Wednesday evening we had beautiful 65 degree F weather in Virginia Beach, so after work I headed up to Pleasure House Point to see if I could find some terns & shorebirds. Several species had been reported around the area recently, with Short-billed Dowitchers being a prime target. Parking on Marlin Bay Drive and heading south into the park between the two largest lakes, I hit the beach trail and turned eastward. Very quickly, a group of 3 Yellow-crowned Night-Herons hunting along the shoreline were my first birds of the day. The water was clearly nearing high tide, so I wondered what I might find at the mudflats. Unfortunately, when I go on after work outings, I have to take what I get with the tide, I can't plan around it. Continuing east past the deer carcass pond, made famous now by the Western Tanager seen there this winter, it was fairly quiet, with just a pair of Red-breasted Merganser females out on the water. I cut off the beach trail up into the trees for a brief duration, hoping to see some songbirds, but the trees were empty from what I could see. Rounding the point where rails are often seen and heard, I spooked a Green Heron from the narrow pond that the trail winds around. This would be the first of about 4 times this heron got the better of me, not yielding any opportunity to me for a decent photograph, something I'm accustomed to with this species..almost like a larger version of a Kingfisher in that regard. The park staff has been adjusting the trail along the main point nearest the Brock Center, so if walking in this area, just follow the paper signs around the fencing that has been placed. It appears they are replanting the area nearest to the water, and keeping hikers a bit further upland. At the mudflats, there was barely any land visible with the waters quite high. However, there was a ton of birds crammed into the small strip of allowable space, with gulls (Herring, Laughing, Lesser Black-backed, and Ring-billed), many Royal Terns, and even a single Sandwich Tern that took some time to pick out, this being a first-of-year bird for me (#141 in Virginia Beach in 2015).
Additionally, there was a troupe of 5 American Oystercatchers and about 20 or more Black Skimmers sitting out on the flats. I've seen both of these species here before, but never together & in these numbers so it was a very nice surprise, and especially so on a day I expected not to find anything here due to the high tide. While viewing the mudflats, a group of 17 Short-billed Dowitchers, another first-of-year bird (#142), came flying over looking for a spot to land. Unsatisfied with what was available to them though, they flew off. Among the group was also a few Yellowlegs and a single unidentifiable peep species. Yellowlegs showed up a couple other times on flybys as well, and could have been mixed groups of Lesser & Greaters, though I couldn't confirm a Lesser with certainty. Heading back westward along the beach trail, Great and Snowy Egrets were visible out in the marshy islands, and a number of Clapper Rails could be heard cackling from several different locations. Some, seemed just a hundred or less feet away, but not one could be sighted, they are masters of camouflage in this habitat, especially at high tide when they aren't brazen about walking out onto the open mudflats like at low tide. When I arrived on the upstream end of Pleasure House Creek, a few Gadwall could be seen on the widened area, and a considerable amount of algae has bloomed in these slack-water areas of the creek. Returning eastward, I decided to give it one more loop just in case something new showed up at the mudflats while I was gone. My first surprise was an Eastern Kingbird that came hover-flying down from a tall tree near the largest pond. I saw a pair of these two weekends back at Whitehurst Tract, but this might be the first I've seen here at Pleasure House Point. All was pretty quiet until the mudflats, except the constant cackles of the Clapper Rails. The water, now very close to high tide, had completely taken over the mudflats, and only a few of the taller gulls were sticking around. The last of the skimmers took off just as I arrived, since they're shorter legs put their bodies right at the water surface. On the way back to the vehicle, a Least Tern (#143) and unidentifiable peep flew over, the tern being another first-of-year species! With 3 additions to my yearly county list today I was quite excited, and it couldn't have been a more pleasant day to be out birding, even with the clouds moving in later in the evening.
On Thursday, the rainy weather arrived and it cooled off considerably. Friday, the same conditions unfortunately hung around, so even though I had brought all my gear into work, I opted not to head out at 3 PM for a hike like I was so hoping to do. Instead, I left at 4 PM, and headed home for the evening. On the way though, while driving along Kings Grant Road, I saw a Great Egret feeding on the shoreline of the western ponds and decided to park and try to get a nice shot. White birds like this egret often show up better in photographs during overcast weather since the white from the feathers doesn’t have as much sunlight to reflect, which usually gives a washed out appearance. So, on cloudy days, I’m all about finding the white birds to photograph. As soon as I got out of the car though, the bird flushed, and landed across the pond in a residential back yard. A bit bummed, I was about to hop back in and head home when I saw a small bird moving out on the emergent vegetation mat that forms on this pond in the spring & summer. Upon closer inspection, it was a Solitary Sandpiper, another first of year bird (#144)! I stayed for about 10 minutes, photographing this individual, then realizing there was a 2nd of the species in much closer, that just wasn’t moving so it was incredibly difficult to spot. I took some better shots of this closer individual, also seeing a number of other birds on the pond including some Canada Geese, a pair of Wood Ducks, Northern Cardinals on the nearby shrubbery and American Crows flying around above. I headed home for dinner afterwards, excited to add another bird despite not being able to get out on a full length hike, but, you never know what you’re going to see.
It was a chilly kickoff to the weekend with temperatures in the low 40s, but a beautiful sunny sky was showing at 7 AM on Saturday morning around southeastern Virginia. I headed off to the Great Dismal Swamp for likely a final migration outing to the park, arriving right about 7:05 to Jericho Ditch Lane. My last outing at the swamp, I'd parked here as well, and walked the Jericho Ditch southeastward, having a great time in the process. This time, I wanted to try a few of the other trails that begin at this lot. As I got out of my car, I had my first surprise of the day as a pair of Common Loons flew northward just to the west of the parking area, offering a single photograph above the clear space over the road before disappearing over the treetops. From the parking area, I headed down the Hudnell Ditch eastward to try my luck. From reading reports here, it seemed that a good number of Hooded Warblers were being seen around this area, though I was unable to pick any up today. Due to the direction of travel, and the time of day, the sun was streaming directly into my eyes for the majority of the Hudnell Ditch Trail. However, one doesn't necessarily need eyes in this area, as Prairie & Prothonotary Warbler songs were blaring from all directions. Gray Catbirds as well were joining in song, and I must have seen a hundred of them or so, easily the most numerous birds of the day. White-eyed Vireos and Common Yellowthroats also were seen along the trail. To my surprise though, not a single Wood Duck was seen or heard. As I reached the east end of the trail, where it intersects with the New Ditch Trail, I heard a rush of tree limbs, and looked up into the trees to see a large object rushing down a tree trunk. I couldn't get a fast enough look, but I believe it was a Black Bear cub. If it wasn't a bear cub in the tree, I'm open to other suggestions, but it sure seemed only a large mammal could cause the disturbance to the tree that this did, definitely not a Raccoon or Opossum, and likely not a Gray Fox either. I've yet to get a good look at a bear in the park, but on the last outing I did see a good trail of tracks along Jericho Ditch. Those were of an adult though, but I suspect this time of year, there are a number of cubs around also. Anyway, back to the birds. I turned to the north along New Ditch Trail, and along its mile or so, I noted several species. A single American Redstart was seen singing high up in a tree, and nearby a group of 6 Cedar Waxwings had flown in and stuck to the leafy cover. While watching these, I had a Ruby-throated Hummingbird fly past, drinking from a couple flowers then zooming off swiftly.
The next junction along this route was the intersection with Williamson Ditch Trail, another east-west directional trail. Fortunately, I headed westward along this trail, so the sun was at my back throughout the couple of miles of length. The ditches along these trails are much different than the Washington, which I hike more often. At the Washington, the ditch is visible, and doesn't have much growth along its edges (at least right now), but along these other trails, the ditch was essentially concealed by foliage. This made it impossible to see any of the animals causes splashes, though most were turtles more than likely. It also meant that when I encountered my first Wood Ducks, they made me jump sky high as I had no warning until they burst into the air right next to me. So, it made for an exciting walk at least. Green Herons were the birds of the trail, and I saw 5 of them flush from the ditches, several landing in treetops and providing some really nice photographs. Great Blue Herons also were present, with 2 flushing along the route. A single Wild Turkey was seen far ahead on the trail, so far that the heatlines visible through my binoculars made it look almost like a fox running off into the distance. Prairie Warblers were the dominant of the singing birds along this trail. The terrain here also differs from Washington Ditch, with far more conifer trees here, meaning a more open sky to be able to pick birds out of. Both Black & Turkey Vultures were encountered, and also Red-shouldered & Red-tailed Hawks, soaring overhead. The further west I went along the trail, the more overgrown it began to get, which in hindsight, was a good bit of foreshadowing. Nearing the end, I got a good look at my FOY Indigo Bunting, sitting high atop a tall tree. Nearby, what I presume was a River Otter was heard swimming around the ditch, barking at me as I passed. I've heard this sound many times up north, but it was the first time in Virginia I've encountered it. I reached the west end of the trail, where the maps show a junction with the Jericho Ditch Trail, and unfortunately I found out firsthand that this junction does not exist anymore. The final 20 feet or so of the trail have been dug up, allowing the waters of the ditch to flow through.
Rather than walk backwards 5 miles around, I hopped a few rocks that were laid out in the ditch and climbed up the muddy slopes to reach the Jericho Ditch Trail again. I'm curious as to whether a new culvert is going to be installed here, and the path reconnected, or if this is just going to remain as is? On Jericho Ditch, a woman walking past mentioned she had a Hooded Warbler fly low across the trail, so I was again on the lookout, but to no avail. I did finally spot my first Yellow-rumped Warblers of the day though, and a pair of Great Crested Flycatchers made for some nice photographs as well. I made it back to the parking area about 10:15, and decided to head down to Washington Ditch just to knock off a couple mile miles of exercise, and maybe see something new. Arriving there about 10:30, right behind another fellow that had also just left the Jericho area, I headed down the trail. Great Crested Flycatchers again were seen in several spots, and more Yellow-rumps appeared here. A pair of Black-and-White Warblers was seen a hundred yards or so east of the parking area on the main trail, fairly high up in a tree south of the ditch. Downy Woodpeckers were also seen in a couple of spots, and a gentleman was set up waiting for them to hopefully return to a nest cavity he had found. Near the boardwalk, I heard what I believe was a Red-eyed Vireo, but I could not get a visual to confirm. Another hiker mentioned hearing a pair of Swainson's Warblers as you near the Lynn Ditch Trail junction, but again I couldn't pick them out unfortunately. I'm slowly getting better with the songs of birds, one step at a time, but I still heavily rely on my eyes for ID confirmations unfortunately. I made it as far as the Lynn Ditch, then headed back, taking the boardwalk around, but not noting anything new. Nearing the parking area, I passed a group from the Cape Henry Audubon Society, about 12-15 members that were just heading out along the boardwalk, and though it was a bit quiet at that point, with a dozen sets of eyes searching the trees I hope they picked something interesting out!
On Sunday morning, I was fortunate to get another early start, heading out from my apartment before 7 AM en route towards Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area. Sunny skies, and a bit warmer conditions (in the 50s) made for a very hopeful day of hiking. On the way, apparently my auto-pilot kicked on, and out of habit, I missed the turn onto Princess Anne Road, heading instead toward Back Bay NWR. I hadn’t even noticed it until I got near the Lotus Gardens, and thought, well, Back Bay it is instead. I had planned to visit both locations, I just ended up doing them backwards, and it really worked it nicely. I arrived at the park at 7:30 AM to find just a couple of vehicles in the lots, which is great because no one else had a chance to scare off all the birds yet. I walked the Bay Trail first, as is customary for my outings. Typically I’ll see a few birds along the trail, but it was full of life this time. Gray Catbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds were seen all along the way, and as I turned from the boardwalk onto the trail, a pair of Indigo Buntings (#145) flushed and flew straight west down the trail. They always managed to stay about 50 feet or more in front of me, and though I tried extremely hard, and was very quiet, they always knew when to flee. While stalking these birds, a Red-headed Woodpecker (#146) flew off the tree it was pecking at, and headed eastward, its bright white & black wing pattern and red head giving away its ID even with a brief sighting. Surprisingly this is the first one I’ve seen all year, and it wasn’t at First Landing SP, which is where I’ll typically find these birds. Yellow-rumped Warblers were very numerous along the trail, and at least 2 Prothonotary Warblers could be heard off in the foliage, one of which I did get a couple of ID-worthy, but not spectacular shots of. As I neared the rainwater puddle before the large pond, I looked carefully around as I do everytime since this spot is a favorite for songbirds to drink water and clean themselves in, almost a large-scale birdbath. King Rails also enjoy this area, and hunt in it quite often…more on this shortly. On the large tree that surrounds the northern part of the puddle, several large yellow birds with black chins were perched, but flew off very quickly upon seeing me. I thought for a brief second that they were Mourning Warblers, but then realized that they were actually 1st-year male Orchard Orioles (#147)! I had been a bit bummed out that the park had opened the East Dike on April 1st this year instead of the West Dike which is their typical choice, mainly because I see Orchard Orioles along the West Dike, and a few other species.
However, I can’t be too mad about this because if the East Dike hadn’t opened, I’d never have seen the Bobcat I posted about a couple weeks ago. And, it was announced that the West Dike will be opening on May 5th, and though I’ll be in Baltimore for work that day, you better believe that next weekend I’ll be hiking it when I return to the area. So the morning was off to a great start, with three new year birds on just a half mile or so of walking. Nearing the end of the Bay Trail, I walked along the large pond, noting a massive Cottonmouth that was swimming along the opposing shoreline, flaring its tongue out. It stopped, and sort of circled the same area, never a threat to me or anything, but neat to watch as its huge body floated along the surface of the water. Nothing was seen from either observation area at the trail end, so I turned around and headed back towards the visitor center. As I approached the rainwater puddle, a King Rail walked across the trail and into the thick foliage surrounding it. I’ve come to expect rails here, and was even looking for them, but I still managed to not get a photograph of the bird, that’s how sneaky they can be! Walking the trail eastward, I encountered the Prothonotary Warblers, and Indigo Buntings again, though adding a Swamp Sparrow this time. I also had two birds off to the south side of the trail hopping through the thickets, and I was able to get one bad photograph of them, but it showed a very yellow bird, with reddish lines on its chest, a clear indicator of a Yellow Warbler (#148!). Sometimes, even a bad photograph can tell a lot about the bird, as in this case, so I was very excited as this is another bird I’ve only seen on the West Dike in the past! Approaching the bench along the trail, a Prairie Warbler and a Common Yellowthroat flew across, and a Carolina Wren could be seen up in the trees to the north singing its little heart out. Also, a Marsh Rabbit was feeding on some greens along the trailside, letting me get about 10 feet away before it hopped off the trail. I was trying to slide past it without disturbing it, and very nearly managed. When I reached the parking area, I took the Loop Road southward, finding another pair of Yellow Warblers in the thickets to the right (west) side, and this time, I got some better shots of it. Last year was actually the first time I’d ever seen this species, so I’m glad to be seeing a few of them again.
Walking the Loop Road counterclockwise I didn’t see a whole lot of birds close up, but a group of about 20 White Ibis tracking southward over the bay was a nice sight. Along the ditch leading down the West Dike, I could see a Mallard, and a Nutria swimming about. An American Coot dashed out of the pond on the inside of the loop, running along the water to get its chunky body airborne. On the eastern half of the loop, I could hear numerous Eastern Towhees and Prairie Warblers, which love this scrubby part of the park. I tracked one Prairie down for some really nice photographs, though it was perched in the shade, a little bit of sun would have gone a long way, but they turned out really nice still. After this I took the southern boardwalk up to the dunes and onto the beach. Here I could see Tree & Barn Swallows flying about, but the beach was pretty quiet for birds. Large waves were pounding ashore, which made for some nice shots, and for great scenery while I scanned for wildlife. A group of about 30 Sanderlings was all huddled together nearby, which was exciting because up til now I really haven’t seen a whole lot of shorebirds at the park. I’m still looking for my first Willets and Black-bellied Plovers, but I know in the heat of summer I’ll see plenty of these birds on my walks, or even while just visiting the beach to swim. Out over the water, a number of Royal Terns and Ring-billed Gulls were flying past, and one Gull-billed Tern made an appearance as well, bringing my count now up to 149 species. These birds fly like a tern, and have the longer narrower wings, but their bill is blunt, making them appear more like a gull if just looking at the head. It is also another bird that I saw for the first time last year, so another welcome sight. Heading up over the northern access to the beach, a Brown Thrasher was calling from a perch, and Yellow-rumped Warblers were seen as well. I decided to walk the Bay Trail one last time, trying to get a photograph of the Indigo Buntings mainly.
They managed again to stay just out ahead of me though. As I neared the puddle where I saw the rail earlier, I stopped, and realized that the bird was back, and sitting right down in the water underneath the overhanging brush. I could see ripples in the puddle, though not quite like Jurassic Park-style ripples, but enough to know the bird was feeding. I waited about 15 minutes before it finally showed its head, and then slowly walked out into an open spot. I snapped quite a few photographs, most of them coming out bad with all the branches in the way, but it kept on walking slowly around long enough to get some good shots. After a half hour or so, I headed along the trail. I finally spotted my first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher of the day, which was a big surprise since gnats were all over the place at the park, sometimes in big clouds you didn’t notice until you walked right through them. I expected there’d be far more of the birds there to feast, but I guess this one was the smartest of the species. From here until the end of the walk, it remained fairly quiet, and a few other birdwatchers showed up, chasing the Indigo Buntings as I’d done earlier in the day. I headed out from the park and on to my next stop at Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area. Skies remained sunny and then temperature had risen to about 70 degrees already upon my arrival at 10:30 AM. With no wind, it was quite hot at the park, and definitely humid outside. I headed south from the parking area on the main entry trail, noting that the grasses are now about knee high on this trail outside of the tire treads used to walk along. The further I got though, the more waist high the vegetation got, and I recall last fall being out here looking for the reported Ruff in weeds that were taller than I was. So, I’m guessing that the plant life just continues to grow throughout the summer here and isn’t maintained in any way. Which means, if you are heading here to hike, be prepared for a tough walk, and make sure to spray down 100% of yourself in bug spray, this looks like a haven for ticks and/or chiggers. Fortunately though, I didn’t pick any up on this outing. Anyways, on the way down the entry trail, I spooked an Indigo Bunting, but this time, I was able to get some shots of it. Shortly after, I spooked another blue bird, but not a bunting this time, it was a Blue Grosbeak male (#150!). After snapping some ID quality shots, I kept onward, hearing a White-eyed Vireo’s distinctive call in the shrubs near me.
I kept careful watch, and finally spotted it with my binoculars up in a tree as it was singing, making this #151! I always enjoy seeing & hearing a bird, the songs tend to stick with me much better if I actually see the bird on its perch. When I reached the southern group of impoundments, I had a few swallows circling, and some may have been Northern Rough-winged but I couldn’t verify, mostly they were Tree Swallows. Lots of turtles had taken up residency on the muddy slopes around the impoundments. My first waterfowl sighting turned out to be a female Bufflehead, that was resting on a small mudflat on the northern impoundment. It flushed and flew across the pond to the northeast, and I wasn’t able to locate the bird again. Out of season, this bird is almost certainly the same one that showed up in a report earlier in the week, though I was glad to see it flying, it didn’t appear injured to me, but I wonder why it has remained in the area when all the others of its species have flown northward to breed. On the next impoundment to the south, which is now essentially drained completely, I figured I might spot some shorebirds. However, none were seen here, but two pairs of Canada Geese were seen out in the middle, and a Domestic Goose was sitting close to one of the pairs. I saw the white of the bird, and instantly thought it might be a Mute Swan, until my binoculars told the real story. This goose might be from one of the surrounding properties, but I’ve never seen one out in the park before, though it was clearly of the same type of stock that I see at my own neighborhood park (Kings Grant). At the southeast corner of the impoundment I spotted a Muskrat, swimming in the surrounding moat then diving, probably heading up into its den under the bank. Near here, several snakes were seen, most appearing to be Rat Snakes but never getting solid looks at them in the thick vegetation. Peering up into the sky, I had a pair of Purple Martins, in full jet black plumage form my vantage fly over (#152)! Since most of the trails were now overgrown, I headed back up to the northern impoundment, seeing a single Greater Yellowlegs on a mudflat, this being the only shorebird I’d see at the park to my surprise.
At the far west corner, a Snowy Egret and a Little Blue Heron were perched on a dead tree near each other, offering some nice photographs. I exited the southern portion of the park and went back up towards the parking area, seeing a Savannah Sparrow along the way, and getting a few more shots of the Blue Grosbeaks hanging out along the entry trail. When I reached the parking area, I could hear what I believe was a Red-eyed Vireo signing from the trees, but I could never get a look at the bird to confirm it. Leaving the park, I decided to head up to Pleasure House Point since it was only 11:30 AM, and Ruth was working a festival in downtown Norfolk all weekend anyway, so I had plenty of time to be on my own. Arriving at Pleasure House Point, I parked at the Dinwiddie Drive entrance, and walked the park west, then east. At this point in the day, the sun is high in the sky, so it doesn’t matter really which direction you go. I was disappointed on my first pass of the mudflats to find that a couple kayakers had beached themselves and were walking around, which kept any shorebirds in the area far away. I could see a number of birds on the farther away mudflats, but had no means to ID them properly at that distance. They could have been Willets, Dowitchers, or Yellowlegs, but even a scope probably wouldn’t have done the trick unfortunately. Birds were pretty quiet at the park during the heat of the day, though one Greater Yellowlegs and at least 3 Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were out walking along the shoreline looking for prey to feed on. I ended up running into the woman who helped Ruth & I catch our kitten back in July, which was quite a surprise. So it was nice to be able to tell her how great he’s turned out, and that he has a birthday coming up in the middle of the month, hard to believe it’s been so long since he joined our family!
Walking the rest of the shoreline trail, nothing was visible out on the water, but near the west end, a pair of Least Terns flew overhead, the second time this week I’ve seen them here. Walking back eastward, I cut inland along the western side of the largest pond (the trail with the tire treads visible), and saw a good group of songbirds drinking rainwater off the trail including Northern Cardinals, American Robins, and a single warbler. The warbler flushed, and landed in a far away tree. With the binoculars I could see a very yellow bird, and at first I thought it was a Prairie Warbler, however, this one had a brown cap to the head, making it a Palm Warbler instead, #153 on the year! Palm Warblers are actually winter residents here, but they aren’t very commonly seen. I checked on eBird and this is only the 5th report of one so far in 2015 in Virginia Beach, making it quite rare through this date in the season apparently. I made a couple of passes around this area over the next 15-20 minutes, finally getting a solid shot of the warbler for verification, then headed eastward again. Birds were again quiet, though I got a Sharp-shinned Hawk flying high over the desolate muddy region of the park. When I’d arrived back to the mudflats, several boats were pulled up on them, again keeping any birds that would be visible farther off and out of view, quite a bummer. A mother & daughter that were walking their dogs on the trail had found a Diamondback Terrapin nearby, which was the first one I’ve ever seen before, and it must have been a hatchling because it was only one or two inches long. I couldn’t believe I’d walked right by it, now that I’ve seen one, I’ll be paying much closer attention to the little animals walking along the sandy pastures of the park. They’re known to nest here, but, again, I’d never actually seen one before. That was the last sighting on the day, and I headed home to start sifting through the hundreds of photographs I took during the week. It was really nice to be back outdoors for a full weekend, I hope the beautiful weather continues!