Always the shortest reporting period for the year (even during the slightly longer Leap Years), late February still managed to provide some interesting observations before the winter reporting season could come to a close. On 24 Feb, Bradford Pear trees throughout the city opened up into full bloom, as did a number of other flowering, ornamental tree types. Green grasses could be seen starting to work their way up through the deceased, tan grasses in saltmarshes along the Lynnhaven, and leaves have even started to bud out on some trees! Temperatures felt more in line with summer than winter, and as we head into the spring reporting season next period as March arrives, perhaps we’ve truly seen the last of winter in coastal Virginia. Top records for the period included new rarity reports for SHORT-EARED OWL & RUSTY BLACKBIRD, continuing rarity reports for EURASIAN WIGEON, an unseasonal occurrence for LITTLE BLUE HERON and an on-time first-of-season (FOS) arrival for LAUGHING GULL!
Eurasian Wigeon & Mallard / 23 Feb / Lake Joyce - Please note that unfortunately this is the only photograph I have for the reporting period due to my Canon 6D being completely out of operation, and my backup Rebel T2i now also being at Canon for repair.
The most notable find this period is again rooted in a report of seawatching from Little Island Park, though unlike mid-February’s Western Grebe report, this time it was something that seems even more bizarre for the location. On 25 Feb a SHORT-EARED OWL was viewed at scope range flying out over the ocean, before turning towards shore and eventually heading inland over the dunes of Back Bay NWR, a couple of miles south of the Little Island Pier (obs. Andrew Baldelli & Tracy Tate)! While this species is an annual winter at Alligator River NWR in northeastern North Carolina, there are currently no known locations where they spend the winter months within Virginia Beach. Many hours, by many birders, have been logged trying to find this species in the city limits, where they would be most active before sunrise, and in the last hour or so of daylight if other known winter roosts like in Louisa & Fauquier County are any indicator. Historic reports are almost completely lacking in Virginia Beach, though the last listed in eBird with adequate written notes comes from 2 Nov 2013 (obs. Edward & Ian Van Norman) at Pleasure House Point where two individuals are described as being mobbed by crows. It’s possible that both the individual viewed this past weekend, and this pair were birds in transit to and from Alligator River NWR. Thus far, one has never been photographed in the city, at least according to the few eBird records.
Surprisingly scarce within the immediate coastal counties of Virginia, a pair of RUSTY BLACKBIRDS reported 25 Feb at Stumpy Lake NA (obs. George Harris) was notable for being the first observed in the city this year. The last record for this species here dates all the way back to 15 Apr 2017 when three were observed at Red Wing Park (obs. Karen & Tom Beatty), and the last photographed record comes from 9 Apr 2017 on an individual at Stumpy Lake NA (ph. Rob Bielawski). The species is likely a winter resident throughout the swampy regions of the city, but most are simply inaccessible. First Landing SP may hold a few, especially in spring, but again, access into the areas they are likely to be found is limited, with the Osmanthus Trail probably being the best to try.
Moving on to continuing rarities, our only occurrence for the period was the drake EURASIAN WIGEON first found at Pleasure House Point NA on 11 Feb (obs. Jason Schatti), and then re-found roughly a mile to the west at Lake Joyce near Shore Drive on 19 Feb (ph. Timothy Barry). This individual was noted throughout the period, with only 26 Feb missing out on the action. It has been most relay on the tributary finger of Lake Joyce immediately north of Shore Drive, to the east of Dubay Properties / Law Offices. However, a group from Northern Virginia also reported the bird as being sighted on one of the ponds at Pleasure House Point NA, mentioning a photograph had been taken, but not yet posted to eBird for verification. Given the bird was initially discovered near here on Pleasure House Creek, it seems pretty likely that it’s fully capable of moving back and forth between these locations if the other dabbling ducks it spends time with follow suit.
Ironically, last period it was mentioned that during late February 2017, a LITTLE BLUE HERON had been photographed (ph. Mary Catherine Miguez) in flight between the Beasley & Whitehurst Tracts of Princess Anne WMA. Down to the date, 25 Feb, we had our very first Little Blue Heron sighting this year as well, at the same location (ph. Andrew Baldelli & Tracy Tate). One has to wonder if this is the exact same individual showing up at its favorite spot? The species as a whole is still early here in Virginia Beach, with a typical arrival of migrants returning around 25 Mar, so it’ll be worth following up on this report to see if this individual, or more, arrive to the Whitehurst Tract between now and then. This spot is also one of the more expected locations to try to see an early Blue-winged Teal, or Tricolored Heron, though it is only open to birding on Sundays until May, with an access permit from the VDGIF.
The frigid weather of January 2018 proved too much for the LAUGHING GULLS that will often linger along the coast later into the month. From the time of the first snowfall on 3/4/5 Jan until 24 Feb, not a single documented observation for the species occurred in Virginia Beach. Starting the morning of 24 Feb however, Laughing Gulls were picked up moving along the coastline in counts up to 34 individuals at Rudee Inlet (obs. Andrew Baldelli & Tracy Tate), with more to follow throughout the remainder of the period. 20 Feb is the expected date for migrants to start arriving here, so we were very much on-time with this species. Many have since been observed standing on the beach near Rudee Inlet, and most have shown at least some variation of their breeding plumage (black head). While this species will be present in the city now for the remainder of 2018, this is the time when they’re truly worth noting, as Laughing Gulls are a great indicator of just how difficult the mid-winter season was here for birds.
During February as a whole, four different Red-necked Grebes were observed along our coastline, with one lingering at Little Island on 20-21 Feb (most recent obs. Cathy Williamson). This is a species that is always exciting to see, and not very many are found here in a typical winter. This Jan/Feb produced a number of records though, and not just here but around the rest of the state as well. We had our second Willet reported for the year on 22 Feb at Back Bay NWR (obs. David Wendelken). Looking at the eBird range maps, this is an amusing species as there are loads of reports in the Outer Banks of North Carolina to our south, and even more on the Eastern Shore to our north. However, this species is scarce in Virginia Beach during the winter months, with the only other report this year having occurred on 21 Jan at Pleasure House Point NA (obs. Loretta Silvia). Northern Gannets showed up in massive numbers during mid-February with an incredible report of an estimated 30,000 individuals viewed at Rudee Inlet on 24 Feb (obs. Andrew Baldelli & Tracy Tate). During this seawatch, another interesting sighting occurred as an American Woodcock was observed flying in and landing near the boardwalk! Fortunately, this observation was documented with a pair of great photographs to boot (ph. Andrew Baldelli & Tracy Tate). Seeing this report was reminiscent of last spring, when the same observer duo spotted a Yellow-nosed Albatross off Rudee Inlet, and then a very seldom seen Chuck-will’s-widow was viewed flying in off the ocean before quickly diving into the vegetation near the boardwalk (obs. Edward Brinkley, ph. Rob Bielawski).
On 21 Feb, a single Black-crowned Night-Heron was found along the small pond at Bayville Farms Park (obs. Jonathan Snyder), and as many as 4 were observed and photographed on 28 Feb (ph. Eric Alton / Tamara Conklin / Jonathan Snyder). The usual reliable spot for this species in the city has been along the shoreline of North Lake Holly near the Oceanfront (best viewed from the 12th Street dead-end near what used to be the Sandpiper Motel). This is an interesting report since the species hadn’t been reliably logged at this location in past winters, but it is certainly a spot that will probably be checked more often now. Over at nearby Pleasure House Point NA on 25 Feb, a Great Horned Owl was observed being mobbed by crows and was photographed during the chaos (ph. Lisa Rose)! Lastly, another interesting owl report popped up a couple of days later on 27 Feb, when a Barred Owl was seen atop a light post along I-264 near Laskin Road (obs. Loretta Silvia)!
WEATHER: Record high temperatures continued across the region during late February and as a whole, this was the warmest period both in terms of daily lows and highs in at least ten years (all the data I have currently at hand). Average daily high temperatures rose 6.0° from 61.3° F in mid-February to 67.3° (as astonishing +13.1° from prior 10-year average), with average daily low temperatures rising 1.2° from 44.3° to 45.5° F (+10.0° from prior 10-year average). Overall, temperatures ranged from a minimum of 36° F (on 28 Feb as a late season nor’easter approached, resulting in some frost on vehicles) to a maximum of 78° (on both 21 & 24 Feb). A total of only 0.03” of rain fell during the period, all of which occurred on Monday, 26 Feb. Maximum sustained winds at Oceana this period were 20 mph (22 Feb) and gusts reached 35 mph (25 Feb). No extreme tidal surge events occurred during this period, with observed tides staying less than 1’ different from predicted values, however, a strong coastal nor’easter is expected to impact the region to start off the early March reporting period, with storm surges in excess of 2’ expected locally. Sunrise/sunsets varied from 6:45 AM/5:50 PM (21 Feb) to 6:36 AM/5:57 PM (28 Feb), which means we gained 16 minutes of daylight during this period! On that note, Daylight Savings Time starts in the early morning hours of 11 Mar, so post-workday birding will once again become a reality for many of us very soon!
For those hoping to view every photograph submitted for Virginia Beach during this period, please see the complete listing for the month of February 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 average rating, this is how eBird populates anything media-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: As mentioned in the weather section above, a major nor’easter is expected to strengthen off the coast coast over the first several days of March, and strong winds and higher than normal tides will impact our region. With this storm comes the potential for interesting bird reports, as ‘storm-birding’ can often produce unusual finds. With many species starting their northward migration, the coastlines are certainly worth watching as the northerly winds behind the storm have the potential to drive gulls, waterfowl, and other non-passerines in close to shore. With high counts of Laughing Gulls now passing northward on the coast, it’s always a good time to watch the flocks and hope for something different (Franklin’s Gull?) to be mixed in. Northern Gannets have already been putting on a show along the coast, with numbers in the tens of thousands noted, and the storm is likely to bolster those numbers. In terms of expected arrivals for early March, Blue-winged Teal have an expected arrival date of 5 Mar, and though there has been a record at Back Bay NWR already, none have been detected in any publicly accessible areas of the city. It is likely that the first one will show up around Princess Anne WMA’s Whitehurst or Beasley Tract during early March. Once we hit mid-March, spring arrivals will start to slowly increase in volume, but it really won’t be until April that things get truly exciting. 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!
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