While our brush with a powerful nor’easter was the headline last week, this final week of January will likely be remembered for the arrival of a Snowy Owl to Norfolk! In the wake of last weekend’s cold spell, the temperatures were on the rise from Monday through Wednesday, so it came as a great surprise when a report of a Snowy Owl was posted on the Virginia Pilot website by Mary Reid Barrow early on Thursday morning. Apparently, the bird had taken up residence on a rooftop in the bayside community of East Beach, just a few blocks away from the Virginia Beach city line. The owl was first sighted by residents Monnica & Dick O’Connor, and photographs were quickly sent in. Prior to this sighting, the nearest Snowy Owl to our region this winter was one up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore early in the month, and with this winter not appearing to be an irruptive season for most species that winter north of us, the owl’s sudden appearance was quite a surprise. Throughout the day, report after report, and photo after photo came pouring in via Listserv, eBird, and Facebook. But, as silently as the bird arrived, so too did it disappear. Unfortunately I think I was the first person who managed to miss the beauty, as I arrived on Friday morning before sunrise, hoping it might have stayed through the night. After about 45 minutes of intensive searching of rooftops, and along the beach & dunes to the north, I couldn’t turn up the owl. I wasn’t alone, as many individuals kept searching through the morning hours, but to no avail, and the bird was not re-found again over the weekend. Ironically, this weekend was also that of the Winter Wildlife Festival, so there was a great deal of folks in town to attend the various field trips that covered Virginia Beach and the surrounding counties. On one such trip, a Western Tanager (likely the same one seen last year) was found at Pleasure House Point Natural Area (PHPNA)! The bird was reported quickly by trip leader Rexanne Bruno, and Andrew Baldelli & Tracy Tate secured a nice photograph which is included in their eBird report. This wasn’t the only great find at PHPNA though, as on Friday evening, Stephen Living of the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) spotted a flock of American White Pelicans sitting out on the main bay sandbars. The flock was re-found on Saturday mid-morning by Tracy & Andrew, with other observers nearby getting to see them as well, some from Dockside Inn while awaiting the departure of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT) boat ride, and at least one instance of an individual viewing from out on the bay (Kristin Swanbeck via HRWE on Facebook). For a week that boasted this plethora of sightings, it was pretty incredible that an adult Iceland “Kumlien’s” Gull was spotted at the Virginia Beach oceanfront on Sunday afternoon, though the report didn’t show up on Listserv until the evening hours. Apparently, the bird was observed feeding around the outlet of a dredge pipe that removes soils from Rudee Inlet, and pumps them onto the beach as a replenishment project by the city’s public works department. All of these birds are rarities when it comes to Virginia Beach, so anyone who got to see them should consider themselves quite fortunate, and each sighting has been added to the ‘Noteworthy Observations’ section of this site (under the Distribution heading).
Unfortunately for me, I got held up by a phone call at work on Thursday just as I was preparing to head out in search of the Snowy Owl, so I had to wait until Friday morning to give it a shot. As mentioned above though, the bird was not re-found on Saturday, and while I searched every rooftop in the neighborhood, with a quick trip down to the beach to scan the rock jetties, it never showed, and I had to get into work. I threw up another ‘hail Mary’ pass on Friday evening, heading up to the CBBT in hopes that maybe it perched up on a light post there, but that of course was a fruitless effort. It was also a bit disheartening to find very little in the way of waterfowl on the first island. As I pulled into a parking spot, a highlight Great Cormorant cruised past me heading northward, already showing white feather on the neck, and a vibrant white hip patch for the breeding season. It was clearly identifiable even before I hopped out of the car and put binoculars on it, but I didn’t get a chance to photograph unfortunately as it sped northward away from me. For the waterfowl, only a single male Surf Scoter, a few Bufflehead, and a few flybys of Red-breasted Merganser were observed; a paltry showing for what should be a great time to see waterfowl here. Red-throated and Common Loons were seen, and the typical gulls and shorebirds as well, but nothing that stands out. The wind had really whipped up throughout the day, and 25-30 mph northwesterlies were battering the island with massive swells. Because of the swells, I figured that the water levels at Pleasure House Point would be too high for anything to be seen on the mudflats, so I drove home via Independence Boulevard instead. To my amazement, when I’d gotten home, a report of American White Pelicans came in via Listserv, but it was just too late to make the drive back up to PHP in hopes of seeing the birds. I briefly debated about driving to the back of Kings Grant, in the hopes that I might see them across the bay, but I didn’t give it a shot, though I probably should have. When Saturday morning arrived, my wife & I had plans to go for a longer hike at First Landing State Park, partly because I need some exercise since I sit at a desk all week, and partly because there are a number of woodland birds that I haven’t logged yet in 2016. We stopped up at Pleasure House Point as the sun was rising over the horizon, hoping to catch the pelicans still there, but despite low tide, the birds weren’t seen on the flats. Tracy Tate & Andrew Baldelli were also there, and already set up with scopes. I introduced them both to my wife, wished them a quick good luck, and we headed off back to the car. On the storm water pond, a pair of Black-crowned Night-Herons were seen, but we departed quickly towards First Landing State Park.
Arriving at First Landing State Park around 7:30 AM, we headed into the 64th Street entrance, and hooked a left at the Cape Henry Trail like I usually do. Ruth asked me how far I was planning to go, and I laughingly said, as far as I need to in order to get 5 birds off my target list. Not two minutes later, we found ourselves in a mixed flock of woodland songbirds. For about 15-20 minutes, we stood on the trail, reeling in sighting after sighting. The first bird I noticed was actually a raptor perched high above the trail, noting the barring on the chest with no stomach band, and a short-tail, it was clearly a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk; a new bird for me at First Landing SP and #106 on my yearly county list. As I took a couple shots, the sounds of the songbirds moving through caught my attention, and my focus shifted. In fact, the hawk flew off at some point and neither of us realized it. Carolina Wrens were singing from all available perches, Carolina Chickadees, and Yellow-rumped Warblers moved through in good numbers. A pair of Fox Sparrows hopped out from the thick underbrush (#107), and a Golden-crowned Kinglet (#108) hovered around a tree almost like a Ruby-throated Hummingbird would. On nearby trees, White-breasted Nuthatch (#109), and a Brown Creeper (#110) all came seemingly out of the woodwork! Now, if you’re counting, that was 5 birds off my target list, and we’d only walked a quarter of a mile. So, I had to explain to Ruth that it didn’t count, and we kept on walking down the trail, eventually doing the full 6 mile loop to White Hill Creek and back. We continued down the Cape Henry Trail around Lake Susan Constant, which was nearly iced up in totality with just the edges remaining freed. Here a Pied-billed Grebe emerged from the depths, and then a few seconds individual popped up as well. I recalled well having photographed grebes at this same spot under similar conditions, though laying down to shoot under the vegetation along the shoreline. Near the lake, the entry road gets very close, and allows for a crossover from the Cape Henry Trail to the start of the Long Creek Trail.
After passing through the gates of the Long Creek Trail, meant to keep bikes out (though we saw 1 biker!), there is a patch of lowland where rainwater tends to form small pools. In this area, I’ve seen a good number of Hermit Thrushes over the years, so I always keep quiet in this spot, and listen for subtle movements in the leaf litter that covers the forest floor around the pools. No Hermit Thrush showed up, but I did hear a slight movement, and quickly got on a pair of Fox Sparrow that jumped up into the thicker vegetation and out of view. Additionally, and a great surprise, a tiny Winter Wren hopped into view for a brief moment, then worked its way back into the brush. This was only my third Winter Wren ever, and second sighting at First Landing, making it also #111 on the year in Virginia Beach. Having only walked a mile, it was an incredibly fruitful hike already. Things quieted down as far as new birds after that, though we did get to see an adult Bald Eagle as it came across Broad Bay, and there was a few Buffelheads on the water to entertain as well. Eastern Bluebirds and Cedar Waxwings were seen in fair numbers, though most at a distance. American Robins were everywhere along our return trip on the Long Creek Trail, with over a hundred likely seen. White Hill Lake was actually frozen over completely, so no ducks or comorants were there, though some Great Blue Herons were still standing on my unfrozen shorelines. The next flurry of excitement didn’t occur until we had actually arrived back to the entry road at the base of the Long Creek Trail. Here, some drumming on a tree had us searching the nearby pines for a Woodpecker in hopes that it was something other than a Downy, Red-bellied, or Pileated since we’d seen those already. Ruth was the first to spot it, and when I got my binoculars on it, the massive bill stood out immediately, confirmed my first Hairy Woodpecker (#112) of the year! Much larger than the extremely similar Downy Woodpeckers, this bird just exuded power as it moved around the large Southern Yellow Pine tree. As we were watching, an SUV drove up on us, and Ruth looked at me and said something to effect of ‘you must know this person, their license plate says chirp’. Of course, this is the instantly recognizable trademark of Karen & Tom Beatty. I told Karen what we were watching and she hopped out for a look, also having not seen a Hairy on the year. The bird actually played nice, staying in view well enough for binocular looks, and then vocalized. Karen knows the different vocalization between Downy & Hairy, which makes the ID much easier than just a sight of it, so I was happy to have the additional confirmation, and tried to file that sound away in my memory for future use. I found out later that Karen was able to pick up a Hermit Thrush & a Ruby-crowned Kinglet at the park, both of which we missed, but there is still plenty of time before either species departs in April/May to track them down. January is really about getting the year off to a good start, February will be more for filling the holes. After Karen & Tom headed down the road westward, Ruth & I continued back towards the car parked out on 64th Street, with a massive 7 new birds on the year that I accredit to having my good luck charm with me.
Upon arrival at the car, I checked my phone, and to my amazement, the rare bird alert text group had been lit up with messages, as had listserv. During our time in First Landing, the American White Pelicans were found at Pleasure House Point. Apparently with the rising tide, their hiding place among the vegetation out in the marshes forced them to rise up into the air and head to the north across the bay. Of course, I wasn’t patient enough to see these birds first thing in the morning, but, I will have to remember how this occurred for next time, and at least some individuals did get to see the birds and document them further. They were even spotted out over the bay by at least one boater (Kristin Swanbeck), and had been seen taking off by Tracy Tate & Andrew Baldelli, as well as by some of the folks that were getting on the CBBT islands cruise like James Marcum. What was amazing though, the pelicans weren’t the only sighting at Pleasure House Point. A trip being led by Rexanne Bruno revealed a female Western Tanager at the same spot one was sighted last year by Ernie Miller! Though I made the attempt several times last winter, I never did get to see this bird, so I was excited that it had seemingly returned for a second year. With all this information flying across the radio waves, I returned to Pleasure House Point (as I had expected to do anyway), but with more focus than I likely would have had. I parked at Dinwiddie and immediately scanned the mudflats for birds, though no pelicans could be seen outside of a single Brown. A few Black Skimmers were sitting on the flats though, which is interesting since eBird doesn’t have much in the way of Jan-Feb sightings listed, though perhaps with the weather being so fair this winter, they’ve stuck around. I caught up with another birder, David Clark of Norfolk, who was also looking for the Tanager, and Kathy Spencer and Mike DeRousse were also searching the area. None of us ever found the bird, but Andrew Baldelli got a nice photograph of it for his eBird report so it is surely around somewhere. The story at Pleasure House continues to be a lack of waterfowl though, as I’ve yet to see any large groups of ducks out on the creek this winter. Last year it was full of them, and yielded the Eurasian Wigeon seen by so many during January and February. American Black Ducks, Buffleheads, and Red-breasted Mergansers were all I could pull though. Mike & I did get looks at a pair of eagles, and a Cooper’s Hawk that flew over, but the best sighting came when I was on my own back at the east end of the park. Here, a group of 27 American Oystercatchers was flying out over the shoreline far to the east side of the Lynnhaven River. They landed on an oyster bed and I pulled some poor quality photographs, but that was the 8th new species on the day, and #113 now on the year! After leaving Pleasure House, I stopped up at the islands but it was so quiet for birds it almost isn’t worth mentioning, and I didn’t stick around too long.
Given the great success of Saturday, I couldn’t wait for Sunday morning to arrive so I’d have a fresh set of legs to venture out into nature with. Another sunny day, though already warmer than Saturday first thing in the morning (40s), it was expected to rise up into the 60s (F) and it did just that. My first stop was at Back Bay NWR, where I’d hoped to fill some gaps in my waterfowl list. Earlier in the week, Canvasbacks had been noted here by James Marcum and later by Karen & Tom Beatty. Upon arrival to the park though, the bay was nearly empty of waterfowl to my dismay. A small group of Gadwall was in close, but nothing else was viewable. In the air however, large groups of Tundra Swans and also Snow Geese were moving northward. The Snow Geese have just started showing up here in good numbers, though there are plenty further south of here at Pea Island NWR in the Outer Banks already. I looked hard for birds that might be Ross’s Geese mixed in with the white birds, but nothing stood out as sizably different. It was fun to watch the mixed groups of Snows and Tundras though, with the Tundras being much more massive with their lengthy necks jutting out in front of them. In walking the Bay Trail, I spooked a Cooper’s Hawk into a low level flight down the extent of the trail. A Belted Kingfisher and Great Egret were out on the western pond, but no King Rails were seen on the day sadly. Warblers were out in huge numbers as usual, but every single one I put eyes on was a Yellow-rumped Warbler. The target here is always Orange-crowned Warblers since southeastern Virginia is the only part of the state they’re found in a typical winter. Most out of towners come here in hopes of seeing those, along with the variety of waterfowl the park can be host too at times. While I didn’t find the Orange-crowned Warbler, I did run into Hugh & Una Davenhill on the Kuralt Trail. As we walked back towards the Bayside Trail, I spotted a very distant group of American Wigeon out on the bay, to which Una said they were a lifer, so at least I could help in securing that for someone on the outing. We passed the area where my mother & I had seen some Marsh Wrens back in October, and I could hear some movement under the reeds, but couldn’t spot anything. The Davenhills continued down the Bay Trail and I stayed put, hoping one would pop up. I tried pishing a bit, and sure enough, one popped right up into view for a moment, not long enough for a photograph, but good for a solid ID confirmation, making Marsh Wren #114 on my county year!
I tracked down the Davenhills and told them about the wren, hoping they’d get to see it on their way back. I found out later that they didn’t see the wrens, but just after I left, they spotted a leucistic (all white, not albino) Yellow-rumped Warbler. This same individual has been spotted a few times by birders in the vicinity of the visitor contact station, and of course, it was another white bird that gave me the snub this week to go along with the Snowy Owl, American White Pelicans, and the Iceland Gull that would be seen Sunday afternoon at the oceanfront! I didn’t even go to the beach on the day, since the birds were just so quiet, and instead headed off towards Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area’s Whitehurst Tract since it is only open to birding on Sundays this time of year. In turning from Morris Neck Road onto Munden Road, I kept watch over the fields for Eastern Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, and American Pipits. To my astonishment, a single bird moved on the south side of the road just prior to the red house’s mud driveway. A distant look provided a good view of the yellow throat with black outlining to the head, a Horned Lark! Last year, the only Horned Larks I got all year in Virginia Beach were on the north side of this very road, so it came as a surprise that one would actually turn up in almost the same spot this year. I got some ID-worthy photographs from the driver’s seat, and then headed into the Whitehurst Tract with #115 now under my belt. A school bus was sitting in the parking lot, so I realized quickly that there was a Winter Wildlife Festival field trip somewhere in the area. I walked my standard path, hugging the western side of the park and heading south to reach the impoundments. Lots of sparrows including White-throated, Song, Swamp, Field, and Savannah turned up, and good numbers of Chickadees and Yellow-rumps were seen, but there was an astonishing lack of waterfowl present. In circling the impoundments, a grand total of only 2 Mallards were observed. Perhaps since hunting is allowed here Monday-Saturday, there just isn’t enough turnover time for new waterfowl to arrive? Hopefully when hunting ceases, this will again become a hotbed for duck activity, and it will hopefully yield some Blue-winged Teal, as they can be hard to track down anywhere else in Virginia Beach, especially in winter since they are probably the only duck that we are actually on the northern limit of their winter range; most others we are the southern limit or somewhere in between.
I eventually spotted the group of folks out birding, so I walked the cross dikes to avoid them, though I felt a bit weird with a dozen or so camera and scopes probably watching me to see if I’d scare up any birds. I found one beautiful Savannah Sparrow in the vicinity, which had me thrown for a minute since it was so light and I thought it could be something else, but wasn’t. While walking a cross dike, a spooked an American Bittern into the air, and nearly had a heart attack in the process. I got a great photograph of the tree line that it had dropped below too quickly for the focus on my camera to get on it, but, #116 on the year nonetheless! The bird probably dropped down in the next impoundment, so I did walk over to the group and tell them it was probably there, meeting the leader Stephen Living in the process. Steve works for the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries and manages this refuge as far as I know, he was also the individual who first report the American White Pelicans on Friday evening, so a bit ironic that I ended up meeting him this weekend, but not the pelicans. Peggy Bryan heard me mention my name to him and recognized me from HRWE so it was the first time I got to meet her as well. The group headed back north to the road and over to the buses, so I took the opposite route, heading west, then north, arriving at my car about the same time, and without any new sightings to speak of. I checked for the lark on my way out of the park as well, but couldn’t find it. While scanning, a pair of smaller birds flew in and landed, and I instantly though, Pipits! However, with binoculars right on them, their ID was obvious, showing yellow undertail coverts and a beautiful eyeline, they were both Palm Warblers. Now I’d already seen one this year, but they aren’t that common in winter here, so anytime I see one is worth celebrating, and this time there was two of them side by side. Eventually, I drove most of the road in Pungo, hoping for a Cattle Egret near the border of North Carolina on Princess Anne Road, but finding only Cattle present, and no egrets. Red-tailed Hawks were seen on wires, and a Red-shouldered Hawk adult cruised over me at one point, showing off its beautifully marked tail in the process, another bird I don’t see often, but am starting to find more reliably this past few months.
So through January, I finished with 116 species in Virginia Beach, a number which I didn’t reach until March 6. Now, I’m ahead of schedule clearly, but I would like to point out that most of the birds I’ve seen so far, I did find last year as well, just not as quickly. What this says to me is I’m more observant now, and I know where to find species better than a year ago; all fine and dandy. However, it also means I’m likely to start stagnating sooner, as I’m mostly seeing common winter residents and permanent residents. I have missed on all the true rarities I’ve gone after thus far. Though, birds like Blue-headed Vireo, Hairy Woodpecker, Red-shouldered Hawk, Fox Sparrow, Brown Creeper are all good ones to knock out early, most of which I only saw 1 of all last year. Winter Wren is the only bird on my 2016 list that didn’t get seen in 2015, so I can at least say I’m perhaps 1 ahead for the moment, though my actual number makes a different suggestion. It will be interesting to see what February brings, if anything, in knocking out the common birds, I have a more clear focus for the coming month, and I hope to pick up something off my Code 4 (green) list if one looks under the Distribution section of my site and goes to the Comprehensive Checklist. There are certainly birds I’m missing that I will find over the course of the year without effort like American Coot or Ruddy Duck, but so far I’ve missed them. Other common birds include Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush and House Wren. Those will come if I keep making an effort to be in forested areas. Horned Grebe and White-winged Scoter have been very difficult for anyone to find in Virginia Beach this year, with almost no confirmed records thus far. White-winged Scoters are a species that is said to be bound to the % of ice on the great lakes. Last week, the ice did make it up to 15% coverage, but has been melting and dropping ever since. Last year, with the ice at 90%+, we had large influxes of Red-necked Grebe & White-winged Scoter, something that just hasn’t happened here. In fact, the Red-necked Grebes have only come as far south as New Jersey thus far in 2016, a bit of a bummer for us in Virginia given the last two winters were excellent for seeing these irruptive winter birds. Some other irruptive species like Pine Siskin, Purple Finch, and Red-breasted Nuthatch can be seen in huge numbers here some winters, and all but impossible to find in others. Siskins have been sighted, but no reliable Purple Finch reports (a lot of newer birders misidentify House Finches as Purples), and not a single Red-breasted Nuthatch to date. Having said all this, there are plenty of birds to be seen, and if I had to toss out a goal for February, it would be to add another 15-20 species to my yearly list. We’ll see how that turns out though, as each add, makes the next one that much harder!