Week Ending February 2, 2014

So Tuesday night we had the biggest snowstorm I've seen since I moved to Virginia in 2005. Overnight, the region saw totals ranging from 6-12" with about 10" falling on most of Virginia Beach. As a result, I was blessed with a day off of work on Wednesday while the snow plows began their duty of clearing off all the roadways. With below freezing temperatures all the way through Friday, the snow stuck around, as did the icy roadway surfaces up til the weekend. I was ready to go when Saturday morning finally came around, and really wanted to capture some wildlife photographs with snowy backgrounds. Just before I left home I saw that there was a birding walk at Back Bay, so I opted to go to First Landing instead since I always believe I see more when I'm out alone, and wanted to get more miles in than what a typical outing at Back Bay in the wintertime can provide. I made it to the 64th Street entrance around 8:30 or so, and walked into the park to the Cape Henry trail crossing just inside the gatehouse. The ice on the roadway was still really bad, mostly black ice on the asphalt, so I had to walk slow so as to not slip and break my camera/lens.

Pied-billed Grebe taking refuge on Lake Susan Constant during the cold weather.

Anyway, I made it to the Cape Henry Trail and like I almost always down, took it south from the road towards the small freshwater lake (called Lake Susan Constant on some maps). Also like usual, I didn't see a whole lot of bird activity until I reached the lake. A few weeks back, I had seen a large amount of Ring-necked Ducks on the east end of the lake, but the cold weather this week caused the lake to ice over so the ducks were nowhere in sight. The snow on the trail was pretty hardpacked, but frozen on top, so I was making quite a raucous while walking. I was a little concerned I wouldn't see anything because of it, but it didn't turn into a deal breaker for the morning. Around the lake, nearing where the roadway makes it closest approach to the trail, there was a small area of the lake near shore that had not frozen over, and the pair of Pied-billed Grebes that winter on the lake had sought this spot out as refuge. I tried and tried to get photos of them through the thick brush along shore, but they had obviously piked the spot for several reasons. Finally I gave up, and realized that I could lie on the ground near the water's edge, and get a clear line of sight underneath the brush since the branches weren't growing into the water. Once I did this, I got quite a few pretty shots! A couple men walked up with dogs (unleashed as always since noone at this park follows rules apparently), and I warned them that the birds were there and probably would be chased by the dogs so they actually leashed them and walked by. From this part of the trail, as usual, I cut up to the road and headed west on it to the point where the Long Creek Trail intersects it.

Carolina Chickadee hopping from branch to branch along the Osprey Trail.

I hopped onto the Long Creek Trail and kept westward, seeing some Kinglets along the way. Following the Long Creek Trail through a couple long straightaways eventually takes you to the start of the Osprey Trail. There has been a sign there for roughly a year that says something along the lines of "Trail Closed for Repairs", but I assure you, no work whatsoever has been done on this section for a long, long time. The only work that had been done in the last year or so was the elimination of the stairs going up White Hill, restoring it back to it's 'natural' state, but this has been complete for a while. Heading west on the Osprey Trail, the birds starting showing themselves in the usual places, mainly as I got closer to Broad Bay. Once I reached the bay, there was an adult Bald Eagle sitting high up in a dead tree, but far enough away where my 400mm was fairly useless other than to ID the bird. Near the artificial oyster reefs there was some Buffleheads and Double-crested Cormorants, Ring-billed Gulls Brown Pelicans were seen out over the main part of the bay. The nice, sandy stretch of beach here was holding a Killdeer, and 3 Mallards. Ironically, I believe these were the exact same birds that I saw in this exact spot last year after our snow at the end of January. It must be there favorite place to show up after a snowstorm, I found it almost eerily ironic as I was watching them. Looking back at my photos I'm sure they were the same birds. Crossing over the two tidal creek bridges I got to watch a large group of Great Blue Herons & Double-crested Cormorants feeding on a school of fish just offshore. I hadn't seen Herons dive on fish before, mostly stalk them in the shallows, but here they were taking them out of deep water. I even saw one heron swimming like a Cormorant on the surface until it reached shallow enough water to be able to stand and walk out. Some Canada Geese also flew by, and a few Robins were feeding along the the 2nd bridge (the one I usually refer to as the West Creek bridge). Heading up White Hill from the bridge was a little rougher than it typically is, the hard frozen snow gave me more of a workout than the sandy surface usually does. It's sort of sad to describe it as tiring, because it is only slightly over 50' in elevation at the very top, but this hill always gets my heart pumping. Atop the hill (actually a couple hundred yard long plateau), the spanish moss that grows on all the trees looked a little different with snow underneath it. Coming down the backside of the hill was a quick run down in the snow, and the trail then takes you past the tidal marsh around White Hill Lake. There is a nice viewpoint on the south side of the lake, and a bench for those so inclined. Usually in the winter you can see Hooded Mergansers and Herons/Egrets from this spot but the lake was frozen over all the way up to the outlet creek so none were around. Continuing onward, I went around the lake clockwise and made it to the White Hill Creek Bridge. This bridge was rebuilt a couple years ago, after the tidal surge from Hurricane Irene in 2011 crippled the old bridge. Now, it is a wooden bridge with a much higher walkway than the old concrete bridge had. This is one of my favorite spots to stop in the park. The tidal creek that flows under it is always home to some sort of wildlife. In the summer, it can be snakes, crabs, fish, or any number of waterfowl. In the winter, Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets enjoy hunting around it, as the location of the bridge is a natural choke point in the stream that concentrates prey. So I grabbed a drink of water and then noticed that a Great Blue Heron was sitting on top of a fallen log in the creek. I hadn't seen it at first but I slowly backed up and took some photos of it without disturbing it, and then headed back along the same route I had taken out here. 

Brown Thrasher pausing for a brief moment in the underbrush, before flying off along the Cape Henry Trail.

A lot of times I'll take the Long Creek Trail all the way back, but in the winter I like to walk the Osprey Trail along the water since there is usually a lot of waterfowl near shore that I can photograph. The Long Creek Trail is better in springtime, when the songbirds are migrating through, but it is also tougher to photograph because the foliage is thicker and the sunlight isn't as strong. After crossing the East Creek Bridge, I spotted the Killdeer again, only this time it with 3 others. I kept trying to get their photos, but walking this direction puts the sun right in your eyes, so I couldn't really get high quality shots. When I got back to 64th Street, I cut back onto the Cape Henry Trail and followed it to the west. The stretch west of the lake is wide gravel, and is usually home to a lot of songbirds, namely robins and bluebirds. I didn't find any of these today, but did see a lot of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Carolina Chickadees. I kept onward across the boardwalk and took some photographs of a lone Brown Thrasher as it flew across in front of me and then perched in the underbrush. Moving forward, I stopped at the tidal creek bridge across from the property that houses a personally owned helicopter. This creek often supports ducks in the winter, and even loons sometimes, but it was empty today. Here I turned back on the trail and headed towards the entrance once again. On my last legs of the walk, I passed a Turkey Vulture, and a couple Red-headed Woodpeckers that were feeding in some tall dead trees. Passing the lake again, I didn't notice the grebes and am wondering if something scared them off. I always worry about this pair, as grebes cannot take off from land or ice, they need open water to be able to take to the air. Hopefully I will see them the next time I'm out, somewhere on their winter lake home. I made it back to the entrance around 11:45 and headed home for some lunch. After lunch, I did head down to Rudee Inlet just to check out what birds might be hanging around, as the weather had now warmed up to about 60 degrees, and the snow really began to melt. I saw my first male White-winged Scoter, and photographed a Great Blue Heron that took refuge on the large rocks of the north jetty. I didn't stay too long though, as there was a lot of people there, and I'd rather do my birding in the backcountry, than next to a ton of dogwalkers. I was hoping the King Eider would be out somewhere in the open, but I didn't see it this time. Fortunately, I did see it back in December, and got to add it to my life list, but, it would be nice to see again, maybe next time. 

Red-headed Woodpecker standing out against a beautiful blue sky along the Cape Henry Trail.

Following up a gorgeous day outside yesterday, the warm weather looked like it was going to stick around for another day. Clear skies opened up around my residence early in the morning so I expected to be all ready for another sunny day of photography. I left home about 8 or so and after about 20 minutes of driving, ran into a big bank of fog. The fog was inundating the coastline, and my target location, Back Bay NWR. I figured it would burn off, and at this point, I'd already made the 40 minute drive out to the refuge so there really wasn't any turning back. The birds appeared to be pretty active right off the bat, even in the dense fog that constricted viewing distance down to no more than about a hundred feet. Some Mallards were dabbling near the kayak launch, and along the boardwalks a group of Red-winged Blackbirds were chatting on the cattails. The snow that had covered the group all week was pretty much completed melted, save for a few spots where it had been piled up, and with the 60+ degree weather we had yesterday, these isolated patches were at least soft and not loud to walk on like I'd experienced at First Landing SP. The Bay Trail was completely clear, as the gravel pathway probably helped to melt the snow quickly. Heading towards the observation area at the west end, I could hear Tundra Swans calling and taking off in all directions, but I couldn't see any with the fog. Still, it was much better to hear them at least after the past couple weekends where the bay was completely iced over and they were nonexistent. No birds appeared to be out foraging in the small pond near the end of the trail, typically there is a pesky Belted Kingfisher here and at least one Great Blue Heron frequents the pond as well. I made it to the trail overlook and someone else was out there. Neither of us could see far enough to take any photographs here though so I kept plugging along & headed back towards the contact station (scaring off an incoming Great Blue Heron that saw me at the last second before landing in the fog). The contact station is powered by a pair of large solar arrays, and today there just happened to be a large Cooper's Hawk perched atop one of them. I took a couple of photographs to document it, but photographing birds of prey on manmade objects isn't what gets me out of bed in the morning.

Song Sparrow perched atop some vegetation along the gravel roadway on the east side of Pool D.

So, I decided to head down the gravel roadways into the main part of the refuge. About 50 yards south of the gate, a rabbit (marsh or cottontail?) was grazing alongside the road so I took the opportunity to take a bunch of photographs of it. Nothing to me is more adorable out in the woods than a feeding rabbit. After this, I hugged the western road around Pool D, and then came back up the eastern road. I was photographing some sparrows (Savannah & Song) on the grassland next to the eastern road when I heard some splashing. I hopped up onto the small hill around Pool D and saw a bunch of holes out on the thin ice, and a large Bluegill (sunfish) next to one of them. Immediately I knew there must be some River Otters hunting under the ice. I'd seen a photo taken by Lisa Rose the day prior, and had wondered where it was taken, so I figured this must be the spot. I could see the otter(s) coming up under some brush at the water's edge where the ice had already released, but couldn't get any photos of them since they stayed hidden under the foliage. After a while I just abandoned my efforts as they kept popping up in non-predictable places, and for too short a time to even attempt a photograph. I assume they went back to grab their fishy meal just after I left. This time of year, most of the refuge is closed to allow the wildlife to have a safe haven during the winter months so these are really the only areas of the park open. There are two additional boardwalk trails that lead from the roadways down to the beach, and I usually walk out on one, and back on the other. Today was no different, as I took the southern boardwalk (Dune Trail) out onto the beach and then swung a north on the beach and followed it up to the Seaside trail back to the contact station. The fog had still not lifted, so I couldn't get good looks at anything further out than 50 yards or so. I did see one Common Loon very close to shore, and a couple of female Surf Scoters also riding the tall waves just before they were breaking. Some Northern Gannets and Brown Pelican were also barely visible at the farthest extents of my vision.

Tundra Swan flying overhead as the sun finally broke through the fog at the end of the Bay Trail.

Back up in the main park, I opted to walk the Bay Trail one more time, and now finally the fog began to lift, it must have been close to about 10 o'clock or so. I stopped to pick up some trash on the trail, then rounded a corner only to find two White-tailed Deer about 50 feet down the trail staring right back at me. As soon as I moved my hand to raise my camera, they bolted into the cattail marsh on the south side of the trail, and there's no way to re-spot them in that after they're spooked. I had to chuckle about it, as this happens a lot out there, you can never be quite ready enough. I walked again out to the overlook at the end, and this time I could finally photograph some Tundras, though they were very far out. I also saw a pair of American Wigeons fly over, and some Hooded Mergansers as well. With the sun now shining full power on the park, I couldn't just head back to the car, so decided to walk down the gravel roadways again. This time around, the rabbit was back out, and in better light, so I took some additional shots of it feeding on the marsh & roadway transition. While photographing it, I caught a glimpse of a flying bird over Pool E, and thinking it was a hawk, I raced to photograph it, but found that it was actually an American Bittern that must have been set up somewhere in the marsh grasses, and completely escaped my eye. It flew past me and landed out in the marsh, never to be seen again (at least today). About this time also, another River Otter began popping up through the melting ice, and here I was actually able to get some poor quality photographs of it. It hissed a couple times and popped up high enough to distinguish it from the ice. This otter kept it up for a while, moving further and further out though until it finally either stopped or just went on its way.

Rabbit grazing along the main gravel roadway south of the contact station gate.

The juvenile Northern Harrier that I typically see on the far side of the pool was out again today, and kept hunting in lines moving north or south along the dune side of the pool. I managed a couple long distance shots but nothing of quality. At one point while standing here, I could even see a large flock of Gannets out over the dunes that must have been group feeding on a school of fish in the shallows. It was hard not to go back down to the beach, but I was pretty beat from yesterdays walk, and I'd been up and about for about 3 hours now, so I opted to head back up towards the car. On the way, John was back out on the road and appeared to be photographing something alongside the gate. I assumed it was the rabbit that I'd seen earlier, but it turned out to be a beautiful King Rail that was foraging in a melt-water pool underneath the forest just west of the gate. I took a couple shots,  mostly right into the sun, and then finally did head back to my vehicle. On the way out of the park, just past the gatehouse, I could see some incoming Snow Geese & Tundra Swans so I pulled over to take some more photographs. Someone had pulled up alongside my vehicle just to make sure I was alright (as I was parked in a no-park zone, my mistake). It turned out to be Liza Eckhardt, and I got to chat for a while before I did finally leave for good. Turned out to be a beautiful day, hard to believe so many folks were probably sitting at home getting ready for the super bowl all day long while the sun & weather were beautiful just outside their doors. I did watch the game at night, and it was awful, I can honestly say the wildlife at the park were much more entertaining, save for perhaps all the food I got to eat. 

King Rail feeding in a small melt-water pond in the underbrush of Back Bay NWR.