After several weeks of frigid weather (by Virginia standards), this week we finally got a warm up. On Wednesday, temperatures went up to 70F, and I got my first opportunity this year to get out for a neighborhood walk (6 miles) after the work day. The weather stuck around through the weekend. Saturday morning I was able to get an early start. It was mostly blue sky, except for some clouds that were stacked up right on the coastline. Unfortunately, the sun also rises over the ocean so it was hidden by these clouds. I opted to go to First Landing State Park since I wanted to at least get a long walk in if I wasn't going to get good light for photographs. I was down at the 64th Street entrance right at 8 o'clock, and found a parking spot outside the park to walk in from. I had no plans to detour around my usual walking routes, and stayed to the Cape Henry Trail southbound from 64th Street as always. I didn't find any birds in the strip along Lake Susan Constant, not even any ducks, grebes or cormorants this time. Once I crossed over 64th Street and linked up with the Long Creek Trail's eastern terminus it started to get better though. Deep in the woods, I was amazed when I frightened an adult Bald Eagle that had been perched in a pine tree right over the trail. This was the first time I'd spooked an eagle right on one of the trails, typically they are far off, and much higher up in the tallest of trees, or circling out over Broad Bay.
It caught me so off guard that I didn't get any photographs before it was gone from view. At the junction with the Osprey Trail, I took it and found few birds along it til I reached the beach at Broad Bay. Here, some Ring-billed and Herring Gulls were in photo range on the tidal flats, which were completely exposed by a low tide cycle. I scanned hard in the first salt marsh for Clapper Rails, but didn't hear or see any. I've only seen one rail in this marsh, but it seems like perfect habitat aside from the highly used trail being right next to it. If there is any place in the park that you'd find them though, this & the next tidal creek to the west are the only places I'd expect them. After crossing the first bridge, I found some songbirds causing a raucous in the marsh before the second bridge. Some Eastern Bluebirds were flying around & perching in the dead trees out in the marsh, and what I later found out was a Pine Warbler, was calling relentlessly. I had previously thought their song was a Northern Parula's, but I'm glad to have been corrected before I claimed to have heard some on eBird incorrectly. A Northern Cardinal and some Tufted Titmice were also present here, as well as a Downy Woodpecker. Next up on the trail was the western tidal creek, which was also barely running with water, and surprising held no shorebirds or herons. I expected to find some feeding on the mud flats but couldn't spot any. Heading west from the 2nd bridge, you go up the White Hill, here I spooked a pair of Mourning Doves. I always find them in pairs wherever I go, I'm wondering if they mate for life, or if it is just a coincidence. Once topped out on White Hill, the trail hits another junction with the Long Creek Trail, here I took this trail, continuing westward along the high dune plateau and then down the far end towards White Hill Lake.
The hill itself is about 50 feet high, which doesn't sound like much, but it gives quite a view in all directions, especially over Broad Bay to the south & west. When you come down the west side, you hit a small observation area on the south shore of White Hill Lake. Typically there are Hooded Mergansers / Great Blue Herons all over, but today it was full of Double-crested Cormorants and Ruddy Ducks, as well as a lone Canada Goose. Continuing westward on the trail, you find around the southwest corner of the lake, and an overflow area during high tide, before reaching a large wooden bridge built over White Hill Lake's outflow creek. On the downstream end, there is a large salt marsh which today was home to several Great Blue Herons and Double-crested Cormorants. The bridge sits just south of another trail junction, this time with the White Hill Lake Trail. If you head eastward, it takes you into the center of the park back to the Cape Henry Trail. Heading westward though takes you further along the bay & creeks so that's the way I went. When I hit Broad Bay again, there was plenty of Buffleheads out on the water, common here in winter time, as well as Hooded Mergansers. I spotted another adult Bald Eagle high up in a lone pine tree in a spot where I've seen them several times. Winding around the trail, now very near Bay Island across the creek, I stopped for a drink of water on the big dune where the Long Creek Trail ends. At it's end, the Fox Run Trail continues west so as usual I took this. I found a Common Loon in Long Creek that was feeding on some type of crustacean, and also got some shots of a Brown-headed Nuthatch that had 3 leg-bands on it.
Afterwards this trail heads towards the western boundary of the park before looping back up towards the Shore Drive entrance's visitor center. I always stop at the furthest point west, then just turn around so I avoid the crowds of people that walk the trails closest to the visitor center. At this far western point, there are some marshy ponds nearby that are home to Spotted Turtles in the springtime. I could hear tons of frogs calling for the first time this season, but couldn't locate any of the tiny turtles. We are actually supposed to get snow next week again somehow, so I hope all the frogs that have already come out of hibernation manage to survive the coming cold weather. Heading back eastward now I chased a Tufted Titmouse around for a few minutes while only succeeding in getting several poorly focused photos of branches. After this, there was fairly long spell without any birds in sight. It wasn't until I got up near the White Hill Lake creek that I finally saw something worth noting. I had been hearing loud scraping sounds up in a tree, and finally locked in on the location. It was coming from a very tall pine tree, but only about 20 feet off the ground. I could see a dark shape behind pine boughs and thought at first it must be a Raccoon scraping bark off the tree for some reason. When I got into the right position I could finally see that it was actually a subadult Bald Eagle with a large fish in it's talons. The sound was from the fish scraping off the loose bark when the eagle tried biting into it. I took some photos of it from behind cover, trying not to scare it, and surprisingly two different sets of people walked by with dogs and it didn't flush. I wandered out into the marsh to get some better shots, and it finally flew off when the next round of un-leashed dogs came by. Still under cloudy skies, the photos could have been better, but the blue sky just didn't want to make it's way over to Virginia Beach, you could just see it hanging out to the northwest. I walked past White Hill Lake and up White Hill to the dual tidal creeks where I didn't find anything new. It wasn't until I'd almost reached the park entrance that I heard Snow Geese flying overhead and counted around 100 of them in one long line spanning across the sky. The was the first time I've seen them flying over the park, and they appeared to be heading south, must be on the way to meet up with the large flock that has been feeding in Pungo fields the last week or so. After that, my 9 mile hike was over with and I headed home for some lunch.
Ruth & I decided to go out for pizza for lunch at Pungo Pizza (first time there, delicious), and then went to the Hunt Club Farm petting zoo afterwards. While there, the sun finally reached Virginia Beach, so I wanted to get back out to take photographs. I took her up to East Beach to try and spot the Iceland & Black-headed Gulls that were reported in the area. We quickly caught up with two Black-headed Gulls that were surrounded by several people with telescopes & cameras and were apparently from a NC birding club. We didn't get to find the Iceland, but while looking, a flock of 9 Brants flew in over the bay and landed out by the easternmost jetty. I didn't get close enough for good photographs but the ones I got were good enough for IDs. It turned out to be quite a beautiful afternoon, in the 60s and beautifully sunny. We drove to the tip of Willoughby Spit before heading back home for the evening, but didn't happen upon any Snowy Owls, though one had been "seen" in the area last week.
On Sunday, I woke up extremely exhausted from the 16-odd miles I'd walked the past few days. I decided I didn't need to do another long hike today so I went down to Back Bay NWR. Off to a slightly later start than normal, I got to the park close to 9:30, which, is a little embarassing for a self-proclaimed outdoorsman. I parked in my usual spot northwest of the visitor's center and headed out. While passing the small freshwater pool nearest the kayak launch I saw John Coleman, who told me he'd seen the American Bittern hanging around earlier in the morning. Clearly, the early bird gets the bird in this case. I walked the boardwalks out to the Bay Trail, then headed west on it towards the observation area. The trail was exceedingly quiet this morning, with no birds on the sides running around or flying from tree to tree like is typical. I actually didn't see anything en route to the observation area, and nothing on the way back towards the visitor's center. Heading south on the gravel road towards the west dike access I scared up a couple of Mallards but again this part of the park seemed relatively quiet. I did see some Tundra Swans very high up, and some Red-winged Blackbirds though. Rounding around the D Pool and then heading back north on the east dike gravel road I finally started seeing some more wildlife. In the same place I've been seeing them lately, several Field Sparrows made appearances on the shrubbery, and then ran along the ground in an attempt to hide. In the same area, I could see a large number of turtles (guessing Yellow-bellied Sliders) sitting on the banks of the D Pool. They always managed to slide back into the water before I get too close, so I decided to just leave the lot alone.
I reached the Dune Trail boardwalk and headed up towards the beach. On the way, I saw a small Ladybug sitting on one of the handrails. This was the first one I've seen this year so I was pretty excited, being that it was in the 50s today, and had reached about 70 yesterday, it seemed as though spring was definitely getting here. However, Virginia is notorious for flip-flopping temperatures in February & March, and even April so it's hard to get too excited by the random nice days that are then followed by 30 degree temps. But, for now, it was exciting. The views over the dunes onto the ocean were incredible today, the clear, dry air made the blue a vivid blue, and the few clouds & jet trails added to it some much needed contrast for my photographs. The waves weren't huge, but were steadily coming in from the east/southeast. On the beach, it was the gulls that were most abundant, as is usually the case. I didn't see any loons or ducks today which is not very common, especially this time of year. But at least the Ring-billed & Great Black-backed Gulls provided some photo ops. Reaching the north end of the beach, I watched as a truck was driving in the restricted area between the Back Bay NWR boundary to the north, and the restricted access boundary at the south. I was waiting to see if it came close enough for photographs of the license plate, which I intended on giving to the park officials, but when it got close enough I realized it was actually a park owned vehicle.
I get really irritated when I see random folks walking, and especially driving in this restricted area, so I was happy to see it was an official parks vehicle. I headed back up the Seaside Trail boardwalk and reached the visitor's center. As usual, I gave the Bay Trail another try. This time I saw a few White-throated Sparrows on my way westward, but some oncoming pedestrian traffic prevented me from photographing them. I reached the large pond at the end, and just as I did, a pair of female Hooded Mergansers came in for landing. They must not have noticed me at all, and I very slowly raised my camera and took a couple of shots. As soon as I tried to move my legs though, they spotted me, and the water erupted very swiftly and they zoomed out of sight. I headed back towards the visitor's center for a second time on the day, and finally got my photo ops. The White-throated Sparrows that had been spooked earlier were back at it, feeding in the thick brush adjacent to the trail, so for about 15 minutes I patiently took photo after photo of them moving through that brush, and did finally get a couple ID worthy shots, though the sunlight didn't work out to well where I was shooting from. I walked again over the boardwalks along the bay and say some folks with spotting scopes set up. An older couple, they were showing a younger child some Redheads through the scope...always nice to see kids showing interest in birds. I hit the Kuralt Trail boardwalk next, and saw a Gray Catbird, but as with most catbirds, this one made it deep into the foliage before I could even try to take a photograph. I didn't come across any other birds on the short trail, so I headed back to my vehicle and left the park. On my way out, I saw an American Bittern standing in one of the entry road's ditches. It was like a big sign that said "get here earlier next time".
I stopped off at the Little Island parking area and walked the short trails across the road just to see if any wildlife might be out there. This spot seems to be a good one, and the water body here is referred to locally as "Little Cove". The cove held one Great Egret, which actually was in a great spot for some pretty photos, situated on the outlet creek between two shores of reeds. I spotted a pair of female Buffleheads also before I went back to the car and headed northward. My girlfriend, Ruth, was up on the boardwalk at the oceanfront riding her bike in the gorgeous weather, so I went up to Rudee Inlet to meet her. While waiting I checked out the jetty for the Glaucous Gull that has been being sighted, and it was out there yet again! This time, I got some better photographs of it from the north jetty, still about 700 feet away, and past the limits of my camera lens for 'quality' photographs, but some did turn out well enough to again verify the ID of the bird. After I finished up at Rudee, I was ready to take a break from the camera and lay down for a bit, it had been one heck of a week, and until next week, I hope you enjoyed the blog entry & all the photos that came with it!