The Biscayne Times

Nov 20th
A Birder’s Paradise of Dunes and Marshes PDF Print E-mail
Written by Janet Goodman, BT Contributor   
July 2017

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia 

IParkPatrol_1n late May, a family vacation on Sandbridge Beach along the Atlantic Ocean in Virginia Beach led to my exploration of two nearby natural treasures: the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Park, which will be highlighted in next month’s Park Patrol.

Located just south of our beachfront rental, Back Bay NWR was established by the Department of the Interior in 1938. The original 4589 acres provided a protective habitat for migratory birds. During the 1980s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wetland acquisition program (funded in part by the public’s purchase of federal duck stamps and the Land and Water Conservation Fund) began increasing the size of the refuge, reaching its current size of 9250 acres of beach, dunes, woodlands, fields, and marshes, as well as surrounding islands only reachable by boat. Marshes make up 75 percent of the barrier island strip.

Back Bay receives 120,000 visitors each year; fees are $5 per vehicle or $2 for bicycles or pedestrians. The entrance pass warns visitors to stay on the designated trails -- a warning I happily heeded on hikes when I encountered cottonmouths (aka water moccasins). Cars are parked a mile down the road by the visitors center, and the rest of the trip along eight miles of trails must be done on foot or on bike, although some paths prohibit bikes, and boardwalks require that bikes be walked. Certain portions of the refuge are closed to provide undisturbed areas for wildlife.

ParkPatrol_2Back Bay NWR is part of the Seashore to Cypress Loop of the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail, the first statewide birding and wildlife trail in the United States. Before my trip, I asked about a corresponding guide published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and received a complimentary copy by mail of their comprehensive 400-page book, which illustrates all 65 of the Virginia Trail loops -- a must-have for birders.

During spring and fall migrations, thousands of birds can be seen at this important stop along the Atlantic Flyway, which is considered a top-ten Virginia birding hotspot by the National Audubon Society. More than 300 species of birds have been identified here.

Located behind the visitors center at the beginning of Bay Trail is a Motus Wildlife Tracking System’s automated radio telemetry station. The tall metal tower collects data recorded from tagged birds and bats wearing tracking devices and stores the data onsite as part of a network of 300 stations along the Atlantic coastline and inland elsewhere in North America.


Unfortunately, I arrived just after spring migration, when many birds had already traveled northward, although there were abundant sightings of red-winged blackbirds, great blue herons, egrets, brown pelicans, sanderlings, barn swallows, turkey vultures, terns, cormorants, ospreys, and cardinals. The drumming of ruffed grouse could be heard along the trails. One unique refuge amenity located at the end of the open-year-round trail is an observation building that rises up in the middle of a marsh. Its one-way glass walls make for undisturbed bird watching.

According to tour guides, U.S. Fish and Wildlife works hard to keep the saltwater and freshwater environments separate here, to protect wildlife specific to each area. The refuge manages 13 oligohaline ponds, which are nearly freshwater; brackish-fresh bay water is pumped into the ponds. Pollution that was a problem in the bay during the 1960s has been cleared up.

Invasive plant species, such as phragmites, are weeded out through controlled burning, and native hardwood species are replanted through reforestation projects. These wetlands are essential to lessen flood destruction, cleanse water of pollutants, and provide habitat for wildlife. Omnipresent cattails and marshmallow plants are important water filters in bogs and lagoons at the refuge.


Along the two main trails running through the barrier island strip of Back Bay NWR (East Dike and West Dike Trails) are eight of these pools where turtles, frogs, and fish -- including yellow perch, largemouth bass, crappie, and chain pickerel -- thrive, according to one local fisherman. D Pool is the only designated area for fishing, and a catch-and-release contest for the largest bass was in progress during one visit.

A must-see area at Back Bay is the Charles Kuralt Trail, located on the northern bay side of the refuge. Named for the late broadcast journalist famous for his On the Road news segments and Sunday Morning series on CBS, it’s a one-tenth-mile-long boardwalk over marshes leading to a spectacular, unobstructed view of the bay from its observation deck. Construction of the boardwalk was paid for by a donation from the Kuralt family, which has donated monies for additional segments of the Charles Kuralt Trail in 11 other National Wildlife Refuges in Virginia and North Carolina, his home state, to honor his deep interest in the refuge system.

ParkPatrol_5But of all the cool things I observed at Back Bay, my turtle encounter tops the list. As my niece and I headed back to the parking lot after an afternoon hike, we were met head on by a large turtle, later identified as a red-bellied cooter by visitor services specialist Erica Ryder from a photo I’d taken. Her shell was about a foot long and bright orange markings were visible around its rim.

With front feet gripping the pebbly sidewalk and hind legs on the grass, she dug in for the next hour, using alternate hind feet as backhoes, scooping up dirt and pushing it to the side. Every now and then, she urinated in the hole to soften the earth, making her job easier.

She allowed us and a few others to sit inches away and watch the entire process. After 63 minutes of digging, she started laying eggs -- 11 in all, over 12 minutes -- then she took an additional 23 minutes to cover them up with the mud she had carefully excavated. She looked exhausted, but managed to wobble off toward the bay when she was done. Ryder says the eggs will hatch in about two months. This experience was our unforgettable Back Bay miracle.


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Back Bay
National Wildlife Refuge

4005 Sandpiper Rd.
Virginia Beach, VA 23456

Park Rating


Sunrise to sunset
Fishing: Yes (limited)
Foot and Bike Trails: Yes
Hunting: Yes (seasonal by permit)
Tram tours: Yes
Canoes and kayaks: Yes


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