The first week of October for the last seven years have been for me as celebratory as Christmas and my birthday combined; here’s why.
Each of those October weeks have been spent watching peregrine falcons and exploring nature along the last 20 miles of Virginia’s Eastern Shore on the Delmarva Peninsula. Most of my time has been spent watching hawks at, or near, Kiptopeke State Park, just three miles from the peninsula’s end. Nature plays the leading role in life on the Eastern Shore.
It is a shame that most people traveling south along Route 13 traverse the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel thinking only of their destinations, ranging from Virginia Beach and Norfolk (home of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic fleet) to the Carolina’s Outer Banks. The lower end of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, just before the bay-bridge-tunnel, has much to offer nature lovers.
Watching hawks and other diurnal raptors migrate in October over KSP is thrilling because it is one of the best spots in the eastern United States to view migrating raptors. More importantly, though, it is one of the best places in the eastern U.S. to see falcons: peregrines, merlins and kestrels. Several other raptor species also appear in very large numbers, most notably osprey and sharp-shinned hawks.
Peregrine falcons hold an unusual position among those who care about nature and the environment. Peregrines were nearly decimated by DDT, a pesticide formerly used in the states to kill mosquitoes. By about 1965 there were no nesting peregrines in the eastern U.S., and birders noted the flashy bird’s decline, and then disappearance. Legislation spurred by Pennsylvanian Rachel Carson’s eye-opening book, “Silent Spring”, banned DDT in the U.S. Carson and her book are still considered major factors in initiating the environmental movement in our country. Additionally, legal protection for the peregrine and a massive re-introduction program centered largely on captive-bred peregrines provided by falconers saved the Peregrine in the east, and caused it to be removed from the Endangered Species list. The unusual part of this scenario is that many Peregrine supporters had, and have, never seen a wild peregrine, but they supported them anyway.
My opening October weeks at KSP have solved that problem for me because hundreds pass there, especially during the first few weeks of October. While I have had several days seeing over 100 peregrines in the past, this year had somewhat fewer, though we still had good numbers. This fall season, up to and including October 8, KSP had 544 peregrines, 594 merlins and 2,906 kestrels pass over in 422.8 hours of counting. A total of 8,670 diurnal raptors have passed the hawk watch site in the same time period. There are plenty of more raptors to come before this fall’s parade of raptors across the sky ends. An average of 22,000 raptors annually migrated past KSP over the last 10-years.
Several hundred raptors are trapped at KSP each fall to gather health data on the migrating raptors before they are banded and released. Gender, weight and general physical condition are gathered and recorded. Researchers from across the country have access to both the raptor figures and the additional health information gathered at KSP.
Also at KSP, the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory traps, bands and releases hundreds of songbirds each fall as part of their research program. Basically the same type of information is gathered from the songbirds that is obtained from the raptors. The licensed banders and well-trained volunteers handle all birds carefully and quickly release them.
Monarch butterflies, which pose one of the biggest mysteries of migration, also pass through KSP. Nearly all eastern Monarchs end up at their winter home in a mountainous region of Central Mexico where they hunker down in fir trees until it is time to return north.
An additional plus for birders and naturalists is the annual Birding Festival held the first weekend of October for the last 20-years at Cape Charles, VA., just 10-minutes away from KSP. Nature lovers will enjoy the information gained from private conservation groups and official state and federal agencies. While birds and birding are the primary focus, there is a great emphasis on coastal, wetland, vegetative and wildlife protection. Birds and wildlife cannot survive without homes, food and clean water.
The really interesting parts of the bird festival are the numerous birding outings led by experts to local areas incredibly rich in bird life. With the fall bird migration in full swing across the peninsula the trips are quite rewarding. One trip is especially interesting because it involves taking a boat around various barrier islands just off the coast to see water birds of myriad species. Harry Armistead, a local birding expert from Philadelphia, has guided many of those trips. It would be a cliché to say Armistead’s knowledge of birds is encyclopedic, but it would be fairly accurate.
My wife and I have put a deposit on our rental for next October, when we will again marvel at KSP’s and Eastern Shore Virginia’s natural bounty.