Week Ending February 9, 2014

My work week finally came to a close and once again I was able to get out and do some hiking & photography. Started my weekend off early, making it down to Back Bay NWR around 8:30 in the morning, though it was pretty much a photographer's nightmare in terms of weather conditions, 100% overcast, strong 10-15 mph sustained winds from the northeast, and temperatures in the 30s. I thought maybe I'd get a chance at least to see some neat stuff, though getting any quality photographs was probably going to be very difficult. Headed out on my typical route through Back Bay in the winter by parking near the kayak launch and walked the boardwalks to the south toward the Bay Trail. Right off the bat there was the usual suspects out in the small cove of the kayak launch, Mallards, and lots of Gadwalls. The tall reeds around the boardwalk housed several Red-winged Blackbirds this morning, but their all black colors merged poorly with the dimly lit sky in my camera lens. Heading westward down the Bay Trail towards the overlook I didn't scare up anything, and none of the typical birds seemed to be out on the small freshwater pools either. There was a few Tundra Swans far out from the observation point, but that was it. I walked back towards the contact station and then headed southbound on the gravel roads towards pool E & pool D. Stayed to the west and saw a few more Mallards, and an American Black Duck mixed in before I scared them into flying far out over the marsh. At the extreme south end of Pool D, a Northern Mockingbird made an appearance in the thick shrubbery along the road and I did get some photographs here. This particular spot seems to be popular for the mockingbirds since they appear to feed on whatever berries grow around this area. Joining back up with the gravel road that eventually becomes the east dike, I turned northward and saw quite a few sparrows, mostly Song Sparrows, but I did see a couple Field Sparrows, which were my first for the park, and only the second group I've seen now, having just crossed them off my life list a couple weeks ago at Kiptopeke SP. About that same time, a heard a few Carolina Chickadees signing off their normal song and after 5 painstaking minutes of trying, got a couple good closeups with minor amount of brush in the way of the shot. At the same spot, a Golden-crowned Kinglet showed up, sporting a beautiful crest of gold. Lighting proved to be pretty poor, but the photographs were enough to confirm the ID at least.

Carolina Chickadee stoping to pose in a shrub along the east dike roadway.

Continuing northward, I got to the Dune Trail boardwalk, and took it out to the beach. I could see before I got there that it was going to be quite a cold trek up the beach, but once I topped out on the dunes, I realized it was going to be even worse. The wind was whipping up sand all over the place, and foam from the spray of the waves was blowing all over as well. A small flock of Sanderlings ran quickly past me and picked off some sand fleas in the process. They appeared to be a little more stressed out than normal though as the waves were really crashing down and moving high up the shoreline as well. I did see one Common Loon, and also a pair of Scoter, 1 Black male and the other a Surf female. They stayed pretty close inshore until I got near them, then they moved further down the coastline to avoid me. Reaching the north end of the non-restricted beach, I saw a long Northern Gannet fly past at about 50 mph and then said farewell to the blistering cold of the exposed beach. I took the Seaside Trail over the dunes and back up to the parking area, and as always, opted for one last loop of the Bay Trail to try to spot something interesting. Yet again though, nothing much was moving about, and just saw a few Yellow-rumped Warblers, and some fleeting glimpses of unidentifiable sparrow species on my out-and-back trip of the trail. I hit the Kuralt Trail boardwalk after, and scared off a small flock of American Wigeons and watched a flock of Cedar Waxwings fly overhead before finally calling it quits and heading back to the car. After my excitement a couple weeks back with seeing that Great Egret carrying off a Common Gallinule at the the Little Island kayak launch, I decided to give this spot & the pier another try, and seeing as it was only 10 AM, I still had plenty of day left to enjoy. This time, the pier was actually not locked up, so I walked out to the end, of course, finding that the weather conditions were pretty miserable. Only two men were out fishing today so that should suggest that even fishermen didn't want to be out in the weather. From my spot at the end of the pier I saw a few Great Black-backed Gulls and a few Surf Scoters but that was it. I'll need to come back earlier in the day and on a nicer one to try to spot some Red-throated Loons and Razorbills that other folks have been seeing, and perhaps even a Dovekie. Heading across the street to the kayak launch, I chose to be a little more observant this time, so as to not allow a Great Blue Heron to scare me to death again. This time, it was quite quiet at the launch and I saw a few Gadwalls, and that was it. The water was at least unfrozen on the small waterway this weekend though, which was a marked improvement over the conditions the last time I was out.

A flock of White Ibises feeding & drinking near Baybreeze Farms on Sandbridge Road.

Yet again I headed to my vehicle and left to travel northward. Still early in the day, I figured I'd swing by Rudee Inlet to see if the King Eider might still be around so I could mark him off my 2014 list. En route, I was passing the Baybreeze Farms farm stand on Sandbridge Road and noticed a group of White Ibis feeding in an irrigation ditch on the south side of the road. I pulled off the very tight driveway entrance (which has logs blocking access to the private property) and snapped a couple of photographs then took off quickly down the road. I had made it almost to Princess Anne Road when I got to thinking about the article Mary Reid Barrow had posted recently about Ibises feeding on hibernating toads in a ditch, and decided to go back to see if this might be what was going on. When I reached the farm again they were flying across the street & I got a couple flight shots, as well as a whole bunch when they landed on the north side of the road. They appeared to not be feeding, but drinking the freshwater that had melted from whatever snow was piled up in the yards instead. For a second time, I left the farm and later found out that a Cackling Goose would be spotted mixed in with some Canada's at the far backside of the same farm. Oh well. I did finally stop at Rudee, and saw a few ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Buffleheads, Surf & Black Scoters, and a lot of Gulls out on the jetty. Yet again, another mistake on my part, I should have looked closer, as I found out later in the day that a Glaucous Gull has now taken up residence on the jetty. Typically I'll take some photographs of the jetty and look through it at home to see if anything was out there that I missed in the field, this time I opted not too, since I have so many photographs to edit already it just didn't seem worth it, again, my mistake. After a lot of stop-and-go birding, I made it home and grabbed some lunch & started going through photographs.

Adult male Black Scoter surfing the waves off South Thimble Island's northeast shoreline.

It must have been around 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and after staring at my tv/computer screens for a while, I looked outside and it had apparently become a gorgeous sunny day. Dumbfounded, I threw back on my outdoors clothes from the morning and ran out to the car and took off again. This time around I decided to just go up to the CBBT since the sun would be behind me there (at Pleasure House Point it would have been right in my face, and I didn't feel like going out to First Landing after having been there a lot lately). I got out onto the bridge around 4 o'clock and saw birds right off the bat. The large flock of Ring-billed Gulls was again hugging the east side of the island, surrounded by shade at the moment, with a couple Long-tailed Ducks close in, and some Lesser Scaups mixed in with a large raft of Buffleheads as well. A few Red-breasted Merganser females, Surf Scoters, Black Scoters, and a White-winged Scoter were also out in the water off the point. Five Purple Sandpipers flew from the western side of the island when I was walking out onto the fishing pier but couldn't get any photographs. Some Turnstones were also running around on the rocks, and the typical Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants were in the air as well. Some people have reported seeing Great Cormorants on the island this winter, but I didn't come across any. I took photographs until my hands went completely numb and headed back to the car. I saw I had missed a phone call from my step-mother so I returned it out on the island and then got to see the sun go down over the bay, it was really a beautiful evening. Cold and hungry though, I headed back home to warm up, it'd been quite a long day!

Buffleheads & Lesser Scaup swimming on the east side of South Thimble Island.

On Sunday, Up for another early start, I was ready to get out and hopefully make up for the lack of quality photographs from yesterday. Unfortunately for me, the clouds were up as well. It seemed as though the blue sky we had late yesterday afternoon was all we were going to get for the weekend. Realizing that I wasn't going to have a clear sky, and lots of light to aid me, I decided to have a go at finding the Black-headed Gulls that have been reportedly hanging out around 28th Bay Street in the East Beach neighborhood of Norfolk. The birds were first reported to eBird on January 20th by Ellison Orcutt mixed in with a larger flock of Ring-billed & Bonapart'es Gulls out on the tidal flats behind a protective rock groin just off the main beach. East Beach houses a series of 15 rock groins built along ~1 mile of Chesapeake Bay shoreline. The groins act to slow down coastal sediment transport by interrupting wave action directed onto the beach. As a result, the sand particles in the water will fall to the bottom and extend the width of the beach. This is a common technique used in beach 'replenishment' projects (here is my hydraulic engineering insight for the month). Anyway, back to the birds...

Five different species of gulls in flight: Black-headed, Bonaparte's, Great Black-backed, Herring, & Ring-billed.

The Black-headed Gulls are a rarity in the Hampton Roads region and so I figured maybe I could add them to my life list in lieu of hoping for great photographs on this overcast & cold day. Like yesterday, temperatures were going to stay in the 30s with a northeast wind at 5-10 mph. So I headed up to East Beach and parked on a sidestreet in the community, then hopped over the dunes and down onto the beach. I spoke with a gentleman that had seen the bird just two groins to the east of my initial starting position. I deduced that the man was George Harris based off him mentioning he had come all the way from Gloucester to find the birds, and seeing his account later on eBird's listserve email. I found a Bonaparte's Gull first, and then saw immediately to it's side was a Black-headed Gull. The Bonaparte's had orange legs & a black bill, while the Black-headed had bright red legs with a matching red bill. Both species were much smaller than any other gulls out there, even smaller than the Ring-billed Gulls that are probably the most common sight here in wintertime. I took a few photographs but as a pair of other birders were walking up, the gulls took to the air, moving one groin further to the east.  I opted to let them follow the gulls around, hoping they might end up causing them to fly back towards me, but they turned around and headed back to the west. With the beach again clear of other birders, I moved up on the gulls and took some more photographs, this time capturing some better close ups of the Black-headed in particular, even getting one good flight shot. I didn't want to wear out my welcome, as this bird has no doubt seen a lot of visitors all looking to photograph it, so I quickly left the site and got back in my car. 

Showing off the size differential of a Ring-billed Gull (left) & a Black-headed Gull (right).

Being that I was already up on Shore Drive at East Beach, I figured it wouldn't be a bad day to stop off at Pleasure House Point just to get a couple miles of walking in, and maybe see some other neat birds... thinking maybe the Snowy Owl that was spotted at Bayville Park not far away might have taken up a spot on the point instead. The new visitor center being built at Pleasure House Point is now fully under construction, and the normal parking lot is all tore up & being used as a construction entrance & laydown area. Because of this you have to park all the way at the east end near the park with the large storm drain pond. The pond was full of Gadwalls, and Buffleheads. A Great Blue Heron was also visible at the far end standing out from the surrounding cattails. I headed out on the trail, and not a moment too late, as a couple with a dog were about to head out as well. I prefer to stay in front of the dogs so I can actually see wildlife instead of having it frightened away before I can. There was a large number of gulls out on the sandbars in the bay, and others were flying out over the tidal marsh grasses. A few American Crows were searching around the new visitor center, probably looking for food left behind by construction workers. As I walked around the area with winding tidal inlets, I kept watch at the low tide line for Clapper Rails, but didn't see any this time. Last time I was out I did finally find one & photographed it. Large numbers of Gadwall were present out on the main area of Crab Creek. At the first freshwater pond a pair of Hooded Mergansers were swimming around, but took to the air quickly before I could get close to them. A Great Egret was also perched in the next large pond.

This is one of the 3 Black-headed Gulls that has been spotted this winter at East Beach.

Heading around the corner I talked to another birder that had also been at East Beach earlier in the day, and had spotted an American Bittern just down the trail. She showed me where it was, but it couldn't be re-sighted. I walked a bit more heading west, and found several Great Blue Herons and even more Gadwalls then decided to turn back towards the car. Yet again, another pair of birders passed me, and it was the same pair that had come up on me at East Beach while photographing the Black-headed Gull. We talked birding, while a Greater Yellowlegs stalked prey in the marsh next to us. With the two species of gulls earlier, and the yellowlegs now this was my 99th species in Virginia so far in 2014. On the way back I got annoyed at yet another person who doesn't think they need to leash their dog at this park. I should probably have a couple paw prints on my pants now as it jumped on me. Ugh. Rounding the area where I enjoy crabbing (a nice sandy beach that stretches about a hundred feet along the creek), I could see an American Coot swimming out next to the tidal marsh. The coot was my 100th species on the year in Virginia! Back to the vehicle, the Gadwalls & Buffleheads were still out on the pond, but the glare from the overcast skies just made for messy photographs. Be sure to check all of them regardless!

Gadwall on the storm water detention pond at Pleasure House Point.