With my engagement weekend having gone the way I'd hoped, I had a whole week of work to look forward to (ugh). I was anticipating another Monday through Thursday of not being able to get outdoors since the sun is setting around 6 or 6:15 PM now. However, thanks to a 2:00 meeting at the City of Virginia Beach on Wednesday that got out at 3:00, I was able to book it home & change clothes, then head up to Pleasure House Point for a short walk. I arrived about 4:15 to Marlin Bay Drive and headed into the park, just excited that on a 75-80 degree day at the end of October I was still able to get out after work hours. The first bird I came across was a cackling Belted Kingfisher that I located far out over the creek. The ponds near the access trail were both empty for a change, typically I'll see Great Blue Herons, or at least some Yellow-crowned Night-Herons along the shorelines. This is the second outing in a row that no Night-Herons showed up, so I'm thinking that the last of them have now headed south and I won't see any in Hampton Roads until the 3rd week of March at the earliest when they migrate back. There was a discussion a while back as to why the Yellow-crowns leave us, but the Black-crowns remain, and it was mentioned that perhaps since the Yellow-crowns feed mainly on crabs, they leave as the crabs go into hibernation, while the Black-crowns, which tend to eat fish, are still able to catch enough prey to survive. I don't know if it's scientifically accurate, but it made logical sense to me at least. Regardless of the reasons for their departure, they will be missed through the next few months!
While walking along the shoreline I caught up with Kathy Spencer and a gentleman named Randy who was visiting from Roanoke. Both were in search of the Nelson's Sparrows that have been being sighted around the park lately. I showed them a couple of spots where I'd been frequently seeing them, and we watches as a few unidentifiable sparrows moving through the marsh grasses. It was approached low tide so the birds could hide lower in the reeds, making them tough to get good looks at. While watching for them, we saw a Bald Eagle chasing an Osprey that held a fish, and as they flew towards the Lesner Bridge, all the gulls out on the mudflats lifted off at the same time, filling the sky for a few minutes, it was quite amazing to view. I headed off east towards the new pier, and right before I reached it, after a few circles, I got a good look and a photograph of a Saltmarsh Sparrow along the reedy shoreline. I walked back westward to the spot where the 3 of us had been looking for the Nelson's, and surprisingly spotted a Clapper Rail just across the near creek that was walking slowly along the water's edge. Kathy & Randy both walked back towards where I was at, but it disappeared just as Randy arrived. However, a few minutes later it came back out, and stayed in sight for quite a while. Then a second one swam across from right in front of us and ran into the marsh near the first one's location. I couldn't believe it. Under good lighting conditions, it would have made for great photography, but being that it was probably closing in on 5:45 PM, the sun was very low, and hidden by some clouds, making photographs tough, but seeing them clearly was something else! While standing there, a sparrow finally showed itself by walking along the mudflat, where we could finally get a good look. I confirmed this one as a Nelson's with a very orange chest and lacking black striping down the stomach like the Saltmarsh Sparrows have. Randy headed east, and Kathy and I headed back west, surprisingly finding a single Greater Yellowlegs out on the next stretch of low-tide-shown-mudflat. When she headed up to Marlin Bay Drive at the first cut-in, I had parked at the next one between the two large ponds so I kept going. On the final pond, a lone American Black Duck was swimming slowly right out in the middle. This is the first one I've seen in a while, and hopefully a glimpse of what's to come soon to the park, which will be full of waterfowl during the wintertime. It's just a matter of when they begin showing up!
On Friday, I made it out for probably my last friday evening outing before Daylight Savings Time officially ends here in Virginia late Saturday night, and the sun will begin setting at 5 PM (wahhhh!). I got out of work at 3 and did a little Halloween walk around Back Bay NWR to close out the season. After sunset, the East Dike road will now be closed to visitors until next summertime. The West Dike road will open up again on April 1, 2015. Until then, the only areas open to the public are the trails immediately around the parking area, the Loop Road up to the waterfowl observation blind, and the beachfront all the way to the North Carolina border. These areas are all open year-round. Anyways, I wanted to get one last walk in along the East Dike before it closed up for the winter. I first walked the close trails, seeing a few Yellow-rumped Warblers and a small (probably still 500 or more birds) murmuration taking flight around the visitor center. A continuous stream of Tree Swallows flew from south to north the entire 2 hours & 20 minutes I was there, probably number in the thousands.
The wind was really whipping out of the northeast so the water in the bay was very very low as this direction of wind causes it to flow southward towards Currituck/Albemarle/Pamlico Sounds faster than the tide pushes it back in. With the north wind I walked out on to the beach thinking something might have blown in close to shore, and a few Northern Gannets (FOS) were seen but still pretty far out. Some Sanderlings were the only shorebirds present, and one of them was banded, so I'll be interested to see what information I get back on that one. After getting off the windblown beach I headed down the East Dike. Along the way I saw a number of Golden-crowned Kinglets and I also found a lone Clapper Rail next to a freshwater ditch about 3/4 mile south of the waterfowl blind. I've seen a number of King Rails in the park, due in part to the abundance of freshwater (though the bay is slightly saline), but this is the first Clapper I've seen here (since they seem to prefer saltmarsh and brackish habitats). Also got a look at an adult & immature Bald Eagle sitting out on one of the impoundments. Then to close out the walk I had a close encounter with a Great Blue Heron, and got to watch it capture a very large (~12 inch) Largemouth Bass before I headed back up to the parking area. It's been such a great year down at Back Bay for me, this was my 29th visit to the park in 2014 (annual pass to federal lands has become the best Christmas gift my fiance has ever gotten me!). I'm up to 121 species in the park this year and hopefully we'll be able to uncover a few more as we get into the final 2 months of 2014 tomorrow. I will greatly miss being able to take the long walks down to False Cape State Park until springtime, but when it comes around, I'll be excited to have my favorite area open again (the West Dike).
Over the weekend, we had a very strong coastal storm form offshore and brush by us on it's way northeastward along the East Coast. Saturday at about 7 PM, the tides hit a maximum level of 5.04 feet (above MLLW, mean-lower-low-water, which is the yearly average of the daily lowest tide). This is the highest tide we've had since October 10, 2013 when another strong nor'easter brushed us, caused moderate tidal flooding around the region. This very high tide, and the storm itself cause interesting effects on the local wildlife. For example, this weekend, with the very high tides, the Nelson's Sparrows at Pleasure House Point became very visible since they had to retreat to the highest portion of the reeds they like to feed on. Also, with the high winds, Parasitic Jaegers were sighted offshore be several people on eBird observing from the Virginia Beach Oceanfront at Rudee Inlet, and at Dam Neck Naval Annex as well. The weather could bring some interesting sightings in the next days as well, so I'll be keeping an eye out!