This year’s 21st annual Kiptopeke Challenge (shortened to KC for the remainder of this article) took place on Saturday, running from midnight to midnight. For those unfamiliar, the KC is a “Big Day” competition that has birders working their way around Northampton and Accomack Counties attempting to observe (by sight or sound) as many species of birds as possible. Though the goal is to tally the most birds, the real purpose of the KC is to promote awareness of fall migration on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and all donations from the event go towards assisting the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory. For the first time, I took part in the KC, and this was actually the first birding competition I’ve ever signed up for. Given that, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. Most folks get a team together, consisting of typically 3-5 people. However, I signed up with just one partner, Jason Strickland of Newport News, whom I’ve birded a couple times with down at Back Bay and had good success alongside. In the past we’ve worked well together, with our style of birding, and our backgrounds very similar. Lacking viewing scopes, we both tend to do more walking than most birders are willing to do, hoping to get into closer positions to help identify birds that many others are able to view from a farther distance. This style clearly has some advantages and disadvantages to it depending on the environment it is being employed in, but it is one that I enjoy, since it adds a bit of exercise and athleticism to birding.
We began our day by meeting up at the commuter parking lot on the Virginia Beach side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel just before 6 AM. We’d planned to meet right at 6, but clearly both of us were excited and ready to get going early, a good sign to see from both perspectives. Still enshrouded in darkness as we made the long crossing of the bridge-tunnel complex, we couldn’t add any birds, though we likely passed plenty of Great Black-backed Gulls sitting on the light posts but obscured by the brightness below them. We hit the Eastern Shore mainland and drove quickly off the highway down the Seaside Road to the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. Parking first at the lot at the southeastern end of the Butterfly Trail, we got out of the vehicle and I realized I’d left all my bug spray in my car back in Virginia Beach. Fortunately, Jason had some Deep Woods Off, but I tend to prefer the stuff with toxic amounts of Deet to prevent chiggers, ticks, and mosquitoes. After spraying what I assumed was an ample amount on my legs, waist, and clothes, we began listening from all sides, hoping to hear a nightjar or owl before the sun came up, but to no avail. After 10-15 minutes, and a quick walk south along the roadway with no sounds being heard aside from the insects all around us, and with the sun still not up, we decided to head over to the nearby Ramp Road in the hopes of spotting some birds in flight as the sun rise occurred. Parking in the small gravel lot near the kayak launch, we walked down the road towards the boat launch area. Here, a small pond, connected via culverts to the tidal marsh south of the road, typically provides a few species of birds. The sun was just hitting the horizon as we reached the pond, so we were viewing the edges with our binoculars, but struggling a bit to pick out birds against the dark background. A single Green Heron was found opposite us, and a lone shorebird was on the shoreline mudflats on the east side of the pond. Taking photographs of the bird and zooming as much as possible made it appear to be a Pectoral, but given the graininess of the photograph (high ISO to compensate for lack of light), we couldn’t make the call for certain. In walking from the pond to the boat launch, wading birds were streaming past out over the water, moving from southwest to northeast in long lines. Most of the birds were White Ibis and Great Egrets, though we also had some smaller Snowy Egrets mixed in as well. American Crows were heard in the area, and a very chatty Belted Kingfisher also zoomed past us. In the treeline at the northwest corner of the boat launch, a grouping of 7 or 8 Black-crowned Night-Herons rested on a single tree. Gulls also streamed past this site as the sun broke the horizon, though most were impossible to identify with certainty outside of a good number of juvenile Laughing Gulls.
With the sun rising, we headed back towards the car in the hopes of catching early morning migrants along the Butterfly Trail. As we reached the pond again, a pair of birders had set up a scope and were scanning the area slowly. We introduced ourselves and found the pair to be another team of the KC, identifying themselves as Paul Nasca and Heidi Krofft. They had also seen the Green Heron, but were fortunate enough to pick out a Northern Waterthrush that was flitting about in the dense foliage opposite the pond. They hadn’t yet seen the shorebird yet, so Jason offered up a trade of telling them about it, for the usage of their scope to help identify the bird. I’m sure no trade was necessary since most birders are pretty openly helpful, but, in a competition, you never know. Of course, they got right on the bird and we all got solid looks, quickly identifying it positively as a Pectoral Sandpiper. We figured at this point, that this bird had the potential to be a species most teams wouldn’t locate since they aren’t that common, even during migration. In fact, it was only the second Pectoral I’d seen all year long, though the vast majority of my birding excursions are in Virginia Beach, where they’re significantly less likely to be found due to lack of desirable habitat accessible to birders. With this bird under our belt, and after Paul snapped a photo of Jason & I, we passed on “Good Lucks” and hopped in the car, heading back to the Butterfly Trail. Driving with the windows down, and heads hanging out them listening intently, we heard many a Northern Cardinal ‘chip’ but not much else. Arriving at the trailhead, we quickly started off northwestward down the grassy path. After picking off an American Redstart and a Black-and-White Warbler I thought for sure we’d be in for more warblers, but over the next twenty minutes or so, the only other warbler added was a Common Yellowthroat. An Eastern Wood-Pewee was seen in the canopy as well. We checked the edge of the highway wayside for some of the more urban species, but only saw a few Ring-billed Gulls, no Mockingbirds, Robins, or House Sparrows like I had expected to find there. Walking back to the vehicle, we heard more Northern Cardinals ‘chipping’ but struggled to find any other songbirds nearby. After walking the Butterfly Trail, we went south to check out the overlook area, running headfirst into another team comprised of Bob Ake, David Clark, Tracy Tate, and Nicholas Flanders, whom I assumed would be impossible to best in this type of challenge given all four members’ ability to identify birds. All four members were armed with scopes, and had probably just spotted some neat birds far out in the marshes or in the surrounding trees to south. Jason & I could only see as far as the binoculars would let us, know we did add a pair of American Kestrels here. We also saw a Clapper Rail rises up from the marsh and then land again, though we had already heard a few earlier in the morning, so it wasn’t a new species on the day. After a couple minutes, we headed back to the vehicle, and had to pass around a traffic jam of birders near the parking lot in the process.
Leaving Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR, we drove northward on the Seaside Road, and then west on Latimer Siding Road back towards the highway. In the process we added a few species to the tally including: Eastern Bluebird, European Starling, and Blue Grosbeak, as well as another pair of Kestrels seen along Bull’s Drive. We knew we’d be back in this area again, so we sped through en route to Kiptopeke State Park. Parking near the playground area, we headed first down the Baywoods Trail where Jason spotted a hawk that he ID’d as a Red-tailed, but I was unable to get on the bird fast enough to be 100% certain, though it very likely couldn’t have been anything else aside from a possible juvenile Bald Eagle. Some songbird activity did occur along the trail as we got another American Redstart, and a couple Black-and-White Warblers. Cardinals continued to be the primary bird we were hearing though. We did get lucky with another raptor, when a Cooper’s Hawk flew across the trail overhead, affording nice views of its long tail and fairly straight wings. From the Baywoods Trail, we continued towards the Taylor Pond, hoping to see some early waterfowl migrants, but coming up completely empty-handed. There wasn’t a single bird to be seen on the pond, not even a Grebe or Great Blue Heron; a major surprise to me. From here we took the Songbird Trail towards the Chickadee Trail connector to the Mockingbird Trail. The meadow stretch on the songbird Trail was quiet, and the first portion of the forested paths was the same. Once we reached the Bay Overlook though, we finally got to see some birds. Here, several tern species (Common, Forster’s, and Sandwich) were all added, and gulls (Laughing, Ring-billed, Great Black-backed, and 1 Herring that I found later in photographs) were also abundant. Double-crested Cormorants, Brown Pelicans, and one silly looking Great Blue Heron were perched out on the wooden piles projecting from the water’s surface.
A lone juvenile Bald Eagle flew on past us, as did several Ospreys to round out the raptors along the shoreline. From here, we headed along the new-ish Brown Pelican Trail which cuts along the shoreline back to the Baywoods Trail for 0.6 miles (according to the official map). Along this stretch is where we had our best luck of the day as Woodpeckers and Songbirds started popping out from all sides. We added Pileated, Red-bellied, Downy, and Red-headed Woodpeckers here, as well as a group of Baltimore Orioles and Summer Tanagers! More Black-and-White Warblers were seen, but again the warbler variety was just lacking still. Arriving back to the Baywoods Trail, we hopped on the Peregrine Boardwalk, then walked the short section of beach and came back up on the Wood Warbler Boardwalk. Through this stretch we surprisingly didn’t add any new species, and I’d been hoping for a Red-eyed Vireo or Yellow-billed Cuckoo to no avail. At least here, the Pine Warblers were really singing, though we had heard one earlier in the day. Next up was a stop at the Hawkwatch Platform. We noticed a group of three birders looking towards a feeder, so immediately got our binoculars up on it, adding several Chipping Sparrows to the list. The trio of birders, also competitors in the challenge, were Shirley Devan, Nancy Barnhart, and Jan Lockwood, all of whom I was meeting for the first time. A short chat and we took up a spot on the hawkwatch platform, where we picked off a few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds as they came in to feed on the platform, though Jason missed the first one I spotted, at least more and more kept coming for an easy add to the list. On the platform, I got to meet Eli Gross and Graham Scarborough, who are manning the station this summer. Also, another pair of birders I knew only in name prior, Mary & Avery Coker had set up shop next to them. As with the other birders we ran into on the day, it was nice to be able to put a face to all the names that I frequently see on eBird & in Listserve. Over the next 10 minutes or so, we got some looks at a Sharp-shinned Hawk, a few Bald Eagles, many Black Vultures, and also our first Merlin on the day. Just prior to leaving, the team of Matt Anthony, Erin Chapman and Megan Massa also arrived to the platform, mentioning that it was pretty quiet everywhere, a feeling Jason & I both shared. They had been to Sunset Beach earlier in the day, and from the eBird report that was already posted, had actually nabbed quite a solid number of species. After the group left, we followed suit, heading over to the car and exiting the park.
Next up, was another trip down Latimer Siding Road & the Seaside Road towards Magothy Bay Natural Area Preserve. We didn’t know it at the time, but this would prove to be not the wisest investment of our limited time for the day. Driving slowly down Bull’s Drive to the parking area, we both listened intently for anything reminiscent of a Grasshopper Sparrow or a Horned Lark, a known site for both species. This time of year though, the fields have not yet been cultivated, and therefore these birds have all the places to hide they could ever desire, making it pretty much impossible to see them. After disembarking from the vehicle, we headed straight east down the trail through the songbird habitat, finding another American Kestrel, and a fast moving swallow that I thought was a Barn Swallow, but was too far out to tell for sure. Black Vultures coated the chimney of the single-family home that butts up against the trail, and the Indian Peafowl that the owner keeps as pets were also walking all over the yard. We had hoped to find some Northern Bobwhite here, but never did see any. A secondary hope was that the marsh to the east might hold some shorebirds. Unfortunately when we arrived, there was none to be found outside of a single Killdeer screeching. Great Blue Herons were seen in good numbers, but, they aren’t a tough species to track down at any of the parks here. I wanted to check the outlet pipe area just in case there was some Spotted Sandpipers nearby, but sadly another missed species. From here, we just kept walking the circle, though getting pretty tore up by mosquitoes the whole way around. In the forest, we had a Downy Woodpecker, and that was about it.
Arriving at the woods’ edge again, we found an American Redstart, and got the chance to watch as two falcons circled above us. I was so certain that they were both American Kestrels, but Jason maintained that one seemed larger and was a Merlin. It wasn’t until I checked the photographs at home that I realized he was right, as their tail feather patterns were completely different, and the Merlin was indeed slightly larger. Another good learning experience for me though. As we cut through the songbird habitat, which was excruciatingly hot & humid on the day with no breeze to speak of, we finally got a new bird for the lists, a Palm Warbler that had flown across the trail, and spent a couple seconds in view before disappearing, just enough time to allow both of us to get on it with binoculars. So, at least we did add this one, and hearing the Killdeer earlier was also an add, but over the course of the hour we spent there we could likely have gone elsewhere and added more birds, something to remember for next year no doubt. Leaving Magothy, and realizing how much time it had eaten up, now being about 11:30 AM, we headed down the Seaside Road northward once again. This time, our target was the Eurasian Collared-Doves that are known to inhabit the Magotha Road area. We swung by quickly, though didn’t see any definite Collared-Doves. We did see some Bluebirds, Kingbirds, and an American Crow being chased around a group of trees by an uknown bird that could have been an oddly colored Pigeon or Collared-Dove. After missing, we hit the highway and headed north toward Chincoteague NWR, which we hoped would get us back on track. At this point in the day we had just over 50 species, with the goal still being 100.
As we neared the first of the two large Chicken plants (Perdue & Tyson) that sit just off the highway, we got a large flock of Tree Swallows flying over a field, and shortly thereafter, a flock of Canada Geese feeding in the grassed shoulders. Only the second species of waterfowl seen on the day, along with American Black Ducks, this was a welcome surprise since we’d have kicked ourselves if we hadn’t gotten the most common waterfowl species in the area for the challenge. Near here, actually, on the lawn of the Perdue plant, we found a mixed flock of European Starlings and Brown-headed Cowbirds, which Jason pointed out due to the fact that the cowbirds fed with their tails up off the ground when tilted, and the starlings did not. We also got some Fish Crows, and a few Herring Gulls here at the plant. A nice group of additions given that we pulled over on the highway shoulder for just a few minutes, and it definitely put the time spent hiking at Magothy Bay into perspective. Moving on, we reached the causeway to Chincoteague Island at 1:30 PM, and added a single Black-necked Stilt that was standing the marshes a hundred feet or so north of the road. Even while driving the posted speed limit, the bird was obvious with its long, skinny legs, body & bill. We caught some traffic getting onto the island, possibly from a bridge opening earlier, but made it across the town pretty quickly, adding some Mallards finally to our tally as we saw a number of them wandering the town. Many of these Mallards were of the mixed domestic/Mallard stock that the island seems to have a ton of, showing black and white colors as opposed to the normal greens & browns. We arrived at Chincoteague NWR at about 1:50 PM, and proceeded directly to the Tom’s Cove Visitor Center area. Passing the paddocks where the ponies are typically seen, we had hoped to pick up our first Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, and Cattle Egrets on the day, and fortunately there was indeed a big group of Cattle Egrets out near the herd of ponies.
The other two species though were not present, possibly because there just wasn’t much water available in the impoundment areas that were mostly dry at this point in the season. When we reached the Swans Cove Pool it was obvious that the trip up would be worthwhile. Immediately, we started adding species to our total. Within binocular range, we had a number of Least & Semipalmated Sandpipers, and amazingly a group of about 50 Pectoral Sandpipers. Of course, we had a good laugh at this, since we were so excited earlier in the day by the prospect of picking up what we thought might be the only Pectoral seen in the competition at Ramp Road. A grouping of about 200 Willets was also just offshore, with 1 single Marbled Godwit pointed out to use by a pair of out-of-town birders who had their scope set right on the bird. It was like a game of Where’s Waldo, and fortunately, they had done the leg work for us up front. More Mallards and Snowy Egrets were seen here, and we also got the nice surprise of seeing a Little Blue Heron fly on past us. Forster’s Terns were seen in flight, and a few Greater Yellowlegs rounded out the shorebirds visible from our first stopping point. Moving further down the causeway at the Visitor’s Center, we got good, distant looks at a huge grouping of Black Skimmers and Royal Terns out on an exposed sandbar in the cove. Walking the boardwalk around the Visitor’s Center, we hoped to add some Barn Swallows, but none were seen sadly. Also, Black-bellied Plover weren’t found in Little Toms Cove like we had hoped so we continued on to the beach. I have to think on a normal mid-September Saturday, the beach wouldn’t be crowded, but with the weather sunny, and the temperatures in the 80s, it seemed the beach was the destination of the masses. Walking out into the crowds, we found Sanderlings immediately, and a Ruddy Turnstone as well. At this point in the day, we had all the terns knocked out (save for Black Tern), and were missing only Lesser Black-backed from the common list of gull species. Hoping to find one, we started walking north, but there was just so many beach goers that we ended up heading back towards the car instead. Here, we finally picked up our first group of Red-winged Blackbirds for the day, noting one young male that was showing an interesting plumage that was like a cross between the adult female & adult male plumage. Below the flock, a single Double-crested Cormorant was swimming through the roadside ditch, affording some great photographs, but not being a new add to the day’s list.
With a few forest birds still missing from our list, we opted to next head to the Woodland Trail parking area, and walk the 1.6 mile asphalt path. On the way, we passed the team of Ake, Clark, Tate & Flanders once again, with the 4 birders all set up on their scopes at equal spacing scanning the cove to the north. Clearly, there wasn’t going to be any birds we saw here that they also wouldn’t immediately pick up. Arriving at the Woodland Trail though, right away, we got a new add, a House Wren, as it moved along a pine tree high up. Shortly thereafter, Brown-headed Nuthatches began to be heard, and we also found a Red-eyed Vireo in a deciduous tree while viewing some Carolina Chickadees. The mosquitoes here were probably the worst we’d run into all day, though not far off what we’d encountered at Magothy Bay. Many walkers passed us at high speed, clearly trying their best to get away from the biting bugs. Birding slowed around the middle of the trail, though I took some solace in getting to see the Delmarva Fox Squirrels that are extremely common on this trail, but not many other places. Our next bit of birding action occurred as we watched an American Redstart climb up through the trees, and then Jason spotted a Yellow-throated Warbler! This bird was probably the day’s highlight for me, since this species is one I never seem to find, even though they aren’t exactly a rare bird. In fact, it is only the second of the species that I’ve ever seen, having just added it to my life list in April while birding the Great Dismal Swamp’s Washington Ditch Trail. Having seen the Yellow-throated, we continued on and reached the vehicle once again. Overhead, a pair of adult Bald Eagles circles use momentarily, a nice surprise, though another bird we’d already tallied. Since it was now after 3 PM, the Wildlife Loop was open to vehicular traffic, so we made a dash for the entry road, thinking perhaps a few more shorebirds, or our missing Tricolored Heron might be found. The impoundments were almost entirely devoid of water, making the habitat quite poor for the birds we were hoping to add. Eventually, at the far north end of the loop, we did get some Lesser Yellowlegs that were feeding among some Canada Geese and Mallards. Before leaving the park for good, we made one last stop at the main visitor center, hoping to see some House Finches, American Goldfinches, and perhaps a House Sparrow on the feeders in the back. Upon arrival though, we realized the feeders weren’t even set up, so no luck on this idea.
After leaving the park, we crossed back over to Chincoteague Island, and instead of taking the main road out of town, we went north towards the island community’s school. In this area, there is some roadside ditches and a few ponds, and even a pair of hiking trails which we didn’t have time to do, but it is worth mentioning for those who’ve never been there. Finally, we got a bit of luck, as a Tricolored Heron was perched out on a log in the pond, and we also added Common Grackles in the trees near the road. Taking the causeway back towards the mainland, we couldn’t locate the Black-necked Stilt again, but we did get to see a number of American Oystercatchers out on the oyster beds in the creek, another new add for the day. After the couple hours spent in the area, we were now up to 86 species of birds! The only tough part about being all the way up at Chincoteague meant that we had to again drive all the way back south to more areas to bird. With us still missing some shorebirds, including Whimbrel, we though that Willis Wharf might give us another add, so we headed down the highway towards it, arriving at 5:20 PM. I had never been to this area before, but I can see why it is a hotspot on eBird, and part of the DGIF Birding Trail. Large expanses of mudflats rest on both sides of the road during low tide, which must have been about the time we reached it. Our only add here was a few Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, but that got us up to 87 species before heading back towards the highway. Next up was a redemption trip to Magotha Road, where we were able to track down a group of 4 Eurasian Collared-Doves on a wire above the roadway. Here I actually got some nice photographs from the car, and we had a flurry of excitement afterwards when several sparrow-sized birds ascended up into the power lines as well, though they turned out to be Chipping Sparrows, the only species of sparrow seen during the day. Our final stop was made at Sunset Beach, but, ironically, the sunset prevented us from seeing any birds out over the water. Clearly, this spot would have been better earlier in the morning, but we hadn’t give it enough thought. So, we weren’t able to add any more birds here, but as we approached the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, we got our 89th and final species of the day, the American Robin that had managed to elude us over the previous 12 hours. Heading back across the bridge, the sunset was pretty incredible, and it made for a great end to the day. Though we stopped briefly on South Thimble Island (Island #1), birds here were near impossible to see with the light waning, and the day had come to an end.
So over the last 12-13 hours, we had managed to find 89 species of birds that both of us could positively identify while the bird was still in view. Given that this was our first go at the challenge, I think we did quite well. Especially when considering that very few migrant species seemed to be being sighted by the other teams as well. As of now, the results have not yet been released, but as soon as they are, I will add them to this article below. I assume there was teams that got well over 100 species, and looking back at some of the species that we missed on like Barn Swallow, Purple Martin, Black-bellied Plover, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Broad-winged Hawk, Eastern Towhee, Field Sparrow, House Finch, House Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Pied-billed Grebe, Prairie Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat…we probably should have been able to get up to 100. However, we did get some species I hadn’t counted on finding like the Summer Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, Pectoral Sandpipers and Yellow-throated Warbler. I am looking forward to seeing what the other teams ended up finding. There was certainly locations that we didn’t get a chance to get too, like Oyster and the Cheritan Landfill that could have yielded more birds. One other thing I learned was that the daytime goes by like a blur, so the amount of time really needs to be planned for. I think starting at one end of the boundary region, and working your way towards the opposite over the entire day is the way to go, rather than making the trip across and back as we did. We just used up too much time in the car. I could also see an advantage in starting at Chincoteague at sunrise, or before it, and working south from there, so perhaps that’ll be an option for next year. But, all in all, I think it was a good showing for our first competition, but I’m definitely already looking forward to doing better next year!