KIPTOPEKE STATE PARK
IN BRIEF: Must-visit destination during fall and winter, with full-time raptor monitoring September 1 through November 30, and numerous trails through shrub-scrub and pine forest as well as sheltered harbor, sandy beaches, and excellent view of lower Chesapeake Bay. Availability of restroom facilities is seasonal, with most locked during winter (occasional port-a-johns available year-round). The nearest restroom outside the park is at the Royal Farms gas station at the highway.
ACCESS: 3540 Kiptopeke Dr, Cape Charles, VA 23310. Day use and overnight guest visitation 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fishing pier open 24 hours April 1 through December 31.
Additional Info: Virginia DGIF Birding Trail Site
EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT BIRDING KIPTOPEKE STATE PARK
Opened in May 1992 with 375 acres on the former grounds of the Kiptopeke Beach Family Resort, Kiptopeke State Park has expanded to 562 acres as of 2009. The site was used for farming until its development as the northern terminus for the Eastern Shore Ferry (1950-1964), and the traces of that terminal area remain part of the park, at the western end of Kiptopeke Drive. The park retains over 100 acres in scrub-shrub habitat managed specifically for migratory songbirds, with the remainder in Loblolly Pine forest, dune scrub, open beach, freshwater pond (Taylor Pond), and recreational/camping areas. The mix of habitats means that most migratory species, excepting those that favor mudflats, farm fields, or salt marsh, pass through and often rest here, particularly during autumn months, when many juvenile birds attempt to use the Atlantic coast (rather than interior routes) on their first southbound transit to wintering areas. For 50 years, Kiptopeke area was the site of a bird-banding study, which concluded in 2012. That study documented some locally very rare or extirpated species, including 6 Bewick’s Wrens (1968-1981), 4 Loggerhead Shrikes (1966-1977), and 2 Black-capped Chickadees (1978, 1983), as well as the first state record of MacGillivray’s Warbler (8 November 2005). More importantly, the study provided a mountain of data (over 350,000 birds banded) on the status of 163 species here, most of them migratory. Records of declining species such as Bicknell’s Thrush, Kentucky Warbler, and Golden-winged Warbler in that study are especially precious. In addition, the park hawkwatch, established in 1977 and in annual operation since then by the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory, has counted more than 813,138 raptors of 20 species (as of 30 November 2017).
Most birders visit the Kiptopeke between September and February, and the notes below pertain mostly to those months, which account for almost 400 bird species (as of 2018), more than 99% of the species thus far documented here; any of the trails or areas can be checked in spring, but the species diversity will be lower. This friendly park has nature walks for children, including an owling excursion. Butterfly and dragonfly enthusiasts will appreciate the plantings around Taylor Pond as well. The park’s map and trail guide can be downloaded at www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/document/data/trail-guide-kiptopeke.pdf.
The earliest southbound migrants are shorebirds, especially those adults whose nesting attempts have failed in Arctic areas. Shorebirds are often seen in flight over the hawkwatch platform, but as there are few places for them to rest, most move on, with the exception of beach-loving shorebirds. Sanderlings, Willets, and Ruddy Turnstones are often seen on the park’s beaches, less often Semipalmated Plover. On rare occasions, Piping Plover puts in an appearance, mainly in March/April or August. Soon after the first shorebirds arrive, Neotropical migrants appear, some of which also nest locally: the first Black-and-white Warblers, Yellow Warblers, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers turn up in the last days of July and increase through August, along with other species of warbler, flycatcher, and a few orioles. Other early migrants include Louisiana and Northern Waterthrushes and Prothonotary Warbler. Because this early migration is not typically powered by strong cold fronts, and involves relatively fewer species, it is rarely evident aside from the occasional buzzy call note of a warbler passing high overhead.
The migration trickle increases to a steady stream by the end of August, and both September and October days with cold front passage during the previous evening can produce a veritable flood of birds. Experienced birders know that to see the big numbers, one must rise early and be in place by dawn. At that time of day, most night-migrating birds will be seen flying northward, as they have already encountered the end of the peninsula (or the bay/ocean) and have turned around. Kiptopeke hawkwatch platform is a fine place to watch this flight and its many constituents: cuckoos, tanagers, warblers, vireos, catbird, thrasher, flycatchers, wrens, orioles, woodpeckers (especially Red-headed Woodpecker and later Yellow-bellied Sapsucker).Thrushes (mostly Catharus species) are not often seen migrating but when seen, it is in the pre-dawn and very early dawn time. Generally speaking, birds that remain low to the ground and/or in dense cover, such as sparrows, wrens, Common Yellowthroats, Gray Catbirds, will be seen making quick, low flights between low patches of vegetation, whereas birds of the canopy, such as Cape May and Tennessee Warblers, fly rather high overhead. American Redstarts, Northern Parulas, and Black-throated Blue Warblers, counted here in the many hundreds or even thousands per morning, can be seen flying at a range of heights and are often easily identified with binoculars (try photographing fast-flying migrants to confirm suspected identifications). Day-migrating species such as Northern Flicker and Bobolink keep the skies lively as movements of warblers and flycatchers begin to slow. Though many uncommon or rare species appear later in the fall, some appear in September: keep an eye peeled for Olive-sided Flycatcher and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher observed here in late summer into September (and even later for Scissor-tailed and other Tyrannus flycatchers).
As the migration of most songbirds wanes in mid-morning, the raptors rise in migration, and many days produce counts of 1000 or more (historically sometimes up to 5000). The season starts in August, with American Kestrels and Sharp-shinned Hawks and Ospreys dotting the clouds, followed soon by Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Harriers, Bald Eagles, Merlins, and Peregrine Falcons. In September, Broad-winged, then Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks put in appearances, and a Swainson’s Hawk is seen almost annually here. October is the month for those keen to see a Golden Eagle or Northern Goshawk or even a rare Rough-legged Hawk, and early November is also a fine time for them. Rare raptors noted here include Swallow-tailed Kite, Zone-tailed Hawk, Gyrfalcon. As of 2017, Kiptopeke has recorded 20 species of diurnal raptor—all species ever reported in Virginia except White-tailed Kite (seen by Hardee’s Restaurant in Cheriton 26 April 1998), Crested Caracara (one report from Fisherman Island), and Western Marsh-Harrier (one at Chincoteague in 1994). Ever-vigilant hawkwatchers regularly observe non-raptors passing overhead, including occasional flocks of Sandhill Cranes and American White Pelicans in autumn, along with rarer species such as Black-bellied Whistling-Duck (15 August 1996), Roseate Spoonbill (1 October 2017), Magnificent Frigatebirds (9 November 2005, 4 October 2007), Wood Stork (17 September 2017). An adult male Townsend’s Warbler passed the platform, headed north, 22 October 2011, and even deigned to sing before continuing on. On 3 October 2017, a Wilson’s Phalarope went winging by. On 25 November 2016, a LeConte’s Sparrow sat up in the brush next to the platform. On 26 October 2002, a very rare Common Raven passed the watch.
Almost every day, an interesting bird or two is among the throngs of migrants, and patience is required to see the best variety: pack a folding chair, lunch, and plenty of drinks, and plan to spend most of the day scanning. Observers standing on the platform have kept a list of all species recorded there, which stands at 279 species, plus Pink-sided Junco and Oregon Junco, two rarely documented subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco. Even a quick walk might turn up other remarkable birds, as happened to one restless hawk counter who found a Northern Wheatear perched nearby on the park’s welcome sign on 15 October 1995.
As the weather cools toward October, the long-distance Neotropical migrants give way to shorter-distance migrants, many of which remain in the area for the winter. October is the best month to see a diversity of sparrows, and the brushy areas around the park often hold one or more Clay-colored Sparrows at this time, along with scarce Lincoln’s and White-crowned. Flocks of blackbirds appear as the weather cools, and patient watching (and photographing and recording) can produce uncommon species such as Yellow-headed Blackbird among the hordes of blackbirds; Rusty Blackbird is regularly seen (and heard). The northern finch species irrupt very irregularly into coastal Virginia, but in 2012, thousands of finches descended the Delmarva Peninsula. Kiptopeke counters tallied 2334 Red Crossbills (of three Call Types), 158 White-winged Crossbills, 82 Evening Grosbeaks, and 12 Common Redpolls, all usually rare species at this location. October also tends to produce more records of vagrant flycatcher species, especially of flycatchers: this area has records of Western Kingbird, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Say’s Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee. Even a novice can pick out an outlandish Fork-tailed Flycatcher in flight, as occurred here 26 October 1999 and 1 October 2011! Early October is one of the most exciting and pivotal periods during migration, and hawkwatching can be extraordinary, even when winds are not from the northwest. Peregrine Falcon flights are often best on northeasterly winds, or southeasterly! And southwesterly winds sometimes see remarkable flights of Osprey here.
In the 1990s, birders at Cape May, New Jersey realized that records of rarer species (especially those from the West) peaked in early November. They reasoned that some of the rare birds seen on their Christmas Bird Count in mid-December were probably holdovers from this earlier period. They began to concentrate their birding more and more during this time, with detections of new species almost every year. Virginia birders quickly followed suit and have duplicated Cape May’s successes in the “southern tip” of the Delmarva, from Cape Charles town southward. Since 2002, there has been an annual Rarity Roundup in early November, with many detections of uncommon and rare species. Birders cover territories much like in a Christmas Bird Count and keep in touch via group text messages, to maximize chances of everyone seeing the interesting species detected. This effort has turned up a fine mix of uncommon and rare species for the participants over the years.
Birder coverage of Kiptopeke has historically been rather geographically limited. The hawkwatch platform is certainly a gathering point, and it is a marvelous place to watch the migration in the early morning and the movement of diurnal migrants overhead otherwise. It can be hard to walk away from flocks of Cave Swallows or Broad-winged Hawks on a brilliant blue day. Birders do, however, particularly in mid-morning, walk the Baywoods Trail (1 mile), near the hawkwatch, seeking single birds or flocks of migrants. The connected Raptor Trail passes through scrub-shrub to the Native Plant Garden at Taylor Pond: this 26-acre tract with 3-acre pond was given to the park by singer-songwriter-birder James Taylor. Shrub habitat here is attractive to Palm Warblers and Orange-crowned Warblers in season, along with many sparrow species. A small trail encircles the pond, where recent unexpected visitors include Ross’s Goose and Red-necked Phalarope; a male Garganey in fine plumage spent 24-28 March 1989 here. (This area, and the vicinity of the lodges to the east, can be productive for Long-eared and Short-eared Owls in late fall and early winter, and for American Woodcock at dusk.) For those hoping to get a little exercise, this trek can be continued down the Raptor Trail back to Kiptopeke Drive, which leads back to the hawkwatch platform, a loop of three miles, for a nice morning perambulation. Here, as while on the platform, listen carefully for calls of Bobolink (common) and Dickcissel (scarce) overhead.
The park has many other trails (Songbird, Wren, Mockingbird, Bay Overlook, Brown Pelican, Peregrine, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Wood Warbler), and a few of these are on boardwalk rather than sandy track. Few birders explore these trails, but groups of migrants—particularly interior forest species—have been found on all of them. Watch for fruiting vines and trees, and for dense patches of habitat among the otherwise unproductive stands of mature Loblolly Pine—and wait to see if birds are present. Barred Owl, quite rare in southern Northampton County, is occasionally heard on the park’s southernmost trails, and a few lucky birders have seen a migrant Eastern Whip-poor-will or Barn Owl here in autumn. Shy species like thrushes and Connecticut Warbler require some stealth and patience to see well, and they tend not to like sudden movements or brightly colored or white clothing. If you go for a hike, be sure to take a trail map, water, and compass with you, and pay attention to trail signage and to weather conditions.
In winter, birders always check the beach and the bay. “Kiptopeke” means “big water” in the language of the Accawmacke Indians; it was also the name of the younger brother of a local king in the early 1600s, when this area was first explored by the English. The water is indeed big here: the nearest land is Hampton, Virginia, about 16 miles to the west. This part of Chesapeake Bay interacts twice daily with tides from the Atlantic Ocean, and it is not uncommon to see seabirds like Parasitic Jaegers from the beach or fishing area here (spotting scope normally needed), with autumn being the best season to see one. Often times, both Common and Red-throated Loons forage right around the pier, where photographers can fill the frame with these beautiful species (listen for their calls here on calm days in late winter and early spring); Red-breasted Mergansers, Long-tailed Ducks, scoters, and Buffleheads are often seen here, occasionally a Common Goldeneye or two. During inclement weather, many birds come off the bay to seek shelter in the lee of the old concrete ships, nine of which were sunk here to create two offshore breakwaters. Birds more associated with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, such as eiders, Harlequin Duck, Razorbill, Great Cormorant, Purple Sandpiper, are rare but reported every few years, mostly in winter; Snow Buntings are seen in the fishing area in short lawn grass, or around the beach, almost annually in recent years. A first-winter California Gull was here 29 December 2002. Many of these wintering birds continue here into March or even later, with the last Common Loons still around in early May or so. With the increase in records of southerly species such as Brown Booby and Magnificent Frigatebird in the mid-Atlantic states, it would be wise to check the fishing pier area at any time of year.