Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Bridge to 50 Years Ago

When I left Black Mountain last week to first pick up Sue in Raleigh and then continue on to her parents' house in Exmore, VA, I wasn't sure if we'd make it or not. Hurricane Earl was churning along an angle of attack that would meet us somewhere around Virginia Beach, and it was still an enormous, Category 3 storm that at one point had threatened the Outer Banks of North Carolina as an even more terrifying Category 4 hurricane, with sustained winds of 135 mph.
When I worked for a newspaper on the coast, I covered the approach of Hurricane Isabel - also at one point in its evolution a Cat 4. I interviewed the Swansboro Fire Department chief, a couple of days before landfall, as he prepared for the worst and he told me there was no plan for a hurricane of that magnitude. "A Cat 4, you just try to get everyone the hell out of here and kiss everything goodbye. If a storm like that hits here, there won't be a Swansboro anymore." Luckily, Isabel weakened significantly before it touched the coastline around Bogue Inlet, and Swansboro is still a picturesque, vibrant little village on the sea that I miss dearly.
Hurricane Earl didn't weaken much, but it did stay far enough offshore to allow travelers to move with relative impunity. Most importantly, the winds never reached the level it takes for officials to close the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel - the 20-mile time machine that allows us to cross the bustling city of Virginia Beach at the mouth at the mouth of the bay and land at Kiptopeke, the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula.
Our crossing took place at night, so we couldn't see much past our headlights on Hwy. 13, but Sue and I have history on Virginia's Eastern Shore, and we know the lay of the land that rushed past in the darkness about as well as any place we've ever been. We were, in fact, married there a little more than nine years ago, in a stone chapel on Bayview Road. After the ceremony, our guests and we celebrated at a reception hosted by Sue's parents, at their home on Hungar's Creek. It was that same home where we spent the next six days - visiting familiar places and reconnecting with old friends, as we have done every year since we left the Eastern Shore for our honeymoon and a new home in the Old North State.
Even far offshore, the hurricane's rain and wind kept me from my reunion with the places I love best, but our first full day was time well spent with family. Sue's parents retired here more than a decade ago, after raising their two daughters in northwestern New Jersey. Hank loves to fish and Sally keeps beautiful gardens. Their home on the bayside exemplifies each of these passions, and the view from the back porch - looking up Hungar's Creek - is so intoxicating, it's easy to go out with a cup of coffee in the morning to watch the sunrise and then wonder where the day went when you realize you've missed lunch.
A couple of days of such behavior is all well and good, but Sue demanded action by the start of the weekend, so we lowered the 2-person kayak into the creek and headed off for a paddle. Early September on Hungar's Creek is a time of transition for wildlife. The birds that have nested there are picking up and starting their migration south, while the northern breeders are still weeks away from their annual layover. One constant is the creek's pair of bald eagles, which we saw every day, but never so closely as while we were in the kayak. I watched the male (he's 1/3 as large as the female) fly to a perch in a secluded cove and had my camera at the ready as Sue eased us around the bend. From his point of view, we must not have been much of a threat and the eagle allowed us to drift within a stone's throw before taking off for a more peaceful spot.
Seeing the great raptor at such close range put my heart in a nostalgic mood, so the next morning I drove 15 miles back down the peninsula to Kiptopeke State Park (click here for info) - the place that started my fascination for the Delmarva. The landscape is as it has been for decades - largely agricultural with large landholders and a poor labor force. Oh sure, there's a Food Lion in Cape Charles now and a swanky golf course too, but It was back in 1997 that I signed on to trap and band migrating birds of prey for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory (click here), which, in some form or another, has been monitoring bird migration at the tip of the Delmarva since 1994, in conjunction with a songbird banding project that started back in 1963. Today, CVWO employs seasonal biologists every fall, from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30, to count (and capture for banding) migrating hawks, songbirds and butterflies. The nerve center of the operation is at the hawkwatch platform at the state park, and it is there I went to revisit the site of past glory. I consider the three fall seasons and one spring season that I spent as hawk banding coordinator and spring migration counter as the most exciting and rewarding in my career as a field biologist. Over the course of those disjointed 12 months, I saw things in the natural world that have never left my consciousness. I witnessed there what was, at the time, the largest single day count of migrating peregrine falcons the world had ever seen (365) and a year later, it happened again with their smaller cousins, the merlin (over 600, of which, I caught and banded 61 - also a record at the time). I saw warbler fallouts that set the ground moving with tiny feathered travelers. You had to kick the American redstarts and northern waterthrushes out of the way before you could safely take a step. I saw nighttime roosts of thousands of migrating monarch butterflies that set the pine trees alight with Halloween colors of orange and black. Every day, something extraordinary happened when I was there, and, as I found out last week, it still does.
The Delmarva Peninsula is the perfect trap for migrating birds and insects. As autumn cold fronts sweep in from the northwest, the birds and butterflies (and some dragonfly species too) allow themselves to be pushed against the coast. From there, they are funneled down the length of the peninsula - as they have little desire to turn back and fly across the mighty Chesapeake or the unknown of the Atlantic - and so they bunch up at the tip, right at Kiptopeke State Park, until they gather enough courage to make the leap across the bay because there is no other choice. The toll is devastating. It is estimated that more than 75 percent of migrating songbirds perish during their first trek to the wintering grounds in Central and South America. Those that survive to become adults, avoid the same mistake and stick to inland migration routes.
The migration has barely started however, and my few hours on the platform and around the park were spent mostly catching up with a few old friends who, whether they know it or not, gave me great comfort to think that I could come back to experience the migration as I did during those carefree years as a transient field biologist. No matter what has happened in my life - good or bad - the birds still fly over the watch.


  1. Ah, the eastern shore...I hope to drag you up there again this winter. Take 'em!

  2. Lead the way my good man, lead the way.