After what seemed like the longest week of dreary weather of all time, the clouds and rain finally cleared here on Thursday/Friday. Prior to the weather breaking, myself & Ruth, Karen & Tom Beatty & Pam & Joe Monahan got together for a dinner party up on the Chesapeake Bay at Jane Scott Norris' beautiful home. We all enjoyed a great evening. Amusingly, Ruth & I also spotted a Raccoon in Jane's neighborhood while en route to her house, so the wildlife must have known we were all convening! On Thursday, I was very excited to see that our own Karen Beatty & her husband Tom had made it out to Rudee Inlet on Thursday and sighted a pair of Common Eiders close in to shore, a very uncommon sight around our area, though eBird doesn't state them as a rarity for some reason. Because of this sighting, one that many members followed up on Friday and re-sighted, I wanted to give it a shot on Saturday morning since this would be a 'life bird' for me, one that I've never photographed under my own definition of 'life bird'. Because its really been a few weeks since I got some good hiking in around the Hampton Roads area though, I first wanted to check out Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Even though the main walkways through the park are closed until the end of March, one can still get some miles under his/her belt along the beach and on the Loop Road & trails around the visitor center. So I headed down about 7:30 arriving at 8:10 or so in the AM.
I parked in my typical spot, and I started on the Bayside Trail, seeing quickly that there was limited waterfowl out in the bay, and it was also very far out. A few Tundra Swans could be seen, but the smaller ones were hard to ID other than a few stray Gadwall & Pied-billed Grebes. I walked the Bay Trail out to the point and back, seeing a Belted Kingfisher that had been disturbed by whomever left their footprints in the frosty trail just ahead of me. (Later found him at the point observing an Osprey across the bay). Nothing much was visible along the trail aside from the very numerous Yellow-rumped Warblers; no kinglets of either species (Ruby or Golden-crowned) were seen this time. A Northern Flicker was set up in the same tree near the east end of the trail that I'd previously photographed with MC Miguez a few weeks back. In the same spot, what I believe was a Sharp-shinned Hawk juvenile took off from the ground and flew quickly out of sight into the trees. I never seem to get close enough to ID these guys before they're gone. Off the Bay Trail, I walked the Loop Road counterclockwise (assuming north is 12 o'clock), and spotted a couple of Hooded Mergansers off in the marshes, a few Mallards, and some Song & White-throated Sparrows just off the roadway. No Field Sparrows were present along the east side of the loop like they will be hopefully soon. A stray Blue Jay and Northern Mockingbird added to my list though here. I walked the boardwalk out onto the beach and was surprised to find that there were almost no birds in the air, no pelicans or cormorants, and just a couple of Sanderlings running the shoreline.
I thought perhaps a Snow Bunting might make an appearance on the dunes, but didn't get that lucky. I walked once more out and back along the Bay Trail but didn't find anything new this time. I also walked along the small freshwater pond hoping the increasingly famous American Bittern might be out, but couldn't locate it. After, I left Back Bay about 9:30 AM, and I stopped at Little Island Park just to sneak out to the kayak launch area across the main road. I immediately spooked a Cooper's Hawk that I hadn't seen perched nearby. I could see a few ducks out on the water so crept around to the next trail access south to get in a better spot with the sun. When I reached the water, there was a mixed flock of American Wigeon, Hooded Merganser, Gadwall, American Black Duck, and Pied-billed Grebe together. Unfortunately, the Hoodies must have spotted me even though I was in thick cover, and the flock took to the air, landing further south on this small cove of Back Bay. So again I headed northward up through Sandbridge, where I found a Merlin (my FOY in Virginia Beach) perched up on a power line along the main road. I swung around a couple times to get a few photos of it from the driver seat, and then kept on. The Merlin had some bird species in its talons but I could not tell what it was, my best guess is a Starling just due to the size comparison of their feet.
Rudee Inlet was the next stop, where I pulled in along the north side of the inlet at the resort area. I could see almost immediately the 2 blobs riding the waves up and down & soon confirmed them as the Common Eiders that Karen Beatty had sighted the other day. A new life bird for me! The sun was making it impossible to get any photographs so I drove around into the Croatan neighborhood on the south side of the inlet. Parking & walking out the public access (about 1/2 mile south of the inlet), then heading up to the inlet. I could see them in a perfect spot, and there was another fellow with a scope or camera situated along the southern jetty, (I'd later find out it was Walter Williams from Facebook posts). I set up quickly behind the small sheet-pile jetty on the south side, and set my lens on top to conceal most of me but still give me a view. Almost immediately, a wave came in and washed right over the jetty, soaking my lens in the process. As I stumbled to clean off the lens with my shirt, and to try to knock off the water that hadn't yet soaked into my clothes, some beachgoers' dog broke away from them and jumped into the water, chasing the Common Eiders off into the air (they headed north after rounding the outside of the jetty). So that was that, a bit of a bummer, but still was excited to have seen them. I couldn't believe how it ended up turning out, when I was so sure that I was going to get some excellent close up shots of the beautiful birds just moments before. Just goes to show you that there are no guarantees in birding!
After leaving Rudee, I drove up north through the Oceanfront (17th Street is under construction at Pacific Avenue, making an annoying detour down Atlantic), and then down Shore Drive up and over to Pleasure House Point Natural Area. With how sunny & beautiful out it was, I just hoped that something neat might show up. I walked the park east to west, parking at Dinwiddie Drive and seeing many Gadwall on the small stormwater retention pond nearby. The mudflats were slightly visible, and a big group of 42 Brant were sitting out on them, and in the nearby waters. Another FOY in Virginia Beach for me, though others have posted about them being present in the past couple of weeks. Aside from the Brants, the top birds for me here was a group of Hooded Mergansers / Buffleheads & a Ruddy Duck in close on the largest of the "freshwater" ponds towards the west end of the park. There were also a Great Egret and 4 Snowy Egrets feeding very close to the ducks, kind of surprising to me since the Snowys are usually all the way across the creek near the golf course's north end. On my way back eastward, in the location where I'd begun seeing the Nelson's Sparrows a couple months ago (haven't seen any recently), I found a perched Cooper's Hawk that I redeemed myself on after scaring one earlier in the day before I could spot it.
I took many shots of this one as it sat up in a cedar (or something very lookalike to a cedar) out in the sandy meadow to the north of the trail. The Brants were all still out on the flats when I returned, with a few Dunlin, and a Willet mixed in for good measure. I walked up and around the stormwater pond at Dinwiddie just to get some shots of the Gadwall flock that likes the pond in the winter. As I was photographing them against the beautiful golden backdrop of the winter marsh reeds, an American Bittern came creeping out of nowhere just behind them in the grasses, a lucky catch! My final stop of the day was the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel's first island. Two Common Eiders were both present, as had been the few days prior thanks to eBird reports, and I was very excited to make that 4 of them on the day after having seen the first of my life just hours before! Several other birders were present (Karen & Keith Roberts and Karen Kearney also). Karen & I got some great looks at both birds over the next hour and a half or so, and I also got to add a Purple Sandpiper that landed on the rocks nearby. There was Buffleheads, Red-breasted Merganser, and Long-tailed Ducks also present off the north end of the island and lots of Gannets cruising by. We also got good looks at a River Otter that was swimming around in the protected waters just west of the point, a first for me out on the islands! This otter first appeared to just be debris, but it started moving and it was clear that it had a very large fish in its mouth, a very neat sighting, and a great way to finish off the day. I spent the remainder of Saturday going through the 350+ photographs that I took from all across Virginia Beach, and I counted out 50 species of birds seen on the day, quite a day for staying in my home city!
After seeing some great photographs of River Otters at Stumpy Lake, Ruth wanted to see if we could find them, so on Sunday we left our apartment around 8 AM and went down just to check it out. Stumpy Lake has changed drastically since the last time I was out there, with the entire shoreline along the roadway having been cleared of trees so the spillway and embankment could be strengthened with heavy rock armoring. It just looks desolate now to me, but at least they put in a fishing pier that people can use now, rather than fishing from 2 feet off the road like before as the cars whizzed by. Anyway, no Otters were present unfortunately, and I think maybe people are seeing them in an area with clear 'no trespassing' signs posted, so I don't think I'll be returning to try and find them unless I hear otherwise. We did see a Mallard and some Double-crested Cormorant, and Ring-billed Gulls but that was about it. So we left, and drove down into Chesapeake to see the area the Caracara had been sighted a couple weeks ago, just in the hope that maybe it came back after all the crowds had left the area weeks ago; no luck! I wanted to drive down Princess Anne Road to try and find an American Kestrel, just to add it to my Virginia Beach list for 2014, which is now at 169 species after having added Merlin, Brant, and Common Eider on Saturday. Heading south on PA Road, I did find a Kestrel, and as I was photographing it from the driver's seat, Ruth pointed out that we were actually across the border in North Carolina, having crossed just 100 yards or so prior, so this Kestrel clearly was just toying with me. I was bummed at first but then laughed, since it was still such a beautiful bird to be able to find, no matter what boundaries it was found in. But, still sitting at 169 with a few days left in the year! We drove down to the Knott's Island Causeway, where we saw a good number of waterfowl, most notably a big raft of American Coots / Redheads / Gadwall, and Tundra Swans off the north side of the observation platform. Ruth used my camera to shoot some Great Blue Herons out of her side of the car as we drove slowly down the causeway. On the way back north, we saw a couple of Red-tailed Hawks perched along power poles, wires, and up in trees, but no Kestrels unfortunately. We got home just in time to get cleaned up before about noon, so I could go watch some football with a buddy. I was very happy to get such a great weekend outdoors, I needed it after the past few weeks!