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Kiptopeke Turns 50!

The Kiptopeke Songbird Banding Station celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Fred Scott and Walter Smith were the cogs that got the station going in 1963, and made it hum for the decades following. Since its opening there has been stalwart support and teamwork allowing the station to prosper, and continue collecting critical data. Eventually a hawkwatch followed, and a hawk-banding program, and a Monarch butterfly monitoring program too, all of which are used to educate the public and allow people to interact with birds and other wildlife. The data collected at Kiptopeke has been used, among other ways, to help create several wildlife reserves in the area. Fifty years later, Kiptopeke is still going strong, now under the auspices of the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory (www.cvwo.org).

GO TO: http://www.aba.org/birding/kiptopeke-bonanza.pdf to read CVWO President Brian Taber’s fascinating Birding article on this  unique Delmarva outpost. And if you want to join the ABA Birding Rally this Oct. 17-21 at Kiptopeke/Cape Charles, there are only a couple spaces left! Go to: http://www.aba.org/events/rally12/, or email Nancy Hawley at: nhawley@aba.org.

Kiptopeke 100_8797
Marty Edmonds (CVWO Treasurer), Bob Reilly (CVWO Vice-president), and Joe Beatty (volunteer) assist Songbird
Bander Calvin Brennan
(right), as he handles the first bird of the 50th season; an immature male American Redstart. (Photo by Brian Taber/www.cvwo.org)

My favorite Kiptopeke moment:

The White Merlin

When I worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, I frequently found excuses to walk into Frank Gill’s office and pester him about one thing or another. Frank is one of the heavyweights in ornithology. He’s a former president of the American Ornithologists’ Union, and also the author of the textbook Ornithology (WH Freeman, 2006), so I took every opportunity to drop-in on him and learn what he was working on, and who he was working with. As we talked inevitably my eyes would drift to the stuffed Merlin that sat perched atop one of his shelves. The mounted specimen haunted the office. It still seemed alert, almost sneering, and most startling of all it was entirely immaculate white! Not albino, but rather leucistic (or amelanistic) this diminutive falcon possessed feathers lacking melanin, and it was striking and beautiful. It
seemed from another time, a different era, and maybe even a different planet altogether. It was surely mythical, yet sitting right there in front of me.

In 2000, I spent the fall doing fieldwork in the Cape Charles/Kiptopeke area. I did songbird surveys in the morning, but often had free time in the afternoon, and I’d often spend it trying to capture and band hawks with hawk expert Brian Sullivan. “Sully” tried to school me in hawk-trapping a little during those afternoons, and frequently he would hand off one of the lures to me that we’d use to attract the hawks, while  he’d handle the remaining three. The easiest one to handle was the one used to attract medium-sized raptors such as Sharp-shinned Hawks and Merlins, and so that was my charge.

During a warm and humid September afternoon, when bird migration is at a temporary lull, Sully and I sat in the hawk-blind, ever hopeful, and  he mentioned to me his personal “white whale”, which wasn’t actually a whale at all, but rather a white falcon. The White Merlin. He wanted not just to see one, but to lay hands on one, remove it from his trap and fasten a band to its leg. To catch a white Merlin for a hawk-bander would be more than something to remember; it is something to be remembered for…

I remember clearly the sound Sully made when the white falcon did appear late one day in October. Sort of a hybrid exclamation, somewhere between “HEY!” and “Whoops!”, he had my attention. We both instantly locked onto to the bird. Then he simply said “Get ready….”. I was entranced. If he had said, “your hair is on fire”, I would not have noticed, because this thing was the sweetest avian eye-candy I had ever laid eyes on.

If reincarnation is a possibility for me, I’ll opt to come back as a Merlin. Sure, Peregrines move faster, and a Gyrfalcon is a big bad beautiful brute, but Merlins are peerless. Nasty and exquisite all at once, they are gorgeous little terrors, racing around surprising songbirds, and looking bad-ass while they do it. Surely, if you are a Yellow-rumped Warbler at Kiptopeke, there can be no greater sense of dread imaginable than suddenly coming to the awful realization that a Merlin “is present”. (BTW, when reincarnation comes up for you, I cannot in good faith recommend going with Yellow-rumped Warbler…). Neither can one help but empathize with the Northern Flickers that migrate through Kiptopeke by the hundreds on some October days. Often a flicker’s wailing is the first sign that a Merlin “is present”. Merlins have presence. They are like a sleeker, faster, more dapper version of John Wayne.

BLS Merl
John Wayne has got nothing on the Merlin. Even when they aren’t white, Merlins are snazzy-looking birds (Photo by Brian L. Sullivan/www.briansullivanphotography.com)

That day in the hawk blind with Sullivan, we had an all-timer: a white Merlin. I raised my binoculars to take it in, in the process neglecting my charge and dropping my lure to the ground. The white Merlin was streaking a blur across the horizon, before it performed a buttonhook turn. It had seen Sully’s lure, and it was coming for it at breakneck speed. Our hearts were in our throats, and all I could do was watch. Gradually I began to realize that Sully was saying my name. He didn’t want to startle the bird so he was saying it under his breath, sort of in a mutter-whisper, trying urgently to remind me to pick up my lure, the Merlin lure. But my mind was in a different dimension, and by the time I’d recovered we  were watching the rear end of a white Merlin sailing away over the swaying loblolly pines.

It was all over in a matter of seconds. I turned to Sully, and was relieved to see him smiling as well. He’d have been well within his rights to issue me a few choice words for neglecting my charge. The white whale had come and gone, and we hadn’t caught it, and that was just fine.