Very nice spring weather began our week on Monday and Tuesday, however, I did not get to indulge my outdoor obsession during the weekdays. Tuesday afternoon, some co-workers and myself drove up to Baltimore, MD to take part in a 3-day long conference put on by the American Public Works Association (APWA), in which we were presenting information on one of my civil engineering design projects in Virginia Beach. Wednesday I did make it out for about 6 miles of walking around the downtown area, including Federal Hill where I heard and saw some American Redstarts, but that was it for the weekday hikes! Arriving back into Virginia Beach after a successful presentation on Friday, cloudy & rainy weather prevented a Friday evening walk. But, on Saturday, I finally made it out for the first time on the week. With Tropical Storm Ana (first storm of the year, and a very early one forming about 3 weeks before the official start to the Atlantic hurricane season on June 1) sitting south of us off the coast of South Carolina, I wasn't sure what the weather was going to bring today. Interestingly, the day started with thick fog across Virginia Beach, and when I left home just before 7 AM visibility was quite low. At 7:45 I arrived down at Back Bay NWR, with the fog clearing somewhat, but still very visible. It was probably about 8:30 or 9 before it burned off completely inland, lingering along the coast throughout the morning in patches. I headed off from the parking area along the Bayside Trail, seeing a Great Crested Flycatcher perched on the Purple Martin house outside the visitor center. A pair of Northern Cardinals and large numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds were seen in this area as well. I took the boardwalk over to the Bay Trail and headed westward along it. Last weekend, I'd had some great early morning luck along the trail, but it was quieter this time out. Perhaps because today I wasn't the first one down the trail, as a birder from Pennsylvania named Lyn had walked about halfway down when I caught up to him. Boat-tailed Grackle and Yellow-rumped Warblers were both seen around the pond at the west end, and the small rainwater puddle that the King Rail performed around last week is all but dried up now unfortunately.
At the very west end, perched in a tree above the observation platform was a beautiful male Orchard Oriole, singing its heart out, then flying off to the southeast as I walked up a bit too close. Birds remained quiet on the return trip as I headed back towards the Loop Road, with just a single Swamp Sparrow making itself visible. Walking along the western portion of the Loop Road, I headed towards the West Dike Trail, which just opened up for the first time this year on Tuesday! Gray Catbirds, a Field Sparrow, and Indigo Buntings were seen along this stretch. I was pretty excited to hit the West Dike Trail, as it is my favorite in the park. Walking along the first stretch, I found a Blue Grosbeak in one of the live oak hammocks, and a few Snowy and Great Egrets were seen in the freshwater ditches as well. Common Yellowthroats & Prairie Warblers were both heard, though only the former was seen along the first mile or so. The impoundments were mostly empty, and I only spotted 2 Mallards, a few Canada Geese, and 5 Red-breasted Mergansers, the only waterfowl around. Greater Yellowlegs were seen at many locations, and in the largest of the impoundments, a group of Glossy Ibis was feeding in the mud alongside a Little Blue Heron and a few Snowy Egrets. In the half mile stretch prior to entering the maritime forest, a female Orchard Oriole was seen up in one of the large trees adjacent to the trail. This being the same spot that I repeatedly saw Orchards last year, and where I'd seen my first ever Yellow Warblers as well. Entering the maritime forest, an Indigo Bunting was singing loudly from atop a tree, and a pair of Prothonotary Warblers could be heard not far off, with one being seen. The rainwater puddles in the forest form small areas of marsh which these birds seem to like. Near the warblers, an Eastern Ribbonsnake was seen alongside the trail and a Mud Turtle was given some assistance in crossing the roadway, just in time too since a vehicle came rushing past just a minute or so after I put the turtle down. Great Crested Flycatchers were heard in a few spots throughout the forest as well, but no Yellow-billed Cuckoos today, which was one of the targets I was shooting for. After exiting the maritime forest, now at the border between Back Bay and False Cape, I headed east towards the East Dike Gate. A pair of Greater Yellowlegs were seen on the north side ditches, but no waterfowl, and no Spotted Sandpipers (another hopeful species for the day).
A few sparrows were seen, one a Savannah, and the others unidentifiable, though likely Chipping Sparrows. At the entrance road to False Cape State Park I heard a bird calling from the live oak thicket that I didn't recognize, and after just a few seconds of scanning the trees, it jumped out, showing off a bright yellow body with gray & white facial markings. I recognized it immediately as my very first Yellow-breasted Chat (and #154 in Virginia Beach in 2015), snapped some photographs, and then continued listening to the bird, trying to imprint the visual image with the audio into my memory. After the chat moved on, a Prairie Warbler came flying in and started singing from the same tree, so I stayed put for a few more minutes. Just south of here, there was an old observation platform that has now been upgraded with a brand new one. The platform now sits much higher over a small patch of marsh and gives a nicer view over some of the smaller treetops. As I scanned around and couldn't find any birds, I happened to look straight down to find a King Rail was walking around out in the open waters below! My only encounters thus far with King Rails have been in thick cover, with them dashing across openings, but never staying long. Well, this one didn't seem to mind me being high above it, and I got some neat photographs from an angle I've never had on a rail before. I watched the bird feed and drink from the marsh for about 15 minutes before heading southward towards the False Cape Visitor's Center. On the way, Eastern Kingbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Greater Yellowlegs were all seen. Additionally, a fairly good sized Eastern Cottonmouth slithered across the roadway, then disappeared into the grass on the west side. Its very important to remember to watch the ground at these parks, and not just the trees since you never know when a venomous snake is going to show up and interrupt your birding efforts. Just before arriving at the visitor's center, a Red-tailed Hawk flew over and landed in a tree nearby, the first true raptor of the day.
From the visitor's center, I decided to walk out to Barbour Hill on the beach, and then take the beach back north to the parking area at Back Bay, hoping to find some shorebirds that I hadn't yet seen on the year. On the trail to the beach, a group of 3 White-eyed Vireos flushed across the road, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird cruised past, and several Carolina Chickadee flitted about alongside the trail. A pair of Black Racers were seen on the trail as well, and when I walked up the two dashed in unison to the cover of the forest. Indigo Buntings again were heard all along the way, with a few being sighted atop their respective trees. Arriving at the beach, a single Bonaparte's Gull was seen walking around on the sand, never taking to the air. This seemed an unusual sighting to me since usually these birds are far out over the water, not typically landing on the beach. My thought this morning was that perhaps the easterly winds being driven ashore by the outer bands of Tropical Storm Ana might bring some neat seabirds closer in than normal. This gull was the only instance that might fall under that category though, and it may not have had anything to do with the storm. Crossing back into Back Bay NWR along the beach, I encountered a squadron of Brown Pelicans that came shooting out of the fog that was sitting right along the coastline. Herring, Great Black-backed, and Ring-billed Gulls were seen as well at the south end of the park. After a mile of walking northward into the park, I finally spotted my first shorebirds of the day, a group of 3 Piping Plovers ( #155), which I believe are the first of the species that I've ever seen in Virginia Beach. Shortly afterwards, I encountered a couple of good sized (<50) Sanderlings, with some Semipalmated Sandpipers(#156) loosely associated. Overall though, shorebird numbers were low, and I never did find any Willets (another hopeful). One Black-bellied Plover (#157) was seen briefly walking on the beach, then flying past as a pair of hikers approaching from the north got a bit too close to it. Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls were seen along the northern stretch, but since I couldn't spot any more shorebirds in the binoculars, I headed up over the dunes on the southern access trail, back towards the Loop Road.
I spotted a Six-lined Racerunner (lizard) along the dunes, and snapped a few shots of it before moving on. Eastern Towhees and Prairie Warblers were heard along the boardwalk before reaching the Loop Road, and on the road itself Tree & Barn Swallows and Purple Martins were all observed. I headed up towards the parking area, walking behind the visitor center and seeing some Brown-headed Cowbirds, then walking the Bayside Trail. I headed out from the park about 12:15 PM, having walked about 9.75 miles as measured in Google Earth, then drove over to Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area. I was a bit exhausted even at the beginning of my walk at the WMA, but, heading south from the parking area it was nice to find that the grass on the main trail at least had been trimmed. I coated myself pretty heavily in bugspray here since many of the trails now have waist-high vegetation, and I did still pull one tick off, which was miraculously only the first I've seen this year. Along the main trail, Greater Yellowlegs, Great & Snowy Egrets, and Indigo Buntings were seen. When I arrived to the southern set of impoundments (4 of them), the female Bufflehead that was seen last week was sighted again out on the mudflat in the middle of the northernmost impoundment. This time though, it was hanging around a pair of drake Mallards, even swimming around with the two on the pond later in the hike. Two pairs of Canada Geese were seen again, just like last Sunday, associating with a single Domestic Goose. On the middle impoundments, I got good looks at my first Lesser Yellowlegs (#158) on the season, and was able to compare it sizewise with a nearby Greater Yellowlegs, and also a Killdeer that was kind enough to land close to it. While watching these three, I realized there was also some Least Sandpipers (#159) & Semipalmated Sandpipers on the same muddy patch, but they were so small and so well camouflaged it took me a while to even spot them. A pair of Bald Eagles flew in over the eastern impoundment, one adult, and one immature, and I could hear the geese & Mallards on the northern impoundment start calling as soon as they flew in overhead. After walking around the northern impoundment, and moving up into the northern half of the park, I spotted a pair of Great Crested Flycatchers, and a pair of White-tailed Deer nearby that went running off through the thick woods. All was pretty quiet as I worked around the northern half of the park counter-clockwise. A hummingbird, some Carolina Chickadees and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher provided some action at the far east end of the park, and I did spook a shorebird that I feel very strongly was either a Spotted or a Solitary. Sadly, I never got another look at the bird, I've been trying to locate my first Spotted on the year for a couple of weeks now. Taking Munden Road from the abandoned-looking barn back to the parking are yielded a few Northern Cardinals, Blue Grosbeaks, and Northern Mockingbirds, but nothing out of the ordinary. Arriving back about 2 PM, I headed out for the day, to start the task of sifting through several hundred photographs!
When I woke up around 6:30 AM on Sunday morning, it was unexpectedly sunny outside. Weather forecasts had called for rain in the morning here associated with the outer bands of Tropical Storm Ana, which is inching its way northwards towards our area. However, early on, it was quite sunny so I drove up to Pleasure House Point to do a quick 2 mile hike, and just see if the weather was going to hold out. As I typically do on morning jaunts to the park, I parked my vehicle on Dinwiddie Drive and walked in along the eastern edge of the park. By doing this, I guarantee myself a full-length westward journey across the park with the sun directly behind me, allowing clear views of any birds I might encounter on my first pass. With the sun still low in the sky, it made for near-impossible viewing on the primary mudflats out in Lynnhaven Bay. The wet mudflats reflect the sunlight from this angle quite a lot, and birds are hard to see clearly, though some silhouettes can yield identities, the distance viewed at makes this approach a bit iffy. Most of what was out there was probably Laughing Gulls, as I could hear them cackling, but I would suspect there was also Royal Terns amongst them, as for shorebirds though, I can’t speculate. Walking along the new route of the trail which keeps you inland a little bit from the water, Red-winged Blackbirds and Northern Mockingbirds were patrolling the sandy patch in front of the Brock Environmental Center. The tide was so low that near the beach where folks often fish & crab, the sandflats were exposed almost out to the islands and a Greater Yellowlegs was meandering around the edge. With the low tide, I thought perhaps I’d see more shorebirds on some of the mudflats along Pleasure House Creek, the more ‘inland’ mudflats that is to say.
Following the trail westward and passing along the spit of land that continually gets washed out by high tides I observed a Snowy Egret feeding in the creek, and several Ospreys soaring overhead. Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns were also seen in flight around this spot. The trail takes a sharp bend here, and meanders around a cove of Pleasure House Creek. With the low tide, oyster shells and Periwinkles (snails) were viewable all over the place. I actually saw a buried oyster shoot water into the air for the first time. Yellow-crowed Night-Herons were seen along the shoreline here, looking for breakfast of crustaceans, and didn’t appear to have any trouble finding it. No shorebirds were seen here though to my amazement, I figured at least a few Greater Yellowlegs might show up since they’re the most common at the park. The stretch between here and the inland ponds was pretty quiet, with just a few Royal Terns passing by out over the water, but when I reached the collection of tall trees on the south side of the largest pond, I began hearing a songbird call that I didn’t recognize. I walked around the stand of trees with the sun at my back, trying to spot the culprit, and after a few minutes found it atop one of trees. It was a Blue Grosbeak, I believe the first one I’ve ever seen in the park! I snapped a photo, then it flew to a tree to the west, so I walked slowly over to its new spot and got a couple more shots off before it went into the cover of the branches. This stretch seems to be a good songbird area, with the freshwater puddles along the trail attracting birds to bath themselves, as well as providing drinking water that the brackish creek does not. At the far western stretch of the creek before it reaches Shore Drive, several more Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were walking on the exposed shorelines, but no waterfowl were seen here, quite a change from just a couple months ago when ducks filled this area of the creek.
Turning around and heading back eastward across the park, I like to take more of a forested route to keep the direct sunlight out of my view. So, I meander back along some of the lesser defined interior trails around the ponds. Sometimes, this will yield warblers like last week when I saw a Palm Warbler near the largest pond, but today the forest was pretty quiet except for some Northern Cardinals and one female Pine Warbler that came down from the canopy. Rounding the largest pond and taking a brief portion of the shoreline trail again, I was lucky to look over at the creek and spot a shorebird flying down it just a few feet above the water. Long bill, very gray/brown overall with black and white wing patterns instantly identified this bird as a Willet, the first one I’ve seen in Virginia Beach this year and the 160th species overall now! I’ve been waiting for awhile to spot my first of these common beach birds, so it was refreshing to see one finally! Near here, Chimney Swifts could be heard along the way, with their chattery calls easily recognizable even without seeing each of them. The inland trails peeter out as you reach the large inland cove, and from there you have to take the shoreline trail again. Here I spotted the same Snowy Egret, a few Canada Geese, and another Greater Yellowlegs, presumably the same one from earlier. But all in all, it was pretty quiet at the park since I couldn’t get good looks at the distant birds on the primary mudflats. Even the stormwater pond at Dinwiddie was empty of any birds, with a couple Mourning Doves and a Song Sparrow seen next to it though. The weather appeared to be holding out, though I did get periods of clouds passing over, it stayed sunny for most of the time, so I opted to drive down to First Landing State Park and do my favorite 5 mile circle. I’d hoped to locate some warblers like American Redstarts and Northern Parulas, and also perhaps a Summer Tanager which prefer the forested habitat of the park. I arrived at 64th Street right at 9 AM and headed into the park en route to the Cape Henry Trail junction where I’ll head south and west over the small boardwalk bridge.
When I reached the bridge, I could hear a Prothonotary Warbler calling from the marshy spot on the north side of the roadway, so I walked over to see if I could locate it. After a couple minutes of staring into the trees, a small yellow bird came flying past, landing on the south side of the road about 20 feet up a cypress tree. This Prothonotary provided great looks, and a few low-light photographs, but I was extremely excited since this is the first one I’ve ever seen in the park. I believe they are actually quite numerous along the Osmanthus Trail at the western side of the park, but I typically don’t hike the trails there just due to the crowds that flock to the visitor center area. Heading down the Cape Henry Trail, I kept my eyes looking upward, and in a dead tree I spotted a Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched at a branch’s tip. It was almost unrecognizable, being just a tiny lump on the branch, until it turned perpendicular to me, showing off the long bill. Around the next bend, which heads towards a clearing of tall dead trees, a Green Heron was perched high atop the tallest, probably a good hundred yards to my west. These sneaky birds have a habit of flushing as soon as they feel they’ve been sighted, but I think the extreme distance gave me a few seconds to snap some photos before it realized I was there. Had it not been perched at the very top of a tree, making for an obvious out-of-place lump, I’d probably never have seen this bird. I continued west along the trail until just after the bench along the shore of Lake Susan Constant. From here, a secondary trail crosses up to the entry road. Turning left (west) on the roadway and walking about 200 yards, the Long Creek Trailhead is visible on the north (right) side. As you walk the next mile or so on the Long Creek Trail, it is more or less straight, heading westward, and crossing through some swampy regions. This trail is especially good for woodpeckers, and today I saw one Pileated near the junction of the Osprey Trail. Taking the Osprey Trail as I usually do, the trail now wanders westward through forested area where songbirds are often seen. Though it was pretty quiet today, except for some Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice.
I could hear a Northern Parula calling out, but could never put eyes on the bird which was likely hiding high up in the canopy. This time of year, they can be hard to spot since all the trees are fully leafed out now. Several Osprey nests are viewable over the next mile or so on the trail, and at one location a Great Blue Heron now has a nest up just 50 feet or less away from one of the Osprey nests! These two species must have some sort of mutual respect when it comes to raising their little ones! As I neared the shoreline of Broad Bay, I spotted a large Black Racer (snake) sunning itself on a large, bark-stripped, log on the side of the trail. It didn’t stick around long after realizing I was watching it, but still neat to observe. Reaching the shoreline of Broad Bay, the next half mile crosses over a pair of bridges that cross very similar tidal estuaries. At the first of the bridges, I spotted a Raccoon walking through the marsh grasses and feeding on crustaceans that it could find in the low waters of the tidal creek. A pair of hikers passed me and I pointed out the Raccoon, they in turn, pointed out a second one that I had missed just about 50 feet to the east. After viewing the pair for a good 10 minutes, I kept moving westward along the shoreline. Crossing over the second bridge and following the trail, I noted again that where the trail used to rise right up the steep slope of White Hill, the trail there is now closed. The new trail winds around the side of the slope making for a much less thrilling ascent of the sand dune, and tieing in with the Long Creek Trail a couple hundred yards east of where it used too. I’m sure this was done since the hill was eroding away significantly from the volume of hikers that used this trail, but it’s a bit sad to see this change take effect. Walking along the Long Creek Trail now heading eastward, it wasn’t too long before I ran into a 3 or 4 foot long Eastern Ratsnake that was sitting on the trail soaking up some heat for its ectothermal body. I watched the snake for a few minutes, and saw some hikers with dogs approaching. I mentioned to them that it was there so their dogs didn’t try to chase it. Amusingly it slithered off the trail, and the dogs never even noticed it, which I was glad for, at least these dogs were leashed. Dogs being off leashes is my number one peeve of the park as I often see it, and its against the regulations, but, with no enforcement people just do what they want for the most part.
I’m all for dogs getting exercise, but, it is always unnerving having dogs run up on you while hiking, not knowing just how ‘friendly’ they are while you’re holding several thousand dollars of camera gear. Anyway, back to the true wildlife. Birds were fairly quiet along this stretch, with a couple of Great Crested Flycatchers and Northern Parulas singing from cover. I reached the junction with the Osprey Trail again, and continued on, finding a Mourning Dove and a pair of Downy Woodpeckers chasing each other through the trees, but not allowing any photographs unfortunately. I’m still searching for my first Hairy Woodpecker of the year, which would close out the seven species of Woodpeckers visible in Virginia Beach under normal circumstances (Pileated, Hairy, Downy, Red-bellied, Red-headed, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Northern Flickers). No new birds were seen along the Long Creek Trail, and I walked along the entry road en route to the Cape Henry when a Pileated Woodpecker was spotted on the side of the roadway. This woodpecker hopped from tree to tree, pecking away looking from grubs to feed on, and was one of the few times I’ve photographed a Pileated with no branches or trees in the way. It flew off after a cycling crew moved past, and I reached the lake, hearing a Great Crested Flycatcher’s “Wheeeep” call sounding from above. I stopped and watched the canopy, and sure enough it flew to a new branch, about the only way to spot these birds, hoping they flush. I photographed this one, though the angle wasn’t the best with it so high up and still in shade. Along the rest of the way back to the entrance, my only surprise was that of a Red-headed Woodpecker sitting high up on what may have been the very same tree the Green Heron was sighted in to start the hike off. This is the first one I’ve seen at the park this year, and only the second I’ve seen in Virginia Beach (the first being at Back Bay last weekend). It does appear they’re more common in springtime than the rest of the year though. At the bridge on the way out, the Prothonotary Warbler could again be heard calling, though this time I never got to see it, but hearing its calls was a nice way to finish of f the hike, and the weekend for that matter. Now to see what happens with Tropical Storm Ana as it continues towards our area into the early part of the week!