A Scenic Overlook Along the Avian Superhighway A Letter from Kiptopeke

November 07, 1993|By BRUCE REID

Kiptopeke, Va. -- At one of the outermost reaches of Chesapeake country, there's a place where you can feel a part of the grand scheme of things -- or at least feel you have an incredible seat for the show.

Many of us see the magic and mystery of bird migration in small ways. A distant flock of geese, a line of blackbirds passing over the highway. And we think little of it. Some of us have visited Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge or Bombay Hook near Smyrna, Del., and seen masses of ducks or wading birds feeding and resting on the mud flats.

Each fall, above the browning meadows and scrubby pine woods at Kiptopeke, a spectacle unfolds on an uncommon scale. Here, at the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, you can't help but feel as though you are watching the blood coursing through the veins of the Earth.

This is the fast lane on the avian interstate.

The skies here seem chaotic at times, from dawn to dusk. On good flight days, most birds are hurriedly moving south to Georgia or Florida, to Central America, or beyond. Some are moving north, presumably because they have decided not to cross the gaping mouth of the Chesapeake, at least not on that day or those winds.

Before the construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel across the mouth of the estuary, the Virginia Ferry Corp. ran its boats between this place and the mainland.

Now, with the ferry long since a memory, Kiptopeke's most noticeable travelers are sharp-shinned hawks by the thousands, peregrine falcons in impressive numbers, tree swallow flocks that resemble insect swarms, tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds about to make staggering flights over more than 20 miles of open water and common loons muscling their oversized bodies high overhead.

Kiptopeke, a trap of land that acts like the tip of a funnel, is a place where all the senses can get a vigorous workout. Where a brisk wind whips your face with salty air from the white-capped waters of the bay. Where hoards of warblers, thrushes and other songbirds on the wing can blanket the sky from horizon to horizon. A friend once called it aerial plankton. Where, on northeaster winds in early October, the river of hawks and falcons is at flood stage.

One day last month, the biggest flight in at least five years brought nearly 2,000 raptors before noon. At times, they came so fast you could barely count them.

There are few places like Kiptopeke in Chesapeake country, or in the East for that matter.

Recently, this place held dear by serious birders in Maryland and Virginia was celebrated by hundreds of folks who don't tote around $800 binoculars or don't drive 400 miles to spy one lost tern without giving it a second thought.

But something else made this event, the first annual Eastern Shore Birding Festival, so remarkable.

The local business owners, the local chamber of commerce and the political leaders joined with birders and environmental activists to promote "eco-tourism" on the normally depressed lower peninsula, where joblessness and public assistance run high.

Most of the motels were booked ahead of time, the restaurants were packed, and government-owned buses normally used to transport schoolchildren and senior citizens carried bevies of birders between the hawk-watch station at Kiptopeke and Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge, the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge and elsewhere. There were tours and hikes from Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge to the north as well as out on the bridge-tunnel's man-made islands to the south, where exhausted birds sometimes rest during their flight across the bay.

Imagine, bringing together businesses, government officials, scientists and activists to celebrate the migration of songbirds and birds of prey. The planners say that through the festival, they want to increase the awareness of the role Virginia's shore plays in bird migration, emphasize the importance of protecting critical habitat and highlight "the mutual benefits to the local economy and habitat protection through responsible nature tourism."

And it worked. You could see it on the face of an eight-year-old boy who hung around the hawk-watch station, calling out "osprey" and "kestrel" like the seasoned observers. You could see the same child-like wonder on the face of an elderly woman seeing loons, hawks and other species for the first time.

The festival seemed to embody what is basic about the Chesapeake Bay restoration program: that we all need to consider our place in the scheme of things, that our actions can affect all creatures great and small, that the species that share this space have intrinsic value.

The late Elmer Worthley, a government biologist who spent much of the 1970s producing public television shows in Maryland to teach children and adults about the web of life, once said that humans will never understand the environmental consequences of their actions without taking the time to learn about our non-human neighbors.

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