This week had a bit of a slow start, but it managed to turn itself into one of the most exciting weeks of the year to date! Temperatures ranged from night-time lows in the 30s & 40s to daytime highs close to 80 degrees F. After clouds on Monday and Tuesday departed, the remainder of the week was filled with beautiful, completely sunny skies. The CVWO Seawatch at Rudee Inlet continues to log some of our interesting winter visitors to the immediate coastline included Horned Grebes, Red-throated & Common Loons, and increasingly more & more waterfowl, especially Black, Surf, and White-winged Scoters. On Friday morning, a barrage of excitement occurred when Ned Brinkley issued a report via the Virginia Birding Listserv that a ‘fallout’ of Franklin’s Gulls was occurring on the mid-Atlantic coastline. Due to a massive storm that passed through the Midwest on Wednesday and Thursday, these gulls were forced out ahead of the windfield, and made their ‘landfall’ in New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and as of Friday morning, Virginia! Ned & Eli Gross (Kiptopeke’s seasonal hawkwatcher) were able to pick up 17 on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in the morning hours. With Saturday having been planned as the day of the Rarities Roundup in Virginia Beach, there was a number of birders already en route to the coastline, which lined up perfectly for a shot at seeing this very unlikely birds. The last fallout apparently occurred in 1998 under similar circumstances. However, this was such a unique event that even eBird posted a news headline about the happening to their main page. Over the course of Friday, the birds were found also by Linda Chittum on South Thimble Island of the CBBT complex, and on Saturday morning the ‘roundup’ group of James Fox, Jason Strickland & Lisa Rose also got to see one at Rudee Inlet right on the beach! There was also a report of one from Sunday on the Fort Story property by Rexanne Bruno, but unfortunately without military access, this one wasn’t a chaseable sighting. In addition to the Franklin’s Gull excitement, quite a few neat species were observed by members of the Rarities Roundup on Saturday. Matt Anthony & Nicholas Newberry were able to be permitted access to Back Bay NWR’s dike system, and in doing so were able to find a White-winged Dove, a leucistic Yellow-rumped Warbler (bird showing lots of white, atypically) and large numbers of Pine Siskins that had first been seen on Thursday by Jim Marcum. Todd Day, who had taken me out for the day around Virginia Beach also was responsible for adding a Eurasian Wigeon to the top birds, and a first of season for the county Redhead at Back Bay NWR!
As mentioned above, the week started off a bit rough, but when Friday came around, I was ready to run out into the field and see what I could find. For the Rarity Roundup on Saturday, I was teamed up with Todd Day, mostly due to the fact that I recently started volunteering for eBird as a statewide filter editor, and Todd oversees the entire state. I’ve had so many questions recently on how to do this part of the job, so being able to spend a day birding together was a great way to be able to address all the questions. It also was incredibly beneficial for me as a newer birder to have a veteran be able to take me out and teach me. It isn’t often that I feel stupid or foolish while out birding, but when you have a birder of Todd’s caliber around, it’s tough not to feel that way. Fortunately, he was able to point out tons of keys to identification, audio hints, and whatever else he could to assist me. I feel like my knowledge doubled in just one day. I also learned that while I love taking pretty photographs of birds, that the less I am a slave to the camera, the more time I spend observing behavioral ticks to each species, and the better I can identify birds at a distance, or with quick glimpses. This year has been all about trying to find as many species in Virginia Beach to photograph and document. Next year might very well be all about careful observation and study, so my blog might drop off a bit with a sort of change in my mindset after this weekend, but it will obviously continue to be published each weekend, but maybe not with 20 photographs included. Of course, documentation of unusual species is very important, so I’ll still be taking photographs. Anyways though, on Friday Todd arrived into the area and I met him down at Rudee Inlet at 3:20ish after I’d left from work. We of course were hoping to get a look at the Franklin’s Gulls that were moving south along the East Coast.
Armed with his powerful viewing scope, my binoculars and 400mm camera lens were next to useless, but it was nice if I spotted something, he’d be able to get a great look at it. We stood along the northern jetty until around sunset, but never did get any Franklin’s Gulls. While standing there, Linda Chittum, who had seem them up on the CBBT earlier stopped by. She had walked the beachfront, hoping to scan flocks of gulls on the beach & out over the ocean but to no avail. Also, Jim Marcum arrived next, hoping as all of were to find the birds. Karen & Tom Beatty also showed up, though they didn’t stay too long, armed like me with just binoculars. While watching from the jetty, there was a number of other species at least to keep things interesting. Boat-tailed Grackles & Rock Pigeons were all over the place, as is quite typical at the oceanfront. Out on the water between the north jetty and offshore breakwater there was a few Black Scoters, some Red-breasted Mergansers, a single Surf Scoter and also a Horned Grebe in sight. All four species were first of season (FOS) birds for me, as I haven’t seen any since they departed back in the springtime. There was also a Red-throated Loon pretty far offshore that I could see much better through Todd’s scope than through my own binoculars. Laughing, Ring-billed, Herring, Lesser & Great Black-backed Gulls were all present at the inlet as well which is pretty typical. Lessers are a species that stays here year-round now, but this is a recent development along the coastline. Out on the breakwater, we got looks at three different shorebirds, each of a different species. A late Spotted Sandpiper (late date is 15 Oct per the Gold Book) was seen first, with a Purple Sandpiper and Dunlin also being seen on the far left side of the breakwater. After exhausting the view and finding no Franklin’s Gulls we headed out though, stopping at the 11th Street Taphouse to go over some of the eBird questions I’ve had, and then continuing on to dinner at Dockside on Shore Drive to meet up with the other folks in town for the Rarity Roundup which included James Fox, Jason Strickland, Lisa Rose, Ed Eder, Bryan Barmore, Sharon Burton, Linda Chittum, and others I’m probably just forgetting names on. After a quick blackened tuna dinner, I headed home so I could be up early, since I needed to meet Todd in Pungo (southern Virginia Beach) at 5:45 AM, and it is a good 35-40 minutes from home.
4:30 AM came all too quickly on Saturday morning, though I was up and ready to go very quickly since I had been excited all week. Honestly, I felt like a kid on Christmas day, with the thought of finding some rare birds right here in my home county. After I gave some bad directions, Todd still managed to find the spot we were meeting at, apparently the Sea Crest Restaurant is no longer there, but the parking lot was a good spot to leave my car for this day since he planned to do the driving. With the sunrise not occurring until 6:40 AM, we had some time to check out some areas in the dark. We drove down Morris Neck Road, checking out Munden Road into Princess Anne WMA, and then continued on towards the south where we drove into Back Bay Landing Road. Here, it was starting to get light enough, and with the northwesterly winds being cut by the forest, we opted to get out and check for some birds. As soon as we got out of the vehicle Todd said, “Great Horned Owl”, and it took me a little bit longer to actually hear their faint calls. He also picked up an American Wigeon’s sound off the water to the east, something I didn’t even know could be identified based on sound alone. Clearly, I was in for an exciting day, though feeling a bit in the dark. We drove back westward closer to the owls as the sun continued to close in on the horizon. Walking south and around a 90 degree bend we saw a number of species, including White Ibis, Mourning Doves by the 50s, which I’ve never seen before, and lots of Wrens and Sparrows in the adjacent hedgerow. Crows were bombing an area of forest, so we assumed the owl was nearby, but we never did get a chance to see it. As Todd was the one inputting the eBird lists, Great Horned Owl became my 203rd species in Virginia Beach on the year, though it remains heard only so I’ve still seen only 202.
After Back Bay Landing Road we headed out towards Princess Anne Road and headed north into the Creeds area of Virginia Beach. At the intersection of Princess Anne Road and Morris Neck Road we encountered a large flock of icterids (blackbirds/cowbirds/grackles). We scanned the flock intently, hoping for something out of the ordinary like a Yellow-headed Blackbird or a Shiny Cowbird, but to no avail. The bulk of the flock was Brown-headed Cowbirds & Common Grackles, though some groups of Red-winged Blackbirds were also in the grouping, and seen shortly afterward flying over the field to the east. Continuing eastward on Morris Neck Road we could see some Killdeer out in the field to the left as we neared Fitztown Road. Suddenly, Todd exclaimed “Pipit” and pulled off into the nearby church parking area, grabbed his scope, and we walked over to a nearby telephone pole to ‘hide’ next to it in plain sight. Looking through my binoculars, I got my first look at the American Pipits, much smaller than I had originally thought this species was, being more sparrow-sized than robin-sized as I had thought. As I counted up to 10 or 12 of them (#203 on my ‘seen’ birds list in the county), Todd chuckled and said he was on 86. Clearly, my counting skills need some work, and I really need to get a scope so I can more clearly see the birds I’m trying to add up. There was also close to 100 Killdeer out in the field, and we had European Starling nearby in good numbers as well as a single Savannah Sparrow that we spooked, which I never even saw. Next up, we drove up to Campbell’s Landing Road in the hopes of seeing some more species, which we were able too. Due to the southerly winds we’d had the past couple of days, the water in Back Bay was high enough that it had flooded the roadway as we approached the turnaround on the shoreline. Our view of the bay yielded no waterfowl at all unfortunately, but the trip back up the road started to give way to some birds. Eastern Bluebirds, Mourning Doves, and Eastern Phoebes were seen along the residential properties heading west. Also, Chipping Sparrows, tons of Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet appeared in the tree line nearby. American Goldfinches were also heard in the area. Carolina Wrens and Chickadees, and Northern Cardinals were also seen here, so the species count was starting to stack up, though no real rare birds were seen. The Eastern Phoebes were at least late by Gold Book standards, though it seems to me that they do hang out around Virginia Beach year-round nowadays.
From Campbell’s Landing Road we headed north on Morris Neck back to Munden Road and drove into Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area. This park is closed Monday to Saturday for hunting purposes this time of year, and is only really open to birders on Sundays. However, Munden Road is a public street, and one can bird along it anytime of the week. The hunting zones don’t begin for a couple hundred yards in either direction to protect this public right-of-way. We stopped at the parking area and scanned the treeline at the north side for any birds we could find. Todd showed me a couple tricks to try and sight the birds among the foliage, and he called out a Blue-headed Vireo that I didn’t even see move in. I was really excited for this bird since they are a tough find in Virginia Beach. Mostly seen during November & December at First Landing State Park, seeing one here made it so that I wouldn’t need to hike around First Landing in the coming weeks, hoping to come across one in the forest. This was #204 to my list for Virginia Beach this year. All the other birds at this site were the expected ones, with the typical sparrows (Song, Swamp & White-throated), Red-winged Blackbird, House Finch, Chickadees & Wrens, and a Black Vulture were all seen. As we were heading out from the park after driving all the way east and north along Munden Road, we did spot a Northern Harrier flying a bit high over the field on the south side of the street. Typically, when I see Northern Harriers in this area, they are rocking back and forth while soaring just a few feet over the vegetation in fields or in marshy areas. So seeing one higher up had my initially scratching my head but it was an obvious ID once the white rump was seen on the bird.
From Munden Road we headed south again on Morris Neck Road, taking Princess Anne Road towards North Carolina, but taking a bit of a detour on Fitztown Road’s western section when we spotted a Northern Harrier (Gray Ghost) in this case. The adults are referred to as such since they are much grayer than the more brown juveniles which seem to be much more common around here in the winters. I mentioned that my wife & I often call our cat Buster “The Gray Ghost” as he has similar colors and runs around the apartment so quickly he almost seems to be floating above the ground at times. Feeling a bit crazy it was nice to hear Todd say he also had a cat named Kestrel, named after his markings, so I’m not alone in my connection with birds & cats apparently. While driving west on Fitztown Road, we spotted a Bald Eagle high over the fields, and had another Harrier as well. I had expected to find some icterids here but none were seen. Continuing south, we crossed into North Carolina, then headed across the Knott’s Island Causeway eastward. Todd had wanted to see the small component of Knott’s Island that was in Virginia Beach, just because it is an interesting area due to the requirement of crossing into North Carolina in order to see it. I had assumed that it was the only area of the state that one must pass through another state to see, however, Todd mentioned a few areas up in the mountains that have roads only accessible from West Virginia, which made sense to me. Topography plays an interesting role in the delineation of states & counties, and it reminds me of the Northwest Angle in Minnesota that can only be accessed by going first into Canada, which makes this site more interesting than any state to state transfer in my opinion. Not noting anything really interesting, we headed back up Princess Anne Road northward, then cut across the Pungo Ferry Road’s bridge into the Blackwater area of southwestern Virginia Beach.
Driving south on Blackwater Road, we made a stop at Mill Dam Creek’s Boardwalk and I was delighted to actually see some birds here, since the Green Treefrogs were now completely gone from the area. During a few minutes of watching from the eastern end of the boardwalk we had a Red-tailed Hawk overhead, a likely Sharp-shinned Hawk out over the water distant, a Red-shouldered Hawk adult that posed nicely on a tree branch, and a Cooper’s Hawk that dropped down into the forest, only to come up shortly after to harass the Red-shouldered! This is a spot I’ve always hoped to see a Least Bittern, but they’re all much further south at this point. Todd spotted a Northern Flicker that I missed, and we had some Carolina Wrens, Red-winged Blackbirds, a single Common Grackle and some Yellow-rumped Warblers, which were present essentially everywhere during the day. After leaving the boardwalk, we checked out West Gibbs Road, Crags Causeway, Indian Creek Road, and Baum Road, then headed up Blackwater Road towards the Anhinga Pond in Chesapeake. We checked out every side street here, seeing a Red-tailed Hawk overhead on Blackwater Loop that was staring right back down on us through the sunroof. After thoroughly checking out every single road we had access to in our area, we decided to head down towards Back Bay NWR since Matt Anthony & Nicholas Newberry had turned up some good birds there earlier including a White-winged Dove, Prairie Warbler, and leucistic Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler. I thought perhaps we’d encounter some large flocks of geese en route, or possibly some Ibis, but none were to be found along New Bridge or Sandbridge Road. Arriving at Back Bay NWR we quickly grabbed a spot near the Kayak Launch north of the visitor contact station and headed towards the Bayside Trail. As we got to the pier, a flock of small passerines flew overhead and Todd quickly identified them off their calls and translucent wing patch as Pine Siskins, an ID I’d never have been able to make even though I’ve seen tons of these birds in Minnesota as a kid. These were the first I’d ever seen in Virginia, and they were #205 for the year in Virginia Beach. We ended up walking the entire Bay Trail westward without seeing anything, but on the return trip we checked out the northern observation area which looks north onto Back Bay. Armed with his powerful scope, Todd was able to pick apart the massive flock of waterfowl that was easily a half a mile away. The group was comprised mainly of Gadwall, American Wigeons, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Ducks, but also held a single Eurasian Wigeon, and some Redheads! The Eurasian Wigeon was a bird I’d missed repeatedly at Pleasure House Point earlier in the year, and was one I’d hoped to get before the year ended so this was as perfect as could be. After a Bald Eagle flyby and a pass-by of some kayakers, the flock moved a bit closer to us, giving good looks in the scope, and affording a couple low-res photographs to me. The wigeon became #206 on my ‘seen’ list and #207 in eBird since the Great Horned Owl was reported but only heard. I will have to target this species in that area again before the end of the year. After this we headed up to Little Island Park and did some seawatching, though nothing crazy was found. We did have a pair of American Coots on the pond across from the parking area, and one under the pier, as well as my first Bonaparte’s Gulls of the season out over the water. I departed shortly afterwards, as Todd drove me back to my car, but it was a pretty incredible day, and I feel like my birding IQ doubled from everything I learned.
Ironically, just after we had left, a Jaeger was spotted at Back Bay NWR, but they were expected along the coastline this time of year. On Sunday morning, I made another attempt to spot Franklin’s Gulls at Rudee Inlet, but again was unable to come up with them. Royal Terns (3) were still hanging out along the beach, and the other more common gulls were all present there. Tree Swallows were also flying all over the place, though no Cave Swallows were seen, these birds being an ‘expected rarity’ along the Virginia Coast this time of year. I went from Rudee Inlet down into Pungo to check out Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area, hoping again to find a Blue-headed Vireo or something else that might be new. Walking the park counter-clockwise from the parking area I had a number of sparrows (Field, Savannah, White-throated, Song & Swamp in order or ascending numbers) and Wrens also including both Carolina and several House Wrens. To my amazement, after walking a mile or so along the tree line, I discovered the impoundments were completely dry and had not been flooded to accommodate migratory waterfowl. I have no idea why this has not yet happened, but it was a bit frustrating to find only a pair of Wood Ducks in the entire area. I continued to walk the whole park, though not revealing anything new. After I left the park, I tried to re-find the American Pipit flock from the previous day, so I checked out every farmfield I could come across in southern Virginia Beach, but unfortunately could not find the flock. I did see some Killdeer, and some raptors, but that was it. But, it was worth the effort I suppose & it gave me hope for the coming week!