Since Sunday was the start of daylight savings time in Virginia, I finally am able to get out after work some nights to photograph the outdoors before the sun is completely gone. I would have enjoyed getting out on Tuesday night since it was a beautiful 70 degree sunny day, but I caught food poisoning from a local fast food joint and instead spend the evening and night vomiting and shaking with chills. I felt better finally by Thursday and it was a nice sunny day, though a big cold (in the high 30s) after a very strong cold front pushed through on Wednesday night. The winds were really howling but I went up to Pleasure House Point after work and hit the trails around 5 o'clock. I had seen on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's facebook page that someone had photographed a Harbor Seal resting on the beach at the park so I'd hoped I might be able to relocate it. I saw a pair of seals earlier in the year out on the first island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel but I have never seen any inland in the area. I didn't find the seal but I did see quite a number of birds. The winter waterfowl are still out in force, with Gadwall, American Wigeon, and Northern Shoverler dominating the estuaries around the park. Bufflehead, three Green-winged Teal, a single Ring-necked Duck and a pair of Mallards were also seen. The extreme winds made it a bit tough to photograph with a long lens, as holding it steady was tough, and the waves made it hard on any water birds to stay still. I had parked at the easternmost point of the park accessible by road and then walked the water's edge from east to west, then back from west to east.
One Northern Harrier flew over me, at about 50 mph, moving with the wind. Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, and Snowy Egret were all present again like with my last visit. I had hoped I might catch some warblers starting migration a bit early but it doesn't appear that any new ones have showed up to the region yet. Yellow-rumped Warblers were the only songbirds I really noticed, though I did find one American Robin, and saw a lone Mourning Dove early on also. I must have been walking pretty quickly because I made it back to the car by 6:15 after arriving around 5, which typically means I didn't see a whole lot (since I'd be stopping a lot to view), but I did rack up almost 30 species in that timeframe. The visitor's center currently being built has come a long way and the eastern half of the building now has plywood up on it's exterior. It really looks like quite an eyesore while walking the trails, but I maintain that it is better than the 1,000+ condominiums that were originally slated to go in on top of the park lands. I'll be interested to see how the building comes out when all is said and done, I do hope they plant a lot of vegetation around it to cut down on it's visibility. I'd hate for this to turn into the condo towers at Sandbridge that drive me crazy while hiking the Bay Trail at Back Bay NWR.
I made it out of work at 3 PM on Friday and headed down to First Landing State Park for an afternoon hike. I'm loving having the sun out til 7 PM. From my office its only about a 15 minute drive down to 64th Street, which is really nice. I walked a 6 mile route, my typical Cape Henry to Long Creek Trail, Osprey Trail to Long Creek Trail up to the bridge at White Hill Lake Creek and then back out the same way. The Pied-billed Grebes were present again on Lake Susan Constant, and like yesterday, the wind was really whipping around again. It seemed to have kept most of the birds hunkered down. The ospreys have now fully returned to the area for nesting. The large nest next to the Osprey Trail just before reaching Broad Bay is being rebuilt, and I saw both the male & female sitting on the top of the dead tree that holds it up. When I reached Broad Bay, I was amazed to see that the water was extremely low, providing a huge beach that usually isn't visible or accessible. This was probably one of the lowest water heights I've seen in the park boundary. The large artifical oysters beds were all completely exposed to the air. Walking along the shoreline, around the pair of tidal inlets and over the twin bridges I went up White Hill. I didn't find anything on top, although I could hear Ground Skinks scurrying under the leaf litter on the ground all over the place.
This is the first time this year that I've noticed them having come out of hibernation. After I went down the other side of the high dune plateau, I found a male Ruby-crowned Kinglet in the canopy near the observation point of White Hill Lake. I was busy trying to get some photographs of it when I whole slew of Great Blue Herons came flying in from across the lake. I counted about 20 total, and some of them landed within photography range so I gave up on the kinglet and switched over to them. There is a large rookery about a mile east of this spot, on the north side of the Long Creek Trail in a freshwater marsh filled with dead trees. I expect that these herons are all part of that rookery and that they have begun building their annual nests in the area. When you walk by the rookery, its readily obvious that you're near it as you can hear the herons for a mile around it. They sound more like what I assume dinosaurs sounded like, or even what pigs do sound like, very gregarious. In addition to the herons, there was a small group of American Black Ducks out on the lake, and a larger group of Green-winged Teal also. It was neat to see both species close together since you could really see the size difference between the very tiny teals and the much larger black ducks. After walking up to the next bridge and turning around, I took a few more shots of the lake and the tidal marshes around it, since it was such a beautiful day out. The leaves still aren't out yet, but the blue sky made it a great target for photography. Coming back on the Osprey Trail I photographed the pair of Osprey nesting alongside it and kept walking eastward. I didn't really find anything else on the way back to the car to photograph, as I said, I think the wind must have had the birds kept hunkered down.
We got another beautiful day on Saturday, where temperatures actually reached into the low 70s! The wind was still pretty strong but not as bad as it had been. I was a little wore out after the past couple days of walks so I went down to Back Bay NWR, knowing that I could only walk around 4 miles at the most since the dike trails are still closed to the public til the end of the month. I made it down around 9 o'clock, and the first thing I noticed was that the bay had finally recovered back to a normal water elevation after that nasty nor'easter went through last week and moved all the water to the south end of the bay. I walked the boardwalk trails out to the Bay Trail and saw a few sparrows. I couldn't locate any ducks, geese, or swans out on the water, but with the wind, I could hear them from a long way off. I walked the Bay Trail and again spooked an American Bittern near the large pond at the west end. Thats the second time I've managed to scare it off without even getting to raise my camera up to it. It flew over the pond and back out onto the marshes and disappeared very quickly. Between here and the end of the trail I found some Carolina Chickadees, and Yellow-rumped Warblers, but couldn't seem to get into a good position to photograph the little buggers so I ended up just walked back to the Loop Road. I walked it around counterclockwise like usual. The large rabbit I photographed a few weeks back was sitting out on the shoulder in it's usual spot. However on my way to photograph it, I scared an American Coot into moving out of the shoreline grasses of Pool E, and so I turned to photograph it. When I turned back, the rabbit had disappeared. I came upon another rabbit about a half mile further south and it also got away before I could get onto the sunlit side of it. I rounded the southern part of the loop and came back up the east side. This is the location where I've been seeing Field Sparrows every time I'm out, but this time I didn't see any of them. When I got up near the Dune Trail, I could see another Coot out on the Pool D, so I photographed this one as well.
Fortunately this one was in the right lineup with the sun and the photographs came out a bit better than with the other one. After that I headed down the Dune Trail to the beach. Along the beach, there was plenty of Northern Gannets hunting far out along the coast, and I saw a TON of Red-breasted Mergansers streaming southward pretty far out. Some smaller ducks were mixed in but it was just too far out for me to ID. I didn't find any huge collections of gulls like I had the last time out, but I found some Ring-billed & Great Black-backed Gulls feeding on a dead fish right at the waters edge. After reaching the north end of the beach I headed back inland over the Seaside Trail, and then worked the Bay Trail once again. The trail was quiet, with no Bittern to be found so I walked back around the the boardwalks, saw a turtle at the very small pond west of the contact station. I also saw a young Bald Eagle flying inland from the coastline with what I believe was a large fish in it's talons. After this, I hit the Kuralt Trail. There was a few Eastern Towhees scavenging for food underneath the dead leaves on the ground along the Kuralt Trail, and I could hear them very easily, but it was much harder to get eyes on any of them. They make quite a racket, almost as loud as a squirrel when they're trouncing around the forest floor. After walking the Kuralt Trail (saw yet another young Bald Eagle, this time flying down the coastline) I headed back to the car and went home to grab some lunch. On the way back I was driving down Kings Grant Road when I spotted 4 Wood Ducks in the lake on the west side of the road right up near the roadway! I pulled an immediate u-turn and parked on the street, assembled my camera, and went and took some photos. I finally got some decent shots of these very very weary birds before they took off into flight. There was 3 males and 1 female, I'm guessing they were vieing for the females attention as the breeding season is just about here. They are incredibly beautiful birds, and I hope to see more of them around the neighborhood lakes. This is one bird I didn't get to see when I lived back in Norfolk, so its another reason I made the move in November down to Kings Grant / Little Neck in Virginia Beach!
After a couple hours of rest, Ruth & I went down to the north end of the oceanfront to walk along the beach in the gorgeous 70 degree & sunny weather. We parked down at 64th Street and were walking north along the beach when I caught sight of a Royal Tern. This is the first of the year for me in the area, and its still listed as a rarity on eBird for the area at this date in the year. I was pretty excited to see one, since it's been about 6 months since I saw my last one. They're summer residents in the area, and are very entertaining to watch from the beaches as they dive bomb fish all day long. They make me able to tolerate laying on the beach all day long on the hottest of summer days! After seeing the Royal Tern, I also got a great new surprise! I saw my first Red-throated Loon just a hundred yards off the shoreline, close enough to get clear enough photographs for a positive ID. I ended up seeing quite a few more Red-throated Loons also as we headed further north towards Fort Story. Like earlier this morning at Back Bay, there was a large amount of Red-breasted Mergansers streaming out over the water a few hundred yards out, and there was groups of them on the water as well.
Combined with a never-ending flight of Northern Gannets, this might be the most birds I've ever seen out while walking around at the oceanfront. After turning around at the north end of the beach and heading back south towards 64th Street, the sun was starting to dip fairly low. A lot of Brown Pelicans were seen flying northward, possibly heading to some spot to roost up for the night in a large colony, or maybe back at Lynnhaven Inlet where I saw a ton of them on Thursday night. The lower the sun dropped, the tougher it was for me to get photographs since the colors started to get washed out by the low angle of brightness emanating from the sun. I got some more shots of Sanderlings, and Great Black-backed Gulls along the beach, and got some of an Osprey which was hovering over the shoreline as well. We ended up cutting back inward at 67th Street after falsely coming to the conclusion that we must have missed our 64th Street boardwalk. Fortunately it doesn't really matter where you cut back across the dunes to the street, they all link up in a nice grid at this part of the oceanfront. Next week I will be out of town Friday through Sunday, and as such will not have a blog to post. I am heading down to Charlotte, NC to take part in some non-birding entertainment, being the NCAA Men's College Basketball Tournament, aka March Madness.