After the whirlwind wedding weekend that I had this past weekend, I was ready to see some migrating birds when Monday finally arrived. I would like to stress that I did have a great time over the past few days with wedding get togethers, but it was killing me knowing how nice out it was, and not being about to get outdoors. So Monday I headed up to Pleasure House Point right after work, and got there about 4:15 PM. I arrived about midway between the low & high tide cycle, which will keep getting better positioned later in the week for me to see shorebirds after working hours (Wednesday namely). I parked off Marlin Bay's entrance so that I could walk eastward at first with the setting sun behind me. Even though it is plenty bright still between 4 and about 6, the angle of sun setting slowly makes it tough to get photographs, a lot of animals just get washed out due to the low angle. It also makes it very difficult to shoot photographs amongst any large number of trees, as the shadows are now everywhere. Additionally, walking eastward, your own personal shadow tends to be out 20 or more feet ahead of where you're walking, and tends to spook critters out of the way before you get close enough to even spot them. So really, a rough time of year for after work hours photography. Anyway, I headed eastward, and my first sighting was that of a Painted Lady (butterfly), and a nearby Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. The poor Night-Heron had an oyster shell clamped around one of it's toes, which happens quite often to wading birds around this area. There was a trickle of blood coming off it, but I couldn't get close enough to try to help the poor thing without it flying off. So I stopped trying, feeling that I was stressing it out even worse.
Hopefully the oyster either releases, or the toe just gets worn off and the rest of the leg can still function...nature can be very sad at times, but what a defensive mechanisms for an oyster to have over a 3 foot tall bird. I then took some of the less used trails through the woods hoping to find some warblers, but unfortunately came up empty handed. However, when I crossed out onto the large dusty plain nearby, I caught sight of an Osprey, some vultures, and then a Peregrine Falcon soaring in from the north very high up overhead! This is my first falcon in quite some time, and I assume it was one of several hundred that have been seen heading southbound at Kiptopeke State Park's Hawk Watch on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay. Continuing around through the small forest I ran into Kathy Spencer, who I'd met last week at the park, and her husband Ken. They were also looking for warblers and as we were talking, one flew past but all I caught was a yellow blur. I walked around the area I've been seeing sparrows and flushed one, but couldn't get it to land anywhere visible. Out over the water Kathy spotted a huge cyclone of what looked like Laughing Gulls. Nearby I could hear numbers of Clapper Rails cackling from the exterior marshy islands. When I reached the mudflats, there was a ton of gulls & terns out on them. Amongst the several gull species, were a large group of Black Skimmers, the most I've seen at the park this year. Also a pair of Willets were walking around.
Hopefully its like this again on Wednesday when the tide is even lower. I ended up trekking back to the west side of the park with the sun in my eyes, and had another (or the same) Peregrine Falcon come screaming out of the light heading eastward. It was moving very fast and I couldn't focus on it during the split second I had. I immediately ran back eastward to a point overlooking the water and snapped some poor long distance shots of it, but unfortunately it headed off southwestward towards Town Center and I never did get another chance. I made a second trip eastward, now with the sun behind me, hoping that would help again. I didn't pick up any new sightings, though the same poor oyster-clamped Night-Heron showed up again. I reached the mudflats again, and the tide had come in quite a bit. I stayed and watched as it rose higher and higher, causing the shorter birds to begin their exodus first. The Black Skimmers all took off and swirled around into a big flock on the water before heading towards the Lesner Bridge. The Laughing Gulls were next to leave, then the few Ring-billeds, then the Herrings & Black-backed took off as the water submerged their former perch. It was a very cool process to view firsthand, and made perfect sense as to why they left the way they did. I headed back west towards the car, and managed to flush a Clapper Rail, of which I got a nice shot of the marsh as my camera couldn't focus fast enough. That was it for my evening, 6:30 sunset and getting earlier each day.
On Tuesday, I brought my gear to work and promptly left at 4 to head out to Back Bay NWR. Earlier in the day, several posts on Listserver showed a lot of warbler species being spotted right near the visitor center. Of course, I didn't find a single warbler in the evening. So either all the warblers are only active during the mornings and afternoons, or people are exaggerating their sightings. I hope it's the former. But unfortunately that cripples my weekday attempts at finding the little songbirds. While walking the Bayside Trail, I got to see a pair of Eastern Cottonmouths up very close, though they appeared to be stationary, as I'd see them at the end of the walk as well. I'm guessing the lack of heat outside this time of year makes them less mobile since they're coldblooded animals. I walked the Bay Trail westward and had a Cooper's Hawk fly overhead for a brief moment before disappearing towards the southeast. The birds it seems, were out to hide from me. I did see a young Praying Mantis in the brush, and got some photographs of another nymph Katydid which was very colorful. Heading back east towards the Loop Road I came across some neat spiders & webs, but no birds at all, though I heard a catbird. Out over the pond to the southeast of the contact station, Tree Swallows were forming large groups and diving down to drink from the water's surface, it was very neat to see them still in breeding colors & in large groups. I walked toward the Dune Trail, seeing the same (probably) Cooper's Hawk again, flying right into the sun though. I went up and over the dunes onto the beach, but the wind was so intense that it seemed not many birds were out there so I opted to go back inland. I walked back and did the Bay Trail once more, again not finding any birds though, but photographing an Obsure Birdwing Grasshopper, thinking at first it was a Green Treefrog but realizing quickly that it wasn't. I walked very slow back on the Bay Trail eastward hoping to spot something, but again, just not my night. I did a quick jaunt down the Seaside Trail as well and only got a few shots of gulls & some Royal & Forster's Terns out over the water before heading back up to the car about 6 o'clock. This will be my last week heading out photographing after work, its just getting too frustrating with the lack of light, and the time it takes to get places. I'm giving it one last evening shot tomorrow at Pleasure House Point when the low tides lines up with my release from work time.
Wednesday I got another beautiful evening to walk around Pleasure House Point. The tides were just right and I think probably lower than any other time I've been out in the park. Because of this, I expected to see a lot of birds that I normally miss out on. I walked in from Marlin Bay Drive again so the sun would be at my back as I walked eastward towards the mudflats. On the way, my first bird sighting was that of a Caspian Tern flying out over the creek. I ran into Caroline Morse along the trails and she had said she hadn't found any birds yet. Along the large interior bay, the water was extremely low and several Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and Great Egrets were wading around in the now-shallows. Along the same stretch where I've been seeing sparrows, I saw another one, presumably a Seaside but unable to tell since they're so quick to hide, and with the low tide, they have more places to hide up under the banks. Out on the mudflats, large numbers of Black Skimmers and gulls, same as Monday, were all present again. I ran into Caroline again on the way back westward and she pointed out a Bald Eagle hovering out over the marshy islands.
An Osprey flew by as well, and at the same time a Cooper's Hawk swooped in overhead. I was able to get a few shots of it, but with the sun already low in the sky, its tough to get them without a shadowed underside. With a couple more passes across the park and back, I didn't get to add any new warblers or songbirds, just the typical stuff was present, though I did get one more shot at the Cooper's Hawk when I crossed the dirt plain in the interior and it circled briefly overhead before disappearing. With the sun now setting about 6:30, and really the light being pretty poor starting at about 5 or 5:30, this is going to be the end of my week night photography walks unfortunately until probably March (I can still get out Friday evenings since I can leave work a bit earlier, but even that will end by November). On my way home from the park as I was driving past Kings Grant Lake, I saw Ron Furnish out with his binoculars so I pulled over. He introduced me to his girlfriend Marie Mullins who is also a well known birder in the area for those who use eBird. They were watching some American Redstarts, and a Northern Parula high up in the trees of the park and have had good success the last week or so in this spot, though it was much too dark out already to get quality photographs, I could at least ID properly what we were seeing of the small birds in the treetops. I left about 7 PM, now pretty much dark and made it home for dinner. On Thursday my mother is flying into town to spend the weekend out on the Blue Ridge Parkway with my girlfriend Ruth & I so no hiking Thursday.
Friday, with my mother now in town, I decided to take her up to the Eastern Shore for the day, coincidentally at the same time as the Eastern Shore Birding & Wildlife Festival was beginning. We had a beautiful view of the sun coming up over the horizon along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, but then it got mostly overcast. We stopped in at Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge first, and were only able to locate one bird, a Cooper's Hawk that flew past us with great speed on the Butterfly Trail. After the ESNWR we went up the Seaside Road and cut across to Kiptopeke State Park. This time I paid properly, and didn't get the $25 fine I got on my first visit to the park. We walked towards the Taylor Pond, seeing a couple more Cooper's on the way, and then did the Raptor & Songbird Trails to the east. Most of what we saw to that point was large spiders blocking our path with their large overhead webs. Not exactly a great start to the morning, however, the sun did suddenly come out and we had a flurry of activity on the Raptor Trail, where we saw many Carolina Chickadees, a Palm Warbler that continuously moved from shrub to shrub as I tried to photograph it, and several Northern Cardinals and Brown Thrashers. We also saw a White-tailed Deer rush off the trail, then later my mother pointed out another one. We hit the Peregrine Boardwalk, and had the pleasure of watching as 7 American Kestrels circled overhead, the most I've ever seen at one time before. From there we did the Wood Warbler Boardwalk, and got some nice views of a Common Buckeye (butterfly), and some Turkey Vultures feeding on the beachfront. We headed back up as the clouds came back in, and skipped by the Hawkwatch site just because there was a number of folks already up there. I later heard that a Swainson's Hawk was sighted that day nearby, but I probably wouldn't be able to ID one if I did see it since it's one I'm not familiar with at all. On Friday evening, my mother, Ruth & I all headed down to Hickory, North Carolina where we'd be staying for the weekend, and got in pretty late around 11 PM.
Saturday, we were up and ready to go early, taking advantage of the continental breakfast and then heading out on the road before the sun was up. As we drove northwest from Hickory towards Blowing Rock (our access to the Blue Ridge Parkway for the day), the sun began to rise and burn off the intense fog that we'd encountered in the foothills. It was absolutely beautiful seeing the sunrise and the fog and clouds filling the valleys as we got higher up the mountains. We zoomed down the Blue Ridge Parkway southwestward towards Grandfather Mountain, our primary destination for the trip, and a place I had been at just a few weeks ago while at a bachelor party out of Boone. We passed Lake Julian Price, and the leaf colors surrounding were very vibrant, very near peak I would guess. We stopped at a couple of overlooks very quickly, but wanted to be at Grandfather Mountain right at 8 when they opened so we could get to the top without other people around. When we arrived at about 8:05, the park was closed, and we found out that they didn't open til 9, thanks to a rude worker... last year they opened at 8 and we actually got up into the park about 7:45 so I don't know why they made a change like this.
Anyway, we had to kill an hour so we just drove back on the same portion of the parkway, stopping at a couple more overlooks and then heading back to the park. The view of Lynn Cove Viaduct was extremely impressive this year, much more than last year. When we finally got into the park, we drove straight up to the top, listening to the audio CD this time on the way. We parked and walked up the stairs to where the Mile High Bridge is located, and my mother made it across though she was clearly not enjoying the high winds, which were probably 30-40 mph. Ruth & I walked out on the rock outcropping and I saw a Common Raven, an Eastern Towhee, and a Dark-eyed Junco though didn't get any solid photographs of either species. We walked back across the bridge, now full of tourists, as I was trying to avoid by being early, and then headed down through the gift shop. When we came out, we were completely enshrouded in clouds and it was raining and windy, so I'm glad we got to see the sun while we were on the bridge. We drove down the mountain, out of the clouds, and stopped to see the animals at the zoo, though I'd much rather see these animals in the wild. We ate at Mildred's Grill and then waited til the fudge shop opened at 11 since that can't be missed, then we embarked from the park. Grandfather Mountain is truly a beautiful state park, but the $20/person fee seems a bit high to me, given that all it does is give you access to the park, if food was somehow included, then it'd be fair. However, the views are incredible, and I could spend $20 in much worse ways so its alright.
After leaving the park we drove south on the parkway and then stopped up at Linville Falls. The color here was very pretty as well, and we walked the couple of miles of trails to the two highest viewpoints of the falls. Here the weather alternated between sunny, and downpour. We got very soaked on the way out and then had to dry off in the car over the next hour or so. We kept on heading south and west on the parkway, and the colors kept getting more and more vivid as we went. Our final stop on the day was at Mount Mitchell State Park, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River at about 6600 elevation as I recall. The top of the mountain is all pine trees, no deciduous seem to reach the last few hundred feet of it, and we were again enshrouded in clouds along the peak trail, which is just a short quarter mile or so hike from the refreshment cafe at the parking area. On a clear day, you can see something like 70 miles from the peak, however our visibility was just a few hundred feet or so being that we were inside of a cloud. I still got some neat photographs though and now my mom can say she's been to the highest peak in the Eastern half of the continent. We drove out along the parkway south and west again, and stopping at the last few overlooks, headed down the mountain into Asheville, where we picked up I-40 and drove off towards Hickory, and towards a good dinner at Texas Roadhouse after a long day of driving and walking. I think everyone loved it, and we really hit the colors at full peak. I'll be heading up to the Blue Ridge Parkway of Virginia in 2 weekends, hopefully seeing similar vivid colors outside of Charlottesville. On Sunday we just made the drive back, and relaxed at home...I think I fell asleep about 8:30 after all the excitement of the weekend.