Whimbrels and Whimsy on Cape Charles
“There could be a substantial flight of the whimbrel the evening after you arrive. This is a globally important bird and not many people have seen the spectacle. Do you want to go?” read the email from my friend, Ned.
Here’s a bit of wisdom gleaned from years of traveling: When someone you trust invites you to do something in a place they know, you say yes. Yes. (Even if you think birding is for the birds.)
I’d booked a summer weekend in Cape Charles to visit a college pal I hadn’t seen outside of Facebook in more than 20 years, and it looked like I would be in for an unexpected treat.
The tail end of the Delmarva Peninsula, Virginia’s Eastern Shore feels like an island unto itself, separated to the north by the Maryland border and to the south by the Chesapeake Bay and a steep bridge-and-tunnel toll ($12 at last check).
In character, too, the somnolent region differs from its neighbors — Delaware’s busy beaches (Rehoboth and Dewey), Maryland’s tony shore towns (Easton, Cambridge), and the military-industrial sprawl of Norfolk back on the Old Dominion mainland.
Virginia’s portion of the peninsula consists of wildlife refuges, soybean farms, vineyards, and fishing villages. Its most famous town is Chincoteague, known for the annual roundup of wild ponies gathered on nearby barrier island, Assateague, which straddles the Maryland-Virginia line.
But Cape Charles draws visitors to the region in its own right. Established in 1884 by railroad and ferry interests, Cape Charles’ fortunes soared and flagged along with transportation trends.
The last passenger train may have stopped running in 1958, but the town’s swellegant bones — wide streets, handsome building facades, and deep-porched Victorian homes — remain. There is a minor renaissance of restoration as energetic individuals buy up homes and open modern mom-and-pop stores selling handmade ice cream and gourmet cheese.
At the Hotel Cape Charles (full disclosure, Ned serves as general manager), a 16-room boutique hotel with minimalist aesthetic just a few blocks from the beach, mid-century art hangs on the monochromatic walls and mornings begin with complimentary small-batch roasted coffee, Greek yogurt, and organic granola made six miles down the road in Eastville.
Friday, I drove up and down streets bearing fruit names (Fig, Plum, Nectarine) in a rented golf cart as Mayberry-friendly homeowners waved from their porches. For a minute I fantasized about buying a fixer upper, converting it into a B&B, and living happily ever after.
That night, we hit two of the town’s local watering holes, the Shanty, a seafood restaurant; and Kelly’s Gingernut Pub. Ned knew everyone at both spots, though that’s not much of a feat considering the town’s population of just over 1,000.
Ned, a native Virginian, is the former editor of North American Birds, the American Birding Association’s official journal, and has led natural history tours around the world. His big love is seabirds and his special love is petrels. Though I love his passion, I don’t comprehend it.
The next day, he mustered a picnic (Virginia wine with real wine glasses, rare roast beef, chai in a thermos, and slabs of chocolate) and we set off in a minivan into the salt marsh. Surrounded by land protected by The Nature Conservancy, we met up with more bird folk, including a couple of celebs from the bird world. (“If you were a birder, you’d know who these guys are,” Ned assured me.)
Over the next few hours, these A-listers of the ornithological realm and their acolytes did what they do — scan the horizon with scopes, utter avian jargon, and generally look comfortable in buggy, mucky environs. Ned explained what they themselves would not tell me, that their efforts to protect bird habitat are part of the reason much of Virginia’s barrier islands (unlike those in neighboring states) remain free of commercial development.
A singular passion with benefits for the many? Bird people aren’t nutty; they’re noble! And nice, too: They welcomed the interlopers (I brought along two fellow greenhorns) with more tolerance and hospitality than I imagine any Hollywood star could have summoned.
It was a magical night, though the expected winged migration was a bust. We spotted some big, brown birds in the mudflats (whimbrels!) but they didn’t look to be in any hurry to air-lift themselves to Toronto, which is what they’re supposed to do on their way to their Arctic breeding grounds.
The magic was not in the birds themselves nor even in their flyover en masse. The spectacle was on the ground in the ragtag assemblage of earth-bound bipeds whose eyes were trained to the heavens for a flash of the divine. Aren’t we all, in our own way, seeking the same thing? Maybe we humans are birds of a feather, after all.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
This is the kind of perspective-altering insight that comes from saying “yes” and letting trusted others take the wheel when we travel.
I have one other example of this from the weekend, involving fish, not fowl. On Sunday afternoon before driving home, I met a new friend, Pam Baker, for lunch at Sting-Ray’s, a down-home country diner inauspiciously attached to an Exxon station. When I asked Pam, a Cape Charles native, for a recommendation, she said “Get the toadfish platter. I was thinking about it all during church.”
I was tempted to Google what toadfish was on my iPhone first, but I didn’t. (And best you don’t, either). I just said yes.
It was delicious.
Of course it was.
Norie Quintos is executive editor of National Geographic Traveler. Follow her story on Instagram and on Twitter @noriecicerone.