PRESERVING AN ANCIENT FLYWAY
When a landowner on the southern tip of Virginia's Delmarva Peninsula decided to sell his property, it had many people worried. For centuries this property was crucial migratory habitat for millions of colorful songbirds that stopped to rest during their long migration from Canada and New England to warm climates as far south as Venezuela and Brazil.
In the early fall this was also the site of a bird banding station, where from the 1960s , volunteers gathered at a private campground to track and band these birds when they stopped to forage in Virginia's Eastern Shores dense native coastal vegetation to find insects that are critical to the birds' getting enough food for the next long leg of their flight.
Then, in 1989, the owner of the campground said he wanted to sell his property. This decision could mean the end of the continuous recording of the migration at a time when migratory songbirds were declining. Development in coastal areas has taken up land and habitat the birds once used for stopovers to rest and feed within very small areas, or "bottlenecks."
What could have been a significant loss instead became a great success story. Federal grants authorized by the Coastal Zone Management Act helped set into motion a two-decade adventure that would permanently protect this property and 4,000 surrounding acres of the Southern Tip's migratory bird habitat, create new ways for people to appreciate the birds and waterways, and launch eco tourism in the area. These funds were instrumental in helping and the Southern Tip partners conserve this critical habitat.
"When you're in the middle of it, you don't know how it will turn out," said Laura McKay, Virginia Coastal Zone Management (CZM) program Manager. "You don't work alone. You're part of a network of all levels of government, non-government organizations, and private citizens."
While scientists and the bird banders knew the Southern Tip was a valuable stopover for the birds, they didn't have hard scientific data on the number of birds that stopped there or how the Virginia habitat fit into the entire mid-Atlantic flyway. When the science confirmed the value of the Southern Tip, the long-term steps of conserving the habitat began.
The Virginia CZM Program and Southern Tip Partners began to pool funds to acquire critical lands for permanent conservation. Says Laura McKay, "Coastal Zone Management is the common thread that pulls the efforts together to create a comprehensive approach over time. Everything we're doing is to enrich the Southern Tip ecologically and economically. CZM is one of the only programs that strives to ensure the sustainability of both our coastal environment and our coastal economy."
The Virginia CZM program received an interstate Section 309 CZM grant from NOAA that allowed them to document the entire mid-Atlantic flyway from New Jersey through Virginia. The study showed that Virginia's Southern Tip was one of two locations with significantly higher coastline concentrations of the birds.
More NOAA CZM funding then helped develop a Northampton County Special Area Management Plan (SAMP). With help from Virginia's Natural Heritage Program, the VA Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, and William and Mary's Center for Conservation Biology, vital Southern Tip habitats were scientifically identified and ordinance recommendations to protect the identified critical habitat and groundwater resources were developed.
Funds from NOAA's Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP) have provided for acquisition and permanent protection of nearly 175 acres of Southern Tip land and brought in another 125 acres as matching acquisitions.
133 of these CZM acquired acres are at the site of the original songbird banding station which is now known as Kiptopeke State Park. The remaining acreage is at what is now known as the Magothy Bay State Natural Area Preserve.
Residents and visitors also are reaping the benefits of the Southern Tip conservation. The annual Eastern Shore of Virginia Birding and Wildlife Festival, hosted by the Northampton County Chamber of Commerce, has drawn thousands of people. A Seaside Water Trail, several walking trails, a wildlife observation deck and several canoe/kayak floating docks have also been made available to the public through Virginia CZM Program funding.
The Northampton SAMP funding helped develop an Ecotour Guide Certification Course for the peninsula, and, with funding from the Virginia CZM, a local community college created ecotourism courses geared to the area.
For more information, contact John Kuriawa