With Daylight Savings Time coming to a close this past weekend, it was a rough work week to get through, knowing that I couldn't make it out birding at all in the evenings. I was beyond ready to get out the door this morning, and hit Back Bay's parking area right around 7 AM. Temperatures were down in the 30s around Hampton Roads over night, and it stayed nice and cool this morning, which really seemed to cut down on the number of visitors to the park. By the time I left around 10 AM, there was still only 4 or 5 vehicles in the main lot, which is great for viewing wildlife. The waterfowl have started showing up now to the park, and the main impoundments are now closed off to the public. I saw a mixed group of Wood Ducks, Ring-necked Ducks, Pied-billed Grebes, and Buffleheads off the Loop Road near the West Dike gate. There was also Northern Pintail, Gadwall, Mallard, American Black Ducks in the area northwest of the parking area. Out over the water, the massive blob of Tree Swallows that have taken up residence at the park could be seen swirling back and forth, and eventually they overtook the entire parking area, it was incredible to see and hear them all streaming by continuously. The Bay Trail was packed with Yellow-rumped Warblers, and should stay this way for a while. Also along the trail I saw a couple of Golden-crowned Kinglets (one showing a good amount of red in addition to it's Golden crown), Carolina Wren & Chickadee, and standard Red-winged Blackbirds. A few Tundra Swans were visible from the very end of the trail, probably a mile or so south on the bay. The Loop Road held a number of Chipping Sparrows, which added to the Swamp and Song Sparrows I'd see near the visitor center.
A pair of White-tailed Deer also showed up as I was walking this stretch. It's really nice now that the dikes are closed, and there is basically no foot traffic along the gravel roadways leading up to the gates. I'd initially planned to walk the beachfront south towards False Cape, but I'd neglected to think about just how directly the sun in the early morning shines right at your face walking south. So I opted out of this and just did about a half hour sit, seeing numerous groups of ducks streaming south (a bit too far out for my camera to help me ID, though they looked like Green-winged Teals). Northern Gannets have also returned and a few strayed close to shore. Royal & Forster's Terns were seen, though I believe the Royals will be moving southward out of the area pretty soon. While heading back towards the parking area, I finally caught up with the American Bittern that has showed itself over the last several years in the same spot. After I'd found the Bittern, I ran back to the end of the Bay Trail where a couple of other birders were set up with spotting scopes. The one had mentioned he was hoping to find a bittern, so I wanted to give him a shot at doing so. After I got them on the bittern, I asked if they used listserver or eBird and introduced myself. The first gentleman knew who I was from my postings and turned out to be William Leigh (who I'd later realize is actually the current #2 eBirder in Virginia with about 280 species, the American Bittern being a new one!). The other birder also turned out to be Andrew Baldelli, which I found very amusing since he'd corrected some of my sparrow sightings just that week (Nelson's versus Saltmarsh). I wish I could have stayed out all day today, it was a beautiful one, and lots of species can be tallied at the park now with all the variety of bird families that have showed up! If you've never been, now is a great time to head to Back Bay.
After a beautiful day yesterday in the region, clouds came in over night and made it a tougher morning for birding than Saturday was. With overcast skies I opted not to go back down to Back Bay NWR since it is about a 40 minute drive (and with questionable skies, it is hard to get excited for the long drive). Instead, I went up to Pleasure House Point (a 20 minute drive) in the hopes of catching some birds just after the low tide had hit earlier in the dark hours of the morning. A good number of species, and individuals were present, the most interesting sighting (to me at least) was a flyover of a beautiful American Bittern as I was talking to fellow Lisa Rose. Just prior to this I'd had a Clapper Rail come flying out of the marsh and land nearby, but it hid under the reeds and I never got another look at it, just the continuous cackles filling the air. The Nelson's Sparrows that are being continually seen were very numerous right at the high tide line of the salt-marshes. Getting photographs of them however was much tougher, though a few did stay up on their respective reeds long enough for an identifying shot. Thankfully, out of a lot of photographs, a few did come out good enough to post. Waterfowl have really started showing up around the region in the last week or so, and about 10 or so Buffleheads, and another dozen Hooded Mergansers were present along Pleasure House Creek up near the northwest end of the park.
Also, a group of 4 American Black Ducks was situated along the creek near a settlement of Great & Snowy Egrets. A pair of Osprey that has overwintered in the area was also seen overhead in this area, and a Great Blue Heron added to the species. Tree Swallows in large numbers (though much less than the group at Back Bay) were also present, and it was fun to watch them drinking along the surface of the creek and then perching off in the marsh grasses. I had one flyover of a beautiful Cooper's Hawk, though it arrived right out of the sun, and immediately banked across the creek when it saw me on the trail. I got one identifying photograph as it made it's final turn up into a tree to perch about 100 yards away. Other birds along the hike included a pair of Clapper Rails flushing from their marshy hiding spot, and numerous Yellow-rumped Warbler, though that was about it for the songbirds. After leaving the “Point”, I drove up to the first island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel complex and walked around the first island (South Thimble Island). I was hoping to find a few species of ducks, but I may be a bit early on that. However, I was excited to find a lone Wood Duck sitting out on the water west of the fishing pier, which was very surprising to me. I expected scoters, mergansers, bufflehead, long-taileds, and other sea faring ducks, not a dabbling species that would much rather be sitting on a small backwater pond protected by surrounding woodlands.
Seeing one way out in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay's mouth was definitely unexpected. I did get a flyover of 3 Black Scoters also, but that was really it for the birds, no Purple Sandpipers, and only a lone Ruddy Turnstone was the only shorebird that I was able to find. I did have a lone Yellow-rumped Warbler flying around and landing on the chain linked fence as well, another bird I was not expecting to see all the way out there on the exposed island. It was still worth the $13 toll just to have the information that the main duck species have not yet showed up. I'm looking forward to seeing folks post their sightings when they do! Over the weekend also, a Western Kingbird was sighted up on the Eastern Shore, and I heard of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher that had showed up somewhere around Yorktown as well. So the birds are really showing up around the region now, so hopefully this next week will be a good one though I again expect to only get out hiking on the weekends from here on into about March of 2015 with the sun setting so early in the day and me being stuck in the office until that time anyway Monday through Friday. I'm starting to plan for taking my first Pelagic outing on one of Brian Patteson's trips out of Hatteras, North Carolina. These trips are all in February, and this past year, a Yellow-nosed Albatross was among the birds that was seen. Hopefully I'll get signed up for that in the next week or so, so many opportunities for adding to my life list are on the horizon.