Last week set the bar high for rarities in Virginia Beach with the American White Pelicans, Iceland Gull and Western Tanager being seen over the weekend, and the nearby Snowy Owl in the East Beach neighborhood of Norfolk. This week started off with a bang on Monday, as John A. observed and photographed a Prairie Warbler at the campground area of First Landing State Park and sent the images in to me. Prairie Warblers are common summer residents in Virginia Beach but there has never been a February record that I was able to find. The only other record for the entire state of Virginia in February was an individual seen 6 Feb 2008 at Eyre Hall in Northampton County, so a very interesting unseasonal occurrence for the species. This year’s winter weather has been so mild that wood warblers seem to be surviving it locally in some cases. Throughout the remainder of the weekdays, the reports remained pretty standard for winter time, but that changed for the better when the weekend arrived. On Friday evening, the Snowy Owl was reported again in Norfolk, this time at the airport by Andrew Baldelli, and it was close to the road that wraps around the airport. I went up before sunset with hopes of finding the bird this time, but the trip ended unsuccessfully. On Saturday morning, there was a boat trip up to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel hosted by the Williamsburg Bird Club. Matt Anthony & James Fox did a little pre-trip birding down at Rudee Inlet and managed to pick up a first cycle Iceland Gull. That made at least 2 confirmed Icelands hanging around the oceanfront area this week. The boat trip itself proved a monumental success for the 60 passengers as well, with a highlight Black-legged Kittiwake being spotted on Island #3 (South Chesapeake Island) across the border in Northampton County, and also likely the same set of three Harlequin Ducks that have reported on the island since December. On the return trip to Lynnhaven Inlet, another Iceland Gull, also a first cycle but stated to be darker than the Rudee Inlet bird, was observed behind the boat in the chum slick. A group of about twenty Razorbills was also spotted on the water within Virginia Beach! On Sunday, the Northern Virginia Bird Club also hosted a trip to the islands, though no rarities were turned up by the land-based trip. The Harlequins were again spotted, and a single Common Goldeneye was observed on Island 3 (perhaps the same female from the early January HRWE outing?). A field trip at Grandview Beach turned up the area’s first Black-headed Gull on Sunday morning, mixed in with a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls and well documented by photographs from several individuals. A few other noteworthy sightings were the area’s first Red-necked Grebe on Saturday off Oceanview in Norfolk and a Eurasian Wigeon was posted in the Virginian Pilot newspaper as having taken up residency on Lake Wishart in Virginia Beach, but there is little public land to view from, with just two small pieces of road with slim views of the lake. A Common Goldeneye was also seen at Lake Trashmore (David Clark), and the leucistic Yellow-rumped Warbler at Back Bay NWR continues to appear in reports from around the visitor center. More information on noteworthy observations within Virginia Beach can be found in this detailed table!
Given that the adult Iceland Gull had been seen on Sunday afternoon at the oceanfront, I made an attempt at chasing it on Monday on my lunchbreak. I parked down at 6th Street and walked out to the beach where the dredge pipe outfalls from Rudee Inlet. It was again running, of which I had been notified earlier by Karen Beatty, so my hopes were high. I spent 40 minutes around the pipe outfall, watching as plenty of gulls, primarily Ring-billeds, rooted around in the soil being dredged and picking out food. A good number of Lesser Black-backeds and a few Greats, as well as Herring Gulls were in the mix as well, but, no Iceland Gull was seen. Timothy Barry also arrived, hoping for the same bird, so at least I wasn’t alone in the endeavor. We did see a Bald Eagle, and some Bonaparte’s Gulls as well, with some scoters flying past out on the ocean, and even a few Red-breasted Mergansers. So while we didn’t get to see the Iceland, we did get a good number of species. On Wednesday, there was an article in the Virginia Pilot that mentioned a Eurasian Wigeon having been seen over in the Saw Pen Point area of Virginia Beach east of Independence Boulevard. After work, I drove over, hoping to find a spot to view the lake where it was seen, with only two very short sections of road providing sightlines. I didn’t find the wigeon, and so I searched the lake to the south of Lynnhaven House (an historic property owned by the city). Viewing through the woods as far as I could get before no trespassing signs were posted, I scanned the large pond, finding my first of year American Coot & Ruddy Ducks. Up until now I’ve put a pretty heavy emphasis on my Virginia Beach list, but I think it is time I bump up to the level of my Virginia state list instead. Those species were #120 & #121 for Virginia, since I’d seen Horned Grebes, Harlequin Ducks, and a Common Goldeneye in Northampton County during January. Those 3 species I’m still missing in Virginia Beach, so my state and county lists are 3 species apart from one another right now. The tough part about county lists, is there just isn’t a lot of habitat to seek out birds, whereas the concept of state lists opens it up somewhat, and more people readily compare their state lists with one another. I was pleased to add the two species to my yearly lists, so this chase came out just fine, though of course, I didn’t find the target rarity in the Eurasian Wigeon. After this, there was a screening at 7:15 PM at the Naro theatre in Norfolk of an environmental film called “The Messenger” that I, and many other birders went to, including noteworthy folks like Bob Ake & Ned Brinkley. It was an eye-opening film about how populations of many species of birds have utterly crashed over the last half century, so while the footage of birds was enjoyable, it was hard to leave with a smile realizing that much work is to be done to help return these populations to even fractions of their former numbers. There was a question & answer session hosted after the film by a few members of the birding community, including a professor from William & Mary, Bob Ake, who has birded the world, and has an ABA (American Birdign Association) area count of near 800 species I believe. Also, Lisa Barlow of Wildlife Rehabilitators, Inc. was there to answer questions about rehabbing of birds. So while the film definitely left some sadness in my eyes, it was still a good experience, and I highly enjoy the Naro since it is an old style theatre, one of the last in our area.
I opted not to go out on Thursday or Friday since the chasing just wasn’t working. However, as mentioned above, when Friday came around, there was a sighting of the Snowy Owl in Norfolk, and I was basically forced to make chase, again coming up empty handed! After that, I pretty much decided that chasing after rare bird sightings is not good for me, I drop everything I’m doing only to race to a location with heart thumping, but most often unable to find the target bird. So, with that in mind, I was looking forward to the weekend when I could spend more time just enjoying the outdoors, and hoping to come across something on my own. So, on Saturday morning, I took a trip down to Back Bay NWR with hopes of finding a few species I’ve yet to see in 2016. Targets included Orange-crowned Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Canvasback, White-winged Scoter, and Horned Grebe. Also, whatever other species might pop up along the beach, like any of the white winged gulls. My first sighting of the day was of a striking male Common Yellowthroat, a species I don’t often come upon during the winter, and when I do, it has always been female birds so this was a colorful surprise. In walking the Bay Trail out and back, the birds seemed pretty quiet, though there was good numbers of Tundra Swans on the near bay, and plenty of Snow Geese flying northward above me as well. A surprising lack of other waterfowl though, with Gadwall, American Wigeons and a few Canada Geese interspersed among the Tundra Swans. I had one Marsh Wren making some noise off to the side of the trail, but really the smaller species didn’t want to come out. On the way back towards the Bayside Trail, I caught sight of the leucistic Yellow-rumped Warbler that so many folks have observed through the winter in that vicinity. I didn’t get much of a photograph, but, it was neat to see this mostly white (not albino) bird. Walking the Bayside Trail, I spooked a very close White-tailed Deer, which basically gave me a heart attack as it moved quickly into the phragmites next to the boardwalk and disappeared. Scanning the shoreline didn’t yield any American Bitterns, and to my surprise, no Northern Harriers were out soaring above the marshes. In fact, I can’t recall the last time I saw them here, which is highly unusual in winter when they’re typically seen every outing. Around the parking area, Northern Mockingbirds, Northern Cardinals, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Field Sparrows, and Song Sparrows were all seen, with the sparrows favoring the eastern side of the lot just across the wooden fence. No unusual birds were seen on the Kuralt Trail, just some overhead Cedar Waxwings. With the relative lack of birds, I opted to try something I hadn’t fully planned on doing: I decided to walk the beach all the way to False Cape State Park and back.
It had been a while since I’d done the 3.5 mile beach walk to the False Cape boundary, but Saturday felt like the right time to try it out. All week I’d been doing quick, short duration trips to multiple sites to bird, and frankly, it is nice just get absorbed within a single location, seeking out all the birds it has to offer. So Saturday felt right for the beach. My hope was that perhaps some of the shorebirds I haven’t yet seen (Willet, Black-bellied Plover, Red Knot) this year might be hiding out further south where most people just don’t venture. On the way southbound, I had a couple folks ahead of me the whole time (always a bummer since they often scare birds off first), and the gator (large amphibiousesque vehicle) passed me while transporting a tour group of some sort to False Cape. I scanned the ocean’s horizon as I walked, noting good numbers of Red-throated and Common Loons in flight & on the water, but no grebes were observed. It just hasn’t been a good year for Horned Grebes thus far, perhaps we just aren’t quite far enough into the winter yet? The walk actually went by pretty quickly, and before I knew it, I’d arrived at the boundary line, having spotted 37 Sanderlings and a single Killdeer to round out the shorebirds. No Willets, Plovers, or Red Knots sadly. I turned back northward and kept up the pace while looking in all directions. I passed the same Killdeer again, though it flew off over the dunes this time. Gulls were only out in small numbers, with the standard 5 species (Ring-billed, Herring, Lesser & Great Black-backed, and Bonaparte’s) all present, and also a solid number of Forster’s Terns flying offshore. Northern Gannets, Double-crested Cormorants & Brown Pelicans were also all observed; no American White Pelicans this week though, drat. A few small groups of Scoters were moving along the horizon at maximum binocular range, and some Red-breasted Mergansers could also be seen. The good thing with this is that I’m now confident in picking out these distant groups of ducks in flight, which has been helped greatly my ‘Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching’ Christmas gift. Being able to pick out minor details of distant birds in flight is truly an art, something that is often lost on most folks that just want a pretty picture, so I’m happy to be learning these skills as I progress slowly from a photographer to a true birder. I took the Dune Trail back to the Loop Road and then headed to the car, having walked about 8 miles on the outing in total, and I got one final sightings, a beautiful White-tailed Deer that stayed in view long enough for me to take in the sight before hopping into the thick brush. After Back Bay, I decided to just head back home since my legs were essentially beaten down from the walk, and frankly, I’d been hitting the outings really hard the last few weekends so calling it a day in early afternoon was a nice change of pace.
Sunday arrived, and cloudy and cold weather was the headliner. With the Iceland Gull having been seen by James Fox & Matt Anthony on Saturday, I opted to do a quick check at Rudee Inlet, hoping the bird might still be hanging around. Though I spent only about 10 minutes at the inlet due to the intense wind, blowing about 25 mph out of the northeast, I did pick up plenty of gulls, but, surprise surprise, no Iceland. A Common Loon provided nice views in the harbor, and scoters and Red-throated Loons provided distant binocular views over the ocean. From Rudee, I quickly headed up to First Landing State Park’s 64th Street entrance, parked, and headed into the park. This weekend, my brain was apparently working backwards, since I’ll usually doing the northern half of Virginia Beach on Saturday, followed by the southern half on Sunday. Since Whitehurst Tract hasn’t been all that great at this point in the season though, I decided I could skip it, so my schedule could be flipped since it typically is the determining factor, being open only on Sundays to birding. This weekend, I didn’t have my good luck charm (my wife) with me, so I didn’t expect much out of First Landing. In walking the Cape Henry and Osprey Trails to White Hill, I was very excited to pick up my first Hermit Thrush of the year (VA #122!). During winter when the Hermits aren’t singing, they are much tougher to spot, but when spring comes around, it is impossible not to hear them. This individual was barely moving through a thicket when I spotted it, and I did grab some nice photographs of it given the overcast skies and utter lack of light. Along with this thrush, two other family members were seen in great numbers, those being Eastern Bluebirds & American Robins. The robins specifically were foraging throughout the park in huge flocks, and several hundred birds were likely seen, though there was no way to count them as they weaved incessantly through the forest canopy, grabbing red berries off Holly (?) trees. Earlier in the hike I picked up a few more Fox Sparrows as well, and spent time listening to their calls to hopefully imprint them into my memory. These birds are likely present much more than they are observed since they favor thick vegetation, and are hard to notice even when putting in the effort to do so. At First Landing, aside from the Hermit Thrush, I was still hoping for my first Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-headed Woodpecker, and maybe a Pine Siskin like I’d seen back in December here. Though none of those species materialized, I know they’re around, and with some luck, I hope to find them. Walking from White Hill back along the Long Creek Trail, I did also get to see some White-breasted Nuthatches, and a single Brown Creeper that were all moving along with a feeding flock of Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice. Red-winged Blackbirds had joined up with some of the American Robin flocks, and I tried hard to turn some of them into Rusty Blackbirds, but that skillset is just outside my capabilities; I can’t see what isn’t there.
Having knocked out a nice 5 mile walk to kick off the morning, I headed over to the first island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel next. Now, I had plans to visit Pleasure House Point, but I wanted to do at low tide since shorebirds were my hope there. With high tide having been at 7:50 AM, I figured heading up to the first island would be good for killing an hour or so, giving the water levels a bit longer to drop so the mudflats and sandbars were more open real estate to birds. Heading up to the island, there was plenty of scoters just off the beach, though I couldn’t pick out any White-wingeds while driving 55 mph. At the island itself, I assume my typical parking spot at the extreme southeast corner and then walked the full perimeter out and back, including the pier. While walking with the strong winds in my face, a fast moving Great Cormorant buzzed right past me before I could get my camera on it, the second time in a row this has happened! From then on, I held fast to the camera. The loyal flock of Ring-billed Gulls held tight to the rocks at the northeast corner of the island, which was surprising to me since that was the side taking the full force of the winds. Another interesting realization hit me at that time; nearly all of the Ring-billeds are full adult birds, and I’m surprised I’ve never really taken note of it before. I’m not sure why, perhaps the 1st or 2nd cycle birds just don’t have the strength to handle winters on the island? Off the northern point were four Long-tailed Ducks (3 male, 1 female), a few Buffleheads, and a single Surf Scoter. Some Red-breasted Mergansers and Red-throated Loons were observed on flybys as well. The Northern Gannets were putting on a show with the high winds taking them across the skies with ease, so I went out to the end of the pier where I could get closest to them. The overcast conditions and high speed movements made it tough for photographs, but it was fun to watch as they whizzed by in my binoculars.
From the furthest point on the pier, I walked back to the island then turned southward. After passing around the restaurant, I found a group of Purple Sandpipers feeding on the rocks, with Ruddy Turnstones also nearby. A single, stoic looking Great Black-backed Gull was sitting on the large concrete platform here, with no other gulls nearby. At the far southwest corner of the island, I decided to scan the nearest bridge abutment south of the island about 100 yards or so. Maybe it was my inexperience in the past, or maybe they just aren’t usually there, but I was able to pick out two Great Cormorants on the abutment, mixed in a larger group of Double-crested Cormorants. Their larger heads, and white on the face helped set them apart from the group, and I took some extremely cropped photographs of the birds, enough to show that there were at least 2 in view of the island simultaneously, the most I’ve ever seen here. Usually they are found in higher numbers on islands 2, 3, and 4, but those are not accessible to the public without a paid police escort, therefore typically only used by tour groups that help break the per person price up a bit. I walked the perimeter of the island again back towards the car, seeing the same birds again, but this time, I spotted a Great Comorant flying towards me in time to get the camera on it! Finally, some nice shots of one in flight as it cruised on by me, though of course some sunlight would have gone a long way, but, still the best shots I’ve ever gotten of one, so something to be excited about. I scanned pretty hard to the eastern horizon, but no Horned or Red-necked Grebes were seen on the water. Interestingly, David Clark had seen a Red-necked over at Oceanview in Norfolk, which was the first one seen around the bay for the year. Perhaps they will start to show up now, though, the Great Lakes are now only at 4% frozen surface area, which doesn’t bode well for these birds being forced to the coasts. I think this is a good part of why the waterfowl numbers have seemed severely down in Virginia Beach this winter. Last year, the ice reached values of 90% or so, as it did the year prior, so we had two great winters in a row of waterfowl, leading to this year’s slow down. Of course, it is still early February, and there is a couple more weeks of winter here before March’s typical warmup. I do enjoy the winter, but I look forward each February to the beginning of March because of the extra hour of evening sunlight brought to us by Daylight Savings Time. Once that hits, I’m once again able to get out for walks in the evening after work, and it usually helps me drop some of my winter weight acquired from all my less athletic winter birding outings. At least this weekend though, I did get 16 miles of walking in. Back to the island though, after seeing the Great, I drove off towards Pleasure House Point.
Arriving at Dinwiddie Drive, some Gadwall and a Snowy Egret were observed from the car on the storm water pond, but no American Bittern was present. Walking out to the main point, I looked around the sandbar, surprised to not see any Black Skimmers, which have hung around this far into winter so far. Gulls, and a good number of Sanderlings surprised me, and I’m not even sure I’ve seen them at the park before. But, there was good number of them out there, likely 25+. I didn’t see any Oystercatchers either, or Pelicans, so I walked the main shoreline trail west to the end of the park and then back eastward. I found the pair of Little Blue Herons still present in the same vicinity as they have been ever since December when I’d first seen one of them on the 12th. A collection of Red-breasted Mergansers were feeding in the creek, and interestingly a group of Bonaparte’s Gulls, and a single Forster’s Tern were feeding right above them, landing on the water and/or diving into it in the case of the tern. There must have been a school of small fish present to attract these three species. In walking the trails, I actually got some really nice photographs of a male Belted Kingfisher that held still and allowed me to get reasonably close. Typically kingfishers are the exact opposite of this behavior, flying off quickly, and cackling as they go as if mocking you for even trying to photograph them. On my way eastward, I ran into Ellison Orcutt, who is the eBird reviewer for the Richmond metro and surrounding counties. He was there with his girlfriend, Beth, and like me, they were hoping to see the Western Tanager that had been sighted the previous weekend, though not-resighted by anyone since. They mentioned that some Yellowlegs were around the next bend and we actually heard them call while talking, so I could have counted them there, but I still wanted to see them. Fortunately, I rounded the next bend just as some free-running dogs scared the yellowlegs into flight (#123). Yet again, beaten by dogs at this park, one reason it is often frustrating to try to birdwatch here. Now that Pleasure House Point is a city park, it is illegal to have dogs off-leash, but no one seems to enforce the regulations, and therefore no one follows them. How unusual. After catching back up with the yellowlegs, a birding group walked past me, and I heard the familiar ‘hello’ of one Matt Anthony. Matt was up at Grandview earlier in the morning, and had spotted a Black-headed Gull there. I had seen it reported in the Virginia Rare Bird text alert, so I was surprised to see him suddenly down in Virginia Beach. In a few weeks, we’re going out on a boat trip in via a private charter, so it was good to catch up with him before then, and be able to thank him for putting that trip together for the few of us going. More on that in a future post hopefully. From then on, the sightings were basically done, and though I did make a quick stop off at 88th Street Beach, hoping for my first of year White-winged Scoters, but unfortunately I didn't add anything new to my lists so I headed home. exhausted, but excited to have added 2 species on the day to my yearly lists. Until next week, 123 in Virginia, and 120 in Virginia Beach is where the numbers stand.