Fones Cliffs: 

A Globally Significant Important Bird Area Under Threat of Development

  Fones Cliffs, photo by Chesapeake Conservancy

Fones Cliffs, photo by Chesapeake Conservancy

By Joel Dunn: President & CEO,  Chesapeake Conservancy


While not located in the state of Maryland, nearby in Virginia, a globally significant Important Bird Area is under threat of development -- slated to become a high-end golf course and resort. Members of the Maryland Birding Conservation Initiative can help us save this critical bald eagle habitat.


Turn off Route 301 just past Dahlgren Naval Base and you leave the Washington D.C.-Richmond traffic behind. Travel another 45 minutes to Carters Wharf in Warsaw, Virginia and you can leave the 21st century behind. Along a four-mile stretch of the Rappahannock River sit Fones Cliffs, rising more than 100 feet out of the water. These magnificent white cliffs contain diatomaceous earth, which turns to a golden sheen in sunlight. Here you can find a rare glimpse into the Chesapeake’s past. One of the few untouched areas of the Chesapeake, it is a place Captain John Smith and the American Indians of the 17th century could still recognize 400 years later.


Paddle alongside the cliffs at any time of the year and it will only be a short time before you see your first bald eagle of the trip soaring majestically over the river, followed quickly by several more. Fones Cliffs provides important habitat for the one of the largest concentrations of eagles on the East Coast. Forested shorelines high above the river provide ideal roosting and nesting sites for eagles, and extensive marshes nearby help sustain a diversity of migratory birds. The Rappahannock is a spawning area for striped bass, herring, and shad. It also boasts opportunities for oysters and blue crabs. The abundance of fish species allows the eagles to remain in the Chesapeake all year round.


During the spring and summer, the chirp of an osprey is never far off. With a bit of patience, you might see the sublime grace and accuracy of an osprey as it dives talons first to catch a fish. Keep an eye to the sky for the chance to witness an exciting aerial battle between osprey and eagles, including many newly fledged eagles from the Southeastern U.S. that migrate north the Rappahannock in early summer. These apex predators that feed extensively on fish act as indicator species, telling us about the health of the ecosystem.


The change in season from summer to winter brings tens of thousands of waterfowl to the Rappahannock, attracting hunters to the area. The “hunters” include eagles that migrate from northern climes, following the waterfowl migrations to their wintering areas in the Chesapeake Bay. For all of these reasons, Fones Cliffs is part of a globally significant Important Bird Area, designated by the Audubon Society.


However, this jewel of the Chesapeake is under threat of development to become a golf course and resort. Should this come to fruition, future generations will be forever deprived of the beauty of this Chesapeake treasure. With a regional population approaching 18 million people and thousands of acres of open spaces disappearing, few places like Fones Cliffs remain in our beautiful Chesapeake.


You can help save Fones Cliffs. With federal funding, we can save Fones Cliffs from development. Join the Chesapeake Conservancy to ask President-elect Trump and your members of Congress to restore full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund to protect public lands like Fones Cliffs in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Visit our website to learn more and sign our petition.