Week Ending January 12, 2014

After a very stormy day on Saturday, this was my first true opportunity of the weekend to get some new wildlife photographs. I had been looking forward to getting out to Back Bay NWR all week long, as there had been talk of a possible sighting of a Snowy Owl just to the south in False Cape State Park last week. My goal going in was to walk the beachfront all the way down to False Cape in the hopes that I might find one perched along the adjacent sand dunes. Snowy Owls have been sighted up and down the east coast in similar habitats, so I was still holding out hope that I might find one in my hometown area. Starting off near the visitors center (like usual), I walked along the boardwalks and gravel paths of the Bay Trail which takes you out through the tidal marsh to a viewing point of Back Bay, and a pair of small freshwater (rain recharged) pools. Last year, a King Rail made it's home on one of the small pools for quite some time, but hasn't been seen around since.

One of several flocks of Sanderlings that was seen feeding on the beach as the waves uncovered invertebrates as they swept up and down the coastline. The beautiful weather helped provide reflections on the moist sand for this shot.

The larger pool held a few songbirds (Carolina Wren, Swamp Sparrow), and also a Belted Kingfisher cruised out of view just as I was getting to the pool. From the observation points, Tundra Swans and Pied-billed Grebe were visible out on the bay. After walking back to the visitor center I took the main gravel roadway south to the Dune Trail. The Dune Trail acts as a bridge from the impoundment access roads to the beachfront of the park via a wooden walkway that meanders over rain-fed marshes and through sand dunes built up by the winds sweeping across the beach. A large variety of songbirds make their home in this area throughout the year. This is part of what makes Back Bay such a great park for birding, the varying habitats that all coexist in close proximity to one another. The typical cross section of the park is ocean leading to beach, dunes, maritime forest, freshwater marsh & grassland,, and brackish tidal estuary. Once across the Dune Trail to the beach, I headed southward. If one felt so inclined, it is possible to continue on in this direction for a seemingly endless hike.

Mixed in with a large flock of Sanderlings, this Dunlin presents a brownish backside, as opposed to the white/gray/black color scheme of the Sanderlings. Also, Dunlins have a back toe which can be seen here, while Sanderlings to not have this hind toe.

The beach does not come to an end until you reach Oregon Inlet, North Carolina, some 65 (straight-line) miles away. However, as I unfortunately have a full-time Monday-Friday job, I don't have this luxury so I settled for the shorter, 2.85 mile walk to the park's boundary with False Cape State Park. I figured this would give me ample exposure to find a Snowy if one existed here. Over the next 5.9 miles of beach walking, I came across small numbers of birds, seeing the expected Ring-billed / Herring / Lesser Black-backed / Great Black-backed Gulls, as well as a few Forster's Terns. Also seen along the shoreline were Brown Pelicans paralleling the shore in small groups, and much further out Northern Gannets were visible. In the choppy water, Common Loons floated and dove while hunting fish in the ocean's shallows. Even while looking inland, birds seemed to pop up in the sky, with Turkey Vultures occasionally hovering by, a small flock of Tundra Swans, and many small groups of Double-crested Cormorants. However, none of these sightings were as fun to watch as the mass number of Sanderlings I came across today. I spent the majority of my time on the beach photographing the Sanderlings as they chased the waves back and forth and probed the shallow beach with their bills for molluscs and other invertebrates.

Flock of Sanderlings heading off into to find a more secluded piece of beachfront property.

The clear skies provided a great backdrop for the Sanderlings on the wet sand, adding in reflections of all their fast-moving legs. Mixed in to one flock, a lone Dunlin appeared out of place, being not so lightly colored. After taking a lot of photographs I kept working my way back to main area of the park. This time, I came back up from the beach on the Seaside Trail, another boardwalk trail that connects the beach to the main park. I was hoping I might catch some sparrows or maybe even a Snow Bunting coming up the dunes, but wasn't lucky today. I almost always finish up my jaunts through the park by walking the Bay Trail, regardless of if I've already done it earlier in the day, I always feel like I'll see something interesting on this trail. While I didn't get too many photos this time around, I did meet another birder for the first time, Lisa Rose, who said she'd seen a flock of Cedar Waxwings earlier and pointed me to the Kuralt Trail. So I headed over, being that I haven't seen any Cedar Waxwings in Virginia Beach since I've been living here. Sure enough, after just a couple minutes of waiting, they flew by, then circled a few minutes later and landed in a holly tree just off the trail. I snapped a few photographs, and headed back to the car, en route to see how my photographs turned out from the day. 

Ring-billed Gull in the surf zone on a beautiful sunny day at Back Bay.