Taking Wing

The state's new Birding and Wildlife Trail -- part of a growing trend in 'avitourism' -- is enough to set a birder's heart aflutter.


Cover Story

March 30, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN OUTDOORS WRITER

It hardly seemed possible: a bald eagle banking tree-high above George Washington's birthplace on its way to open water shimmering in the late-day sun.

Heads turned, goosebumps arose. The only thing missing was an orchestral version of "America the Beautiful."

Not every moment on the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail is a Hollywood moment, but if you're willing to do a little ad-libbing, you will still be rewarded with quite a show.

Creating and marketing "watchable wildlife" opportunities is catching on across the country. The movement even has a name -- "avitourism" -- and it's fueled by the knowledge that bird watching is the fastest growing segment of outdoor recreation in the country.

No fewer than 20 states have built or are building birding trails modeled on the original birding trail project in Texas, which has been hailed by naturalists as well as tourism officials.

According to surveys by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Audubon Society, birders are male and female equally, middle-aged, with 17 years of schooling. Many of them are empty-nesters with time on their hands and money in their pockets.

A U.S. Forest Service survey in 2000 put the number of casual birders at 71 million, up from 21 million in 1982. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates 46 million people are serious birders, who spend serious money, as much as $34 billion annually on travel, guides and gear.

Virginia's birding trail is really 18 separate loops within the state's coastal plain. Some of the shorter ones, such as the Bull Run Loop in the densely populated suburbs of Washington, can be done in a day. By contrast, the elongated Eastern Shore Loop could easily fill a three-day weekend.

With a road map and the state's spiral-bound trail guide in hand, adventurous sorts can improvise their own loop, starting at the end and working backward or working from the middle to either end.

For our two-day excursion, a Sun photographer and I chose the 21-site Northern Neck Loop for its eagles, waterfowl and history. We also liked saying we were going to "No. Neck," the abbreviation on some Virginia maps and road signs.

We opted to blaze our own trail, beginning in Warsaw, a small town about halfway down the Neck and four stops from the end of the line.

The tour started at the Richmond County Museum, a tiny brick building constructed in the late 1800s that was once a jail. Among its funky touches: the 13 stairs leading to a second-floor gallows from which a single convict was hanged.

For folks from the North, the museum is a great place to soak up the soft drawl of Francene Barber, a Southern lady filled with quiet hometown pride and a passion for history that she's willing to share.

"It is a wonderful place to really get a sense of where the country started," she said of the area. "We won't rush you or push you along. Take your time and just breathe it all in."

Northern Neck is the third peninsula on the left after you enter the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. It is bordered by the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. The Neck has more than 1,200 miles of shoreline and more than 6,000 acres of natural areas, a perfect home for birds of all types.

Three of the first five presidents -- Washington, Monroe and Madison -- were born on the Northern Neck, as was Confederate hero Gen. Robert E. Lee. Washington, whose birthplace on Pope's Creek is a national monument, called Northern Neck "the Garden of Virginia," Barber said.

It's a little early in the season to check out the gardens -- of which there are many -- but we would have been hard-pressed to add another stop to our birding itinerary anyway.

Barber sent us on our way with an armload of brochures and maps; we needed both because of Virginia's quaint habit of labeling every street and dirt path with a route number that doesn't seem to correspond to anything else.

She also gave us a checklist compiled by the local chapter of the Audubon Society to mark off our sightings and reminded us that the Northern Neck is home to 248 species.

"Good luck," she said.

Herons and eagles

Ready to bird, we drove south on Route 360 and then picked up back roads to the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, an area created in 1996 to serve as a sanctuary for bald eagles.

The refuge contains three of the 21 Northern Neck trail sites. Our interest was in the Wilna Unit, the most recently acquired tract and home to a large great blue heron rookery, or breeding colony.

Joe McCauley, the refuge manager, said that when he first walked the pond in the fall of 2000, he was awestruck. "I remember thinking: 'Man, this is a beautiful spot. We have to share this. We can't keep this for ourselves.' "

With federal money and help from Ducks Unlimited, a national waterfowl conservation group, the refuge staff was able to replace a failing dam and build a fishing pier out into the pond. Biologists say there are some rod-bending largemouth bass lurking in the depths.

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