After arriving back in town over the previous weekend, I was greatly looking forward to having a full week at home and no more vacations upcoming in the near future, allowing me to get re-focused on my efforts in reaching 200 bird species on the year in my county of residence. Since May 29, when I’d spotted a pair of Black-necked Stilts while out hiking the West Dike Trail at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, my list has gone completely dormant. So when we had some beautiful weather in the 80s, and sunshine on Tuesday evening, I ran home from work, got my gear together and headed up to Pleasure House Point for a quick outing. Passing over the Lesner Bridge, the water appeared to be close to high tide, with little sandbar showing. Seeing this, I abandoned my hope of finding some shorebirds, which are just starting on their southbound migration here in mid-July. Instead, I figured I’d at least get to see some wading birds as is customary with the higher water levels, since they’re the ones that have long enough legs to still hunt for food along the shorelines when the water is high. I parked along Marlin Bay Drive, entering through the short trails that splits between the park’s two largest freshwater ponds. Eastern Towhees were calling from both sides of the trail, though remaining hidden, they’re always nice to at least hear. Upon reaching the Shoreline Trail, and turning eastward on it, I ran into a spot on the southern shore of the first pond that had been recently burned. This site is not associated with the burn that occurred further to the east a few weeks ago, and I wondered whether these burns may have been intentional, controlled burns by the park staff. Upon investigation through Facebook though, it was said that the burns were still under investigation, and were not planned by the park staff. Hopefully, this is the last of them. At least the first burn area is regrowing with short vegetation, but the pine trees impacted will take a long time to replace.
As for the birds, I had my first surprise of the day just as I was reaching the meadow near the deer carcass pond, when an inbound heron caught my eyes. It was flying overhead, toward’s me, and the profile looked like that of a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, which are the most abundant herons in the park during the summertime. I’m glad that I stopped to watch though, as it turned out instead to be a juvenile Tricolored Heron, when I got a better angle on it. The bird flew over me quickly, then further to the west, landing at the top of a very tall pine tree right along the shoreline. I kept on walking since it had landed so high up, and with mostly cloudy skies, it would not have come out very well in a photograph. Walking along the shoreline, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons did start to show up, and I saw them in all their plumages as well, adults, first year birds, and juveniles also. Red-winged Blackbirds were out in force around the marshier sections of trail, as they usually are in the summer months. While rounding the point near the inner creek, a shorebird flew high overhead, and gave out a wheep call. Through the lens, I couldn’t pick out any color, but the silhouette of the bird gave clear indication that it was an American Oystercatcher, a bird that I always love to find here, though I never seem to get very close to any as they’re either high above, or far out on the sandbars at lower tide levels. The bird flew off pretty quickly to the northwest, so I unfortunately only got one photograph of it. Great Egrets, a Great Blue Heron, and some Yellow-crowneds could be seen out in the marshy islands, and across the creek over at the backside of Thoroughgood as well. As I walked the stretch of trail between the inner creek & the ditches, a Tricolored Heron, presumably the same one I’d seen land in the tree earlier, came flying in right near me and landed some shrubbery just about 50 feet away. I couldn’t believe it had chosen a spot like this to stop, but perhaps the young birds just aren’t as weary of people as their older generations have had time to become. I shot many photographs of the bird here, and though the sun was hitting on its far side, I got some really nice shots of its colors even in the shade. Rounding the primary point of the park, I saw a Northern Mockingbird and a few Boat-tailed Grackles, including one juvenile of the species that I don’t believe I’ve encountered before.
Laughing Gulls, Royal Terns, and Common Terns were seen along this section, but a pair of kayakers had pulled up on the remaining sandbar, so there was no birds here to speak of sadly. In the saltmeadow, a beautiful pink flower was in bloom, known as Marsh Pink which I see each summer, and am always amazed just how colorful the tiny flowers are. Walking westward, I ran into pretty much the same species. When I reached the far west end of the park, I had a group of 3 more Tricolored Herons flying overhead, making this probably the most Tricoloreds I have ever seen at the park in one outing. Heading back eastward after taking a couple short interior trail but turning up no new birds, I again ran into some Great Egrets & Yellow-crowneds. Also, in addition to the Marsh Pink, I ran into one very beautiful Purple Passionflower as well, which I don’t think I’ve seen at the park before, or I just haven’t paid close enough attention in the past to. Chimney Swifts were sighted in force, with a flock of 15 of them cruising above the meadow adjacent to the deer carcass pond. A single Great Egret nearby also provided me with a few minutes of relentless picture taking. The egret, situated at the western point of the main cove of Pleasure House Creek, provided some great shots as it hunted in the flooded tidal marsh. I snapped one photograph of what appears to have been a Crayfish, just before it was swallowed whole by the bird! On my return trip as I neared the burned off area, a group of Blue Jays was encountered, at least one of which was a juvenile. I stopped in this area just off the trail and watched for them. As I did so, other birds began to appear, and this was definitely a loosely assembled mixed flock of several species. Northern Cardinals, American Robins, a Downy Woodpecker, a Northern Flicker, a pair of Carolina Chickadees, and even an Eastern Kingbird all were seen within a few minutes of standing still, several of which were also able to be photographed. I don’t often see the woodpecker species at the park, though I’m sure they’re present often, but I’m always focused more on the water & the sky above it than I am looking up in the pine trees for their kind. After this flurry of excitement, I headed back to the car on Marlin Bay Drive and headed off down the street to Shore Drive.
Given the excitement I’d had with the Tricoloreds, and the fact that I was already in the area, I decided to give it one more shot at finding the Mississippi Kites that have been reported again this summer as nesting in the Thoroughgood neighborhood to the southwest across Pleasure House Creek. I drove over to the area, just a few minutes away, and spent about 15 minutes staring out the car windows hoping to see one fly past overhead, or spot one up on a branch near the intersection of Curtiss Drive and Burroughs Road. While driving east on Curtiss away from the intersection, I spotted one of the birds up in a tree on the north side of the road, near the Westerfield Road intersection. I stopped the car and fired off a couple photographs of the bird, which was very dimly lit thanks to the setting sun, but I could still make out its identity thanks to the shape of the bird and some of the details like the very long, forked tail and beak shape. As I checked the photos, the bird flew off to the east, landing in a tree which was obscured from view. I left the neighborhood, and tried to pick the bird back up from the next streets to the north, only a hundred feet or so away as the bird flew, but a ways for driving since no streets cut through. I couldn’t spot the bird in the tree, but I did see it fly past overhead, showing very long wings, gliding very easily on the breeze, true to their namesake of ‘Kite’ most certainly. A second bird was also spotted high overhead, presumably the mate of the first bird. This pair nested in the area last summer as well, and others have reported that its offspring from last year has returned to the same area for the summer. So with that one, and their fledgling up in a nest somewhere nearby, there is a total of 4 Mississippi Kites in the area, something very rare out this far. The birds range all across the southeastern coastal states, but we are at the very northeast edge of their regular range, though some individual do extend that range in the summer months for breeding, like these birds have. After being delighted to finally nab the kite, and add it to my life list, I also realized that my dry streak since May 29 had finally come to a close, and I got to place it on my yearly Virginia Beach list as #178, leaving just 22 more species to reach my start-of-the-year goal of hitting 200 species!
On Wednesday & Thursday, heat kept me indoors, which was just fine since I had a fair number of photographs to go through, tag, and crop/edit for inclusion in my weekly gallery and my eBird report. On Friday, I did the usual, leaving work at 3 PM and heading out towards Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. With the movements of shorebirds having started now for their fall migration southward, I thought it would be the perfect day to set a baseline for my observations along the beachfront of the park. My hope was also that I might be able to spot a shorebird that I missed during their spring migration northward through the area, like a Pectoral Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, or Whimbrel. Arriving at the park about 3:40 PM, I walked immediately down to the beach along the northern of the two access trails, forgoing the other trails around the visitor contact station since it was just so hot & humid. Down on the beach, a good breeze was keeping things a bit cooler, so it made sense to stay there as opposed to walking any trails being cooked by stagnant air. As I arrived on the beach, a Great Black-backed Gull was sitting out in front of me, and several Laughing Gulls were down just a bit form it. Royal Terns were in the air, with plenty of them being seen as they flew along with the breeze. Heading southward, I could see a set of poles about a half mile away. When I’d arrive to their location, it was obvious that the park staff had placed these to delineate a sea turtle nest that must have been made in the last month or so, probably a Loggerhead Turtle since they’re the most common ones we have around here I believe. I have never seen a sea turtle alive in the wild, though after Hurricane Sandy passed through our area in late October of 2012, I did unfortunately find a deceased one washed up on the beach along Broad Bay at First Landing State Park. I reported that to the stranding team at the Virginia Aquarium since they do keep a log of all living, and deceased, marine animals that end up on the beaches across our region.
I really wish I could happen to be at Back Bay when the eggs, buried down in the sand, begin to hatch, but the odds of that happening are extremely unlikely. What a sight it would be to see, but just knowing it still occurs along our beaches here in Virginia Beach is pretty awesome. As developed as the northern half of the city is, the southern half remains in use by a ton of wildlife species. Leaving the turtle nest behind me, and continuing southward another half mile or so, I finally ran into my first set of shorebirds. A group of 4 Willets, with one still showing some pretty breeding colors that hadn’t all worn out yet. Further south, I encountered a pair of sandpipers that I was calling Semipalmateds in the field. It wasn’t until I came home and reviewed the photographs that I questioned whether they could be Western Sandpipers instead. I posted and received confirmation that they were indeed Westerns through Facebook, showing reddish scapular feathers, and longer, droopier bills than the Semipalmated Sandpiper house. These two species are intensely similar when not in breeding plumage, and are two members of the group of shorebird referred to commonly as ‘peeps’ since they are small, chatty birds that are tough to distinguish between. The Western, was a new addition to my Virginia Beach list, being #179 now on the year! Sticking close to the pair of sandpipers, a Short-billed Dowitcher provided some great photographs as well, and gave me a nice size comparison object in the photographs of the Westerns, and of some Willets that eventually joined the group. Don’t let the name of this bird fool you, their bill is actually quite long, it is just slightly shorter than the Long-billed Dowitcher. Realistically, they should be called Long-billed Dowitchers, and Almost-as-Long-billed Dowitchers, but, that’d too much of a mouthful I guess. Continuing on, I spotted a duck sitting up on the sandy beach, and recognized it froma distance as a Scoter. When I approached, the bird clearly was unhappy, opening its beak in a threatening pose. Typically when a sea duck like a scoter is sitting on the beach, something is not right.
So, I walked closer to the bird just to see if it could move. As I got close in, I could tell it was a White-winged Scoter, the least likely of the three scoter species (Black, and Surf are the other two) to be found on the coastline of Virginia during the summer months. It also became readily apparent that the bird was indeed injured, as it got up, and ran/tried to fly towards the water. It’s right wing was completely shredded from the elbow all the way down, leaving just bone showing and no feathers. The bird obviously couldn’t fly in this condition, but it made it into the water with no trouble, and appeared to be able to swim just fine. Unfortunately though, I’m not sure how effective at hunting underwater it will be. I notified a local rehabber, Karen Roberts, of the bird after I got home, but there is no guarantee it came back up onto the beach, as I did not see it on my northbound return trip. Seeing birds in this condition is always a sad sight, sometimes it is hard to keep up the attitude of, ‘it’s just the circle of life’, especially with such a beautiful duck. Onward I travelled, seeing every increasing numbers of Lesser Black-backed and Laughing Gulls, some providing great photographs while standing in the water, and others on fly-bys over the beach. About 2.5 mile south of the parking area, I spotted a group of Willets out ahead of me, that they all took to the air. If you’ve seen Willets before, you’ll know that in flight they are very easily identified. Their very bright white & black patterns on the wings are a dead obvious call as to what they are. So when this group ahead of me lifted off, and I noticed one bird lacking the white markings, my heart started to pound. My immediate reaction was that it must be a Marbled Godwit mixed in with the Willets. On August 30 of last year, I had a very similar encounter with a godwit just north of here closer to the parking area, which was also mixed in with a group of Willets. That Marbled Godwit was one of perhaps only 2 individuals that were sighted in Virginia Beach last year altogether, though it was reported by 5 persons, one before me earlier in the day, unknown to me at the time, and three after, including Ron Furnish & Marie Mullins whom I’d told about the bird in the hopes that they too could come find it. So with that having occurred, I was sure this must be a godwit as well.
I moved up along the beach closer to the dunes, since the bird seemed to get spooked easier than the other shorebirds. Over the next half mile, I pursued the bird as it wandered its way south along the shore, finally getting into a spot where my binoculars could see details of it. To my amazement, it was not a Marbled Godwit, but instead, it was a Whimbrel, #180! Perhaps not as rare in Virginia Beach since typically a few will be sighted each year during migration, it was still an incredible bird to spot! And interestingly enough, last year, I’d seen my first on July 13, a mere 4 days earlier in the year. Clearly, they swing through our area like clockwork, starting to arrive in early July, so I will have to remember that for next year. Eventually, I got close enough for some very nice photographs of the bird, both on the ground, and a few in-flight shots, before it took off northward with some Willets, and flew off into the distance, not to be seen again by me during the northbound trip. After this excitement, I turned around and headed north towards the parking area, sighting the same species as before over the first couple miles. As I neared the turtle nest again, this time from the south, a small white figure was seen on the beach ahead. A Piping Plover! This small shorebird stood higher up the beach, closer to the dunes than the water, blending in very well with the surrounding sand. In order to try and get a nice shot of it, I had to go up to the dune line, and shoot towards the east, so the sun would light the bird up and provide a good setting for my camera. After a few photographs, I left the bird undisturbed since they are actually an endangered species here in the US, and a bird I don’t often see, though somehow this year I’ve picked them up at Back Bay on 3 separate occasions now, after having never seen one in the county before this year. The remainder of the hike back was hot, but not filled with any new birds, though I could never complain after having seen everything I did during the walk. Going into this walk with the intent of setting a baseline for shorebirds as their migration is just starting seemed a bit funny to me afterwards. I doubt I’ll have another hike during even peak migration when I get to add 2 species to my yearly list, so seeing everything on this outing was just an incredible experience. With that in mind, I figured I’d get home, grab some sleep, and head back out in the morning elsewhere to seek out some additional shorebird species.
So on Saturday morning, I slept in a bit later than usual, not getting up til about 7 AM, though it was totally overcast early on so I didn’t miss much. I drove off towards Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area’s Whitehurst Tract in the hopes of finding some shorebirds on the impoundments that I’ve been checking every few weeks throughout the spring & summer. Also, having visited the park last Sunday, and agonizingly not being able to locate a calling Bobwhite, I wanted to see if it might still be around this weekend. Parking at around 8:40 AM or so, I trudged off through the very overgrown entrance trail southward towards the tightly packed set of impoundments located in the southern half of the park. On the trip south, I saw some Blue Jays, and some Indigo Buntings as well, but it was fairly quiet, with no calls from Bobwhites being heard. Reaching the choke point in the trail just before the southern impoundments, I could already see a few shorebird heads sticking up from the grasses on the northern cell. To get in a good position I had to walk south though, splitting between the middle & southern impoundments, heading eastward which would put me in a good spot with the sun as I arrived to the northern cell. No birds were observed on either of these 2 cells except for a single Great Blue Heron. Grasshoppers were again out in full force as they were last Sunday, jumping all over the place out ahead of me. I did also run into one pretty good sized Rat Snake or Racer, just didn’t get a good enough look at it to identify properly before it disappeared. Around the impoundments, the grass was about chest high, making it the ideal territory for chiggers and ticks alike. However, I was sprayed head to toe in deet, not taking any chances, after having pulled a few ticks out of me earlier in the season. Their bites are just so itchy and nasty, it behooves one greatly to just avoid them altogether if possible. And since I’m obviously not going to stop hiking just because of them, the spray is really the only alternative. Anyway, I reached the southeastern corner of the northern cell, and immediately realized there was plenty of Killdeer out in the grassy middle of the cell. A total of 11 of them were out there actually, with a Spotted Sandpiper, and 5 peeps as well.
The birds were just too far from me to be to distinguish as Least, Semipalmated or Western Sandpipers, though I would have to guess that they were Semipalmateds since they seem more common in the park. This was the first outing I’ve had this summer though that yielded this number of shorebirds, so definitely a move in the right direction. Moving back up through the northern half of the park, I followed the same route as last Sunday’s walk, still not hearing any Bobwhites unfortunately, and thinking they must have moved off during the week elsewhere. I did spot some Eastern Meadowlarks though as I neared the abandoned farmhouse at the northeast corner of the property. Several Mourning Doves, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and a Northern Mockingbird were seen in the large trees just west of the building. Walking up to meet Munden Road, then turning left to head back to the parking area also turned up many birds. On the powerline wires that stretch along the north side of the roadway several Northern Cardinals, a Blue Grosbeak, and Orchard Oriole, and a Barn Swallow were seen. As I neared the vehicle, the call of a Northern Bobwhite rang out through the air and stopped me again dead in my tracks, just as it had done last week! I thought, perfect, this is my chance to finally photograph one! I walked back to the farmhouse, east down the road, took my backpack off so the sound of water sloshing around couldn’t give my position away, and slowly crept up towards where the bird was calling from, just west of the farmhouse. Over the next few minutes, the bird called every 20 seconds or so, a very clear Bob-White call! As I approached, the calls suddenly stopped, and I felt my heart sink again, just as I had last week. While I stood there in the silence for what felt like forever, but was probably only a few seconds, suddenly two birds burst out into the air just 50 feet or so to my left. A very quick look at they quickly rushed off was all I needed to verify that the birds were Northern Bobwhites, and though they were most certainly not the one that was calling, it did lead me to them.
Had they not erupted into the air, much like a Woodcock or a Grouse, I’d never have seen the small birds hiding in the thick vegetation. I didn’t manage to get an identifying photograph, just due to how fast these birds are on the fly, but I did get a good look, and combined with having heard them here now twice, I’m happy to finally add them to my list as #181 in Virginia Beach this year! I tried to re-locate the birds again, but to no avail, so I again headed down the road back towards the car. Of course, as I reached the parking area, the Bobwhite again started calling, but I felt that I should leave the bird along after having gotten the visual earlier, maybe the next outing will finally yield my first photograph of one of these birds in Virginia Beach. Near the car, I spotted a fledge year Common Yellowthroat, a pair of Carolina Wrens, and also a quick view of a hummingbird as it zoomed through the trees. Having arrived at the vehicle though I headed out from the park, driving back north along Morris Neck Road. Along the way, I decided that maybe it was time I checked out Munden Point Park, further south along Princess Anne Road, very near the state line with North Carolina. Munden Point Park has shown a few reports of Chipping Sparrows throughout the year, and since it is now July, and I’ve yet to stumble across one of these birds, I felt it was time to really start trying to isolate them. According to eBird, Chipping Sparrows are the most common bird that I have not yet seen, showing up in something like 5% of all checklists submitted from Virginia Beach. Of course, most of these are people seeing them at their backyard feeders, where they are quite common. However, since I don’t have feeders, I have to wait to stumble on them near fields in parks, or try to track them down.
So I went to Munden Point in the hopes of doing just that, parking near the Frisbee golf course and walking towards the North Landing River kayak launch, following the shoreline around. In the process, I turned up some American Robins, a Bald Eagle, an Eastern Kingbird, a big group of Purple Martins, and a very chatty Northern Mockingbird. But, it wasn’t until I cleared the Frisbee golf area that a small bird came out of the trees and landed in the grass. I got the binoculars up and noted it was a Chipping Sparrow in nonbreeding plumage, making that #182 on my list, and the 5th addition this week after 6 weeks of not adding a single bird! A second bird landed nearby also, one in breeding colors, making for some nice photographs for documentation. I had hoped to find one, but I don’t think I actually thought they would show up like this, especially with never having walked around in the park before, and not knowing where to look. I was delighted that it turned out as good as it did though. From the park I headed back up towards home to get all my photographs in order and to issue posts on Virginia’s listserver of some of the sightings. On Sunday it was in the mid-90s, with heat indices well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so instead of hiking, Ruth & I went to the beach up around 88th Street. Though I wasn’t there all that long since I just can’t sit still all day on the beach, I spent a good hour in the water, which felt amazing on a hot day. It was also nice to be able to observe plenty of birds in flight over the coastline, with Brown Pelicans flying in flocks, Ospreys spending plenty of time catching fish offshore, and Terns (Sandwich and Royal) and Gulls (Laughing, Great Black-backed & Ring-billed) also being seen. All in all, it was a good way to end the week, and I’m excited that the fall migrations for shorebirds have begun, which will eventually lead to songbird migrations, waterfowl migrations, and raptor migrations as well. At least the slowest part of the year (June through mid July) is over now, and each week will bring in some interesting sights!