For my first bit of wildlife viewing this week, I passed on Monday & Tuesday, but got out on Wednesday. While grabbing a quick bite to eat at lunchtime near Lynnhaven Mall around 11:30 AM, about 25-30 Least Terns (likely an underestimate) were visible above Dick's Sporting Goods where the large colony has nested the last few years. Several terns were seen flying over the small storm water retention pond to the east as well. I haven't seen any reports on Listserve or eBird showing large numbers of the terns here yet this year so wanted to share (though David Clark observed 6 here on May 8th according to eBird). It appears that their colony is getting up and running again. I had been staking out this site the past few weeks while having random lunches at Subway, where the parking area is visible from. Temperatures in the low 70s and sunny weather made for a beautiful evening to get out and do some birding on Wednesday evening in Virginia Beach. Thanks to a site visit at work that ended a bit early, I was able to shoot up to Pleasure House Point and start my outing about 3:40 PM. While crossing the Lesner Bridge I could see there wasn't much of a sand bar showing, but was unsure whether the tide was rising or falling. I opted to park along Marlin Bay Drive so as I walked eastward towards the sandbars I'd have the sun at my back, giving my clear vision on anything in front of me over the mile-ish walk. The first wildlife I spotted wasn't birdlife, but was a Six-lined Racerunner that came scampering across the sandy trail from Marlin Bay Drive towards the shoreline trail. This speed demon paused a couple times for some photographs before dashing off into cover. Having seen a few last week at Back Bay, and some here on Sunday they seem to be all out for the summer season. At the shoreline trail junction I headed eastward. Through the first section along the second largest pond and the ditches leading up to the deer carcass pond I got a few Chimney Swifts and Barn Swallows flying overhead, with Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles and European Starlings flying in from varying directions. At the deer carcass pond, an adult Green Heron was standing along the shoreline, though it flew up towards the Marlin Bay Drive end of the pond as I raised my lens.
I tried to work my way around the pond along the western shoreline but it must have flushed as I never re-spotted the bird while circling the pond clockwise. A hundred yards or so southeast of here near the northwestern point on the largest cove of Pleasure House Creek, I 'spotted' a collection of 4 Spotted Sandpipers that were feeding in the high tide grasses near shore. The birds scattered pretty quickly and flew southeast, but I got a few ID-worthy photographs. Adjacent to the birds was a grouping of about a dozen tiny Least Sandpipers, showing their bright yellow legs to help identify them. Walking around the cove, I ran into Ron Furnish & Marie Mullins, who had a Greater Yellowlegs feeding in a small pond to their east. While talking, we had several flocks of Least Sandpipers cruise past, and a few Barn Swallows as well. This was the first time I've seen peeps in continuously circling flocks at the park. At the next point to the south, where folks often stand to search out rails, I could see a grouping of shorebirds out in the marshy islands nearest to the trail. Greater Yellowlegs, and what turned out to be Willets in breeding plumage were out in the high waters around the islands. Also, one Dowitcher was seen in the group. From here eastward to the pier area where the sandbars are viewable it was pretty quiet, with a few Northern Mockingbirds and grackles flying around. At the pier area though, it was obvious that while there wasn't much space available on the sandbar given the tide level, there was a ton of birds occupying it. American Oystercatchers were numerous with at least 11 birds, and Black Skimmers were also abundant. 4 species of terns could be seen on and around the sandbars including Forster's (showing white underparts tails longer than wings held back), Least, Sandwich (2 of them), and many Royals. Herring Gulls were also abundant, with Laughing Gulls to a lesser degree, and just one Ring-billed Gull on the northern side of the group. One American Crow was sitting amongst all the birds. While viewing the sandbar, I noticed a Common Loon sitting on the sandy shore across the boat channel. The bird was later reported as returning to the water, so hopefully it was not injured, I've never seen one just casually relaxing out of water. Walking back westward from the pier area, just a few Greater Yellowlegs were observed and the Willets had moved onward. Around the largest cove of Pleasure House Creek, many Least Sandpipers were again observed, and a pair of Spotted Sandpipers was back in the same spot as before. I ended up not walking all the way to the western extent of the park, but instead took the same route back to my vehicle that I'd come in on. On the entry trail, in the group of skinny pine trees, one Palm Warbler was seen and photographed, making it the second of the species I've seen in the last week out here, possibly the same bird given it was only a hundred yards away from the previous sighting. This bird is slightly outside the Gold Book's listed 10 Apr - 5 May spring transient period, though still within their extreme 27 May date. A nice bird though to end the day on!
On Thursday, another incredibly beautiful day in Virginia Beach led to me leaving work a few minutes early to try for some birds that were being reported around the area. I arrived at Stumpy Lake about 4 PM and headed out down the 2-mile long figure 8 style trails hoping to see some new songbirds, having gotten some reports of a few species I've been looking for. Near the connection point of the figure 8, a single Wood Thrush was observed, and I'd guess this is one of the two that I'd seen here on my last pair of outings since its in exactly the same spot. Walking around the trails it was actually really quiet, and the few birds that were calling, mostly Great Crested Flycatchers and Ovenbirds, proved very difficult to get sightings of. I heard one Prothonotary Warbler calling from the swampy area, saw a few American Robins, Blue Jays, American Crows, and a single Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, but that was really about it. So after one trip of the loop, I decided to make a dash down to Back Bay NWR where a few warblers & shorebirds had been reported earlier in the day. As I arrived to the park about 5:15, the sun had moved behind the clouds, cutting down the already constrained amount of light at this point in the evening. I headed out around the Bayside & Bay Trail near the visitor center first, finding a few Red-winged Blackbirds and a small flock of 3 Indigo Buntings, which proved tough to sneak up on.
From there I headed quickly down onto the beach, hoping to catch my first Semipalmated Plovers of the year, but the high tide appeared to have moved in, taking up most of the shorebirds real estate, but even with binoculars I couldn't spot any in either direction down the beach. A large collection of Double-crested Cormorants and Royal Terns had taken up residence on the 'north mile', where they're protected since the area is off-limits to the public. A few Brown Pelicans could be seen amongst them, and I scanned the flock of terns for a Caspian but couldn't locate any unfortunately. I walked down to the southern access, and back up over the dunes to the Loop Road, where I then went back up to the Bay Trail. I'd have walked further but with the lighting so poor with the clouds, I just decided to try my luck closer in to the parking area. Walking the Bay Trail westward, I was continuously flushing the set of Indigo Buntings I'd seen earlier, with them always about 50 feet or more out in front of me, no matter how slow and quiet I stalked them. A single Field Sparrow seemed to move right with them as well, but this was really it for birds along the trail. When I reached the end and turned around, I repeated the process all over again, though at least this direction, the light was behind me, giving a couple opportunities for photographs of the buntings as they paused ever so briefly before flushing again. Walking over the connecting boardwalk to the Bayside Trail, and around the small pond where the bitterns are often seen, a White-tailed Deer walked out about 50 feet away, stopped, looked right at me, and then slowly moved off into the dense forest between here and the Bay Trail. So while the bird sightings weren't real heavy today, the individual sightings were all very entertaining, and I always love seeing the Indigo Buntings' beautiful blue colors up close, though hopefully I get a chance soon with better lighting.
On Friday, the cooler, beautiful weather continued so at 3 PM I headed out from work, this time opting to go up to the Oceanfront for a hike at First Landing State Park. Parking on 64th Street, I headed into the park for a fairly standard Cape Henry to Long Creek to Osprey to Long Creek and back loop hike that can measure 5 or 6 miles depending on how far down Long Creek on walks. Heading into the park, it was fairly quiet, but once I got onto the Cape Henry Trail heading southwest, it was obvious I was in for an interesting walk. Where the trail bends after a quarter mile or so in an area populated by many tall, dead, pine trees, at least three Red-headed Woodpeckers were observed cackling and hopping around in the tree tops. On my last outing at the park, I had observed one in this same area, but to see three was something I had never anticipated. Continuing westward I didn’t really see any birds along the Cape Henry Trail or the short section of the entry road one is forced to walk along en route to the Long Creek Trailhead. Along the Long Creek Trail, some Carolina Chickadee and Tufted Titmice were seen, as well as some Northern Cardinals but nothing out of the ordinary for this time of year. At the junction with the Osprey Trail, I hooked to the left following it towards Broad Bay. A bit disappointing this spring is that the Mourning Doves that nested right above the trail seem to not be around, and the Canada Goose nesting on a small marshy spot adjacent to the trail has also been nowhere to be found this year. The Osprey Trail has been one of my favorites in springtime, with its tall trees and thick understory, migrating songbirds seem to flock to this area while passing through on their way northward. This spring though, I haven’t added any warblers along the trail like I typically do. But, that changed finally as I approached the Osprey & Great Blue Heron nest site at the upstream end of the eastern of the two tidal creeks that the trail crosses over. A Northern Parula could be heard singing high up in a tree, and I finally got my first looks at one for the year, adding it to my county list in 2015, making it #163 (my goal is still to hit 200 species by year’s end). As I was watching this small songbird up in the trees, 3 Red-headed Woodpeckers flew past it, chasing each other around the dead pine trees at this location, just like I’d seen earlier in the hike, 2 miles to the east.
This is another spot where I’ve seen the birds before, but not quite like this. Snapping a few photos as they briefly paused in the trees, I actually managed a couple decent ones finally of this species, which I’ve struggled with to date this year. After watching for a few minutes I continued westward along the shores of Broad Bay, arriving at the first bridge. Here, I could see a Raccoon feeding out in the marsh grasses, in the same spot as last time! In fact, I could tell this was the same Raccoon as before, being a young one that hadn’t quite grown into its body yet, with a very small face still. It wasn’t until I reached the next tidal creek that I found the adult it had been with on my last outing, so the two appear to be OK with being slightly apart, being a few hundred yards at least. I watched this adult until a pair of runners came past, talking loudly, and it ran off into the higher grasses without them having any idea it was ever there. This is always my one beef with being at the state park, as opposed to national wildlife refuges, there is way more people just out exercising and making noise. Not to mention all the dogs that get walked through the park, most of which aren’t leashed as they are supposed to be, but that’s another issue. After the second creek, I headed around the new trail that meanders around White Hill instead of just going straight up it. I hit the Long Creek Trail junction and headed westward towards White Hill Lake’s southern shore where there is a bench, and usually a few waterfowl scattered in close to shore on the lake. Today though, the only birds I could spot were some Great Blue Herons and a couple of Ospreys in the nest far across the lake. In the dead trees near the southeastern shore, a Brown-headed Nuthatch made itself visible, peeking out around the trunk of the tree before walking down it face-first. I headed back along the exact same route this time, starting with the ascent of White Hill, where several Northern Parulas could be heard in the canopy, but none could be spotted amongst the dense leaves. Walking back, the bonus was that the sun was no longer right in my eyes, so it made it easier to scan in front of me for birds, though it remained pretty quiet along the Osprey Trail. A few Great Crested Flycatchers were heard along the way, and I did find a couple Mourning Doves, but really the excitement of the day was seeing the woodpeckers and the parula. I arrived back to the car about 6:15 PM or so, and then headed home to wish my kitten Buster a very happy 1st birthday!
On Saturday, Ruth & I went early to downtown Norfolk to have some engagement photographs taken of us by a photographer trying to get more experience doing so (it was free!). Afterward, we headed home and changed, then I dropped her off at Little Island Park to spend time on the beach while I went for a long walk at Back Bay & False Cape, mirroring the walk I’d done the prior weekend. Arriving at the park about 10:25 AM to a very full parking lot, I started out along the Bayside Trail, where I very quickly saw a Spotted Sandpiper walking along the water's edge. Passing by the small pond and crossing the boardwalk to the Bay Trail was next up. Two days ago some friends, Karen & Tom Beatty, spotted a Magnolia & a Black-throated Blue Warbler along this trail, so I thought I'd spend a little extra time in the area today. While watching an Indigo Bunting that was sitting atop one of the 9 young-ish Cypress Trees at the base of the trail (east end), a small warbler came jumping out of the thick foliage and into view. I couldn't believe my eyes when I noticed its strong black neck with beautiful yellow face and white belly. This warbler, a Black-throated Green Warbler (#164) was my very first outside of Minnesota, a fantastic way to start a long hike. I watched the bird intently for about 15 minutes, opportunistically snapping photographs as it moved from branch to branch in the cypress trees, and fortunately a few did come out fairly well. After this excitement, I headed out onto the Loop Road southward, meeting up with Tim & Kay Fearington, who were also out photographing birds. Tim pointed out a beautiful Blue Grosbeak nearby that posed for a single shot before taking off. Along the west edge of the Loop Road, I encountered many Red-winged Blackbirds, a few Gray Catbirds, a single Snowy Egret, a Common Yellowthroat, and a pair of Mallards that were crossing the gravel roadway and didn't seem to care that I was very close to them. Walking along the West Dike, I intently watched the tree lines on either side, but the birds were quiet along this stretch for the most part, at least the songbirds. A Spotted Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, and Short-billed Dowitcher were all seen on the impoundments, but the West Dike was mainly dominated by Red-winged Blackbirds.
While walking through the maritime forest portion of the trail an Indigo Bunting, Red-headed Woodpecker and pair of Prothonotary Warblers were encountered. The Prothonotaries seem to enjoy the forest since it stays quite moist there, with standing water forming pools on both side of the path in the woods. I've seen Wood Ducks along this stretch in the past, but so far this year haven't observed any. After exiting the forest, I arrived at the roadway that forms the border of False Cape State Park, passing a large group of scouts on a camping excursion. I did not observe the Canada Warbler that Ron Furnish had seen yesterday unfortunately, and I believe this was the area it was sighted since there is a sign here calling out the distance to the visitor center at False Cape. Along the border road, on the Back Bay side there was a collection of Least & Semipalmated Sandpipers feeding along a small mudflat, and another Spotted Sandpiper was observed in fight along the ditch. Entering False Cape at the eastern side of the border roadway, my first bird was an Indigo Bunting that was singing high atop a tree near the observation platform. From here to the visitor center, a pair of Glossy Ibis, a Snowy Egret, many Red-winged Blackbirds, some Mourning Doves and a Brown-headed Cowbird were seen, and several Prairie Warblers were heard calling from the scrub country to the east of the road. Turning east at the visitor center and heading out towards Barbour Hill, the only bird to speak of was a Pine Warbler that was feeding along the trailside, providing nice looks out in the open, atypical for these birds that are usually jumping around in the long needles at the higher branches of our local pine trees. On the beach, many people were out surfing and walking around, with lots and lots of bikes parked along the trail going so far as the sand would allow. In the short stretch between Barbour Hill and the Back Bay border heading northward, I spotted my first Dunlin of the year (#165), showing full breeding colors and mixed in with a group of Sanderlings.
Crossing back into Back Bay NWR along the beach, the first birds noted were a flock of Brown Pelicans soaring just above the breaking waves heading northward also. Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed and Ring-billed Gulls were seen in the first mile or so, and a few large collections of shorebirds made for a fun time scanning the flocks trying to pick out different species. Semipalmated Plover (#166) was seen for the first time on the year, and about a mile south of the Back Bay beach access trails, a single Piping Plover was spotted. This is the second time in a row along the beach that I've seen one (seeing 3 last weekend), so if you don't mind a bit of a hike, they're hanging around it appears. In addition to these species, Black-bellied Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Sanderlings were all seen before reaching the southern access trail and hiking back over the dunes to the Loop Road. I took the Loop Road northward towards the parking area, then did a quick out and back along the Bay Trail, spotting what I believe to be an Eastern Wood-Pewee up in a tree near the rainwater puddle at the west end (will get some other opinions on the photo before confirming though). The Indigo Buntings that were seen here on Thursday remained, and continued to stay always about 50 feet away as I walked the trail. Coming back around the Bayside Trail's full length, I spotted a tern over the water that may have been a Caspian, but my photos are just not quite enough to convince me, still waiting to get my first positive shots of one in Virginia Beach this year. The Spotted Sandpipers that were my first sightings of the day were still around, and a Great Blue Heron was situated along the shoreline as well, taking to flight and landing on the trail that passes near the small pond next to the visitor center. One Brown Watersnake was seen on the boardwalk, hiding in a crack, but that was the only snake seen on the day. I guess with the hot, humid weather permeating the entire region, the snakes don't need to be laying out in the open to absorb the available heat!
On Sunday morning, even at 7 AM it was already about 70 degrees F out. I headed down to Back Bay to give it another go since Saturday had been so successful, and arrived around 8:20 to the parking area. Being earlier than on Saturday, there wasn’t so many cars fortunately already there. While getting out of the car I had my first sighting of the day as a Red-headed Woodpecker quickly rushed by overhead, showing off its bright white and black wing patterns. I walked around the Bayside Trail, noting that the Spotted Sandpipers weren’t present, and that the wind was quite strong coming off the bay, flowing southwest to northeast. Along the Bay Trail I quickly walked up to where I’d see the Black-throated Green Warbler on Saturday, still hoping to catch a glimpse of the other warbler species that had been sighted in this general area behind the visitor center. Here, I ran into Jason Schatti and Tim Mahoney I believe it was, who are also eBird.org users and were both out doing just as I was, trying to track down migrating warblers. They had spotted a pair of Yellow Warblers and a Common Yellowthroat nearby, so I stayed and kept watch for a few minutes. When I heard a bird calling around the corner closer to the parking area, I slid over that way to discover a gorgeous Indigo Bunting perched in the greenery, calling loudly from about 8 feet above the ground. I slowly worked into a good spot to photograph from, hoping that it wouldn’t fly away, and did finally get some great shots, though still not that perfect one I’m going for, but the blues of the feathers really turned out great! The bird continued calling while I watched the foliage for other birds at this spot which was both out of the wind, and with the sun at my back, lighting up the trees in front of me. The pair of Yellow Warblers that had been sighted came flying out chasing on another, and perched long enough for a couple identifying photographs to be taken, showing their bright red chest markings. While photographing these birds, Mary Catherine Miguez, a photographer I’d met through my time with the HRWE group on Facebook, arrived and walked over to say hi. Unfortunately by the time she got to where I was, they’d ducked back into the trees, so she stalked the area for the next couple of hours trying to find some birds.
I headed down the Loop Road and the West Dike, since I’m just not that patient of a birder, and I wanted to get some walking in. While walked the western side of the Loop Road southward, I saw one Snowy Egret, and a number of Red-winged Blackbirds, with a couple of Osprey being seen overhead. I again walked by Jason & Tim, who were intently searching out a sparrow that they could hear along the roadsides. This area holds tons of sparrows in the winter, especially Savannah Sparrows & Song Sparrows, but I didn’t find either species today, and the Savannahs should all be north of here for the summer by now, so it would have been neat to get eyes on the bird they heard. As I approached the gate to the West Dike, a family of 5 walked out from the other side of the Loop Road just in front of me. When this happens, it can be a bit frustrating for us birders, knowing that we’ll be following behind a group of folks that are likely to frighten off a lot of the wildlife we are seeking out, so of course my instinct was to speed up so I could get out front of them. The only problem was that they were actually walking a good pace, so even after I did pass them, each time I’d stop to take some photographs of something I saw, they’d catch up, and the cycle would repeat. This continued on for about 2 miles down the West Dike, all the way to the maritime forest entrance, where I had enough of it. You might say, why not just let them go, and follow behind, well…as I said, I’m impatient, and didn’t wish to wait a half hour for all the animals to come back. Even with all this going on though, I did see a lot of birds along the trail. Orchard Orioles were the clear starts of the show for me, and I finally got some nice photographs of some beautiful orange & black adult males which were hanging out near the large live oak patches that line the trail every few hundred feet. Greater Yellowlegs were the only species of shorebird encountered on this outing, as opposed to Saturday where I’d seen a Dowitcher and some Spotted Sandpipers along this stretch. Ospreys were fairly numerous, but were the only bird of prey sighted. Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks were also seen, and on the way back I encountered a pair of Eastern Kingbirds that landed on the barbed wire fencing surrounding the main pump house.
Also, on the way back in the most northern patch of trees on the west side of the West Dike I was photographing a Painted Lady butterfly, when a Yellow Warbler was seen above in the trees. This bird flitted about from branch to branch for a few minutes, giving me time for some photographs before disappearing again. I could hear its song, but I haven’t mastered memorization of this one yet, though I’m getting closer. Seeing them while they’re singing really helps imprint the song to a visual of the bird in the brain, at least to me it does, some folks are just naturals with the audio, but it takes considerable occurrences for me to remember. I remember much better on the visuals. After exiting the West Dike and re-entering the Loop Road, I stayed to the west edge again, back-tracking my earlier route. Some Common Yellowthroats and Prairie Warblers were heard, but it had gotten up in the 80s, and I didn’t spend the time to search them out, just given how hot it was while standing in the sun. When I got back up to the visitor center area, I stood again near the thicket where the warblers were sighted earlier, not seeing anything new though. Mary Catherine came walking up with another birder, and I walked with her down to the beach area, hoping that maybe some songbirds had taken up refuge along the Seaside Trail’s foliage since it was out of the wind. Unfortunately, many people were walking back and forth on this access boardwalk to the beach, so birds weren’t heard or seen on the way to the beach. From the beach, Royal Terns were visible in flight, and many Double-crested Cormorants and Brown Pelicans were sitting in a big group up on the north mile, visible across the restricted area pilings. Walking back to the parking lot, we heard a Prairie Warbler, which we eventually did see in the shrubs along the south side of the trail.
Additionally, a rodent of some sort came hopping out of the grasses onto the trail for a brief moment, and though I’m uncertain of the species, it was quite large for a mouse/rat/vole, and was carrying a baby in its mouth, presumably one of its own being moved to a safer location. We both thought it was a nut, until Mary Catherine posted her photo of it on Facebook and it was obviously not a nut! After this I walked back to my car and headed out, pretty tired from the extreme heat for this time of year, and the humidity of the past couple of days. I had planned to do a quick stop over at Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area, but instead drove back home since it was pretty overcast, obscuring the sunlight I need for good quality photography. I had thought my week of birds was over, when at about 5:30 PM, Ron Furnish called me to let me know he had a Bank Swallow sighting around Kings Grant Lakes, where the outlet to the Lynnhaven River is. It was low tide when Ruth & I arrived at the site, with mudflats clearly visible and just barely a trickle of water running down the center. Yellow-crowned Night-Herons had flocked to the area to search out food in the mud, and Mallards and Canada Geese were seen as well. Ruth spotted a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the treetops to our east, and also an Osprey that was perched overhead that I didn’t even notice. We had a small bird, likely a wren of some species come flying out of the marsh, but it disappeared into cover before I could adequately view it. Though, I think it could be a Marsh Wren, a bird I’ve been hoping to add to my life list for a while. After about 20 minutes, a slight drizzle started to come down, and it was then that one, and then a second, swallow showed up. Both cruising past very quickly, and flying erratically like swallows typically do. In the poor light, I got some photographs, showing a slight fork in the tail, which makes me think it was either a Tree Swallow, or a Bank Swallow, but as of yet I can’t determine with certainty which since the bird just shows up dark. In good light, the photos would be distinguishing unfortunately. We ran into Ron & Marie while rounding the corner heading over to the park area, and stopped for a while to talk until the rain started ramping up a bit and we took off. We drove past the spot again, but didn’t see the swallows, so hopefully I’ll get another chance later in the week, I’ll check again at low tide to see if any arrive here.