.

More recent explorations to southern climes in the Sandhill region of North Carolina, the Eastern Shore of Maryland and most recently the Eastern Shore of Virginia have shown that even in the spotlight of bright sunshine, Mother Nature has areas of beauty.

Several years ago, a winter visit to Maryland's Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge provided a rare entry into my extremely selective mental file of the most beautiful natural sights I ever saw. That visual actually showed itself in my auto's rearview mirror as I drove away from an area of tall marsh grass with tasseled tops burnished gold by the setting sun.

Last week's visit to Kiptopeke State Park on Virginia's Eastern Shore brought many joys, great beauty and several additional snapshots of natural beauty to enter into my special mental file.

The loveliest scene was at Bulls Landing on Magathy Bay, an area of Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge not yet open to the public. It is being used by the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory, a private wildlife conservation organization, to gather data on migrating hawks. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted the organization entrance, and I was the observatory's guest.

Our small group of hawk counters stood on a slice of solid ground bordered by a salt marsh, along what appears to me to technically be the Atlantic Ocean. Because we were inside the coast's barrier islands, that water is called Magathy Bay. As soon as that same, unbroken water is in front of the barrier islands, it is the Atlantic Ocean.

The sun shone brightly through a clear blue sky, highlighting the vivid green Spartina grass growing in the shallow salt water, with the blue of the Atlantic as a backdrop. Spartina grass covers about 90 percent of the salt marsh.

In addition to being beautiful, the salt marsh and seashore environment combine to be a fantastically interesting wildlife habitat.

The salt marsh offered another special experience: diversity. In addition to hawks, the marsh provided Caspian tern, kingfisher, tricolor heron and snowy egret - all lovely.

One thing was missing from my trip: a canoe or kayak. It would have made things perfect, rather than just wonderful.

The Intracoastal Waterway passes between the barrier islands and the shoreline, offering protection to boaters traveling north and south.

Most of my time on Virginia's Eastern Shore was spent watching hawks. I might have seen more hawks two years ago at Kiptopeke than I did last week, but I saw plenty. The flight was excellent most of the week, with very good numbers of peregrines, merlins, osprey and sharp-shinned hawks. Plenty of bald eagles were spaced throughout the week.

What I am sure of is that the birds last week seemed to pass at a more leisurely pace than they did two years ago. Between their slower pace and being fairly low, a large percentage of hawks provided excellent viewing opportunities.

For some hawk watchers, the number of birds is what matters. For this watcher, seeing the birds is what counts. Seeing colors, field marks, slight wing movements that alter flight and other details make the hawk- atching experience worthwhile.

Seeing so many falcons at Kiptopeke was especially rewarding. Two days in a row, about 135 peregrines passed. One day, 43 peregrines passed from 4-5 p.m., and exactly 43 more passed the following hour. That is magical, especially since most were flying low and somewhat slowly, especially for peregrines. One morning's sky was full of ospreys. Far more bald eagles passed last week than did two years ago, including four that passed together, seemingly in formation.

The four eagles reminded me of the fighter jets passing somewhat regularly from one of the two naval air stations at nearby Norfolk, just across the 17.6-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge- Tunnel. We crossed the engineering marvel this year, and it is impressive.

Other than being too warm and far too sunny (for me), Kiptopeke, its environs and the hawk watching were excellent, again. And, Kiptopeke is far less crowded than Cape May, N.J., 160 miles to the north.

People who hang around hawk-watch sites tend to be nice, and Kiptopeke State Park is no exception.

I met a kindred spirit in Geoff Pitts, of Charlottsville, Va., who, like me, is not especially interested in passerines or other nonraptors. Geoff isn't overly interested in birds, but he would not miss the family birding trip to Kiptopeke with his brothers, John and Jim, and his father, Grover, all serious birders. The trip is really an opportunity to spend time together, especially with their dad, who, at 90, enjoys watching peregrines and osprey as much as ever.

Geoff and I joked about the seriousness of birders, bemoaned the economy and generally enjoyed each other's company. It was heartening to see the love shared by the Pitts brothers and their dad, who each brother said was responsible for getting them happily involved as youngsters with nature.

Harry Armistead, of Philadelphia, first visited the Kiptopeke Region in 1965 for a Christmas Bird Count and has returned regularly ever since. A retired research librarian for the prestigious Jefferson Medical College, Armistead spends about 23 days each fall at Kiptopeke.

Armistead helpfully took me under his proverbial wing at Kiptopeke two years ago and again this year, introducing me to knowledgeable people involved in various phases of the raptor and birding world at Kiptopeke. He also provided titles of interesting books on hawks, nature and the region. Harry is nearly as much of a force on Kiptopeke's hawk-watch platform as the wind.

Marty Daniels, despite being born in Minnesota, lives in Camden, S.C., and is a true lady of the South. She is also one smart cookie and knows birds of prey intimately, and people just as well.

Bob Anderson has a unique position as a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Army, but he is not in the army. He is on the board of directors of the observatory, and his lifetime of environmental work serves them well. He really knows his hawks, and is open and friendly.

All are nice folks, all are worth spending time with, and all have something to teach. And isn't life largely about learning and sharing?

John McGonigle is outdoors editor of the Sunday News. E-mail him at [email protected]

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