CAPE CHARLES BEACH AND HARBOR
In-Brief: Six city blocks of beach and a small harbor/marina area attract water birds of many sorts, most productive in winter (Purple Sandpiper, bay ducks) and during migration. Worth a quick check even in summer.
Access: Day use year-round. Public restrooms at the corner of Bay Avenue and Mason Avenue. To canvas the beach and harbor thoroughly, it is best to walk. Park near the intersection of Bay Avenue and Mason Avenue, and start at the Fun Pier, used for fishing as well as sightseeing.
Everything you need to know about birding
cape charles beach and harbor
Taken together with the westernmost block of the historical district of Cape Charles, the beach and harbor area boast records of well over 300 bird species, on par with any small patch on the East Coast for species diversity. The maintenance of the beach itself is overseen by a town Wetlands and Coastal Dunes board, which has restored the original dunes here since the 1990s, most of which had been destroyed just after 1910, when the town was expanded westward as the “Sea Cottage Addition.”
To canvas the beach and harbor thoroughly, it is best to walk. Park near the intersection of Bay Avenue and Mason Avenue, and start at the Fun Pier, used for fishing as well as sightseeing. At least one Osprey nest is active near the pier from April through August, and Bald Eagles are never far away, hoping to pirate a meal of fish from its smaller relation. At the shelter, especially at high tide, check for Purple Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, and other rock-loving shorebirds in the jetty area from October through May. A spotting scope is useful to scan the harbor, the rocky breakwaters offshore, and the bay itself, where all manner of diving ducks, loons, grebes, Northern Gannets, and other seabirds are present in the colder months.
In early spring (March and early April), Horned Grebes often forage right at the pier, providing photographers with fine opportunities to photograph them in all possible plumages. A walk north along the beach could turn up a handful of terns (all local species have been recorded), gulls, shorebirds, or, in winter, Snow Buntings. American Oystercatchers sometimes use rocky breakwaters for roosting, but at least some of these have now been overtaken by beach expansion, so the birds will not use them. Purple Sandpipers are a bit less fussy and usually roost at high tide on the bay side of these near breakwaters; photographers in pursuit of the perfect photograph, note that climbing on these rocks is not permitted (and Purples are just as close at the shelter on the pier). At the northern end of the beach, a set of old pilings (from a bayside restaurant) remain, often host to resting tern and gull flocks year-round. To return to the pier area, walk the elevated promenade, checking the dune scrub for passerines. Rarer sparrows found in the dunes include an American Tree Sparrow (15 December 2014) and a locally rare Ipswich Sparrow (several times, up to 2 birds, testimony to the success of dune restoration here). A Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrow once wintered nearby. If time permits, a walk or drive east down Washington Avenue to check an artificial lake will likely add a few birds; Ruddy Ducks and other waterfowl are often present in winter, and Common Gallinule, American Bittern, and American Avocet have been seen during migration. Roving flocks of cowbirds should be checked for Yellow-headed Blackbirds, for which there are numerous town records.
Like most harbor areas around the world, Cape Charles harbor can be a good place to watch for birds taking shelter from inclement weather. In addition to more common species, Red-necked Grebe, Common Merganser, and Common Eider are rare, but all have been recorded multiple times, both resting and as fly-bys. On rare occasions when the bay is frozen over, watch for ducks of all sorts in the cracks and leads in the ice: rarer ducks like Canvasback, Redhead, and Common Goldeneye can be numerous at such times. Razorbills are not usually seen resting but can be expected as fly-bys in winter, well offshore (spotting scope is needed). During an irruption winter for Dovekie, two singles were seen in January 2015 from the beach (and another at Picketts Harbor Natural Area Preserve, for some of the very few Chesapeake Bay records). Shorebirds have limited habitat apart from the beach and breakwaters, but a surprising variety has been documented at Cape Charles. During a region-wide spring fallout of Red Phalaropes, two of these lovely shorebirds graced the harbor 8 May 2013. Over the years, the list of gulls has grown to include Lesser Black-backed, Iceland, California, and Franklin’s, and after hurricanes, vagrants here includes both phalaropes, Bridled Tern, Arctic Tern, Roseate Tern, frigatebirds (unidentified), large numbers of Black Terns, and oddities such as White-rumped and Pectoral Sandpipers. Oddly, no species of tubenose has been recorded for the town, though Wilson’s Storm-Petrels are fairly common just two miles offshore from mid-June through early August.
If time permits, a walk around a few blocks can produce a few extra migrants in autumn: grosbeaks, warblers, flycatchers, tanagers, vireos are typical in autumn. Gardens in the first block of town with bird feeders or plantings have also hosted many unusual species: Allen’s, Rufous, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Painted Bunting (frequently), Dickcissel, Common Ground-Dove, White-winged Dove (seven records), Eurasian Collared-Dove, as well as unseasonable winter birds like Yellow-breasted Chat, Wilson’s Warbler, and Nashville Warbler, some of these apparently from western populations. In spring, swallows often gather around the harbor, and there is one record of Cave Swallow here (surprisingly in spring); Northern Rough-winged Swallows have nested on the north side of the harbor, in the old drain pipes from the ferry terminal that closed in 1949. A West Indian Manatee once put in an appearance in the harbor in summer, and rarely Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles turn up.