Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory


Welcome to the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory! The Observatory is committed to the study of birds and butterflies and to conservation, as shown in the video above. The area around the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, in coastal Virginia, with its varied habitat types, is globally significant for migratory birds and hosts a tremendous diversity of wildlife. More rare birds have been found here than anywhere else in Virginia.

The Observatory was begun in 1994 as a 501(C) 3 non-profit organization, to expand on the songbird and hawk studies that were begun by volunteers in 1963 on land which later became Kiptopeke State Park, located on Virginia's Eastern Shore. In addition to conducting programs at Kiptopeke and other Eastern Shore sites, we're involved in activities near Richmond, Williamsburg, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. We accomplish our field research through the hiring of seasonal biologists and a corps of dedicated volunteers. Our data is sent to a number of international databases for sharing and analysis. We provide educational material on the website, through printed literature and through presentations to visitors. We trust that individuals, schools and other organizations will find our website and our organization a valuable resource. We invite you explore the website, to visit our programs, participate in our events, to contact us for questions and to read our blog for updates, and share our news through social media. Interested in joining the wildlife conservation effort? Select the membership button! Your tax-deductible donations and support is important!

Annual Kiptopeke Challenge - September 22, 2018

Join the birding craze! Where else can you enjoy the beautiful outdoors, witness the majesty of migrating birds, and support an important conservation organization all at the same time. FIND GUIDELINES FOR YOUR TEAM TO JOIN HERE.

The Kiptopeke Challenge, which began in 1995, is an annual team birding event and fund-raising activity for CVWO. It's held in late September during the height of migration. Teams come together to scour the Coastal Plains of Virginia in an attempt to find as many different species as possible; and of course, to raise money to support the CVWO mission. Prizes, including bronze bird trophies, are awarded in four categories: 24-hour, 3-hour, Youth, and Special Venue. There is no entry fee, but fund-raising is encouraged. If you would like to form a team, be placed on an existing team, sponsor a team, donate prizes, or just learn more, contact KC Coordinator, Dave Youker at

The species summary results for all 23 years of the KC are now available for viewing. Over the 23 years of the KC, there have been 260 species recorded during these single day events. The most recent addition to this list was a Lincoln's Sparrow seen during the 2017 KC. View the list to see what species are seen every year, and what species are seen very infrequently.

Since 1977, CVWO has conducted raptor research during fall migration at Kiptopeke State Park located on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Over this time, raptor populations have declined due to habitat loss and pesticides, as well as other factors. CVWO's research contributes to international data bases, scientific insight, and preservation of these magnificent birds of prey. In the opening aerial scene of this video, you can view the migratory route taken by 19 recorded species of raptors over the bottleneck of land that funnels the birds toward the Hawkwatch platform. There, CVWO biologists record information that is shared internationally with science data bases like

CVWO at kiptopeke state park

Butterfly Research

Observatory volunteers help manage butterfly gardens at Kiptopeke State Park, at the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, and at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden. The observatory participates in the annual July Delmarva Tip Butterfly Count that is sponsored by the North American Butterfly Association (NABA). Click on the Calender of Events at the top of the page for this year's count date. In 1998 it established a Monarch Butterfly Migration Program that conducts fall surveys and tags Monarchs. Monarch numbers are declining at an alarming rate, due to a variety of factors. Several tagged Monarchs have later been found at their winter roost sites near Mexico City. 

In the fall of 2017, 1485 Monarch butterflies were tagged by Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory biologist Clay Buffkin at Kiptopeke State Park. Weighing approximately half a gram and making a journey of 2400+ miles to their overwintering grounds in Mexico, they congregate in numbers that have ranged over the last 25 years from 14 million to 380 million (World Wildlife Fund).  Hoping to learn their fate is like hoping to find a needle in a haystack.  Monarch Watch, a program affiliated with the University of Kansas Biological Survey, maintains and publishes records of butterflies that are recovered in the Monarch sanctuaries in Mexico. This past winter 928 tags were recovered.  Incredibly, four of these were CVWO-tagged butterflies.  All four, 3 males, 1 female, were tagged in a 3 day period from 9/29-10/01. Two were recovered in Sierra Chincua Butterfly Sanctuary, 2 in El Presario sanctuary.  In addition a CVWO-tagged Monarch was observed in Wilmington, NC, five days after tagging at Kiptopeke.   This sighting provides data on an impressive leg of the journey; 319 miles in 5 days, or averaging 64 miles a day.

All of these Monarchs were tagged while nectaring on goldenrod, pine, and Mist Flower. In addition to the Monarch Butterfly Migration Program CVWO creates and manages numerous butterfly gardens for education and research. For more information please visit

Waterbird Research

The Observatory conducts its own surveys and also helps with those of other organizations to document the movements of waterbirds in coastal Virginia. From climate change to development to commercial fishing to pollution to habitat loss, coastal areas are under pressure. A recent study in the journal SCIENCE warned that... coral reefs are dying, fish stocks are collapsing, seas are acidifying. There is a need to understand how these pressures affect waterbirds... Bald Eagles, Ospreys, ducks, geese, swans, loons, grebes, cormorants, pelicans, gulls, terns, herons, egrets, plovers and sandpipers...using Virginia's coastal resources, in order to help prevent problems and promote effective conservation. Baywatch is a daily survey, begun in 2013, on Chesapeake Bay, in October and November just north of Kiptopeke State Park on the Eastern Shore. Seawatch trial surveys were begun in winter 2015 to examine ocean areas in Virginia Beach. Regular surveys and management recommendations are also conducted at Craney Island in Portsmouth and at two Hampton locations, the Hampton Roads Bridge-tunnel and Grandview Beach Nature Preserve.

Songbird Research

Why are we studying Prothonotary Warblers? These yellow gems of the swamp are most vulnerable to destruction of their habitat both in North America and in Central and South America. Partners in Flight has placed the Prothonotary Warbler on its US/Canada 2012 Watch List. Local, volunteer-based nest-box programs for the species are becoming more common in regional and county parks to repopulate areas where populations have dwindled or disappeared. Read Chelsea's Story here.

The Songbird Research we do now is primarily monitoring Prothonotary Warbler boxes in several locations in the Coastal Plain — Chesapeake, James City County, Newport News, King and Queen County, Middlesex County

In the past, the Observatory operated the Kiptopeke Songbird Station at Kiptopeke State Park since 1995 with paid banders and volunteers documenting the spectacular fall migration which takes place at the tip of Virginia's Eastern Shore. Volunteers from the Virginia Society of Ornithology established the Station in 1963 and operated it until 1995. Under the Observatory, the Station operated daily from about mid-August through late November and made free presentations to all visitors. From 2005-2012, the Observatory conducted spring songbird banding and educational presentations at First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach. From 1999-2002, the Observatory conducted spring songbird banding and educational presentations at Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge.

The Observatory participates in the study of Prothonotary Warblers, as part of the Virginia Prothonotary Network, monitoring nest boxes in spring and summer by canoe at various sites. This is a species of special concern. See the General Blog for updates about this work.

A study of Carolina Chickadees and their unusual Eastern Shore vocalizations has been ongoing for a number of years. An article was published in BIRDING magazine (March/April 2008).

Songbirds are also regularly monitored during fall migration from the observation platform and feeders at Kiptopeke, including the spectacular and unprecedented finch flight of 2012.

Raptor Research

The Kiptopeke fall Hawkwatch was established by volunteers in 1977, and has recorded nearly 900,000 hawks and vultures of 19 species.  Experienced Hawkwatchers are hired each year to conduct the Hawkwatch, from September 1 to November 30, assisted by a corps of dedicated volunteers. Visitors are always welcome. Hawkwatches are an excellent way to monitor population trends and promote conservation. A majority of hawk species in North America are showing declining numbers. It is the one of the best places in the world to see migrating Merlins and Peregrines, with daily records of 462 and 364, respectively. The annual College Creek Spring Hawkwatch, on the shore of the James River near Williamsburg, was established in 1997 and records an average of nearly 2,000 hawks and vultures each year. To see hawkwatch data, visit

Kiptopeke Hawk Watch

Kiptopeke Hawkwatch at the tip of the Eastern Shore of VA begins its 42nd season this week, sponsored by CVWO! Anna Stunkel will be on the platform beginning Thursday, August 30 for her third year! Welcome back, Anna!

Visitors are always welcome at Kiptopeke State Park to help us find birds and to learn about the amazing hawk migration. The hawkwatch operates daily, weather permitting, through November.

Anna and the platform volunteers also keep track of the other notable species flying over the platform! How many saw the Roseate Spoonbill flyover last fall? And we’ll be paying attention to our hummingbird feeders and seed feeders, too.

Support your local wildlife with a cvwo membership! 

CVWO Wildlife research projects and events


A major part of the Observatory's mission is environmental education. Seasonal research staff, an Environmental Educator and volunteers provide on-site presentations about our programs and about migration in the Chesapeake Bay area of coastal Virginia. Particularly at Kiptopeke State Park during fall migration, we host birders, schools, universities and other visitors at no cost to them. Field trips and workshops are also conducted. The Observatory has also participated, for more that 20 years, in the Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival. 

Life-sized models of hawks, with photographs taken at Kiptopeke, are used to explain differences in the species. Printed materials are also distributed, including brochures and checklists. Newsletters and an Annual Field Research Report are available to members.

Our website contains information about birds and butterflies that can also be used by teachers for their programming. There is a Blog for current updates and information about unusual birds and butterflies. There is a special story about a Prothonotary Warbler named Chelsea. There is information about our Team Birding Competition,The Kiptopeke Challenge. There is weather information, a video about migration and a link to VA eBird, where bird records are submitted and where articles are posted of interest to Virginia and across the country and more.

Grant funding for educational materials has also come from the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund Advisory Committee, from the sale of Chesapeake Bay license plates.

Funding also comes from the Observatory's Bill Akers Environmental Education Fund.

See the Blog and the calendar, for more information about programs. Contact us for more details.