This is the final week before Daylight Savings Time moves us forward an hour, and gives me an extra hour of sunlight after work. I’ve been waiting for this to arrive for a while, so that I can actually get out walking and hiking on weeknights instead of just on weekends. The winter time is a rough time of year for me due to the inactivity it brings. I’ve never been one to go to the gym, as I’d much prefer to get my exercise outdoors, so when it’s dark at 4 PM every day, it can be rough on my body. March usually is the beginning of shredding some winter weight for me thankfully. This week we had an up and down one, though on Thursday night we did get a small amount of sleet mixed in with some snow, but not enough to cover the ground, so I’ll say we’re still at 3 snowfall events on the season, and hopefully we’re all done now. Not that I don’t like the snow, but I get annoyed by how it is handled, or not handled in this area. The residential streets don’t get plowed, the whole city basically shuts down, and I have to use time off if I can’t make it into the office, so, I will hope that we’re done with all the nonsense. We actually had snow on the ground for about 2 weeks straight, which is by far the most time I’ve ever seen it here. Usually, it’ll melt within a day or two, but the cold temperatures the last couple weeks didn’t allow for that to happen. After heading up to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel the past few Friday's after work, I finally was able to get a pair of birds I've been seeking all winter long.
Arriving at about 3:25 PM to the southeast corner, taking my usual spot in the parking lot, I could see a massive group of Scaup floating just on the other side of the fence. There was several hundred birds in this raft, and at least a couple of Redheads mixed in. While scanning the group, I saw one bird with a longer neck, and yellow bill, and knew it immediately as my very first Red-necked Grebe (and #116 in Virginia Beach this year)! I know many folks have seen them around the islands the past few weeks, due in large part to the harsh winter further north, and the Great Lakes having now almost completely frozen over. However, every time I looked for them, I came up empty, until today! While I was watching the grebe diving and popping back up about a minute later, a cormorant flew past just a hundred yards out or so. This one appeared different right off the bat, with large amount of white showing on the face, neck, and on the rump, this was a Great Cormorant (#117), and a second life bird in a span of just minutes! I snapped off a few in-flight shots as the Great Cormorant flew past (they're on my site at the link above), and I took a whole bunch of shots of the Red-necked Grebe as it was very close in to the island, well within 400mm range.
With taking so many shots though, holding plastic and metal barehanded, my hands started to freeze, so I walked the perimeter of the island to get the blood pumping a bit. Another large raft of Scaup was present on the east side of the northern point, with some Surf Scoters, Bufflehead, and a couple of Long-tailed Ducks further out in the channel. A few Black Scoters were also present in the raft after close inspection. Horned Grebe were also found around the island in higher numbers than I've seen thus far this season, and about 15 of them were seen on my walk. Heading out onto the fishing pier, I saw a Harbor Seal surface along the rocks behind the restaurant, and as I watched it dove back down into the depths. I walked out and back on the pier, and noted another Red-necked Grebe to the south, where I'd seen a couple of loons last week. Scaup were the only waterfowl present on the western side of the island, and it was sure something to watch as they rode up and down the huge, long period, waves streaming into shore. Walking back around the island yielded some nice looks at the Harbor Seal as it came back up, and followed the shoreline, getting swept "inland" on a few occasions by the rough waters, but catching the next wave and moving back outward. Another fellow was watching the birds from a car nearby and said he'd seen the grebes and Redheads as well.
I spent about a half hour just kind of pacing to warm up, walking the pier out and back a second time, and then heading back around towards my car. From near my car, I could see 4 Red-necked Grebes (some showing full red necks already) a couple hundred yards out in the water, which seemed amazing for me, having seen my first ever just an hour or so earlier in the day. I don't know if this is being considered an irruption year for the species, like we had last year, but they're definitely being reported around the area, and if I saw 4 today, I'd assume more folks will be seeing them over the weekend. I still could not locate any Harlequin Ducks, but I know they're out in the bay somewhere. Saturday was the second day in a row where we had beautiful blue skies with almost zero clouds over southeastern Virginia. Early in the morning I went up to First Landing State Park's 64th Street entrance in order to take full advantage of a beautiful Saturday outdoors. I parked at the corner of Pacific Avenue & 64th Street, then walked into the park. It had been awhile since I'd done a longer walk so I did one of my favorite routes through the park, walking the Cape Henry, Long Creek, Osprey trails to the far west end of the park and back, for a total distance of 9 miles. There was some sort of run/walk event going on, and therefore more folks in the park than on a typical outing unfortunately. Walking the Cape Henry Trail from the entrance westwards yielded a Pileated Woodpecker and a Downy Woodpecker, a few Carolina Chickadees and Northern Cardinals, as well as some Double-crested Cormorants out on Lake Susan Constant. Near the northwest side of the lake, my route cuts back to the roadway, then down onto the Long Creek Trail.
In this area I've had good luck seeing Hermit Thrushes in the past, but didn't see any today. Though, on my way out of the park, I spotted and photographed a Fox Sparrow at this site. The stretch from the roadway to the junction with the Osprey Trail is more or less straight for about a mile, and feeding flocks of songbirds are often encountered, but again, nothing was today. Walking the Osprey Trail towards the shores of Broad Bay, I kept my eyes peeled for any number of the Pine Warblers I could hear overhead in the tree canopy. However, it wasn't until much later in the walk that I'd finally put eyes on my first one of the year (#118). Also, in this stretch, I've seen a good amount of Red-headed Woodpeckers in the past, and this is my 3rd attempt this year to photograph some at the park that didn't turn any up. Perhaps some warmer weather will bring them out. Upon reaching Broad Bay I could see that it was about 50% frozen over, with large floes of ice actually sliding up onto the beaches thanks to the incoming tidal push. This is the first time I've ever heard the ice in Virginia Beach, though having grown up in Minnesota, I'm no stranger to the sounds. Several of the ice floes were moving around buoys and water level rods in the bay, knocking them backwards, but being split into two as they were pushed. With all the water iced up, there wasn't much in the way of ducks viewable, but some Buffleheads and Ruddy Ducks could be seen. Both tidal creeks that flow under wooden bridges were also frozen, so no birds were seen there. White Hill Lake was also completely frozen over on the surface, and a few Great Blue Herons were perched along the shoreline, with a couple of Hooded Mergansers visible in the creek right at the outlet site.
After crossing the large wooden bridge over the creek, the Long Creek Trail hits a junction with the White Hill Lake Trail, and I continued west along the Long Creek portion. The creek meanders through a salt marsh and then empties into the bay, and at this location a single Tundra Swan was sitting out on the water, I believe my first of the species at First Landing to date. Continuing westward, the waterway starts to constrict between the park shoreline and that of Bay Island. As it narrows, the currents get faster and faster, and therefore no ice existed on the surface here, allowing more Buffleheads, Ruddy Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, and a few Mallards a place to rest. It was here that I also saw my first Osprey of the year at the park, and a Belted Kingfisher that flew past cackling as it went. After I'd reached the far western extent of the park, I turned around and headed back east, picking out a Cooper's Hawk up in a tall pine tree after hearing it calling, the first time I've ever heard one of them as opposed to just seeing one. On the way back I got a second chance at seeing pretty much the same birds, but did find 2 Fox Sparrows in the underbrush along the trail as well, my second and thirds of the year after just my first last Saturday. The temperature had warmed up considerably from the 26 degrees earlier in the morning, and amazingly, in just an hour or two, the ice had almost completely melted on Broad Bay, with large amounts of floating slush being knocked onto the shoreline by the waves.
What a change in a such a short period of time. Over the rest of the walk, I noted some songbirds like Brown Thrasher and Carolina Wren, but nothing out of the ordinary made an appearance, so when I reached the car at 11:15 AM or so, I decided to try out Pleasure House Point. Once I arrived to Dinwiddie Drive and made my way onto the park's meadows I realized it was quite quiet. Just a few Gadwall were seen on the storm water pond with the concrete weir, and no birds could be seen at the outlet location to the creek. Most of the marsh grasses along the shoreline were completely knocked down which made it easy to see across the inland islands. Perhaps it was from the heavy snows we had last week and the week before, or perhaps it was from higher than normal tides from the low pressure systems that caused the snow, or perhaps it was a combination of the two, I'm not sure. Out of the mudflats, there are still plenty of Brant visible, and the three standard gulls (Ring-billed, Herring, Great Black-backed), but I couldn't pick out any shorebirds with my binoculars or camera lens.
I did have a Greater Yellowlegs fly over, and did also find 2 of them later in the walk with their obvious long bills and bigger stature than their Lesser cousins. Not too long ago the main portion of Pleasure House Creek was teeming with ducks of several species, but this portion of the creek was near empty today. A couple of Canada Geese could be seen across the way, and plenty of Northern Shovelers were around though. When I reached the far western edge of the park, a good number of Green-winged Teal were visible, some walking on the ice that remained in the final upstream bay prior to the creek going under Shore Drive, and many Northern Shovelers were also around. Walking back eastward I stuck to the 'inland" trails that cut through the woods, hoping to see something new. I did find a Red-tailed Hawk, soaring high over the park and heading out over the Chesapeake Bay to the north, which is a species I don't see a whole lot of in northern Virginia Beach, though I know they're not exactly a rare find. An Osprey soared past as well, probably one of the pair that has overwintered along the creek the past few years. The biggest surprise to me of the outing, was just how few people I saw on such a beautiful day. Not that I'm complaining though, as it was nice and peaceful in the park, which is most definitely not always the case seeing as how close to a major corridor it is. Only 1 Great Egret and 1 Great Blue Heron were sighted today, which is low for the park, and no Snowy Egrets this time. After reaching the car this time, I headed back home to grab some lunch, and to lay down to rest up a bit.
Sunday was the day I've been waiting for since early November, the switch to Daylight Savings Time which yields an added hour of sunlight in the evenings! As far as I'm concerned, it is the first day of Spring here in southeastern Virginia. I woke up about the same time as Saturday, though it was actually an hour later, and headed out the door en route to Back Bay NWR. They say your sense of smell is tied very strongly to memory in the brain, and this morning I can understand that a little better. Even walking to my car, something in the air just smelled like "Spring" to me. When I arrived at Back Bay NWR around 8:40 AM, the sun was up, the sky was very clear, save for a few ethereal looking clouds, and the temperatures started off the day about where they left off yesterday afternoon in the 40s. The wind was out of the south, which could be why the warm breeze felt so great. I walked from the visitor parking lot near the kayak launch along the Bay Trail after realizing there were no waterfowl visible from the lot. The short walk out along the Bay Trail was a quiet one, with just a few Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting back and forth across the trail. Most of the downed branches and trees from last week's snow have been cleaned up except for one that you still have to maneuver around. All of the snow is now essentially melted, except in very few, very shaded spots, but this should be the final day for it this season. From the first observation platform heading west, a group of ducks was visible far out, and it was mainly American Wigeon, but there were several Canvasbacks in the group as well, their bright white flanks, red head and sloping forehead visible at maximum binocular range on my 10x42s. This is the first group of Canvasbacks that I've ID'd on site, rather than from scouring through photographs after the fact, so I was excited to see them. Tundra Swans starting flying overhead, as did Snow Geese, and I probably saw several hundred during the course of time I was at the park, way up from my other outings this winter.
A group of American Coots was also out on the water off the west end observation area. After the Bay Trail, I usually walk the Loop Road, hugging the west side first while traveling south, then heading back north along the east side (counter-clockwise as I say). April 1st will be the day I can finally travel further into the park, when the West Dike Trail opens up, and the park starts charging admission again, but for the rest of the month, I'll have to stick with these few close in trails. Anyway, along the Loop Road, I was photographing (or trying to at least) some Song Sparrows on the shoulders, when I looked at the water next to me and saw a line of bubbles breaking the surface. I quickly ran ahead of them and set up, knowing that I was in for a treat. As I watched, a River Otter rose up out of the water, looked at me from only about 20 feet away, then dove back down and disappeared out into the marsh. I haven't seen any otters in the park since last winter when a few of them were actually out on the slushy ice from a storm. They're around all the time, but aren't seen often, much less than the Nutria that have overtaken the park in recent years. In a spot where the bay comes in close to the road, I caught sight of a King Rail that had darted onto the exposed mud, grabbed something, and was retreating back to safety. The walk around the Loop Road yielded more sparrows, Savannah, Swamp, and White-throated, as well as some Field Sparrows in the same spot on the east side that I see them on most outings. American Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds, Eastern Towhees, Blue Jays were all plentiful today along the road as well. At the gate to the West Dike, I could see a pair of Scaup a hundred yards or so south in the ditch, and a pair of American Coots were nearby as well. One Northern Flicker was the only woodpecker of the day, seen on the interior of the impoundment the road goes around. Heading up and over the dunes on the southern access, it had warmed up significantly, to the point where I could take my winter hat off.
With almost no breeze to speak of, the ocean was exceptionally calm. 1 or 2 foot waves were breaking right on shore, so there was no surf zone today, which allowed a few loons (both Common & Red-throated) to be in close. Northern Gannets, Brown Pelicans, and Double-crested Cormorants were all over the place, and there was also a raft of Red-breasted Mergansers (several hundred) just outside of 400mm lens range. Gulls were surprisingly rare, and only 1 Forster's Tern was seen over the ocean. On the beach itself, nothing was around, no Sanderlings even, so I didn't spend much time here, I headed back up and over the dunes on the northern access. I walked the Bay Trail one more time like usual, seeing the same common birds I'd seen on the first trip out. This time though I spotted a Bald Eagle out over the water, and a great number of Tundra Swans that were flying northward along the far western shore of the bay. The Canvasbacks were all still present, and some Ruddy Ducks, Pied-billed Grebes, American Black Ducks and Mallards were also out there, with some Gadwall as well. The last piece of the park I walked was the Kuralt Trail (boardwalk off the north side of the parking area), and no activity existed along the path, but a few Mallards were seen on the small cove that the trail leads too. Heading out from the park I noted 2 Ospreys perched up on one of their towers, these being the first of the species I've seen at the park this season. After leaving Sandbridge, I drove around through Pungo en route to Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area. Normally, I'll cut from Sandbridge Road onto New Bridge Road, then head south on Indian River to Muddy Creek Road, driving Charity Neck & Mason Neck roads on the way, but today there was construction on Indian River between New Bridge & Muddy Creek, so I had to go all the way around through "downtown" Pungo, taking Princess Anne Road south to Muddy Creek Road.
I drove around Muddy Creek Road to Horn Point Road, and checked out that area, which was devoid of any wildlife (at least any that I could see from a car). Heading south on Muddy Creek Road I spotted a single juvenile White Ibis in a roadside ditch, then also saw an American Kestrel, some Eastern Bluebirds, and tons of Robins out feeding on the residential lawns. Eventually I made it to Mason Neck Road, and then Munden Road, where the Whitehurst Tract is located. This park is only open on Sundays this time of year according to their website (http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wmas/detail.asp?pid=8) and requires a WMA access permit (please correct me if this information is not up to date). I've seen a lot of reports on eBird from non-Sundays, so perhaps folks have permission to access, or just aren't aware of the operating hours & requirements. Just a heads up to those venturing out though into the park, it'd be a bummer to get a ticket of some sort for birding there. I had parked along the roadside, which is quite muddy and sopping wet with meltwater puddles right now (bring boots if you're going). The park is currently undertaking a culvert replacement project between some of the impoundments, so heavy equipment tracks have rutted up the trails, and in the areas where digging has occurred, it's basically all mud. In this part of the park, there is a number of impoundments, which in the fall & spring are empty for the shorebirds to enjoy, but in the winter, are full of water for the waterfowl we host this time of year. I walked counter-clockwise around the impoundments south of Munden Road, hugging the west edge first so that when I did get to open water, the sun wouldn't be right in my face. I scared 5 Wood Ducks out a heavily forested ditch along the trail, not knowing they were there til I was about 20 feet away and they burst out of the brush.
The waterfowl here are very weary, and I wouldn't plan to get within a couple hundred feet of any of them on the impoundments. On the southernmost impoundment, there was plenty of Northern Pintail, Mallards, Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Gadwall, and Northern Shovelers. I was hoping maybe a Blue-winged Teal would show up but I didn't spot any today. A few Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks were also noted, and a group of Hooded Mergansers was also seen, which rounded out the duck species. In the far southeastern corner, a group of about 15 White Ibis was foraging in the shallows and though eBird considers these rarities, anyone who spends any time around the bay's tributaries is going to see them this time of year. One Northern Harrier, and one Bald Eagle were seen, in addition to a Buteo that I couldn't get a good enough look at to ID to species, though it was probably a Red-tailed Hawk as Red-shouldered are much less common here in Virginia Beach. Shorebirds were non-existent except for the shrill cries of a Killdeer overhead. Great Blue Herons & Great Egrets were present in small numbers. Sparrows were abundant, with most of them disappearing quickly off the trails, but Song, White-throated, and Savannah all being identified and photographed. I was surprised to find no Fox Sparrows today, after seeing a few yesterday at First Landing, but those should never be "expected" around here. I walked 2.3 miles in total at the park and then headed out, back north towards Kings Grant. On the way, I stopped at Sherwood Lakes, in a futile attempt to pick out the Cackling Goose that was reported yesterday on the east side of Princess Anne Road. I could see a flock of about 25-30 Canadas, and meandered through the surrounding neighborhoods to view them, but I couldn't pick out anything unusual. Though, I can't really complain about that one, I've never seen one before, so today was just no different. Sooner or later I’ll find one!