Following the arctic-style freeze we felt throughout early January, the middle third of the month actually began with several unseasonably-warm days (reaching 71°F). It was short-lived however, and another snowfall event associated with our second coastal nor’easter of the season moved in on the 17th/18th, though accumulations were anywhere from 1-3” across the city, rather than the 8-12” seen back on the 3rd/4th. Bolstered by a pair of bird club boat trips to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, this period featured a staggering number of reports, and top records included new records for AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN, WESTERN TANAGER, CLAY-COLORED SPARROW, COMMON MERGANSER, HARLEQUIN DUCK, continuing reports of CACKLING GOOSE, GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE, ICELAND GULL, PAINTED BUNTING & BREWER’S BLACKBIRD and unseasonal occurrences of TRICOLORED HERON, LEAST BITTERN, YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER & WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW!
For the first time in 2018, an AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN was found within Virginia Beach out on the smaller of the two Sherwood Lakes on 12 Jan (ph. Mike Collins). While this individual was only observed through the following morning of 13 Jan (last observation, ph. David Clark), January is prime time for this species to pop up along the coastline. In 2017, there was only one report outside of January, when an in-flight flock of 8 was observed at Camp Pendleton SMR on 27 Oct (obs. Mary Catherine Miguez). This same flock was very possibly the same group of 8 observed over the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch later in the day, and on 31 Oct at Blackwater NWR in Maryland. In 2017, the last winter record for the species in Virginia Beach occurred 29 Jan at Back Bay NWR when the large group of 30+ birds that had been present for a week or so was last observed (ph. Rob Bielawski).
At least one WESTERN TANAGER was observed during this period, another first for the year! A single individual had been noted visiting a private feeder in the Alanton section of the city dating back to 3 Nov 2017 (obs. Michelle & Taryn Payne), and while it went unrecorded at the location after 28 Dec 2017, this could potentially be the same individual, showing up at the feeder of a separate private residence in northern Virginia Beach (ph. Kathy Spencer). The vivid white wings bars stand out brilliantly against the yellow of the bird in this photograph, and it is great to have a photo-documented record for the year in the city.
While the species has been predictably found during early Sep-early Nov the past couple of years in Virginia Beach, a single report of a CLAY-COLORED SPARROW on Pocahontas Club Road on 18 Jan (obs. Andrew Baldelli) represents the first record for the 2017-18 winter season. This particular find was likely made possible due to the 1-3” of snow that fell the night prior, which likely forced all the sparrows out of their usual thickets to the roadsides to forage on the open ground for seeds and grit. During the larger snowstorm in early January, a great many sparrows were observed in similar, yet grander conditions, but no Clay-coloreds were turned up unfortunately, though an equally-rare Lincoln’s Sparrow was observed.
The group of at least a dozen COMMON MERGANSERS first reported 3 Jan at Sherwood Lakes (ph. Carson Lambert / Andrew Rapp / Robert Wood) continued through at least 17 Jan when three were observed at the same location (ph. Pamela Monahan). This departure date coincides with the approach of the coastal storm that brought 1-3” of accumulating snowfall to the region, so it is likely the mergansers moved further south, or further inland. Sherwood Lakes has been a hotbed for reports of this species in recent years (though reports of Red-breasted Mergansers still outnumber Commons about 1000:1, which is why Commons flag in eBird), due primarily to it’s resistance to freezing (due to its depth, being a former sandpit), and its clarity, which Common Mergansers prefer in their normal winter range of swiftly flowing, clear rivers where fish make plentiful prey.
The last newly recorded rarity for the year was discovered on a Monticello Bird Club boat trip to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT) when a group of five HARLEQUIN DUCKS was found off of North Thimble Island (also known as CBBT island #2) on 13 Jan. The report indicates the birds were sticking close to the rocks of the island, and thus no photographs have populated eBird reports at this point. This species is annually occurring during the winter months around the four manmade islands of the CBBT, but essentially anywhere else in Virginia it is considered a rare find. Interestingly, a single report early this winter (rather, this Fall) occurred at Grandview Nature Preserve in Hampton on 19 Nov (ph. Eric Alton & Tamara Conklin). The occurrence of this species away from the CBBT provided a nice VARCOM record!
Rife with the potential for inaccurate identification is the first continuing rarity of the period, the CACKLING GOOSE. Over the past couple of months throughout not only Virginia Beach, but Virginia as a whole, there have been a great many hopeful reports of Cackling Geese that have turned out to just small Canada Geese. For those who take the time to read this report (I hope there’s a few of you!), please understand that true Cackling Geese are rare in the state as a whole, even moreso along the coast than their larger, much more abundant counterparts. To secure this ID, it is imperative that the silvery/gray back, proportionally small and downward-pointing bill, and Mallard-equivalent size are observed & noted. Reports simply stating, “smaller than surrounding Canadas” is not typically sufficient to eliminate small Canadas from ID contention. Thus far only a single individual has been confirmed in Virginia Beach, originally noted 26 Nov 2017 (obs. David Clark, ph. Karen & Tom Beatty). During mid-January, a single report by several observers on 13 Jan indicated that the species is still present among the goose flock that moves between Sherwood Lakes and the agricultural fields near Firefall Dr. / Ocean Lakes High School. Finding this Cackler is truly a matter of effort, patience, and careful observation, though it is much easier to pick out when floating on the water where all the geese are bound to the same surface elevation. When the group is foraging in agricultural fields, the elevation is ever changing, and this makes gauging true size much more difficult.
Mixed in with the very same goose flock mentioned above, at least three GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE were recorded during mid-January foraging among a large flock of Canadas near Ocean Lakes High School / Firefall Drive (obs. Andrew Baldelli / Linda Chittum / Tracy Tate). These individuals continued to be observed until 14 Jan, with the last photographic record occurring 13 Jan (ph. Rob Bielawski & Mary Catherine Miguez) behind Ocean Lakes High School. Previously, this species was essentially absent from eBird reports in the county, with the first occurring in 2014 at Baybreeze Farms off Sandbridge Road for only two days. Last year, a group spent the majority of the winter around Sherwood Lakes / Firefall Drive, and perhaps this is a more regular occurrence than current reports indicate. However, this has been an exceptional year for the species in Virginia, and for many species of waterfowl, so more study is needed here.
Potentially the same first cycle individual found at Rudee Inlet on 4 Jan during the height of the first nor’easter of 2018 (obs. Andrew Baldelli), an immature ICELAND GULL was observed near South Chesapeake Island in Northampton County, and later viewed by many observers as it followed the Williamsburg Bird Club boat into Virginia Beach waters on 20 Jan (ph. Williamsburg Bird Club). It is very possible that this is the same bird observed on 8 Jan near the Lynnhaven Fishing Pier (ph. Andrew Baldelli & Tracy Tate, later ph. Kathy Louthan), and also the bird seen at Rudee Inlet on 15 Jan (ph. Linda Chittum).
Though a drabber plumage than their vivid male counterparts, a female PAINTED BUNTING was photographed in central Virginia Beach on 13 Jan (ph. Andrew Baldelli / Linda Chittum / Tracy Tate), and this is likely one of several individuals that have taken up winter residency within the city. The dapper male Painted Bunting observed during the Back Bay CBC on Mill Landing Road (ph. Karen & Tom Beatty) has unfortunately not been reported since the initial find though is likely to still be hanging around the same area just north of Pleasant Ridge Road. This species is particularly interesting because it is an annual winterer, but then moves south in the springtime to breed. Typically, the reverse occurs here, with birds moving further north from their wintering grounds to breed. However, breeding evidence was observed on the Eastern Shore this past summer by a participant of the 2nd Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas, an incredible first record for anywhere north of North Carolina!
The BREWER’S BLACKBIRDS present at Breeze Farms along West Gibbs Road continued to be observed through the period, with a seasonal high count of 10 occurring 14 Jan (ph. Baxter & Tucker Beamer / Ander & Paul Buckley), and the most recent report on 20 Jan of 4 individuals (obs. Clark Olsen). These birds are being observed on private property, so for anyone who attempts to view them from the public roadway, please be respectful of the land owners. Sometimes, the flock sets up nicely in the trees along the road, but more often they are viewed on the muddy grounds of the horse stables.
While not year-round rarities, several seasonally unexpected species were reported during mid-January, including: TRICOLORED HERON, LEAST BITTERN, YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER and WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW! Being the first record for the species since 8 Oct, a pair of TRICOLORED HERONS was a surprise find along Marvin Road on 18 Jan (obs. Andrew Baldelli) following the nor’easter induced snowfall that occurred the prior night. This species winters regularly on the Eastern Shore, primarily at Chincoteague NWR, and also to our immediate south at Mackay Island NWR but is not typically observed with any regularity during the winter months in Virginia Beach. Usually records begin popping up in late March/early April, so any January record is certainly worth noting.
At least one of the two LEAST BITTERNS found at Little Island Park on 6 Jan (ph. Andrew Baldelli / Rob Bielawski / Mike Collins) has persisted around the small trickle of water near the kayak launch to Back Bay through 18 Jan (ph. Loretta Silvia). Very sadly, the other individual was found deceased at the site on 9 Jan following several weeks of icy conditions, and an assumed lack of available water to find food in. With the weather having warmed, hopefully the individual still being reported will be able to survive the remainder of the winter here. Least Bitterns are a common summer resident in the freshwater marshes that line Back Bay’s shoreline, but winter records in the city, and the state as a whole, are few and far between.
The YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER first noted 7 Dec 2017 (ph. Maggee Smith) at a private residence in the Aragona Village survived the blizzard on 3-4 Jan though it appears to have vanished now, with perhaps the final report having occurred on 17 Jan ahead of the second snowfall event of the year. It is possible the bird has persisted, and simply found a new location to spend the winter, but the strong cold snaps and snowfall tend to be very hard on our non-wintering warblers. In a typical year, the only warblers that spend the entirety of winter in the city are Pine, Palm, Yellow-rumped, Orange-crowned Warblers and Common Yellowthroat. Interestingly, no one has reported a Common Yellowthroat thus far in 2018, with the last record occurring on the Back Bay CBC on 29 Dec (ph. Rob Bielawski).
Outnumbered about a thousand to one during the winter in Virginia Beach by the similar White-throated Sparrow, we appear to be hosting at least two WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS in the city. The first has been present at Ashville Park since the Back Bay CBC on 29 Dec (obs. Andrew Baldelli & Tracy Tate), and was most recently observed on 13 Jan (obs. Chrissy Barton). The second was observed following our snowfall event on 18 Jan at Dam Neck NA (obs. Karen & Tom Beatty). This species has been difficult to find since their normal period of transience in the fall, and unlike last winter when four juveniles were observed almost daily at Back Bay NWR, the reports have all been of single birds (no adults yet either).
Aside from the rarities and the unseasonal occurrences, there has been plenty of other excitement around the city over the last ten days. Mentioned earlier, but probably not expanded upon much, two bird clubs hosted boat trips out to the four islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel complex during this period. The first, the Monticello Bird Club, toured the islands on 13 Jan, finding the typical winter specialties like Purple Sandpiper, which is now a much more difficult bird to find in the state due to the closure of island one to the public this past October. Common Eider, King Eider, and Harlequin Ducks were all observed as well, though only the Harlequins occurred in Virginia Beach waters (islands three and four are in Northampton County). The second trip, the Williamsburg Bird Club, turned up mostly the same species, missing King Eider, but adding Iceland Gull and Red-necked Grebe. These ~4 hour trips are absolutely worth the small fee, and they provide a unique view of the islands that can’t be appreciated from land.
Towards the end of the period, the ice cover that had persisted for several weeks finally gave way across much of the state, allowing for some of our concentrations of waterfowl to move back inland to now-open bodies of freshwater. January has been remarkable on the coast for waterbirds, with more Red-necked Grebe and Common Goldeneye reports already this year than in all of 2017. In fact, there wasn’t a single Common Goldeneye reported in Virginia Beach last January, but there are around 100 records so far in 2018, incredible. Horned Grebes are grouping up on the Chesapeake Bay in huge numbers, with counts of over 500 viewed from Norfolk. At least one Eared Grebe has continued on the Newport News waterfront not terrible far from us, and it is always possible that we will find one of these associating with Horneds off our coast. White-winged Scoters have been much more numerous this year, following in the path of the goldeneyes. However, where the waterfowl numbers and variety have exploded in 2018, irruptive species like Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Siskin and Purple Finch have essentially been nonexistent. Thus far, only Pine Siskin has been reported in the city this year, and there are only a couple of reports. Last winter was a major invasive year for the nuthatches, so viewing the eBird maps of last vs. this year shows quite a stark contrast.
WEATHER: After an extremely frigid early January, temperatures return to more normal levels in mid-January, rising a drastic 18.2° from 32.2° F in early January to 50.4° (+0.6° from prior 10-year average), with average daily low temperatures also steeply increasing 16.4° from 15.4° to 31.8° F (-2.1° from prior 10-year average). Overall, temperatures ranged from a minimum of 24° F (on both 14 & 18 Jan) to a maximum of 71° (12 Jan). A total of 0.35” of rain fell during the period, with 0.34” recorded on Friday, 12 Jan. As mentioned above, we also received anywhere from 1-3” of snow depending on the specific location in the city during the coastal nor’easter that brushed past us on 17/18 Jan. Maximum sustained winds at Oceana this period were 25 mph (18 Jan) and gusts reached 40 mph (13 Jan). The highest predicted (harmonic) tide was to be 2.553 feet (9:18 AM on 17 Jan), however, due to the nor’easter brushing us, the maximum actual tide was 3.548 feet (9:30 AM on 17 Jan); a maximum storm surge (observed minus predicted) of 1.418 feet occurred at 3:30 AM on 18 Jan. Sunrise/sunsets varied from 7:16 AM/5:07 PM (11 Jan) to 7:14 AM/5:16 PM (20 Jan), which means over all we gained 11 minutes of daylight during this period! Incredibly, some remnants of snow remain in ditches and shaded areas, though the ice cover has disappeared entirely at this point.
For those hoping to view every photograph submitted for Virginia Beach, please see this complete listing for the month of January located on eBird’s Media explorer by clicking here! Please remember, anyone with an eBird account also has the ability to rate these photographs (1-5 stars), and based on the aggregate rating, this is how eBird populates anything photograph driven on the website, particularly the Illustrated Checklists! So if you're one of the many folks who enjoy looking at photographs of birds, take some time to click them all and rate them, it helps make eBird better and better each day!
LOOKAHEAD: Gull and duck flocks along the coast need continual checking, and there are likely some rare birds unbeknownst to all of us hiding right in plain sight. Rudee Inlet is still providing great birds, as Razorbills have shown up recently, perhaps Dovekies are next. Though the LeConte’s Sparrow has not been observed at Princess Anne WMA recently, it is likely still somewhere in the Beasley Tract, among many other sparrows. We don’t have any expected arrivals for the near future, but as soon as spring arrives, that information will begin being posted here again. As always, make sure to report your finds to eBird so the data can be used to adjust the expected arrival dates and to view the full listing of each species’ “average expected arrival dates”!
For further information regarding this thrice-monthly, online publication, please visit the Journal Overview Page which provides an in-depth explanation of the format, layout and composition of the journal. As always, thank you for reading, and please leave me a comment below (you may use your Facebook, Gmail or other accounts to easily do so), or just click the Heart icon to the lower right of this post to let me know you stopped in!