Wide-eyed, Paul Smith crouches and stretches his arms forward. He scoops the air with his hands, then draws them back to his sides, simulating a bird in flight.
“They look like they’re rowing with their wings,” says the wildlife-refuge volunteer, explaining a difference between a peregrine falcon and other birds of prey.
The falcon disappears behind tall loblolly pines. Farther up the trail, I rejoin a knot of bird watchers scanning a marsh. White heads of the great egret bob amid autumn-brown marsh grass.
Half of the year, Fisherman Island—at the northern toehold of Virginia’s 18-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel—is off-limits to the public. But October through mid-March, the public is treated to free Saturday morning guided tours in search of bird life. (Call 757-331-2760 to reserve a spot.)
Our two-hour hike came during the Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival. The annual event, this year October 6 through 8, draws thousands of birders during prime migration season.
Fisherman Island and the nearby Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge are strategic spots on the Atlantic Flyway, a type of interstate for migrating songbirds, shore birds, raptors, and butterflies.
A bird checklist runs down hundreds of species and the likelihood of spotting them. I check off double-crested cormorant, tree swallow, black-crowned night heron, and brown pelican. All are commonly sighted here.
I’m surprised to find an osprey nest close to the ground, but no humans are on the island to disturb them. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons also visit here.
Smith points out a crumbling concrete structure partially covered by brush and sand. Once used as a quarantine station for European immigrants on their way to Baltimore, the island passed through several branches of the military before becoming a wildlife refuge in 1969.
All this is learned in hushed snippets of conversation between bird sightings en route to the beach. Traffic on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is drowned out by the wind and surf. A pod of eight to ten dolphins plays offshore. Out come the binoculars and scopes on tripods, all pointed at what appear to be ordinary gulls on the beach.
“There’s a black skimmer,” calls one watcher. “And there’s a bunch of laughing gulls and ring-billed gulls in there,” adds another. Someone else mentions Caspian terns and royal terns. I quickly check the list: all common.
Then comes the jackpot. “Those are sandwich terns,” a watcher whispers. I check the list. They’re only occasionally seen here, one notch up from “rare.” I’m satisfied.
Activities during the Birding and Wildlife Festival include boat ecotours, nighttime owl walks, butterfly hikes, and raptor counts. Most activities take place near the town of Cape Charles.
For details on the festival, call Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce at 757-787-2460 or see esvatourism.org.
If you miss the festival, relax: The birds will be here all fall. The Eastern Shore and Chincoteague wildlife refuges are prime year-round birding spots.
And even if you’re not a birder, the area makes for a pleasant weekend.
An old railroad town that just five years ago had little to offer tourists, Cape Charles is undergoing a renaissance. On Mason Avenue, a coffeehouse, shops, and the newly renovated Cape Charles Hotel have slipped nicely into resurrected old buildings. Locals still get the news around the potbelly stove at Watson’s Hardware and lunch at Rayfield Pharmacy’s soda fountain.
Just outside town, upscale shops and trendy eateries await at Bay Creek Resort & Club. Aqua’s very good food comes with unparalleled views of the bay.
Virginia’s first Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course is the latest addition to the Bay Creek resort community. Don’t miss the opportunity to play either the Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer courses before they go private. Virginia residents get a $20 discount off the $95 greens fee at both April through October.
For the active, SouthEast Expeditions (sekayak.com) offers kayaking and kiteboarding, while the Arts Enter art gallery and performance theater (757-331-2787; artsentercapecharles.com) satisfies cultural yens. The town’s best feature remains the half-mile-long public beach and gazebo where locals gather to watch sunsets on the bay.
Where to Roost
The grounds of the Best Western Sunset Beach Resort are festival headquarters, and rooms sell out quickly (757-331-1776, sunsetbeachresortva.com). But Cape Charles has a half dozen homes turned bed-and-breakfasts, most recently the Kellogg House (757-331-2767, kellogghouse.com).
Bay Creek Resort has dozens of townhouses, condos, and mini mansions for rent (two-night minimum). Rates depend on size, amenities, and views but start at $585 a night for two nights in a three-bedroom condo in fall. Some are pet-friendly. Two luxury suites above the marina go for $250 and $350. Call 757-695-6111 or see baycreekresortrentals.com.
For more on Cape Charles, call 757-331-2304 or see ccncchamber.com.