The Chesapeake Bay Islands IBA includes 4 major island complexes including Tangier, the southern end of Smith, Great Fox, and Watts. Tangier and Smith are connected by a sandy ridge or barrier. These islands are isolated from the mainland by substantial distances and have generally been predator free, making them attractive to nesting water birds. The islands are primarily marsh with topographic highs or berms along the west-facing margins. The islands also have both natural and dredge-spoil hummocks colonized by shrubs and loblolly pines.

{link:For a fact sheet on this IBA, including a map, click here| }

Ornithological Summary

The Chesapeake Islands IBA is an important site for several sensitive marsh-nesting species. It represents one of the few remaining population strongholds for American Black Ducks in Virginia. It also supports significant populations of Little Blue Heron, Glossy Ibis, Royal Tern, Forster's Tern, and Seaside Sparrow. Nearly 5% of the Common Tern population is supported here and suitable habitat is present that could support a small population of Black Rails and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows. The surrounding waters support exceptional numbers of wintering seaducks and shorebirds certainly migrate along the islands but definitive information has not been gathered.

Conservation Issues

The primary threat to this system is the loss of habitat due to erosion. All of the islands have lost considerable area in recent memory. The Bay has lost many islands over the past several decades to erosion and this process is continuing. Given the important role that these islands play for sensitive bird species, efforts should be made to protect them from further losses where possible. An additional threat is the colonization of the islands by predators. Ground predators such as raccoons, fox, feral cats, and Norway rats are capable of rendering these islands unusable by ground nesters. In addition, continued expansion of the Herring and Great Black-backed populations on these islands may be displacing other species or reducing reproductive rates. The gull colony formed on Watts Island in 2002 and has grown dramatically since that time. Threats from human disturbance seem to be limited at this time.


A considerable portion of the area within the islands is privately owned. Watts Island has recently been acquired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and annexed to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation owns the educational facility on Great Fox island and some additional land on both Tangier and Smith Islands. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission has control over a small area of state common lands.


The dominant habitat type throughout the islands is tidal salt marsh. Interspersed within these marshes are vegetated hummocks. Watts Island is primarily a high ridge of loblolly forest with some surrounding marsh. Great Fox Island is almost entirely marsh with a high sand berm along the margin. Tangier Island has extensive marsh habitat but also has considerable high ground where the town, airport, and harbor are located. The southern end of Smith Island is marsh with a long, narrow, barrier island extending south.

Land Use

Much of the land is privately owned but Watts Island has been acquired by the USFWS and then annexed to the Blackwater NWR. A small town exists on Tangier Island and the economy is sustained through local fishing and crabbing industries.

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