Week Ending March 30, 2014

Finally back after a weekend hiatus due to a weekend trip to Charlotte, NC last week. The only birding I was able to get in last week was from the car on the way home. I did manage to see my first Wild Turkeys off the season, on a farm field just west of Emporia, VA, and then later in the day on the way to dinner in Norfolk saw my first Yellow-crowned Night Herons too! This was on Sunday, March 23rd, which is early for the Night-Herons. They are starting to build up their  nests from last season in the Freemason neighborhood of downtown Norfolk. I'm looking forward to getting back out there to walk around and see how many nests I count. Last year, there was 12 nests in the area, with most of them being on one block of Freemason Street. I will be going out after work one day to walk the area, I miss living right by it where I could walk the streets everyday after I got home, hopefully the wood warblers will also be showing up in the area soon as this is the spot I saw my first Prairie Warbler last year in the first week of April. 

Boat-tailed Grackle at Pleasure House Point in Virginia Beach.

Well this week, after a gorgeously warm Saturday, the weather dropped back down to freezing level once again. The strongest Nor'easter of the season set up just off the coast of Virginia on Tuesday & therefore we had nasty rain & wind conditions. I had a friend from California in town so got to spend the evening up at Chick's on Shore Drive for dinner. Its nice to sit at a restaurant and be able to watch the storm rolling in outside, and be able to see a variety of birds all at the same time. There was a number of Bonaparte's Gulls flying around in the heavy winds, as well as one grebe that was either an Eared or a Horned, I couldn't quite tell for sure since they look very similar in non-breeding plumage and it was a bit to far out to see clearly anyway. Wednesday after the storm had moved further up the coast (bringing 100+ mph winds to Nova Scotia as I read later on Weather Underground) we had beautiful sunny skies, and temps in the 30s, with lingering 15-20 mph winds out of the northwest. I went up to Pleasure House Point after work to see if I could find some birds. I was a bit rusty after not having been out with the camera in about 10 days or so after vacation & all the stomach issues I'd been having from getting food poisoning. I actually parked along Marlin Bay Drive for the first time and walked the part west to east to start instead of the other way since walking this way allowed the sun to not be in my face early on. I saw the normal Gadwalls and American Wigeons out on Pleasure House Creek, and I also found that same pair of Mallards on the freshwater pond that I'd seen last time. I scared off a Greater Yellowlegs in the tidal marsh and saw a number of Boat-tailed Grackles in the southernmost part of the park.

Bradford Pear Tree are flowering around the area!

The visitor's center is coming along and the whole building is now sheathed in plywood. It is quite an eyesore but hopefully they eventually do something to conceal it a little better. I found a grebe in winter plumage (maybe the same one I saw from Chick's the night before), but it kept moving further out I couldn't get any worthwhile shots of it. When I reached the area I normally park at, it was obvious just how much higher the water levels were from the strong northwest winds. The storm water retention pond here is typically disconnected from the effects of the tide by a concrete weir, which keeps the pond level at a set elevation. When we get strong storms though, the tide backs up into the pond, and overtops the weir. The water then becomes a mix of freshwater (from rainfall), and brackish (from the tide). The Gadwalls seem to not mind as there was about a dozen of them on the lake, and they've been present everytime I've been to the park. A Great Egret was also hunting the shoreline, and was too cunning to let me sneak around it to a good photo spot. When I headed back down along the tidal waters, I saw what I thought was a log floating in the river, but when I zoomed in with my camera I realized it was actually the head of a Harbor Seal! It popped up and down a couple times, moving very large distances between breaths, but I did get a couple of shots that could prove what it was. Some folks had seen a Seal up on the beach where I like to crab at the park a few weeks back, so I'm guessing this was the same one.

My first Yellow-crowned Night-Heron photo on the season, taken at Pleasure House Point!

A man who passed me on the trail with his dog said they see it sometimes basking out on the sandbars in Lynnhaven Bay at low tide; something to definitely keep an eye open for next time. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel islands aren't that far north of here, and I did see a pair of them a month or so back, so I guess it makes sense that they'd also travel up into the Lynnhaven. After seeing the seal, I didn't think I could possibly in for any other surprises, but I did get another one, as I found a beautiful Horned Grebe in the mid-stages of acquiring it's breeding plumage. This one let me get fairly close, so I could actually get some decent shots of it before it moved further out into Pleasure House Creek. I also got some neat photographs of some Boat-tailed Grackles that were riding out the strong winds at the ends of some cattails along the creek trail. Shortly afterwards, I came across a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and got my first photographs of one this season! It was down in the cattails along the creek & didn't seem at all concerned with me. I also believe I found it's nest high up in a large pine tree along one of the trails. Last year, there was probably a dozen immatures hanging around the park so I'm looking forward to trying to find more of their nests, and see more adults in the coming weeks as the temperatures start to warm up. I had parked just outside the park, north of the largest of the freshwater ponds, so I was walked around the pond when I saw some tiny birds hopping around a cluster of pine trees. They turned out to be Golden-crowned Kinglets, and as usual, they moved way to often to ever allow me to manually focus my lens on one, so I had to stick on auto, and got a couple fuzzy but decent photos of their beautiful crests. After this, a Snowy Egret came cruising in over top of me and landed in a pine tree overhanging the pond. With the loud wind, I was able to get around it to the right side, with the sun behind me, and took some photographs from the cover of the woods. It did see me though, but didn't seem to want to fly since it was busy just trying to stabilize itself on the pine bough it had perched on; the wind was really whipping the branches around. I left it without spooking it into flying, and heading back up to the car. For an evening hike after work, it was quite a successful outing. After today's birds, I'm now up to 105 species in Virginia Beach so far in 2014, quite a ways ahead of last year at the same point where I think I was in the 60s or 70s. 

Snowy Egret seeking out shelter from the wind in a large pine tree at Pleasure House Point.

Friday after work I got out to First Landing for an 8-mile hike from 64th Street along the water all the way to the start of the Fox Run Trail at the far west end of the park and back. It was partly sunny when I left work but by the time I was at the park, it became completely overcast and made it difficult taking quality shots. The Ospreys are sitting on the main nest along the Osprey Trail, and several of them were out in flight over Broad Bay. Also, when I reached Broad Bay on the Osprey Trail, I saw a flash of feathers, and then watched as a Peregrine Falcon began bombing a Ring-billed Gull that must have gotten too close to it. The Peregrine shadowed the gull all the way across the bay heading south, making repeated passes at it with unbelievable speed. This is the 4th Peregrine I've seen in my life, and the 2nd at First Landing. But, this is the first time I've ever seen one actually pursing another bird, it was truly incredible. Not too long after I saw this, I was heading along the ridge on White Hill and heard an Osprey screeching. I looked up to see the Osprey, and instead saw a Bald Eagle fly past very low. I ran back to the highest point very quickly and was able to set up in a spot where there is a clear view of the sky just before the Eagle passed over it. I got a couple shots where I should have probably been more zoomed out, but I underestimated just how low the eagle was cruising.

The only colorful bird seen on an otherwise dreary day at First Landing State Park, an American Robin.

As with the other day, we had very strong winds today, and the birds of prey seemed to be the only birds capable of flying in them. Down the other end of the ridge on White Hill Lake, there was a group of American Black Ducks swimming on the far side. I had another interesting sighting when I reached the far west end of my route. Like Wednesday, I saw a Horned Grebe! Before this week, I've only seen one in my life. This is now the 3rd or 4th I've seen this week. It was situated out in Long Creek on the inside of Bay Island. I took some photos of it and with the docks and a boat with a tarp behind it, the water came out looking very neat with a blue reflective sheen on it. I still haven't gotten a very well focused shot, but they're getting better slowly. In the same general area, I got my most colorful photographs, that of an American Robin that was all alone, and perched right above the trail for me. No new songbirds have showed up yet with migration but it should be starting up soon. The Great Blue Herons were being quite loud all over the park, you could hear their dinosaur-esque screams from far off along all the trails near water. The weekend weather is also not looking so great, so we'll see what I'm able to accomplish, but for today, not a whole lot of photographs, but getting to see the Peregrine made it all worthwhile. 

My first photograph of a Horned Grebe on the season at First Landing State Park.

Saturday turned out to be quite a wash, raining, cold, and dreary all day long. Sunday started off the same way but Ruth & I went up to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel just to drive it to see if we could spot anything interesting. We stopped at the first island for what actually turned out to be almost an hour of photographing waterfowl. It was raining pretty much the whole time, but there was so much going on around the island that I didn't want to stop. It has been a few weeks since I was up on the bridge-tunnel complex, and it seems to have changed a bit in terms of the species. Before, there was large numbers of Long-tailed Ducks off the north point of the island, and tons of Buffleheads as well. Today, I saw only 3 or 4 Long-taileds and only a couple Buffleheads. The dominant species of duck now seems to be Black Scoters. There was probably a hundred or more of them on the east side of the island. Further out in the water, there was also a ton of Horned Grebes, probably in the dozens all around the island in deeper water. I guess I've always just been looking in the wrong spots for these birds, they appear to be extremely common offshore in the bay, quite a week for observing this species. Walking out on the pier I saw a Common Loon in almost full breeding plumage. It was really nice to see, as I've only ever seen winter/nonbreeding plumage on the loons around here before they exit the area in spring. We scanned the rocky northern point for seals but didn't find any. A pair of Herring Gulls & a Great Black-backed Gull were out there though.

Ruddy Turnstones were all over South Thimble Island out in the Chesapeake Bay.

Back on the east side of the a never-ending stream of Northern Gannets was funneling past the island to the north. I got several photographs of groups of Gannets flying in formation just like I'd usually see of Brown Pelicans. Some Ruddy Turnstones and a few Purple Sandpipers had taken refuge on the rocks on the east of the island also. I didn't see them at first, until a group of about a dozen Turnstones came flying in and landed with the ones that were already there. This is probably the most sandpipers I've ever seen on the island. Strangely absent were the Ring-billed Gulls. There'd been times in January & February where they numbered in the thousands on the island, I didn't notice a single one today. Just as we were about to head off from the island, a Common Loon in FULL breeding plumage popped up about 20 feet offshore, directly in front of the car. I had to put my camera back together on the spot and then got out just as it went down. I ran a couple hundred feet in the direction of the current around the island hoping it would come up there, and for once it actually came up right where I was holding my camera waiting for it to pop up. After getting my shots, we did finally take off from the island. We drove north to the Eastern Shore and turned around just before the toll gates.

Common Loon showing off it's full breeding plumage under a cloudy sky in Chesapeake Bay.