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Rivah Visitor's Guide

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From Backyards to Beaches, Birding is a Chesapeake Bay Pastime

by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi

A house finch, enjoying a backyard birdbath, is a very common sight in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula.

On a cold April morning, I joined members of the Northern Neck Audubon Society for a hike along the shores of Barrett’s Creek in Northumberland County. We were in search of feathered friends.

It was my first bird walk, as evidenced by my attire or lack thereof. I hopped out of my car, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, camera dangling around my neck and notebook in hand. Audrey Brainard, whose 4.5 acres we were walking that morning, stopped in mid-sentence during her group briefing and handed me a pair of binoculars.
“You’ll need these,” she said.

I surveyed the 20 or so Audubon members present. They were wearing parkas, scarves, turtleneck sweaters and gloves. I was definitely underdressed.

There was a brisk wind coming off the Great Wicomico River but the sun was shining and the birds were singing. It was a chilly but perfect spring day to see many of the migratory birds making their way back into the Chesapeake Bay area.

According to the Audubon Society directory, there are some 400 species of birds found within Virginia’s 43,000-square miles of diverse, natural habitat. As part of the Atlantic Migratory Bird Flyway, the Chesapeake Bay is home to more than 250 species of birds, including some at-risk species. And each year, the area hosts more than a million wintering waterfowl. For those reasons, bird watching in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula, where there are dozens of natural area preserves and parks, is a popular hobby. In fact, there are over 400 members in the Northern Neck Audubon Society, a group aimed at the conservation and protection of birds and their habitats.

The Rappahannock River remains one of the most pristine tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay and supports Virginia’s only known breeding population of the coastal plain swamp sparrows and supports one of the largest concentrations of the American bald eagle in the eastern United States.

During our walk along Barrett’s Creek, we spotted, coasting high above the trees, a majestic eagle, along with 19 other birds including the uncommon horned grebe. The grebe, a small waterbird, was still wearing its black-and-white winter plumage but will soon have its more striking black-and-red breeding feathers.

According to Brainard, it’s common to see about 25 to 35 different species of birds during a two-hour walk in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. Bird watching along the shoreline or at one of the area’s natural preserves offers an opportunity to see even more.

Here are some species bird watchers are likely to spot in the area:

  • Canada goose — With a black head and white neck, this bird is about 30–43 inches long with a 50–71 inch wingspan and usually weighs between 7 and 14 pounds.
  • Mallard — One of the most familiar of ducks, the mallard is 20–26 inches long with a 32–37 inch wingspan. They normally weigh between 2 and 3 pounds.
  • Osprey — This large raptor has a white breast and belly with black wings. It is typically 21–23 inches long, with a 59–71 inch wingspan and weighs between 2 and 5 pounds.
  • Bald eagle — The national emblem, the eagle was once threatened with extinction. It is a very large raptor with a brown body and white head and tail. It is 28–38 inches long with an 80 inch wingspan. The eagle weighs between 6 and 14 pounds.
  • Red-tailed hawk — The most common hawk in North America, the red-tailed hawk has a broad, red tail with a pale chest and dark band across the belly. It is 18–26 inches long, with a 45–52 inch wingspan and weighs between 2 and 4 pounds.
  • Forster’s tern — One of several medum-sized terns, it has a comma-shaped black ear patch in the winter. The tiny bird is 13–14 inches long and weighs between 4 and 6.7 ounces.
  • Blue heron — The largest and most widespread heron in North America, the blue heron is a gray bird with long legs, an “s” shaped neck, with a white crown stripe and a bluish-gray back, wings and belly. He is typically 38–45 inches long with a 66–79 inch wingspan and weighs between 4 and 5 pounds.
  • Red-bellied woodpecker — This bird is actually easy to spot not because of his red belly but because of the red stripe on the back of its head. He is 9 inches long with a 13–17 inch wingspan and weighs very little, between 1.9 and 3.2 ounces.
  • American goldfinch — A small colorful bird, it’s frequently found in weedy fields and feeders. The tiny yellow-bodied bird is 4–5 inches long and usually weighs less than an ounce.
  • Chipping sparrow — Best known for its dry, trilling song, the chipping sparrow is one of the smallest sparrows, weighing between .39 and .53 ounces. It is 5–6 inches long.
  • White-throated sparrow — Although it mainly breeds in Canada, the white-throated sparrow is common in fields throughout the eastern U.S., especially during the winter months. It is a large sparrow, with a white throat and white and black stripes on its head. Weighing between .78 and 1.13 ounces, it is 6–7 inches long.
  • Northern cardinal — The Virginia state bird, the male cardinal is a brilliant red, while the female is grayish-tan with a red tail and wings. It is 8–9 inches long and normally weighs between 1.48 and 1.69 ounces.
  • Tufted titmouse — A common bird, the tufted titmouse is a small, gray bird with a short tuft on its head. It is usually six inches long and weighs less than an ounce.
  • Carolina chickadee — Abundant in the area, the Carolina chickadee is a small, short-billed bird with a black cap, white cheeks and black bib. It is 4–5 inches long and weighs less than half an ounce.
  • Carolina wren —The Carolina Wren’s “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle” song is familiar across the southeast. It’s a small bird with a white eye stripe and rust-colored belly. It is 5–6 inches long and weighs less than an ounce.
  • Pine warbler — Appropriately named, the pine warbler can be found in pine trees. It is a small bird, 5–6 inches long, with a yellow throat and chest and white belly and under tail. It weighs less than half an ounce.
  • American robin — A familiar sight, the robin is the most widespread thrush in North America. It has red underparts with a gray back and wings and is 8-11 inches long and weighs about three ounces.

posted 07.31.2008

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