Over the past few weeks I've been donating all my spare time to the creation of this website, so hiking & photography time has seemed to go by the wayside most evenings. This week I made it out for my first adventure on Friday, thanks to having taken the day off so that my girlfriend Ruth & I could make her Saturday birthday into a 3-day weekend. Friday morning, we headed down to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and after letting Ruth off at Little Island Park in Sandbridge so she could spend her morning on the beach, I got to the parking area around 9 AM. This time of year, the East Dike Trail is open through the eastern corridor of the park, so I walked that way to begin. The 9 AM tram to False Cape State Park was just leaving as I was out hiking on the Loop Road, so I went to the west side so as to avoid it. Along the East Dike today I encountered a large number of Southern Leopard Frogs sitting along the ditches and the roadway itself. Birds were again scarce as I walked the dike. Most of the ones I saw were Great and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, and White Ibis. Since the vegetation is at it's max growth this time of year out in the impoundment areas to the west of the trail it is very difficult to spot birds. Also, this time of year the ducks are all in molt, and out hiding amongst the marsh grasses out of sight while they re-grow their flight feathers. So all this makes for a quiet walk, however, I did see a number of Osprey overhead, which is pretty typical in the park.
I ended up walking the trail all the way into False Cape State Park to the south til the trail turns at the visitor's center. From the visitor center, the trail goes east towards the beach, or west further into the state park. This time I headed towards the beach with the goal of viewing shorebirds on the trip back north to the Back Bay parking area. As with the few walks I've done recently, the similar birds were all present. Shorebirds seen on the beach included (in order of number) Sanderlings, Willets, Ruddy Turnstones, Semipalmated Plover, and Black-bellied Plovers. In the air, Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns, Laughing, Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls were seen. I didn't notice any ducks, geese, or cormorants this time out, so I'm hoping the Black Scoter I saw on the beach last week ended up getting away, and wasn't injured. When I reached the north end of the beach and headed over the dunes towards the Loop Road, there was a stream of Tree Swallows flying over the marshes. They seem to be grouping up right now in the park, probably getting clumped up so in a few weeks they can begin their southbound migration along the Outer Banks. For now, they're just in high numbers sitting on the power lines that run parallel to the trails on the east side. In the same area I saw a couple of Indigo Buntings, and photographed a female Blue Grosbeak in the brush. I finished up on the Bay Trail but didn't encounter any songbirds today, so I headed up to Little Island and cooled off in the water for about an hour before heading back for a late lunch.
Saturday was Ruth's birthday so we spent the day at the north end of Virginia Beach. I walked up around Cape Henry trying to take photographs of shorebirds, but instead was greeted to a large number of Bottlenose Dolphins playing around just offshore. There must have been over a dozen of them out there this time, and a few of them made runs within about 50 feet of shore. Photographing the dolphins is a challenge though, especially since they weren't really breaching the surface completely. Often times, by the time you could see their dorsal fins, that was it, and they'd dive back down. So I probably spent about an hour attempting to get the best shots that I could, and I did finally get some decent ones. So afterwards I decided to get out in the water, and it was great for about 20 minutes. Then, Ruth said she felt something brush her leg, and I made the mistake of saying that there was nothing out there that would bother us. And then I felt it scrape my leg as well, but I figured it was just some debris, or seaweed as it felt rigid. Then, the stinging started and it became clear very quickly that was neither debris, nor seaweed. It was instead, my first experience getting stung by a Sea Nettle, also known as a jellyfish. It managed to get both of my ankles before I got out of the way, and once on the beach, I got to see my ankles start to swell, and look white & puffy like when you get a beesting. And that'd actually exactly what this felt like, continuously getting stung by bees for a few hours before it did finally go away. I did learn a good lesson this time though, as the age old apparent "myth" that urine helps the sting go away, proved false, and when I got home I read up that pouring vinegar across it would help the sting, and I think it did more than any urine did.
Anyways though, after I got out of the water, I did do some walking just to keep busy, and photographed a number of Sanderlings and one very cooperative Willet that played in the water near where Ruth & I had set up. I didn't notice anyone else along the beach screaming or getting out quickly from the water, so I'm guessing this was a completely isolated case of a jellyfish that was just royally pissed off. And with the clarity of the water at the oceanfront being about an inch, I never did get to see my assailant. I did get back into the water for a bit afterwards, but it wasn't quite as relaxing as it usually is for me. This is really only the 3rd animal encounter I've ever had while off the coast here. The first was at Sandbridge a couple years ago when Ruth & I saw a Stingray swim by us, fluttering like a butterfly under water. The second was a few weeks ago when a Blue Crab pinched my foot while I was standing still in the water. So they've seemed to be progressing. Hopefully a shark attack is not in my future at this rate. After getting out of the water for the 2nd time, I sat down in the chair, in a spot where the water was washing over my foot which felt great, but then again, I felt something on me. This time on my back. Thinking it was a Deer fly I waited to hit it, but then it bit me, so I slapped it. I pulled the bug around my shoulder so I could see just what it was, and it was a black and orange spider. Not sure what I did to piss off the gods, but that was 2 stings by animals I didn't ever have bites from in the past. So that was it for me, we left the beach a few minutes later. Wildlife 2, Rob 0.
After getting home from the beach, there was some posts on the listserver about a sighting of a Ruff in Virginia Beach, that had been seen Friday by Robert Ake. A Ruff is a species of shorebird that is not seen in our area very often, but shows up along the East Coast most often in the fall. I could not find another sighting on eBird for Virginia Beach, which makes this a pretty rare species. Because of this, I decided to get out late in the morning on Sunday to try and find it. It was seen in the Princess Anne Wildlife Managment Area's Whitehurst Tract down in Pungo near the western shore of Back Bay. So I arrived at the site just before noon, and wasn't surprised to find that there was already another vehicle in the lot as well. The vehicle was marked with a decal of the VSO (Virginia Ornithological Society), so I knew the occupants were obviously there for the same reason as me. Earlier in the morning, Jim Marcum and David Clark both independently confirmed the Ruff was still around, so hopes were high. The vehicle driver turned out to be a Chesapeake birder named Dave. We ended up walking through the high brushy trail back to where the Ruff had been spotted and searched together, me with my 400mm lens, and he with his binoculars. We saw a large number of shorebirds on the impoundment at the northernmost end of what is referred to as "Area 2" on the the Whitehurst Tract map, but none of them were the Ruff. Shorebirds I could identify were Killdeer, Semipalmated Plover, Least Sandpiper, Western/Semipalmated Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, Lesser & Greater Yellowlegs, and there was the potential for Pectoral and Stilt Sandpipers but they were just out of range of my lens. We also saw a number of Cattle and Snowy Egrets, a couple Great Egrets, a lone juvenile Great Blue Heron, and a number of immature Tricolored Herons. We searched for probably an hour and a half before heading back north towards the vehicles. Along the way back we also got to add Red-tailed Hawk, and I saw two juvenile White Ibis flying far out over the fields as well. It was interesting since this was my very first outing to this facility, but it was too bad we couldn't relocate the bird.
Thus far, while rarity chasing, I've only been able to re-spot the King Eider that was at Rudee Inlet last winter, all other birds I've made attempts on have ended up eluding me. And this is why I prefer to go hiking to far away places, where someday I can be the one spotting the rarity first (like the Iceland Gull I saw last March in Back Bay NWR). To me, this is much more fun, though hearing about a rarity does get me excited even if I don't go after it. After missing out on the Ruff, the sun came out over General Booth Boulevard while I was heading home, so I decided to give the afternoon a shot at some more hiking. I ended up driving past the oceanfront, and up Shore Drive en route to Pleasure House Point, hoping to hit it at low tide. While crossing the Lesner Bridge, which is now under construction, and it looks like soon the lanes will be dropped by one, I noticed the tide was definitely closer to high tide since there was no exposed mudflats out in the bay. This view has long been my favorite view in Virginia Beach, I love looking out over the estuary and seeing the backside of my own neighborhood across the way. I parked off Dinwiddie this time, next to Loch Haven Park so I could get out onto the main point faster. Many folks were out fishing & crabbing, and it appears that the dock for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Center has been constructed, but is still roped off to public use. The building itself looks to be nearing completion on the exterior as well, so it'll probably open soon. I still don't understand why they chose to power the building with wind turbines, which are known to kill migrating birds, but, its probably still better than if the whole park had been developed into condos like it almost did a few years ago.
Anyway, I'm off topic here, so I walked the park east to west, then back west to east. Along the way, I saw a dark sparrow and couldn't get it's photo before it darted into the marsh grasses. I did find some Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, immatures, and a few Great Egrets out in the marsh as well. Unfortunately, by not arriving at low tide, any small shorebirds and any Clapper Rails had no mudflats to walk amongst, which means there weren't any to be seen in the open. While walking back, I got a good look at a young Green Heron, that stayed motionless on it's branch perch near the water. As I was walking past it, another sparrow bolted from the grass and flew across the small creek. I managed to get some fuzzy shots of it while in the shade of the thick brush, and thanks to Ned Brinkley, was able to confirm it was a juvenile Seaside Sparrow, a lifer for me! From all my field guides, including the one Ned wrote personally, I was sold on it being a Saltmarsh Sparrow, but when someone of his knowledge level states otherwise, I'll listen. So the week ended well for me, having a new lifer to add to my list, despite missing out on the apparently now gone Ruff (noone else has reported seeing it, and I still don't believe all the ones of people finding it the same morning I went looking, but that's another issue). I'll gladly look forward to the next week of being outdoors, though I hope for some cooler weather.