The Beach Life Outdoors

Exploring the Seashore to Cypress Birding Trail
by Curtis J. Badger

When most people think of Virginia Beach they picture the ocean, the boardwalk, restaurants, shops, and the pervasive aroma of French fries and suntan oil. But what many don’t realize is that this resort area includes some of the most outstanding natural areas in Virginia.

For those who enjoy birding, Virginia Beach offers exceptional opportunities all year round, with birds that range from huge northern gannets to tiny warblers that migrate through in spring and fall.

I recently spent a few days exploring the Seashore to Cypress Birding Trail, which links locations such as First Landing State Park, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, False Cape State Park, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, and the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. While the popular perception of Virginia Beach is that of a busy resort city, these parks and refuges provide more than 130,000 acres of natural area, all just a modest drive from the oceanfront.


Exploring the Seashore to Cypress Birding Trail
Day 1: Northern Part of the Loop

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel

BirdsI began with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel on the northern portion of the loop. It’s difficult to think of seventeen miles of concrete and steel as a place to commune with nature, but the bridge-tunnel provides the best access in the area for viewing birds that prefer open water. In summer and fall there are a wide variety of gulls, terns, and brown pelicans. You can see nesting white ibises, skimmers, great and snowy egrets, and great blue herons where the bridge crosses Fisherman Island.

But winter is prime time viewing on the bridge-tunnel, when rafts of thousands of sea ducks gather around the rock islands that anchor the tunnels. You can see all three species of scoters, plus long-tailed ducks (formerly oldsquaw), scaup, red-breasted mergansers, double-crested and great cormorants, and a few rarities such as harlequin ducks. Northern gannets, large white birds with black wingtips, will be diving for baitfish.

First Landing State Park

First Landing State Park

From the bridge-tunnel I drove down Shore Drive (Rt. 60) to First Landing State Park, a great green wedge driven right in the heart of one of the busiest vacation spots on the east coast. First Landing has both seashore and cypress, and at just under 3,000 acres provides plenty of opportunities for birders. What makes First Landing so great is the diversity of habitat. I explored dunes and open beach, then took Cape Henry Trail through a cypress swamp and maritime forest, across ancient dunes, and finally to the peaceful waters of Broad Bay. If you like to do your birding by bike, Cape Henry is the designated bicycle trail at First Landing. A ride from the visitor contact station to Broad Bay and back covers about 12 miles.

The birding at First Landing is good year round. I saw several warbler species in the maritime forest, and there were ospreys patrolling the salt marsh near Broad Bay. Ospreys arrive in March and stay until fall, nesting in tall pines along the waterfront. The maritime forest is an important migratory route for warblers, tanagers, thrushes, and other songbirds, which pass through during spring and fall migrations.

Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum

Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum

Next stop was the Virginia Aquarium on General Booth Blvd., but on my way I stopped at the Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum at the oceanfront. The museum is in the de Witt Cottage, the oldest remaining structure in the resort area. The museum captures the history and culture of waterfowling back in the day when Back Bay and the sounds of North Carolina were lined with hunt clubs, some of which were opulent structures. A decoy carver was on hand to demonstrate his craft and explain how decoy making is part of the tradition of wildfowl hunting.

Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center

The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center has a wonderful aquarium, museum, theater, and gift shop, and birders will be interested in the interpretive wetlands trail on the banks of Owl's Creek. Across the creek is a 100-acre wilderness preserve maintained by the U.S. Navy, and an elevated tower and a boardwalk make wildlife viewing easy. The museum also offers whale and dolphin watching trips in the open ocean off the resort, and these trips provide good opportunities to see pelagic species.

Birding Guide

Exploring the Seashore to Cypress Birding Trail
Day 2: Back Bay and False Cape

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Back Bay National Wildlife RefugeNext day I got an early start and headed south, bicycle in the rack on the back of the car, lunch tucked away in the bike bag. I wanted to see as much as I could of Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and neighboring False Cape State Park, and the best way to do it is by bike. To explore both venues is a full day trip.

A clay and gravel trail begins at the visitor center at Back Bay NWR. The trail is open from April through October, and provides access to False Cape. Otherwise, travel is by beach, by boat, or via a tram tour operated by the Back Bay Restoration Foundation.

Back Bay NWR and False Cape provide a ribbon of green that runs from the community of Sandbridge to the North Carolina line, a distance of about nine miles. The pine forest, hardwood swamps, dune thickets, and shrub communities are part of the migratory corridor songbirds use during migration, and numerous species can be seen during the fall migration, beginning in August and stretching into late October. The greatest variety comes early in the migration. Later, most of the birds you’ll see will be yellow-rumped warblers.

The wildlife refuge was created to provide a winter home for waterfowl, and freshwater impoundments were built to provide resting areas and food. The gravel trail runs on top of the berm that encloses the impoundments, just behind the dune line. There are numerous places to stop to look for waterfowl and wading birds.

False Cape State Park

False Cape State Park

The entrance to False Cape State Park is 4.25 miles south of the refuge visitors center. Just inside the park is an elevated platform overlooking another impoundment, a good place to scope out waterfowl, as well as songbirds in a nearby myrtle thicket.

False Cape is one of the most remote public parks in the state, but getting there is worth the trip. There are extensive maritime forests, huge old dunes, and even a cemetery and church site, remnants from the village that was here in the late 1800s and early 1900s. False Cape was popular among waterfowl hunters before becoming a state park, and one of the old hunt clubs now houses an environmental education center operated by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. The building overlooks Back Bay and is a good place to stop for a lunch break on a daylong bicycling trip. Picnic tables are provided.

Birding Guide

Exploring the Seashore to Cypress Birding Trail
Day 3: The Great Dismal Swamp

Great Dismal Swamp

The southernmost stop on the Seashore to Cypress Trail is perhaps the most impressive: Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The Great Dismal is the subject of too many colorful stories to count, and it is famous nationwide among birders. I spent a full day there and felt I only got a glimpse of the place.

There are three ways to explore the Great Dismal: by boat, by foot, or by motor vehicle. My son and I had canoed into the swamp via the Feeder Ditch a while back and had camped at the Army Corps spillway site near Lake Drummond. For my most recent trip, I decided to drive in on the service road that leads from the visitor center to Lake Drummond, a distance of about seven miles. I stopped at the visitor center, filled out a permit form, and was given the combination to the lock on the service road gate, with the admonition to be out by three o’clock.

The road runs along a pine woods, and then a forested wetland, past a swampy grassland, and ends up on the shore of the lake, where a small observation platform is located. The birds you’ll see vary greatly according to the season, and can include some rarities such as the Swainson's warbler. It’s best to park the car at intervals and slowly walk the service road. If you visit during spring migration, buy a tape of birdsongs and hone your skills. You will likely hear more birds than you’ll see. It is thick in there.

Historic Francis House

At 110,000 acres, the Great Dismal is huge, and can be overwhelming to some. If your time is limited, or you simply want a less ambitious birding trip, try one of the small parks in the area. Many have a surprising variety of birds. Fort Story has boardwalks that overlook Cape Henry beach, where the bay meets the ocean. Francis Land House is on a remnant of a 1,000-acre plantation and has a nature trail and elevated boardwalk that crosses a wetland. Great Neck Park has pine woods and a marsh trail, and Beach Garden Park has ponds, wetlands, and grasslands.

More Birding Adventures

More information on these and other birding sites is available in the Coastal Area edition of “Discover Our Wild Side,” published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

About the Author — Curtis Badger is a writer and naturalist who has written more than 30 books. His most recent book, "The Wild Coast," was published in the spring of 2005 by University of Virginia Press.

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