The Wild Shore Takes Flight

Serious birdwatchers know that Virginia’s Eastern Shore is the place to be each fall, as millions of songbirds, raptors, shorebirds, and waterfowl fly south for the winter along the Mid-Atlantic flyway. Newbies can get acquainted with it all during the Eastern Shore of Virginia Birding & Wildlife Festival, held each September.
By Laura Kammermeier
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Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
AIR, SEA, LAND: The ever–changing landscape of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (James P. Blair/Photodisc/Getty)
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An hour before sunset our dinghy slipped into the Chincoteague Bay for an evening tour. The captain told us to sit back and relax; we would have all the time in the world. So I took a deep breath and watched boat slips and concrete pilings fade at the stern while grassy mud flats emerged over the bow.

Birds cluttered the dimming sky as we cruised the channels behind Chincoteague Island, one of the northernmost barrier islands off of Virginia's Eastern Shore. Overhead, laughing gulls dressed in coal-black hoods and slate-grey mantles circled about, their riotous cackles seemingly out of place against their distinguished attire. To the left, flashes of black and white caught my eye as willets flushed from the sea grass.

This wildness and the promise of birds is what drew me to the Eastern Shore. Located just three hours from Washington, D.C., and two hours from Richmond, the shore is a narrow neck of land that separates the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. It is an accessible but unspoiled place where friendly people live simple, coastal lifestyles amidst a bounty of natural splendors.

As we continued to glide through the bay our captain described how the only thing constant here is change, such as the mud flats growing and shrinking, sometimes disappearing only to return again. And how, thanks to its chain of undeveloped barrier islands, the Eastern Shore contains the longest stretch of natural coastline on the entire eastern seaboard.

We nudged our craft into the side of a mudflat for a closer look of three American oystercatchers. The birds' black-and-white plumage and bright orange bills gave them a stout but stately look as they poked the mud looking for oysters, clams, and mussels.

As daylight faded, a notable disquiet settled over the bay. A cacophony of bird sound swelled as the piercing cries of willets were punctuated by the kildeer's shrill "kill-deer, kill-deer, kill-deer." And loud, rolling "keer-reets" of royal terns nearly drowned out the gull's chaotic laughter. Birds were swooping and sideswiping each other over the flats as they all jockeyed for the best nighttime roost. I watched a common tern ram another off a piling. Then I witnessed three scavenging gulls bully a great egret into surrendering his catch.

"This time of night, it's every man for himself," said our captain. Our shoulders hunched in unison as a pair of roosting terns rose to dive bomb our boat. We were outcasts in a maritime jungle. As a human, I felt extraneous, an outsider to this wild affair—which, for me, is the measure of a good adventure.

Laura Kammermeier writes about bird watching and nature travel from her home in upstate, NY.

Published: 22 Aug 2008 | Last Updated: 20 Apr 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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