With our heat wave in southeastern Virginia slightly abating on Wednesday with highs "just" in the upper 80s, I got out on my first outdoor venture of the week & headed up to Pleasure House Point to check for some arriving shorebirds. Low tide had been hitting just before sunset the previous couple of days, so after-work walks were positioned fairly well for the possibility of seeing shorebirds on the sandbars and mudflats, as long as recreational boaters hadn't scared them all off, which at this point in the year is sadly a typical occurrence. With strong northerly winds, the water levels were a bit higher than they should typically be as low tide approached. I parked on Marlin Bay Drive as usual on my evening walks and headed into the park, turning eastward along the shoreline. Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were quite numerous, though not out of the ordinary for the park this time of year. Tricolored Herons were again encountered, though again only juveniles and no brightly colored adults like I had hoped for. When I reached the main point there was a good collection of birds out on the flats including Gulls (dominated by Laughing, with many young Herring, and a few Great Black-backed), Terns (Royal, with several Caspians, Commons & Forster's, and even a pair of Sandwich), 8 American Oystercatchers, several Black Skimmers and 1 Short-billed Dowitcher all on the near flat. This is probably the most diversity of species I have seen so far on such a small sandbar at the park. The Caspian Tern especially was a really nice surprise since all of the ones I have encountered thus far in 2015 in Virginia Beach have been very distant views. This one though, I was able to get some shots of it standing on the sandbar and also some in-flight photographs. As the water levels were dropping slowly, I decided to walk back west across the park, and come back eastward again to give the water some time to drop. Upon my return to the point, now on the further flat due to kayakers near the closer flat, I located 3 Semipalmated Plovers which are the first noted on eBird at the park, and in Virginia Beach since May. These birds were anticipated to arrive to the coastal plain of Virginia according to the ‘Gold Book’ (Virginia’s Birdlife: An Annotated Checklist) on July 25, so these were just a couple days early from the predicted date, always nice to ‘beat the book’ or so it is referred. On the nearby salt meadows, Killdeer were encountered, rounding out the shorebird species. In addition to the shorebirds seen, other wading birds including Green Herons, Great Egrets, and even a pair of Snowy Egrets were also present. It is a good time of year to walk the easily accessible trails, and be able to see a wide array of species around the shorelines.
After a Thursday evening break to catch back up with my photographs, and because it was about 90 degrees out, I got back outdoors on Friday after work. At 3 PM I headed southeast towards Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, arriving at about 3:40 PM. Foregoing the trails around the visitor center, I quickly walked south down the Loop Road and took the boardwalk over to the beach. The East Dike Trail is now open, but I haven’t yet walked it, choosing instead to walk the beaches the past two weeks due to the shorebird migration. Walking south along the beach proved much more difficult this week since the high tide was essentially in, and the beach was either wet, loose sand, or it was tire treads, and even more loose further up near the dunes. When the tide is lower, it is much easier to walk since the drying of the sand inundated by the high tide begins to dry and densify when the low tide approaches. Since the tides slip about 50 minutes forward each day (if tonight’s high tide was at 5 PM, tomorrow’s would be around 5:50 PM give or take a few minutes), every other Friday will yield a trip at the low tide, and the in between Fridays will be on the high tides. So with a tougher walk, I was finding myself a bit more tired than the last week, and so I took a few less photographs. Also, since the tide was higher, and less beach was available, the birds tend to be wearier since you are closer to them most of the time due to the drop in width of the exposed beach. With all this though, there was still plenty of birds to be seen. About a mile south of the parking area is when the collections of shorebirds began to coalesce into larger masses.
Sanderlings were by far the most numerous species of the day, probably numbering well over 100. In a not-so-distant second place though were the Willets, of which I saw potentially 50 or more, but I didn’t keep an accurate count. Offshore from the beach I got to view something for the very first time! There were several dark colorations extending a hundred or more feet along the coastline, almost looking like the ‘shadow’ of a whale beneath the surface. However, it wasn’t a whale, or any marine mammal at that. The dark colorations were schools of tightly packed baitfish that were situated along the beach. Along the surface above the shoals of fish, splashes were occurring all over the place, presumably caused by predatory fish that were attacking the schools from below, and either the baitfish were jumping, or the predators were at times overshooting their intended targets. At one point, even a few Dolphins moved through the school, thrashing on the surface and slapping their tails! My camera is not equipped to photograph this type of action at this distance effectively, but it sure was fun to watch through my binoculars. I encountered more and more schools as I moved south, and on the trip north got to watch some of the same action again. Though, on the way back, the terns were getting a little more involved, diving from high up in the air, downward right into the schools. It reminded me of a film I’d seen on Africa’s ‘Wild Coast’ at Nauticus with my mother & step-father a year ago which focused on how the dolphins, gannets, and other fish can decimate the shoals of Sardines during their migration along the southeastern coast of Africa. Back to the birds though, in addition to the Sanderlings and Willets, on the southbound trip I saw one Spotted Sandpiper that flew out over the water quickly, a pair of peeps that were likely Western Sandpipers, but I couldn’t tell for certain, and at least 1 Semipalmated Sandpiper. I ended up walking all the way to the sign located at the boundary between False Cape State Park and Back Bay NWR, a one way distance from the visitor contact station of about 3.4 miles.
At this point, I made the turn back towards the north, now with the ocean & shoreline at my right. This tends to make it a bit tougher for me to quickly grab photographs since I have to pivot my body and shoot to the right, which isn’t as natural for a right-handed person who prefers to shoot to the left (left hand holds lens up, right hand works the camera body). On the northbound trip, I ran into the same groups of Sanderlings & Willets, though about a mile or so south of the parking area, I spotted a Semipalmated Plover higher up on the beach and to my amazement, it was in the company of a much whiter, equally sized & shaped bird, a Piping Plover! According to my field guide ‘The Sibley Guide to Birds’, there are an estimated less than 10,000 of these plovers left in North America, landing them on the endangered species list. Though, this is the 4th time this year I’ve encountered at least one at Back Bay NWR, which makes it the best place in Virginia Beach to spot them. Seeing this particular one in the same spot essentially that I ran into one last week leads me to suspect it to be the same bird though I can’t prove that since the bird didn’t have any distinctive individual marks or bands. Getting the chance to observe the two species of plovers side by side was also a very interesting experience, they just appear so similar outside of their feather colors. Other birds seen that could be considered shorebirds were the Terns (Least, Forster's, Common, Sandwich, and Royal), and Gulls (Laughing, Ring-billed & Lesser Black-backed). Of these species, the Royal Terns were clearly the most common, and were seen continuously along the hike in both directions. I did not run into the injured White-winged Scoter that I saw there last Friday, nor the Whimbrel unfortunately, though it was only sighted by one other person after me on Saturday (Jim Marcum). I would come to find out later that Karen Roberts, a local rehabber, was able to locate and pick up the wounded White-winged Scoter on the ‘north mile’ of the beach which is closed to hikers.
The park permitted her to go out to get the bird, and also a female Common Eider that also was injured and seeking refuge on the uninhabited beach. I had contacted Karen last weekend to let her know about the scoter, mentioning that its wing was injured. The bird she picked up had the same injury, and being a female White-winged Scoter, it was pretty much mathematically impossible that it wasn’t the same bird. So hopefully she or the vets can do something for the bird to help it heal, it is always sad to find injured animals. I first met Karen through the HRWE group on Facebook, but didn’t meet in person until I saw a driver clip an Opossum one morning about 2 years ago while driving towards Back Bay. The poor animal didn’t know hit him, and suffered a broken jaw, something that couldn’t be fixed unfortunately, though at least it was able to be cared for a few days before it had to be put down. I sincerely hope the scoter and eider are able to be taken care of & make a comeback, as I’d love to see them healthy along the beach someday. Again, I stray off topic, but as for the birds, I didn’t locate any Black Terns, which were the species I was targeting, as they’re the most ‘common’ species as far as sightings go in Virginia Beach that I have yet to see this year. Actually, Black Terns are a bird I have only seen once, and it was in Minnesota at the northern end of Low Lake north of the town of Ely. I spotted a pair of these in what I believe was 1996 when I was only 13 years old, and my father and I had paddled a loop from Fenske Lake to Bass Lake. I’ve yet to see the species here in Virginia Beach, so it wouldn’t just be a new year bird for me in the county, it’d be a new all-time county bird, as well as a state bird, and a life bird if I could photograph one. So the next time I come out I really hope to again give it my best shot at seeing one. Walking from the beach back to the parking area I did see some Blue Grosbeaks, tons of European Starlings, and a big flock of Purple Martins also, raising the species count. Heading home a bit later than normal, I came home to an empty apartment as my fiancé was away in Charleston, SC for the weekend, and so I got to cook up my own meal, eating a bit later than normal as a result. After dinner I pretty much went to bed so I could get back up early on Saturday and give it another go.
On Saturday morning, I headed down to Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area’s Whitehurst Tract, just as I had done the previous Saturday after another Back Bay Friday hike. Duplicating the walks gives me a nice comparison of what birds have shown up to the area each week, and will help refine where I go next year throughout the year. In essence, it will allow me to be more efficient with what birds I target, though I put considerable thought in already, there is no substitute for the actual experience. As with Back Bay, the shorebirds at Whitehurst were a bit more numerous this week than last Saturday, with a better variety including my first bird on the day, a Greater Yellowlegs that was seen along the entry trail. When I reached the impoundments it became evident that the loop going around the western, northern, and middle cells had been cut, so the grass was no longer chest or neck high as it has been in some parts throughout the summer. With the lower grass, it allowed for easier walking, though I still sprayed from head to toe to prevent ticks and chiggers which can be numerous in the heat of summer, especially in meadow/grassland environments. In walking around the middle cell, it put me in the right spot (southeastern corner) of the northern cell, putting the sunlight behind me, meaning the birds had to look into the sun to see me, though of course they’re still able to better than a person in the same situation. Out on the pond there was at least four Solitary Sandpipers, the most I have ever seen at once time before, quite a surprise! I have been hoping to spot a Pectoral Sandpiper here the past couple weeks as they move through the region on their southbound migration but Saturday unfortunately wasn’t the day. Killdeer were quite numerous with about ten of them being seen near the Solitary Sandpipers, and a few peep species were also noted, though too distant to be identified properly.
Walking from the southern cells back around the park to the north I did hear the Northern Bobwhite call a couple times but it was short-lived, I feel I am destined to not see this sly fellow, though I still welcome the calls. From the farmhouse at the northeast corner, I walked as usual back along the roadway, seeing 4. Orchard Orioles (1 male and 3 either female, or young males) and several Blue Grosbeaks, and Indigo Buntings. Some other surprise during the walk were a flyover by a Cattle Egret & a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron that perched up in a tree right where the southern and northern halves of the park meet at a choke point. I’ve seen Cattle Egrets here prior, but not reliably, and the Yellow-crown was a first for me at the park I believe. After exiting the park I spent some time just driving around southern Virginia Beach, heading down Back Bay Landing Road to get a look at the other portion of the Princess Anne WMA. I drove slowly down several roads adjacent to farm fields thinking perhaps I’d hear the call of a Grasshopper Sparrow. But, all the farm fields are very grown up right now, whether they be soy bean fields, or cornfields, it’d be pretty tough to spot some of the species that can be found on them during the spring or winter such as the Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, or grassland sparrows such as the Grasshopper. After driving for a bit around Pungo and just enjoying the beautiful day, I headed down Pungo Ferry Road over to Blackwater Road, and then south towards Milldam Creek’s Boardwalk (built by The Nature Conservancy). This is the site that I’ve had good luck in locating Green Treefrogs when it is too hot out to go birding more or less. So I walked the boardwalk, spotting a record 7 Green Treefrogs in the process! Most of them were very young frogs, only a half inch or so in length, and barely visible against the green reeds while not moving. Only a couple of the frogs were sizeable, though still probably 2 or 3 inches in total length. Grasshoppers of several species, including Two-striped, were common, and dragonflies were extremely numerous. Black-and-Yellow Garden Spiders were encountered again as well. Birds were pretty quiet here, though a pair of Wood Ducks was seen in flight, and Common Yellowthroats and Indigo Buntings were heard & seen respectively. Turkey Vultures were also seen overhead, but there was no sign of the hopeful Least Bittern I’ve been waiting to find in this environment all year. So of the 4 birds I was targeting this weekend, Black Terns, Pectoral Sandpipers, Least Bittern and Grasshopper Sparrow, I struck out on all 4. However, each of these species are very unreliable and tough to find, most showing up in about 1-2% of all eBird reports from Virginia Beach, meaning I have a 1 in 50-100 chance of finding them for any particular checklist location, not very good odds.
On Sunday, I got going a bit later than Saturday, but again made a dash for Whitehurst Tract. En route, I got a message from Karen & Tom Beatty that they were heading that way, so I called them and let them know I’d meet them there. We walked the same general trails as I had on Saturday, and I was excited that one of the Solitary Sandpipers remained in the same location and Karen was able to see it, that was her bird of interest for the morning. While viewing, I also had a Spotted Sandpiper, a Least Sandpiper, and at least a dozen Killdeer out in the same impoundment. So things have definitely gotten better this weekend at the park. We heard and saw a few Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks, with Common Yellowthroats and Field Sparrows calling all across the park. The Field Sparrows I was not aware of by song, but Karen pointed them out and I think now it will stick with me since it sounds similar to a Prairie Warbler, but doesn’t have as rapid a succession, and doesn’t begin at such a high pitch. Karen had her new The Shorebird Guide book there, which I think I’ll need to invest in now after seeing it, though on Saturday evening I did buy The Warbler Guide, which is essentially a full sized field guide just covering the warbler species as opposed to all north American birds like the beginner guides do, allowing for more detailed accounts for each species. I’m also awaiting delivery of The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior, which should help me reach another tier of knowledge beyond just identification of birds. The three of us did not hear the Bobwhite this outing, the first time in my last 4 visits, which of course had to occur when others would have been there to back my sighting up, but I think it may have been because of where they had parked, near the farmhouse as opposed to in the northwestern gravel lot like I had.
Perhaps the vehicle sound frightened them into bedding down for a while until we left. After Whitehurst, I followed Karen & Tom down to Mackay Island NWR since I was really just waiting on Ruth to get home from Charleston during the day anyway, and had no formal plans of any kind until evening when she’d arrive home. I did see one Eastern Meadowlark pop out of the grassy field as we turned onto Princess Anne Road, but birds were quiet otherwise til we reached Mackay. Even the Knott’s Island Causeway didn’t turn up much aside from some Red-winged Blackbirds, and the Wood Ducks that Karen usually sees were not anywhere in sight along the road unfortunately (although I did get to see 2 on Saturday, so no big deal). Driving behind them into Mackay, I actually had to put my windows up for the first section since the gravel road was so dry after not getting any rain this week that the dust was just too much for me. Fortunately as we neared the marshes, where the canal sits next to the road I was able to put the windows back down, and none to early either. After seeing a perched Osprey in a tree, just beyond the first turnaround, but not so far as the bend that leads to the pumphouse, I heard the unmistakable song of a Marsh Wren calling off to the right. Both our cars stopped simultaneously and Karen got out excitedly asking me if I’d heard it. I parked and got out, watching the reeds as one Marsh Wren continued to call, and then flew over the top of the reeds then dove down deep into their protection. We moved our cars off the road a bit so other vehicles could pass, and watched for probably another 15 minutes but never getting a good photograph. However, this is the a new life bird for me since I heard, saw, and then got one terrible photograph. This one has me rethinking my photography life list, as I’m now getting to some birds that just aren’t conducive to photographing, and really just seeing them is a feat, while hearing them is the typical method for noting their location in an area.
We met a passerby who was Carolyn Powell, an HRWE member, and then at the pumphouse parking area also ran into Hugh & Una Davenhill, another member of the group. No shorebirds were visible at the pumphouse though, with a group of 4 though flying past, not vocalizing, and I was unable to get binoculars on them in time to ID. Karen & Tom were going to head out, and so I walked the loop trail around the main impoundment clockwise. A very hot and humid day with no breeze made for a tough walk, one that gave me a piercing headache by the time I was done unfortunately. I did see a good number of birds while on my walk, but most were too distant for photographs of any quality. Wading birds were the most common, which made sense given the water levels in the impoundment were quite high, too high for most shorebirds. Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Tricolored Heron, and Little Blue Herons were all see. In fact, the only heron I missed on was the Green Heron. A single Glossy Ibis was also encountered, but no White Ibis were seen. Least Terns were sighted, but no other tern or gull species were found. Nearing the end of the walk, a Red-headed Woodpecker, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Bluebird, an American Goldfinch provided for a beautiful rainbow of red, white, blue, black & yellow plumage! Though again, all were at a distance and even my 400mm lens was of little use in capturing any photographs of quality. On the last s stretch, Turkey Vultures and Ospreys were seen, and plenty of Mourning Doves on the road & Red-winged Blackbirds flying through the marsh were encountered. Overall, it was actually one of my better walks at the park, though I’ve only been there three times now total, my first time being last Labor Day when I’d actually met Karen & Tom in person for the first time, though we’d talked a lot through the HRWE group for the couple years before that and even through my now defunct OutdoorImagery page on Facebook. While exiting the park, I kept both ears out the window listening for the Marsh Wrens just in case they’d give me another shot at a photograph but I didn’t hear them.
I did then run into a vehicle that housed Ken & Betty Sue Cohen, also members of the HRWE. Betty Sue is one of the members that has started taking the leap more into birding than just photography, something I also did a couple years ago, so I’m always excited when someone is actually interested in the birds, rather than just out for a pretty picture. Don’t get me wrong, I still love photography, but it’s the birding experience that gets me out the door. She had seen a Marsh Wren and heard it just before I arrived so it was pretty neat that several of us members have been able to get this bird after Karen & Tom had first reported them in this spot (via a nice video with audio in the group the week prior). After a few minutes chatting, I headed out and went home to lay down out of the intense sun. This coming week the shorebird migration should continue progressing, and I’ll be targeting some of the same birds again. Though, it was a bit sad to not add any new birds to my Virginia Beach list (the Marsh Wrens at Mackay were a life bird for me, but the park is just across the border into North Carolina, so it doesn’t count for my Virginia Beach ‘county big year’). After last week’s addition of 5 species, I thought I’d snag another one or two this week, but that shows just how tough it is at this point in the year after the more common species have all already been sighted, and the rarer, or even accidental species are the ones remaining in the pool of available birds. Marsh Wrens have been seen in the past at Back Bay NWR, not too far away from Mackay as the birds fly, but a whole state away as the human borders state. I will be keeping a definite watch, and a definite ear out, for them there since it is one of my most active sites to visit. Actually, this year alone, of the 182 species I’ve seen in Virginia Beach, 134 of them have been seen at Back Bay NWR, though not all were first instances of the bird in the county for me. The Black Terns, and Pectoral Sandpipers will again be my prime targets moving forward as next week we head into August, and Black Terns are reported on eBird a bit more than in July at 4.7% as historical data currently shows. This means about 1 in every 25 August checklists yields a Black Tern sighting. The Pectorals are the 2nd most common August bird that I am missing, at 2.2% or about a 1 in every 50 checklists. As I said, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel now for at least the next month, but hopefully next week will get me up one or two more birds!