The birds are right here in Suffolk

Published 7:48 pm Tuesday, April 28, 2015

By Susan and “Biff” Andrews

“Spring has sprung

The grass has riz

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I wonder where the birdies is?”


The birds are in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

We attended a birding event during the festival and enjoyed the company of some real birders. This took our limited experience with backyard birding to a whole new level.

We love birds and have enjoyed the bird visitors that come to our feeders, but being out in the field with folks who know more than a thing or two about birds was a fascinating experience for us.

We usually walk in the swamp a couple of times a week and have done so for many years. Our eyes are usually to the ground, looking for tracks and paying attention to signs of mammals like otters, bears and deer, as well as the plants and butterflies.

We really haven’t paid too much attention to the birds, because most are tiny, fast and usually a blur when they go by, and all the chirping just sounds like “tweet, tweet” to our untrained ears.

That was not the case for our knowledgeable guides and the 30 or so birders visiting the refuge for the guided bird walk at the Jericho Ditch. All eyes were in the tops of the trees.

They knew the songs of more birds than folks like us could name, such as the difference between the song of a White Eyed Vireo and a Red Eyed Vireo and of course, the songs of the much sought after Prothonotary, Prairie and Swainson’s warblers, which graced us with several sightings.

According to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Swainson’s Warbler is “the most secretive and least observed of all the North American birds.”

Many of the birds are migratory visitors to the swamp’s roughly 112,000 acres, as were many of the bird watchers. We met folks from New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maine and Georgia, as well as a few locals.

The Great Dismal Swamp Birding Festival is part of International Migratory Bird Day, which celebrates the journeys of migrating birds between breeding grounds in North America and their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central and South America.

More than 200 species of birds, including 35 kinds of warblers, attract birders, most of whom visit the swamp from mid-April to mid-May which is the peak of the spring neo-tropical songbird migration. The wildlife refuge is the largest entity on the coastal phase of the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail, with 40 miles of trails and roads, many of which parallel drainage ditches surveyed by George Washington during the mid-1700s.

On our visit, we were privileged to observe U.S. Fish and Wildlife bird banding volunteers. They are highly trained folks who are certified to handle birds and have state and federal banding permits.

They document birds that are captured in the counting station nets and inspect the birds for weight, feather condition, sex and age. They even check for fat content on the bird’s breast bones (a kind of birdie BMI), an indicator of their efforts from the long migration.

It was a thrill of a lifetime for many of the birders to see these birds up close in the hands of the volunteers. Most birds were ones that might not be seen in the wild in a birder’s lifetime. Many of the folks in our group were working on their “life lists.” We heard tales about birders coming to the swamp to complete their bird bucket lists, just to see the Prairie, Swainson’s and Prothonotary Warblers.

This is the “big time” in birding circles, right here in surprising Suffolk.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at