Ask someone to go birding, and you may get a curious look along with a polite refusal. Ask the same person to go for a hike in the woods, at a park, or on the beach, and you’ll likely have a willing companion. Yet the two choices are hardly separate activities. Birding is just one more way to enjoy the outdoors. Millions of people happily identify themselves as birders, taking their hobby along wherever they go. It’s one of America’s—the world’s—most popular pastimes.
Talk to the believers and you’ll learn how the interest in birds grew out of another favored activity. On the Northern Neck, that could include boating, which provides a perfect platform for finding birds. Eagles always amaze, but they’re not the only attention-getters. When you see and hear flocks of waterfowl flying into a field or creek, when you watch the ospreys feeding and guarding their young, when you follow a family of ducklings on parade, how can you not get hooked? You certainly can’t get bored.
Those who think there’s “nothing to do out there,” should take a child or two along on a “bird walk” or boat ride. The children catch on immediately to binocular use, so they should each have their own, ready to use at the first flash of color. Sneaking up on a bird with the quietest of kayak moves can be a favorite challenge. And the walkers will find lots of time and inclination to investigate the surroundings: the tiniest of wildflowers, a nearly perfect feather, the variety of bugs under a log, and “oh look!” as the Great Blue Heron snags his lunch.
One advantage this hobby has over most others is you
don’t need a lot of special equipment to participate. The binoculars are a must, but any kind will do at first. If you want to identify the birds you see, you’ll need a field guide with pictures and descriptions of the birds and maps of their range. Or just tag along on an organized bird walk, where new friends will volunteer the information. Later you may want a notebook to list your sightings, and later still, a particular camera for the visual record.
For many birders, this pastime can become a true passion, and “later” will also dictate where they’ll spend vacations. The list of special birding sites is worldwide, but distance travel is not necessary. The Northern Neck is home to and close to a number of excellent birding sites, and it has the secondary advantage of seasonal differences in climate and bird populations.
The Northern Neck Audubon Society (NNAS) schedules a number of bird walks during much of the year. While the hobby could be a very solitary activity, in this area chances are good that it’s the opposite. It’s time shared with like-minded friends meandering the trails of a park or preserve. The walking is good, the fresh air is good, and the social aspect is good. If a bird call or sighting interrupts the conversation now and again, that’s not bad. One person takes the time to record the details of a sighting; another waits for the perfect photo op of the perfect bird. No matter what the species, it will be exciting to see it in its home territory and better still if it rewards the watchers with its special call. Everyone takes what they want from these walks. They may go home tired, but glad for another good day. Birding can do all that.
“At NNAS bird walks and at our monthly meetings, we usually have up to 30 people,” says Nancy Garvey, president of the group. “While many of our members are retirees, we do get some young children coming on the walks with their parents, and we’re glad to see that. It’s extremely important for them to learn about nature.”
Frank and Linda Schaff lead the NNAS walks, which may take place at one of the area parks or preserves. “We do two a month,” says Frank, “except in summer. We go to many different places: George Washington’s birthplace, Stratford Hall, Regent Point Marina, or any of the preserves for a half-day trip. We sometimes split into two groups and Linda guides the second. A group lunch often follows the walk.”
Longer two- or three-day trips may be scheduled to visit nearby sites like Chincoteague, the Outer Banks, Delaware Bay, or the Blue Ridge.
Sometime between mid- December and early January, the National Audubon Society holds the Christmas Bird Count. Started in 1900, this annual bird census collects information on populations and the distribution of bird species throughout the United States, Canada, and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.
In February each year, birders can join the four-day Great Backyard Bird Count. Described as a “citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds,” this count is organized by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.
Important Bird Areas
The mission of the National Audubon Society is “to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats, for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity.” With that as a goal, and in partnership with BirdLife International, the National Audubon Society identifies and monitors Important Bird Areas (IBAs), recommending plans to restore habitats, or reduce threats to birds and other wildlife whenever possible. In the United States, 2700 areas have been designated IBAs, including one sponsored by NNAS and located in the Rappahannock River National Wildlife Refuge. An IBA designation often coincides with an area of high bald-eagle concentration, as is the case here. “As a chapter, we adopted it,” says Paula Boundy, secretary and past president of NNAS. “We do bird surveys a couple of times a year to determine the area’s special needs. Then we encourage landowners to protect habitats. The concept is land conservation.”
Audubon chapters take on other projects too, and the Northern Neck group started with bluebird nesting boxes. Originally built to replace natural sites that were lost to logging or development, the boxes are still built and sold locally to continue the decades-long tradition. Made of western red cedar, each sports an Audubon A. “Nearly 30,000 of these boxes have been sold over the years,” says Fred Whitschey. “I’ve been working on this project for 17 years. We usually build them between October and December, because we start selling them in February. We’re always looking for new workers!” The boxes are sold at certain area stores—the NNAS website gives locations.
It’s a long reach from selling nesting boxes to managing investments, but both activities have shared goals. In 1993, NNAS established the Northern Neck Audubon Foundation, which now manages an investment portfolio made possible by a former chapter member. James Faye named NNAS as one beneficiary of his estate, enabling the chapter to support many educational and environmental causes, including contributions toward the purchase and establishment of several of the area’s Natural Area Preserves (NAPs): Bushmill Stream, Hughlett Point, Dameron Marsh, and Hickory Hollow. The group also holds 6 conservation easements on the Northern Neck. Nancy Garvey adds, “We also provide ongoing support to Teachers on the Bay (a program of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation), and have provided grants to students at the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, to the Native Plant Society, and to the Wild Bunch Wildlife Refuge.”
Donations are always sought and always welcomed, as are volunteers who are willing to assist with chapter projects or general operating details. The Northern Neck Audubon Society meets on the first Monday of each month (except July, August, and September) at 7 p.m. at Grace Episcopal Church in Kilmarnock. Featured speakers are experts on some aspect of birds or animal species. Meetings are open to the interested. Check the website for dates of bird walks and other events. Come take a hike. northernneckaudubon.org.