2 - 3 July 1995
by Brenda A. Tekin
This is a report on my recent trip to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Park located in the southeast corner of Virginia.
Day 1 - Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Sandbridge
Leaving non-birding spouse and teenage son sound asleep in bed, I took off from Charlottesville, VA in the early hours for a self- indulging birding/get-back-to-nature excursion, to include bicycling through Back Bay into False Cape. Traveling east on I- 64 to I-295 loop back to I-64, I managed to avoid most of the metropolitan rush hour traffic around Richmond and further east in the Hampton/Newport News/Norfolk area my arrival was timed just right and I missed the peak rush.
At a cruising speed of 70 mph, the driver should not attempt to bird along the way so I was only able to pick out Mourning and Rock Dove, Common Grackle, Barn and Tree Swallow, Blue Jay, Red- winged Blackbird, and crows (American and/or Fish). The weather looked promising as the remaining rain clouds began to dissipate with the rising of the sun.
Traffic began to pick up in the Newport News/Hampton Roads area but at least the traffic through the "tunnel" was not backed up and the 55 mph speed was maintained. There's something about travelling under water through a tunnel that makes me want to hold my breath and clutch the steering wheel; fortunately the tunnel is not that long.
Approaching the tunnel heading east, Greater Black-backed Gulls stood atop the light fixtures and Ringed-billed and Laughing Gulls were flying around. On the south side of the channel, I was able to start normal breathing again and ease up on the grip. To the right of the bridge I saw a small group of Least Terns feeding along the shore in front of a seafood restaurant. There is an exit ramp leading down to the parking area and I was able to pull off to watch the terns as they hovered and then slam into the water. A short distance from shore two Double-Crested Cormorants were floating along in the current.
Back on the road and continuing eastward on I-64, I began looking at the map to determine the best exit ramp to take so as to avoid as much of the Virginia Beach local traffic. Not only did I succeed in avoiding the beach traffic, I also stumbled across a 24-hour Walmart where I made a pitstop and managed in locating a non-plastic bicycle basket. Those wicker-like things with little multi-colored flowers just don't hold up to off-road biking.
Back on the road, I wound my way to Sandbridge located south of Virginia Beach, where I stopped at the grocery store to get some breakfast. They had homemade muffins that went great with the oj. I was now only 1 1/2 miles away from my destination. There is only one road leading to the refuge from. Passing a public park with beach access and toll parking, I stopped to see if there were any interesting birds. This can be can be a good area to find resting birds, but not today. This is the same parking lot where, back in March, we found a sizeable group of Caspian Terns.
At 9:40 a.m. I finally arrived at the Back Bay fee collection booth. After counting loose coins to come up with the $4.00 per vehicle fee (the honor system is in effect and you need exact change), I drove down the road leading to the main parking area (approx'ly 3/4 mile). Common Yellowthroat, Indigo Bunting and Northern Bobwhite were in abundance. Lots of activity along both sides of the road with Common and Boat-tailed Grackle, Barn and Tree Swallow, Purple Martin, Fish and American Crow, Mourning Dove, Rufous-Sided Towhee, Carolina Wren, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Kingbird, Northern Cardinal, American Robin, and American Goldfinch. I didn't stop to do in-depth birding as time was pressing and I was in a hurry to get on the trail with hopes of better birds to come!
Upon arriving at the Back Bay parking area and visitor's center, I unloaded the bike, strapped the scope onto the rear rack, and attached the new basket that would carry additional water, towel, dried fruit, insect repellent, sunscreen, and camera. I took a few moments to watch the Purple Martins feed young housed in one of several condos stationed outside the Visitor's Center. Adolescents were fledging and it was fun to watch as some of them obviously were having difficulty in landing and remaining perched. Three Osprey played in mid-air. A Northern Bobwhite made its appearance out of the tall grass and an Eastern Wood- Pewee called as it perched overhead on the utility line.
With binocs thrown over the shoulder, off I pedaled down the Back Bay trail. This is an excellent hiking/biking trail leading into False Cape, about 4.2 miles from the parking area. (No motorized vehicles allowed.) In the summer, it can get extremely hot, and with all the sand and water, overheating and burning can become a serious problem, even on cloudy days. Fortunately, the temperatures remained in the low 90s with a lower humidity/heat index, so it was pretty tolerable for most of the day.
To the left, the sand dunes block the view to the ocean but I was able to watch the flights of Brown Pelicans along the shoreline. Occasionally a Ring-Billed or Laughing Gull would make an appearance flying westward over the bay. Deer tracks dotted the trail, with an occasional raccoon track. The plop of reptilean creatures as they dropped down into the water in the canals lining the trail was constant as I continued southward. Lots of turtles, including one huge snapping turtle. Northern Bobwhite, Common Yellowthroat and Indigo Bunting called from all around. Close to pool #3, a bird that had apparently been down in a narrow row of low-lying shrub was startled and flew out. I was able to watch as it flew northward, parallel to the trail, staying low just above the marsh grass, getting great views of the head, back, and tail marking. I knew it to be either a snipe or woodcock, but because I seldom see these two and I'm fairly new to birding, I wasn't sure which. The long straight-like bill was slightly angled downward with the tilt of the head as the bird flew. The dark brown head with paler beige/tan stripe, dark brown back with beige/light tan pattern and a short stumpy/rounded reddish tail (color much like that of Red-tail Hawk) were the prominent features that I saw and made notes on. (I later matched it to a Common Snipe which I have just been recently informed is uncommon at Back Bay this time of year -- possibly this is the first recorded sighting.) As a newcomer to birding, I have a lot to learn in the area of seasonal distributions. When I saw this individual bird, even though I wasn't sure it was a snipe, I did not know I should have been more excited!
A list of birds seen along Back Bay heading south to False Cape, in a variety of habitat that included ocean beach, marsh, shrublands and maritime forest:
Heron, Great Blue
Flicker, Common (yellow-shafted)
Pewee, Eastern Wood
Grosbeak, Blue (male & female at nest)
After pedaling/walking 4.2 miles, I finally arrived at the entrance to False Cape State Park and continued on. A short distance from the entrance I came across an observation deck overlooking an open marsh-like area bordered with shrub. The white feathers of the Great and Snowy Egrets feeding in the area was such a sharp contrast to the browns and greens of the open land. A lone White-tailed doe grazed amongst them, occasionally looking up toward where I stood. A small, brown-like movement in the distance caught my attention and I retrieved my scope which helped in identifying a non-descript Willet hiding in the sparse tall grass.
A few feet down from the deck I saw a sheltered blind that would offer a respite from the sun, which was by now beginning to heat things up a bit. Within the few minutes it took to walk down the observation deck ramp and the short distance to the blind, an immature Little Blue Heron and one Glossy Ibis had appeared out in the open, joining the feeding egrets and doe. I watched for several minutes and managed to leave them undisturbed as I departed toward the False Cape visitor's center (approximately .5 miles). Information said I was only 9 miles from the North Carolina state line. Instead of trekking on, I turned around to head back. Back at the entrance to False Cape I took a few "proof" pictures of the entry sign.
The return trip back along the Back Bay trail was pretty much uneventful, nothing new except for a horse grazing in the distance (this may have been one of the wild ponies that inhabit the area) and a cottonmouth (water) moccasin crossing the trail. I made sure to give this fella the right away allowing plenty of distance between the two of us until it was completely off the trail.
[A special note: Out in the open, I did not experience any insect problem. However, in the heavily forested area close to the southerly end of the Back Bay trail, one mosquito was relentless in buzzing around the ears and the yellow flies, although not abundant, were persistent in their attacks. An application of Off Deep Woods kept them away.]
By the time I got back to the car, it was late afternoon and I wasn't ready to head back home. I was thinking I would like to come back the following day so I headed back to Sandbridge and on to Virginia Beach to splurge on an oceanfront room at the Howard Johnson Resort. I've been there so many times they now have my signature on file, as well as other pertinent information, so it didn't take long to check in. (In the off season between October-April, I have found the $50-65 nightly rate to be very reasonable. This past March, my family enjoyed a long weekend there and birding from the room overlooking the ocean produced scores of Red-breasted Merganser, hundreds of Northern Gannet, scoters, Snow Goose, etc.) Unfortunately, oceanfront lodging rates this time of year are almost doubled. What the heck, it's only for one night (maybe two) and I was on vacation!
By 5:00 p.m. I was in the room and telephoning the family to let them know I was okay and would be returning in a day or two (maybe), and having a wonderful time, etc. Next was a long, cooling shower before taking a leisurely stroll down the Virginia Beach oceanfront boardwalk, absorbing the sounds and smells of the sea. I returned to the hotel and enjoyed a delicious moderately priced grilled tuna and afterwards took another beach stroll before retiring to my room where I immediately went to sleep, lulled by the sound of the waves, all before 9:00 p.m.
Day 2 - False Cape State Park
By 7:00 a.m., I was up, dressed and checking out. Along the way I stopped again at the Sandbridge market for juice and another delicious muffin. Once at Back Bay, I figured the Visitor Center would be open and drove on in without paying the $4.00 entry fee. Instead, I purchased a Federal Duck Stamp at the center. For $15.00, the Duck Stamp, which is good from July 1 through June 30 allows unlimited entry to national wildlife refuges. Fortunately, I still had my $4.00 ticket stub from the previous day and they reimbursed me later through the mail after they were able to match the envelope with money that had been placed in the collection box.
After purchasing the stamp, I decided to hike the approximately 1 mile paved Bay Trail that winds around a small section of the bay and marshy areas. I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity in such a small area. A walk across the boardwalk over the tall marsh grass afforded views of rail-like tracks in the marsh mud, if one took the time to stop and look down over the side rails. At one point, I saw the grass move, indicating "something" was in there and I heard what sounded like a low-scaled grunting pig.
The definite highlight was when I was able to locate the source of the very low-keyed chicken-like clucking -- a King Rail with two "black" chicks within a few feet off the trail hidden by sparse shrubs! I watched them for over 15 minutes as the adult was intent on feeding in the algae-rich shallow pond. Further up the trail a Marsh Wren was seen back in an area of dense undergrowth. Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, and Tufted Titmouse flew back and forth across the narrow trail.
Making it to the turnaround point, an observation platform overlooks the bay. Tree Swallows and juvenile Purple Martins were competing for perching space on the few remaining branches of a dead tree. One lone Osprey was seen soaring in the distance. I learned from a small group of visitors ahead of me that I had just missed a rather large frog being consumed by a snake in this same area.
Turning around and walking back down the same trail, the distinct kuk, kuk, kuking of the cuckoo rang out. It was close and I was soon able to spot it in a dead tree along a small pool opposite the path. It was almost eye level, affording me great views, even without binoculars. It eventually flew off, and I went on. It was getting later in the morning and noticeably quieter. The heat and humidity were definitely on the rise. I was only able to tick off Blue Jay, Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Eastern Kingbird, one lone Prothonotary and two Pine Warblers the remainder of the trail. After the King Rails and Yellow-billed Cuckoo, I was very pleased with the morning outing and decided to head on out.
As I drove down the road leading back to the toll booth, my attention was drawn to a bird perched on a utility line parallel to the road that was "chatting" away. Being most cooperative, the Yellow-breasted Chat remained long enough for me to retrieve my camera and take a few snapshots.
Leaving Back Bay and Sandbridge, I drove west to Princess Anne Road where I turned left to head south to the North Carolina state line, which was a few miles away. At the state line, I continued on to the Mackay refuge located just a mile or two south of the North Carolina/Virginia boundary. At the main entrance to this facility there was a narrow canal with blooming water lilies with swarms of dragonflies and I stopped long enough to finish up the roll of film. It was mid-day and there was definitely an increase in the heat/humidity index and I decided it best to begin my long trek back to Charlottesville. Instead of taking the interstate, I traveled the scenic routes, winding my way back in a northwesterly direction, taking various routes that eventually led me to Route 10 north which leads to Hog Island Wildlife Refuge in Surry County, VA.
Just a few miles south of Hog Island, in Smithfield, VA, I ran head on into a fierce thunderstorm where I was forced to pull off the road. Fortunately, there was a shopping center with a large lot instead of having to park along the road. The lightening, wind, rain, and then hail were incredible as the storm went directly overhead. I was right smack in the middle of its path and the wind actually rocked my Taurus station wagon! It was close to 5:00 p.m. when the storm finally passed and I decided to eat before continuing on to Hog Island. The Pizza Hut in the same shopping mall was convenient and fortunately they provided very quick service. I also needed a stress-release break after riding the storm.
In no time at all, and with leftover pizza, I was back on the road, heading for my final stop before heading home. There were several areas of flooded roadway and signs of accidents were marked with remaining debris and burning flares. Fortunately there now was no traffic and I made good speed to Hog Island. There is no entry fee to this facility, which is located adjacent to a Virginia Power nuclear station along the James River.
A light mist created by the cooling rains enveloped the area. I did not see anyone else along the road and continued on a short distance to the observation tower where I parked and got out. It was getting late and the birds were taking flight, heading for the evening roost. A mature Bald Eagle soared overhead, circling once, before flying out across the James River. Two Killdeer called out, joining the chorus of Bobwhite.
As I was standing on the observation tower, finishing my leftover pizza, I watched as the bright red sun ("red sky at night, sailor's delight") slowly disappeared, casting hues of red and orange over the river and shallow ponds. A raccoon ventured out to wash in a small pool and a small band of White-tailed deer appeared, feeding on the wet green grasses surrounding the same pool. All was at peace for the moment and it was here my adventure ended.