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Eagles of Eastern Virginia

October 22, 2012
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I have just returned from a few days on the Eastern Shore of Virginia participating in the ABA’s Kiptopeke Rally.  It was good stuff.  Not only did I get to hang out with some fun birders, not only did I get to help lead field trips for the ABA which is a cool thing, but I got to eBird the hell out of the trip.  After three solid days birding Virginia, that state has risen to 5th all-time for me and the county hosting Kiptopeke, Northampton, shot up over 100 species with scarcely any work whatsoever.  100 is generally the milestone of a well-birded county, at least in my book, and it’s always a nice trip when you can crack that ceiling on your first try.

Some of the best birding of the week was done standing on the Kiptopeke State Park hawkwatch tower, an unobtrusive wooden structure about 20 feet off the ground looking out over a row of pine trees and back towards the sound.  You think in your head that hawkwatches require expansive views, the better to spot the hawk specks miles out, but Kiptopeke has none of that.  As Steve Colby, the counter this year, mentioned to me, “the birds come up on you fast”.

It didn’t help that they were fast birds.  The eastern shore gets loads of accipiters and falcons, all zipping over that line of pines and past the tower at impressive clips.  It makes sense, the buteos can circle over the mountains, but anyone who’s spent any time at the shore knows that the wind there is not something to be trifled with.  Which means it’s precisely how these speed-merchants prefer it.

Big soaring flights are typically the province of vultures (both kinds) and eagles around here.  And we saw Bald Eagles in many different plumages heading generally southward, but with the number of resident birds in the area it’s impossible to tell whether these fly-bys are truly migrating birds.

Bald Eagles are all well and good, but the biggest thrill for me was the discovery of a young Golden Eagle slumming it with a kettle of Turkey Vultures.  Golden Eagles are infrequent on the east coast, though a population of the birds that breed in Quebec migrates as far south as North Carolina with some regularity.  Seeing this bird was sort of bittersweet, as it was only my second day in Virginia and already I had had a look at one of my most wanted species for North Carolina.  I ended up with two such species on  my list, this eagle and a flyby Western Kingbird.  Thank goodness I managed to avoid the Yellow-headed Blackbirds in the area or I would have been advocating for a North Carolina invasion of coastal Virginia.

For all the talk of “birding” being an active avocation, occasionally it’s nice just to sit in one place and let the good birds come to you.

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