In fall, visitors to Sandbridge Beach are treated to a natural wonder as thousands of migrating birds visit the barrier island. Seasonal visitors include brightly colored warblers, shorebirds, and waterfowl. The most familiar sightings are flocks of American Black Ducks and Tundra Swans taking up temporary residence in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding ponds, beaches, and woodlands.
Sandbridge Beach is on the Atlantic Flyway, a bird migration path that begins in the Arctic and follows the Atlantic Coast down through Florida to the Caribbean.
Tundra Swan Migration
Tundra Swans are large white birds with black bills. With a wingspan of up to 5 feet, these waterfowl are a sight to behold, especially in large numbers. Tundra Swans leave the Arctic in late October, and it’s believed that as many as 10,000 migrate to the Virginia coast through spring. They prefer brackish water, tidal rivers, marshes, and wetlands where they find plenty of favorite foods such as grasses and pondweeds. In Sandbridge Beach, look for flocks of Tundra Swans in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in the bay and freshwater ponds.
American Black Duck Migration
Naturalists watch for the first American Black Ducks to arrive from Canada as an indication of the start of fall migration. American Black Ducks are a “priority species” for conservationists, as their numbers have declined sharply due to over-hunting. American Black Ducks tend to hang out with flocks of mallards, so look carefully for the orange bill and teal wing patch. Watch for this species in fresh and saltwater ponds in Back Bay. They are also frequently spotted from the Blue Goose Tram.
Other Migratory Birds
More than 300 species of birds have been sighted in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge alone. The Refuge is an important part of the Atlantic Flyway because it provides over 8,000 acres of diverse wildlife habitat. Observant birders may spot waterfowl such as buffleheads, Harlequin Ducks, gadwalls, and mergansers. Back Bay is the only place you’ll find the secretive LeConte’s Sparrow, one of the smallest sparrows in North America.
Red Knots, a medium-sized shorebird, comes to Sandbridge Beach to rest and replenish their weight before breeding season. Millions of songbirds stop along the barrier island to wait for the perfect weather window for flying across Chesapeake Bay. Look carefully — you may also see the American Redstart, Hooded Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Seaside Sparrow, Sharp-tailed Sparrow, and White-crowned Sparrow.
Sandbridge Beach: A Buffet for Birds
Migrating birds come to Sandbridge Beach looking for food and safe cover in which to rest. The unique diversity of the barrier island provides plenty of both. Waterfowl find a buffet of aquatic plants while other birds enjoy a feast of small crabs, rodents, insects, or winter berries. The salt marshes and woodlands provide a quiet place to recharge, especially in areas that are accessible to humans only by foot. Freshwater ponds are perfect bird baths, so you may even see saltwater species taking a break inland.
Best Places to Bird
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge is the best place to photograph and observe birds. With 9,000 acres of beaches, woods, marshes, and fields, Back Bay is a bird mecca. Besides the Blue Goose Tram, no motor vehicles are allowed in Back Bay, so plan to do your birding by bike or on foot. There are 8 miles of trails and viewing platforms, and all the peace and quiet you can ask for.
In Back Bay, you’re likely to come upon the Snow Goose and Tundra Swan, but you’ll also see loons, tiny grebes, and colorful waterfowl. Walk along the beach and you may even see Peregrine Falcons on their migration path. Keep an eye out over the water for Northern Gannets, and over the marsh for Northern Harriers.
If you’re looking for ducks, visit the 870-acre freshwater impoundment in Back Bay. This human-made wetland was purpose-built as a rest stop and feeding ground for migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, and wading birds. Duck aficionados will also enjoy a visit to the Atlantic Waterfowl Heritage Museum, an easy 20-minute drive from Sandbridge Beach. This museum is home to a large display of decoys, bird art and sculpture, and a photo history of the area, including the days when Back Bay was a duck hunter’s paradise.
Winter Wildlife Festival 2017
Every year nearby Virginia Beach is host to the Winter Wildlife Festival. Nature lovers can participate in seminars, trips, and workshops related to winter wildlife along the Virginia coast. The 2017 Festival takes place from January 20 to 22, and birders should be sure to pick up their Bird Observations checklist and take part in the annual winter birding survey.
The magnificence of migration is in full swing at Sandbridge Beach. Whether you hike Back Bay or ride the heated Blue Goose Tram, remember your binoculars and your camera or smartphone — you won’t want to miss any of our feathery fall visitors.