Fall Bird Migration On Delmarva

by Jim Rapp

Fall migration on Delmarva Peninsula is an exciting place to witness a true wonder of the wild world.

Overnight, relatively quiet parks and natural areas can be transformed into bustling, open aviaries, with songbirds dripping from every tree branch and twig, and shorebirds concentrating in tight, organized flocks on mud flats and beaches. Species not seen since the spring make their annual autumn appearance as they push south to warmer wintering grounds, some traveling as far as Tierra del Fuego at the very southern tip of the South American continent.

For birders the world over, Delmarva is on the list of places to bird before you die. There are several reasons for Delmarva's high position on the birding destination wish list. The first is geography: birds often follow coastlines during migration. The Delmarva Peninsula is right in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway, a major route for many of the Western Hemisphere's most sought-after species.

Birds also seem to prefer funnel-shaped peninsulas with a north-south orientation. Each autumn, migratory birds bottleneck near Cape Charles, Virginia, at Delmarva's southern tip, where they rest and forage before taking flight over the expansive mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The numbers of individuals and species are dazzling! Spend a weekend "Birding Cape to Cape" in the fall between Cape Henlopen and Cape Charles, and you may likely top 200 species on your bird tally.

Another reason Delmarva attracts the birds is coastal habitat and water, water everywhere. Our open bays, rivers and ponds are home to birds such as osprey, pelicans, terns, and waterfowl, and our marshy and sandy shorelines provide the type of habitat favored by shorebirds, egrets and herons. Wet woods and baldcypress swamps attract warblers, tanagers, and flycatchers. Migrating raptors can be found in the open marsh and dark forests. Much of this habitat is protected and managed for the birds in our National Wildlife Refuges, parks and wildlife management areas.

Winds and weather also deliver birds to the Peninsula. During fall migration, cold fronts push into Delmarva from the north and west. This can produce migratory bird "fall-outs," when thousands of birds leave the skies to congregate in a small area while waiting for better weather. Some fallouts can be small, such as a narrow, shrubby point jutting out into a bay, while others can canvas the entire Peninsula. If strong winds blow from the south, many migrants will wait for days until favorable tail winds appear to help carry them over the Chesapeake. Heavy storms and fog can cause birds to fly a little too far over the Atlantic, and these cautious migrants will quickly snap back towards the Delmarva coast, where they can wait safely for the bad weather to pass.

Delmarva's flat, open landscape, mostly devoid of towering artificial structures that can obstruct and disorient birds, also makes the Peninsula a good path for migration, and a great place to be a birder.

Fall migration actually starts in early summer for some shorebirds, but August, September and October are peak months for most songbirds and raptors. November and December are when the waterfowl and seabirds arrive on Delmarva's shores, and many of our National Wildlife Refuges are managed to provide important winter habitat for our iconic ducks, geese and swans.

Typically, big, soaring birds, such as raptors and egrets, migrate during the day when they can take advantage of thermals and air currents that provide lift under their large wings to assist them on their journey south. To watch the daytime migrants, check out one of Delmarva's Hawk Watch sites at Cape Henlopen State Park, Kiptopeke State Park, and the nearby Ashland Nature Center in Northern Delaware.

Smaller songbirds, such as warblers and sparrows, tend to migrate at night. After a long night flight, the little guys will spend the morning foraging on fruits, seeds and insects to get their energy up for the next leg of their trip. While feeding, you can get nice looks at these birds, who seem much more concerned about breakfast that any threat posed by a quiet, patient birder.

Some species can migrate thousands of miles, non-stop, from departure to arrival. Scientists are learning more about these epic migrations with the help of technology. Using tiny satellite transmitters, scientists with the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary and The Nature Conservancy tracked a tall shorebird known as a Whimbrel from Virginia's Eastern Shore to the MacKenzie River in Western Canada. This 3,200-mile, presumably non-stop flight was completed in just under seven days. To accomplish this incredible migration, the tracked Whimbrel sustained an average flight speed of 22 miles per hour for the duration of its' journey.

Whimbrels have one of the largest ranges of any bird on the planet. They breed in the Arctic and migrate to South America, Africa, south Asia, and Australia. They use their long, down-curved bill to probe sand and mud for invertebrates, and to pick up berries and insects. On Delmarva, Whimbrels gobble up fiddler crabs in our marshes to fatten up on their migration from South America to the Arctic. The barrier islands and marshes of Virginia's Eastern Shore provide a critical migratory feeding area for Whimbrels and other shorebirds.

Virginia's Eastern Shore is a great place to get your fall migration fix, and the local birders have an event planned just for you. Make plans now to visit Cape Charles, Virginia, in October for the annual Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival. The festival provides you with a front and center seat to view the migration spectacle with four days of guided hikes, boat trips, and free family activities. Don't miss the popular "Flight of the Raptor" live bird of prey demonstration at Cape Charles Central Park. More information about the Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival can be found on their website,

Birds and the wild areas that support them add to the quality of life we enjoy here on the Peninsula, but birding is also big business on Delmarva. According to a 2011 report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the participation and spending patterns of 47 million birders nationwide, trip- and equipment-related expenses associated with birding generated nearly $107 billion in total industry output, supported 666,000 jobs, and generated $13 billion in local, state, and federal tax revenue.

Birders spent an estimated $15 billion on their trips and $26 billion on equipment in 2011. For trip expenditures, 52 percent was food and lodging, 34 percent was transportation, and 14 percent was other costs such as guide fees, park fees, and equipment rental.

With roughly one-third of the U.S. population living within a four hour radius of Delmarva, and assuming that just some of those folks enjoy birdwatching, it makes economic sense for Delmarva to invest in our parks, refuges, and the low-impact infrastructure that supports bird-related tourism.

We hope you'll spend some time - and money - on Delmarva this fall to experience the best of bird migration on the East Coast.