After a very very cold week in Virginia Beach it seems that a lot of the local wildlife has been forced further south. On Monday night & Tuesday morning about 4 or more inches of snow fell across the area, and it never got back above freezing throughout the week. Most of the small lakes and even brackish areas have frozen up forcing some of our winter migrants to look further south for acceptable feeding areas. We weren't expected to rise up to freezing today either, but I really wanted to get some wildlife photographs with the snow in the background, so I decided to try Back Bay first thing in the morning.
Driving on the entrance road got me off to a great start, as I was given a golden opportunity to photograph a young Cooper's Hawk in a tree from my car seat. It was very quick to fly away but I did get a couple photographs of quality. I parked in the usual spot near the kayak launch and headed out onto the boardwalk en route to the Bay Trail. Right away, another very small hawk (perhaps a Kestrel or Sharp-shinned) took to the air and quickly sped down the trail away from me. Unfortunately I never got a good look at it, and it was gone very fast. The small pond at the end of the trail was completely frozen over, and sadly, a Great Blue Heron was sitting on the shore as if praying for the ice to open back up so it could feed. I decided not to spook it, so I turned around and headed back towards the visitor center instead of following the trail to the overlook. Yet again, I spooked another hawk, this time a large Cooper's, that must have just taken up a perch on the trail. It flew out over the marsh and again I was unable to secure any photographs. I had heard via eBird and Listserve that someone had seen a Dovekie along the beach on Friday so I went out and walked the beach as well, making the looper counterclockwise. I didn't find any Dovekies but there was a Common Loon just offshore, very close in to the beach. Each time I dove into the shallows I snuck up a little closer to it and finally was within about 50 feet or so. It didn't appear to be frightened, but just went on it's way chasing fish in the shallow water while I took photographs. About this time, the Gannets started to flock up and then began dive-bombing a school of fish offshore. They were pretty far out, but again a very neat sight to come across from the beach.
Earlier in the week, the Snowy Owl was resighted right in this area so I was keeping a close eye to the sky. On the way back over the dunes a large raptor flew into view but turned out to be a Harrier. The strong winds caught it and swept it off in a flash though, so once again, another raptor with no photographs. Like I usually do, I took to the Bay Trail one more time to try to see some more wildlife before I left. This time around, the heron was no longer out there so I did walk all the way to the overlook. The wind coming off the bay must have been a sustained 30-40 mph and only a small strip of water wasn't completely iced over. There was several Tundra Swans laying on the ice nearby it, I'm hoping they were doing ok with the weather. Walking back again towards the visitor center didn't stir up any hawks, but there was a large number of songbirds feeding in the grasses next to the center. I took a few shots of the Song Sparrows, Cardinals, Swamp Sparrows, and a couple White-throated Sparrows. Just as I'd started walking towards my car, a Northern Harrier came flying in extremely low over the parking lot headed towards the kayak launch. Finally, I managed to get a shot of it as it faced the strong headwind and almost seemed to float in the air for a second. It kept on moving out into the marsh where there were several others also hunting the small marshy islands quite a ways out. I figured I'd walk out onto the Kuralt Trail overlook to see if it got me any closer to them, but unfortunately they were still too far out for my lens. So I called it a day and left the park. On the way out, I decided to stop at the Little Island Pier to see if there was anything interesting hanging out in the shallow water. For some reason (probably due to the snow/ice), the pier was chained off so I couldn't get out to see anything. I once again got in the car and started to leave, when a Cooper's Hawk flew right across the road and perched in a tree near the kayak launch area. Of course, I wasn't going to pass that opportunity up. I turned around, and re-parked and walked across the street. I couldn't relocate the hawk, but I did stir up an Egret, which I raised my lens to photograph, only to realize I'd forgotten to turn my camera back on. An amatuer mistake, which cost me big. As the egret flew up into the air, it appeared that something was very wrong with it's head, it almost looked like a stork, not an egret. Then it was gone before I could do anything about it. I shrugged my shoulders, and turned the camera on and took a step forward. Not 5 feet to my right, the cattails erupted as a Great Blue Heron also took to the sky. Two large wading birds, and I didn't photograph either of them, I couldn't believe it.
Clearly, luck was both on my side, and not on my side as I was getting to see a lot, but not able to photograph any of it. I decided to keep walking a bit around the marsh and see if either bird might return. So I followed the short trails that are carved through the forest here (I'd never been here before), and one meandered towards a patch of water. Walking to the water I could see a hawk perched on the other side (turned out to be a Sharp-shinned), and as I got out of the cattails to take a photo, it took to the air. At least this time I got a couple out-of-focus shots that were good enough to ID the bird. Across the small pond, I also spotted a very large mammal out on the ice, which I believe was a Nutria. I didn't realize just how large they got, this one was nearly the size of a beaver, but I couldn't spot a flattened tail. After I watched it for a few minutes I went back to the site of the Egret, and to my surprise it wasn't there, but it was hovering over the marsh, this time, it confused me even more. It appeared to have a red & black head, almost like a skimmer, but still with long yellow legs. Yet again it fell below my view hidden by the cattails. I tried, one more time to go away for a bit, in the hopes that it would come back once more. About fifteen minutes later, after having moved down the trail, I came back and this time, it was back again, and I finally realized what I was seeing. The Great Egret had actually captured a Common Gallinule and was attempted to eat it, that's why the head looked weird the first time, and why I saw the red & black patterns the 2nd time. It yet again jumped to the air, and dropped the prey while trying to get away from me. This time around I did manage a photograph, but a very fuzzy one. As the prey dropped to the ground in the marsh, the Cooper's Hawk that had originally gotten me to the spot in the first place, flew in from a hidden perch, and dove into the marsh towards the falling bird. I can only assume it got the meal, but couldn't believe the irony in the situation. After all this I did head back to the car and drove home, what a crazy morning of hiking.
After a crazy, but successful day of birding yesterday, I couldn't wait to get up and get back out there today. Clear skies finally moved in, and so I headed up to the eastern shore to see if I could find some raptors since I had seen so many yesterday trying to feed during this cold spell. On the entrance road there was about a dozen deer all waiting to get photographed. A good start, I took some shots from the car as I could before they all moved off away from the engine sound. I took the Raptor Trail from the parking area south towards Taylor Pond hoping to again find some birds of prey.
As it turned out, I didn't see any before I reached the pond, however a kestrel/merlin flew in very high up over the trail. Walking around the pond, I got to the blind on the east end and saw there was a group of Redheads swimming on the pond. This makes only the second time in my life I've seen them in the wild (1 lone duck at First Landing SP a couple years back). Also on the pond was a male Northern Pintail, a long female Bufflehead, some Ruddy Ducks, and about half a dozen female Common Mergansers. There was also a Great Blue Heron hunting along the north shoreline. While I was stepping out of the blind, some sparrows flew by, and I quickly realized that they were Field Sparrows, one that I had never seen. Very excited to see a new Lifer, I got a few photos just for verification before they all flew off into the surrounding field grasses.
Next, I headed down the Songbird Trail in the direction that took me closest to the roadway first. Here I saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk on the forest edge between the pond and the trail. The new habitat that is growing along this part of the park I believe is party of the forest rehabilitation. The woods here are very thick, and as such, the sun hadn't yet melted that several inches of snow that fell on the park on Tuesday. Nearing the south end of the park, I spotted another White-tailed Deer, but it rounded the bend and headed north before I could get to where it was. Here I took the Chickadee Trail to the Mockingbird Trail. While on the Chickadee Trail, I was just thinking about how the last time I was hiking in the park I'd spooked an American Woodcock, and how difficult it was to every spot them on the ground since they're plumage camouflages so well with the leaf littering the forest floor. Not even a minute after that though, I heard a rush of wings rising up from the trail in front of me and saw yet another woodcock head off down the trail at break-neck speed. I couldn't believe it. That's the third time since Thanksgiving I've scared one before I even knew it was there. At the Bay Overlook, there was a large group of Ring-billed Gulls on the beach, and a huge flock of them further to the north was out on the water as well. Back onto the Mockingbird Trail, a Hermit Thrush let me photograph it while it posed in a holly tree. Continuing onward around the Chickadee Trail, I caught the Songbird Trail again where I found, just as expected, songbirds. Several Blue Jays, Cardinals, Thrushes, and Towhees were seen in the woods along the trail. I met up with the Raptor Trail and headed west to where the Baywoods Trail breaks off of it. Following this around, I went down the first boardwalk (Peregrine boardwalk) to the beach, then up the beach to the 2nd boardwalk (Wood Warbler boardwalk). Out in the protected waters of the bay there was some Common Loons.
Also on the bay were some Buffleheads, and Surf scoters. From the bay I headed back up the parking area and went out to the Seaside Road. I wanted to see if I could find some hawks at the Magothy Bay Nature Preserve that I had come across last week while driving around. Surprisingly, I saw another American Kestrel in the same place as the one I 'photographed' last week, but again was very impossible to get a clear photo of. With the amount of snow, I couldn't drive all the way up to the small parking area so had to pull off on the access road instead. I trudged across the rehabilitated agricultural area that makes up about half of the preserve, and made it to the tree line at the north boundary. Here, a couple of old barn structures are still in tact, and a small drainage pond sits to their east. A Red-tailed Hawk flew out from a perch over the field, and also a small hawk, which could have been a Merlin, Kestrel, or Sharp-shinned possibly. Heading eastward from this point along the treeline the trail hits the northeast corner of the former agricultural area, and the trail dives into the forest. The woods were absolutely beautiful today with the fresh snow still unmelted in the shade of the tall trees. The trail wanders a bit along a drainage ditch and then comes out to sunlight along the tidal estauary which I'm assuming is called Magothy Bay. From here, it follows a levee system that has created freshwater habitat on one side, and borders brackish marsh on the other. Here I saw a pair of Bufflehead at the outlet location of the freshwater marsh, and also at least one White-tail Deer running through the swamp. The levee runs north south, and once I reached the south corner, the trail heads back west towards the agricultural field and eventually the parking area. Along this stretch, you can see a neighboring property, one that appears to have quite the number of exotic pets. I saw 4 Indiana Peafowl, 3 female, 1 male, and have been told there is other birds there as well. Anyway, I got back to the car again and headed back south towards the CBBT. At the CBBT I was impressed to find that it was a very calm day, and the typically far out ducks were much, much closer in. Because of this, I was able to get a lot of photographs of Long-tailed Ducks up close, much better quality than what I had previously been getting. Also, I saw the White-winged Scoter female again, and another male Lesser Scaup. Buffleheads were aplenty off the rocky northern point, and as I watched them I caught a glimpse of 2 Harbor Seals out on the rocks as well! Those were my first seals in Virginia, and the whole East Coast for that matter. All in all, it turned out to be another great day seeking out wildlife. Until next weekend!