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.  The property was crucial migratory songbird habitat and the site of a bird banding station, where, for almost 30 years, volunteers had tracked thousands of birds that stopped to rest during their long migration to Central or South America. What could have been a significant loss instead became a great success story.  CZM funding helped set into motion a venture that would permanently protect this property and thousands of surrounding acres, for the birds and for people.

CZM funding for Southern Tip $1,871,320
CELCP funding for Southern Tip $514,714

yellow throated warbler courtesy Roger Mayhorn

Millions of songbirds like this yellow-throated warbler land on Virginia's Eastern Shore on their annual migration to warm climates.

Every year in the early fall, millions of colorful songbirds land on the southern tip of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, stopping on their annual migrations from Canada and New England to warm climates as far south as Venezuela and Brazil.  The Southern Tip’s dense native coastal vegetation and insects are critical to the birds’ getting enough food and rest for the next long leg of their flight.

The songbirds have been making the trip for centuries. And from the 1960s until about 20 years ago, volunteers gathered at a private campground on the Southern Tip to band the birds. Then, in 1989, the owner of the campground said he wanted to sell his property. It was a decision that worried the volunteers. It could mean the end of the continuous recording of the migration at a time when migratory songbirds were declining. 

Instead, it set in motion a two-decade effort that would preserve an additional 4,000 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. Federal grants authorized by the Coastal Zone Management Act would be instrumental in helping Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management (CZM) program and the Southern Tip partners conserve this critical habitat.


Photo courtesy of VACZM

NOAA Coastal Zone Management funding set in motion a two-decade effort that has preserved 4,000 acres of migratory bird habitat.

When you're in the middle of it, you don’t know how it will turn out,” said Laura McKay, Virginia’s 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.”

The Virginia CZM Program is one of 34 state CZM programs around the country funded in part by annual Coastal Zone Program grants administered by NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resources (OCRM)

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.

Carolina Chickadee, courtesy FWS, Dr. Thomas G. Barnes

Warblers and other migrating songbirds associate with chickadees, a year-round songbird. By listening for the chickadees during spring and fall migration, you’re more likely to find these other species.

The Virginia CZM program stepped in and applied for 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 the Virginia CZM Program 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, they were able to scientifically identify the Southern Tip habitats most vital to the birds’ migration.

Critical Timing

Magothy sign

The Virginia CZM program and its Southern Tip partners pooled funds to acquire land for preservation. CELCP funding has gone toward acquisition of Southern Tip land.

The need to protect those areas for the migrating birds had become more important over the years. Migratory songbird numbers have been declining. Development in coastal areas has taken up land and habitat the birds once used for stopovers. Stopover habitats are especially critical because huge numbers of birds must find places to rest and feed within very small areas, or “bottlenecks,” like the Southern tip. 

When the science confirmed the value of the Southern Tip as a key migratory stop-over habitat, 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.

CZM funding and 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.

golden winged warbler, courtesy Roger Mayhorn

Golden-winged warbler, on the Southern Tip

133 of those 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.

CZM funding of the SAMP also helped the partnership develop ordinance recommendations to protect the identified critical habitat and groundwater resources.

People Benefit

Photo courtesy of DGIF

The Eastern Shore of Virginia Birding and Wildlife Festival draws thousands of people to Virginia's preserved Southern Tip.

Residents and visitors also are reaping the benefits of the Southern Tip conservation. The annual Eastern Shore of Virginia Birding and Wildlife Festival, initiated by the Virginia CZM Program and now 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.


Photo courtesy of VACZM

Virginia Southern Tip Seaside Trail gives people new ways to enjoy the area.

The Virginia CZM Program, supported by the federal CZM Program, and the Southern Tip Partners are exploring ways to acquire more land on the Southern Tip, working with local supervisors and citizens to build public understanding of the land’s value to a process of nature that has been going on for millennia.

Federal and state Coastal Zone Management Programs have been essential to the successful protection of the Southern Tip migratory stopover area.

Cape May Warbler courtesy Roger Mayhorn

Cape May Warbler, during a rest stop on Virginia's Southern Tip

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.”


Virginia Southern Tip Partners - Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation, Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, US Fish and Wildlife Service,The Nature Conservancy, Virginia Eastern Shore Land Trust, Ducks Unlimited

Photo courtesy of VACZM


For more information, contact John Kuriawa.