An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

February 28, 2010

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Feeling an urge for wilderness and to enjoy a day that was not bitter cold, raining or snowing, I headed to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday. The western side of the 9,000 acre refuge abuts some of the last rural areas and farmland in the sprawling city of Virginia Beach. The eastern boundary is the Atlantic ocean and a wild strip of mostly pristine beach and dunes. In between are wide areas of open brackish water, marsh and maritime forest. The refuge is a vital habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, but especially for shore birds and migratory geese and ducks.
Back Bay Marsh

Back Bay

Near the visitor's center there are several trails that take you through the marsh and a stunted forest of Bald Cypress, Hackberry, Wax Myrtle, Black Cherry, Persimmon and Live Oak. This close to the ocean, none of the trees grow any taller than the nearby dunes - the wind and salt spray keep them pruned. Underneath is a tangled mass of Japanese Honeysuckle, Blueberry, Trumpet Vine, Poison Ivy and Smilax. With the thick growth and abundant water, you can imagine what the insects are like in summer and what prime habitat it is for snakes (venomous and otherwise), but in late February you need only worry about wet feet.
Back Bay Pond

Smilax Fruit 1

The dunes are a dynamic, ever changing system that protect the rest of the refuge from winds, storms and saltwater flooding. In between the dunes is a sparse landscape where if you couldn't hear the constant breaking waves, you might think you were in the desert southwest. This is my favorite part of the refuge. Right now it is a pleasant break from the winds on the beach, but in the summer it is a scorching cauldron, and is a difficult place for anything to grow, no matter the time of year.
Dune Grasses

Back Bay Dune 1

Driftwood Arch


Yucca Pair

Back Bay Beach Dune

For the most part, the dogs and I had the the beach to ourselves Saturday. The water was very clear, relatively calm and after this winter's temperatures, it will be a long while before it warms. The cold waters of the Atlantic and the Chesapeake will likely delay and extend spring for us, while the rest of the state has moved on.
Water Study 1

Gulls 2

Back Bay Beach 2

Eastward is Andalusia, Spain - after crossing 3700 miles of open ocean.



  1. Super super pictures. There are a couple on your post that I really like-- the 'Sundial' with the grass and the cliff of windswept have such a great eye. The ones on your Flickr page are great too. Love the one under the pier --well, like all the ones with the pier, but the tunnel look towards the water is cool.
    I heard the Friday edition of Fresh Air about Johnny Cash too. Great show....I am glad you heard the thing about Carolina Chocolate Drops.
    John Prine and Old Crow Medicine Show are playing in Cary NC in that would be a GREAT show.

  2. Les, thank you for the lovely tour and beautiful photos: the dunes reminded me of those on the Oregon coast; your sundial was lovely. Speaking of cold water! the Pacific waters are always cold.

  3. Great photos and info Les. I've always wanted to head out there but never have. I've heard that the fall is a great time to because of all the migratory waterfowl passing through.
    Thanks for the tour!

  4. Les,

    By the way, I left some comments on some of your post last night and just realized I wasn’t logged in...I was on my wife's laptop so I will blame it on!
    So if you see some comments from yesterday without a name tied to them than they're probably mine.

  5. I always enjoy your tours. Thanks. I'm curious. What kind of camera do you use? And what kind of lens(es)?

  6. Looks like a good outing for a February day - interesting that the spring there will be delayed and extended...Beautiful pictures.

  7. What beautiful photos! I grew up on the coast of New England, and much prefer the ocean in winter to the tourist-infested sand of summer. Your photos always capture that seasonal magic.

  8. Janet,
    Thanks for your comments. The pier shots were taken at Little Island City Park just north of Back Bay. This time of year the pier is free and I really enjoyed looking down on the waves watching them break.

    At least around here the water will eventually warm. It takes consistent air temperatures to raise or lower it slowly. By the end of a long hot summer, it approaches bath water and that warmth will hold cold fall temperatures temporarily at bay.

    A birder such as yourself should make a point of going to visit. I did not see any waterfowl there, but did see the odd pelican, mocking bird, gulls and a yellow rumped myrtle warbler. I am glad you said something about your earlier comments as I was puzzled as to who left them.

    You are welcome. This summer prior to our trip out west, I got a Nikon D5000 and it came with a Nikon lens, AF-S Nikkor 18-55mm. I have no idea what those numbers mean.

    Spring will try and arrive, but such vast amounts of cold water nearby has a great moderating influence.

    I like it in all seasons, but I love to swim so I don't mind the extra people in summer.


  9. Oh wow, Les. I'm not a beach person, but oh----wow.

  10. If I didn't know where you were, I would think you had visited Folly Beach! Great shots. Looks like a sweet day was had and we all deserve those.

  11. Les, those are beautiful. I love the sky and the sun dial in the sand!

  12. Benjamin,
    I am a beach person, I think it is in my DNA. I remember going in early spring with my grandparents for a cold picnic. They thought that a Coleman cooler and a Thermos of hot coffee were gifts from God.

    I miss Folly Beach. I lived there pre-Hugo before it had been discovered and gentrified. I loved its funky charm, but had to move closer to work.

    I love the sun/sand dial too, it looks to be about 12:05.


  13. Wonderful set, Les. This is one of my favorite places in Hampton Roads. Dune ecosystems have always fascinated me. You do such a good job here of conveying the harsh desert reality. Let me chime in with the other commenters - the "sundial" shot is amazing.

  14. What a wonderful spot for you and the dogs, Les. To think of what it must be like in summer, this is the best time to enjoy the solitude and peaceful nature preserve. The photos are beautiful, the circle drawn by the grass is mesmerizing. Thanks. :-)

  15. Michael,
    I have been going to Back Bay since college, so many years ago. We use to take Indian River or Princess Anne Rd. from Norfolk all the way out, and wow how that trip has changed.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    I value my occasional solitude and being temporarily disconnected.


  16. I love the sundial and the sculpted sand dune. Beautiful.

  17. Great shots! A little bleak, but very peaceful.

  18. What a terrific day. I'd love to live on the coast--it's one of my very favorite environments. I think I'd be out there every day with my spotting scope and sketch pad. Thanks for sharing the photos with us. Made a good start to my morning.

  19. Hi Les.
    What can I say...Great photography! You always garner so much "distance" to your shots! And the sand dunes, ahh the sand dunes...took me back to when I was a kid on the east coast of England. I used to wear myself out jumping off, and running up such slopes. I used to love the way the sides would collapse forming mini avalanches! I would always get shredded by the sharp dune grass naturally.
    I agree the grass "sundial" shot is a winner.


  20. Without the description in your post I would say that these photos were taken here in The Netherlands (Holland), the landscapes and flora are so similar, it's incredible and amazing. Nice work!
    Have a great weekend!


  21. What a beautiful place to have to yourselves Les! I love the dunes and the sand clock! I am trying to think of the tool I used in drafting ... one end was sharply pointed hinged to the other side that held a pencil... perfect circle every time. Where is my mind? Gorgeous white sand! I would guess your water is now the temp. of what the Cape has in summer! ;>)

  22. Sweet Bay,
    I almost did not put the sundial in, but am glad I did.

    I like bleak, not all the time, but it has its place.

    I am glad you enjoyed the post.

    Jumping off is indeed fun, but I wasn't even supposed to be in the dunes, as they are off limits. Too sensitive and subject to ecological disturbance, but I was careful.

    Thanks for stopping by. I have seen pictures of what you are discribing and I agree on the similarity.

    I can't help you on the tool name, eventhough I may have used it myself.


  23. By now you probably have the info about your Nikkon, but...just in case: AF =auto focus, and 18-55 says that your lens has normal to wide angle capability. At 55mm you can capture the subject in about the same perspective that you would see it from where you are standing OR (moving toward the 18mm option) you can get closer and still capture a wider perspective; very handy when shooting groups of birds, people, etc, also fronts of buildings and the like. Now you need a telephoto for close-ups of passing ships, birds in their high nests, deer on the islands, and the like. Another great addition to your collection of gadgets would be a macro lens to capture the frosty look on a wax myrtle bush or even the proverbial bees knees. Just a thought. Thanks for your promotion (and love) of one of the most underused public spaces anywhere, especially at the False Cape State Park end. Diane

  24. Diane,
    Thanks for stopping by and for your information, much of which I know, but what I need or want and what I can afford are not the same things.


  25. Just wanted to add that, in your case, it hardly matters. Your natural eye for composing and capturing the 'feeling' of your surroundings are good enough that, until that lottery ticket comes through, you're doing great with your natural gifts and the equipment you have. I am one of the tram drivers at Back Bay/False Cape and share your regard for this rare place. I look forward to your next postings.

  26. Diane,
    Thanks for the comment, I will try not to let it go to my head.

    I took a photo of the giant yellow beach bus heading to False Cape full of nature lovers heading down from Sandbridge. My plan was to do a post on the Governor's plan to close False Cape. It was going to very snarky and would have been titled "Last One Out, Please Shut the Gate". Although, it's not final, at least the park has been spared for now, and I am glad I did not have to write the post.

  27. Hi,
    My name is Sarah and I'm with Dwellable. I was looking for blog posts about Virginia Beach to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, drop me a line at Sarah(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you :)