Week Ending April 6, 2014

As you probably have read by now at the end of my last blog, this past weekend was extremely wet and dreary. Though I made it up to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to take some photographs on Sunday, that was it for the weekend. The weather took a turn for the better on Monday though, and by afternoon it was right around 60 degrees and completely sunny. I drove down to First Landing State Park right after work and was hiking in at 64th Street by 4:15. I did my typical after work 6-mile route through the park (64th Street, Cape Henry Trail, Long Creek Trail, Osprey Trail, Long Creek Trail to White Hill Lake Creek Bridge, and back the same route). Along the Cape Henry Trail before Lake Susan Constant I saw my first butterfly of the season. I believe this one was a species called a Question Mark. It fluttered around a bit before finally landing on a holly tree leaf where I was able to get a couple photographs before some joggers passed by and it flew high up into the canopy.

My first butterfly of the season, a Question Mark Butterfly at First Landing SP.

Just after that, I saw an Osprey perched up in a tree near the freshwater lake; it was sitting on a pine branch feeding on a dead fish. The Ospreys are now back in full force around the region. All the nests along the Osprey Trail now have an active pair of Osprey attached to them. The large nest near the detached overflow pond between the two tidal creeks is active once again also. This nest has been unused the past two seasons, so I was surprised to find an Osprey perched in the tree today. The songbirds were also quite active today along the Osprey Trail. I took some photographs of a Dark-eyed Junco, some Tufted Titmice, and a couple of Carolina Chickadees as well. The way the sunlight was hitting the forest made for some interesting shots, but also made a lot of darkened photographs due to the shade under the trees. Early on, a pair of White-throated Sparrow, and a Carolina Wren were active along the Cape Henry Trail, but they were tough to capture with the shadows all around them. I’m still hearing a lot of Ground Skinks scurrying around the leaf litter on the forest floor as I walk on the trails past them, but I’ve yet to see any Fence Lizards or other species of skinks, like the common Broad-headed Skinks. Even on top of White Hill the lizards haven’t come out yet. I also didn’t find any Mud Turtles meandering around the trails. Typically in the spring I’ll see a few of them laying eggs on the sandy edges of the trails I walk. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks the reptiles will start showing up. Frogs were still singing from all the rainwater pools along the Cape Henry & Long Creek Trails. I haven’t heard any along the Osprey Trail but that may be because all of the water is brackish and not freshwater. Waterfowl are still around, especially at White Hill Lake.

Carolina Chickadee hanging out in the trees at First Landing SP.

Today there was a pair of Hooded Merganser, three Bufflehead, and some Mallards & American Black Ducks. Out on Broad Bay, there was a few Bufflehead but no other duck species were present. A pair of Canada Geese have taken up a nesting spot in the same spot they have the past two seasons along the Osprey Trail just to the east of the largest Osprey nest. The geese can be seen back in the cattails of a small pond on the south side of the trail. Brown Pelicans, Herring Gulls, and Double-crested Cormorants were seen out over Broad Bay, mixed in with a pair of Osprey that were circling what was probably a shoal of fish. This morning, I had spent some time on eBird checking on the distributions of some species of Warblers to see if their migration was moving closer to the area. There has been reports of Yellow-throated Warblers around but I didn’t find any of these. Like the other hikes I’ve done at First Landing this year, I saw some Yellow-rumped Warblers, and heard, but didn’t see any, Pine Warblers. These two are the common warblers in winter time around the area. Soon, a rainbow of other warblers will be showing up, but nothing that I have seen yet. The weather is looking pretty great for the week, with rain expected on the weekend. I will be trying to get out after work each day so that I hopefully don’t miss out on some of the beautiful migrants that pass through the region in the coming weeks. 

The almost best photo I've ever taken of a Yellow-rumped Warbler...if it hadn't turned it's head.

Another beautiful day on Tuesday, so I went up to Pleasure House Point after work. This time I parked at the east end of the park, and walked along the water all the way to the west end and back, then did another half loop to make it probably close to 4 miles of walking. Continuing the streak over the last week, I saw another Horned Grebe in Pleasure House Creek. Unlike last week, the tidal water today was probably lower than I've ever seen it before. There was actually sandbars showing around the trails that I didn't even know existed until today. One example was just off the southernmost point of the trail at my favorite crabbing spot. Here there was a sandbar exposed about 50 feet out into the water which I had always assumed was deep water; apparently not so. With the water so low, I was hoping I might see a Clapper Rail emerge from the tidal marsh, or one running on the exposed mudflats, but I didn't find any unfortunately.

Ospreys are all back to their nests in First Landing SP.

As with last week, the waterfowl was very much around though, and in terms of ducks, there was Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Mallard, and Bufflehead all over on the brackish waterways. The rails may not have showed up with the very low tide levels, but the Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were right at home. I saw at least four of them hunting on the mudflats, and each of them appeared to be focusing on areas where the freshwater ponds drain through culverts into the tidal waterways. I'm not sure if the moving water helps them sneak up on prey, or if the prey itself is just attracted to the moving water, but there was definitely a pattern to where they were foraging. In addition to the Night-Herons, there was one lone Great Blue Heron pretty far out on a mudflat, surrounded by Great Black-backed & Herring Gulls. I got my first photograph of a black-headed Laughing Gull, having just seen my first one on Sunday morning, it's nice to see them back in the area, another sign of springtime as far as I'm concerned. The large exposed mudflats were also home to large numbers of Bonaparte's Gulls, which also looked like they had their black head plumage back. I hadn't yet seen any with the breeding colors until today. The gulls weren't alone on the flats as I did see a Royal Tern a couple times, and also saw one Killdeer land out near a group of immature Herring Gulls. While walking around the largest of the freshwater ponds, a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew directly over top of me, then pulled a bank turn and flew a wide circle around me. I got some long-range out-of-focus shots of it just before it pulled up directly in line with the sun and I had to turn away.

The Yellow-crowned Night-Herons have returned to Pleasure House Point for the Summer!

It flew to a tree over by the golf course across the creek and perched up in a large pine tree. The resident Ospreys on the creek didn't seem to like this intruder in their nesting area, and were quite vocal about it. Several times I saw the Ospreys flying circles out over the water, and one of them flew directly over top of me with a large helping of spanish moss and sticks for it's nest. No other birds of prey were present today. After the close encounter with the Osprey, I got a chance to take photographs of more Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, despite the few people that had dogs out & walked right by them without realizing it. Also in close to shore on the largest of the tidal flats by the trail was a lone Greater Yellowlegs. This might be the same one that was present last time I was out here. When I was nearing the islands of marsh grasses, a Red-breasted Merganser female was chasing minnows around in the now-shallow channel. The water was shallow enough that you could clearly see the bottom all the way out to the marshy islands. After trying pretty hard to get some nice photos of the Merganser, I kept heading eastward and photographed a Northern Mockingbird, and a Red-winged Blackbird that were spatting over the tree they were both perched in. No ducks were on the stormwater retention pond at Loch Haven Park, which is a surprise, since typically there are a number of Gadwall, and usually at least one Egret also. I suppose the construction that is taking place on the new visitor center has something to do with this. By the time I reached my car, it was about 6:30, and I'd counted 29 species of birds on the day, not a bad couple hours of after-work birding.

My first photographs of a Wood Duck in First Landing SP!

Thursday morning I had a field meeting on a work project so I knew in advance that I'd be wearing jeans to work. Since I'd already be dressed for it, I brought my camera & backpack to work also. So when 4 o'clock hit, I ran out the door. It had been sunny and about 65 degree out in the morning, but apparently got overcast and cooled off into the 50s sometime after lunch. I had planned on going to the Norfolk Botanical Gardens to try to locate a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher. Also, another was spotted at Stumpy Lake the same day. These are the first ones of the season that I'd heard of. When I saw how cloudy it was though, I decided to just go to First Landing instead, in the hopes of at least getting a good workout in if I couldn't get good photographs. It turned out to be a great switch. Right off the bat, just after I'd turned onto the Cape Henry Trail south of 64th Street, a female Wood Duck burst up into the air off a small freshwater cypress swamp. It's mated male was there also, swimming through the dense foliage. It moved back into the swamp but I did get a couple photographs of it in the process. This is only the second time I've seen Wood Ducks at First Landing, and the first time I've ever gotten clear photographs of them! After I left the Wood Ducks, I kept on the Cape Henry Trail, then cut up to 64th Street after the lake and hopped onto the Long Creek Trail. I could see there was a couple of people walking with a dog out in front of me, and figured they'd scare everything off so when we hit the junction with the Osprey Trail, and they took it, I opted to uncharacteristically stay on the Long Creek Trail.

A Greater Yellowlegs in the shallows of Broad Bay. 

After the junction, the Long Creek Trail is a swampy mess of mud for the first hundred yards or so. After that though, the trail conditions were great, I'd forgotten how much more up and down there was on this trail as opposed to on the Osprey Trail (both reconnect up at White Hill on their west ends). I'm extremely glad I decided to go this way for a change, as after just a few minutes, I came up over a small crest on the trail and a Gray Fox was just getting ready to cross the trail. We looked at each other for a moment and then it turned back around and disappeared into the underbrush. I walked about a hundred feet past where it had been on the trail and waited about 5 minutes. Then I walked slowly back, hoping it might come back out and try to cross as per it's original plan. Sure enough, it had moved about half way from the dense underbrush towards the trail, and I was able to get a couple of manually focused shots of it behind a lot of cover. It ran again, and so I tried this again, but unfortunately it seemed to have figured out my game and didn't show back up. It was very amusing to me that this is the very first time I've ever seen a Gray Fox in the park, and I've been there over a hundred times at this point. Also, my girlfriend had seen a pair of foxes on Tuesday at a work function on a golf course, so hearing about them was almost a little bit of foreshadowing what was to come for me! After the fox, the overcast conditions started to break in bits and pieces and about a half hour later, the sky had totally broken up and the sun came out. I was pretty excited that now the lighting would be better, and very happy I stuck with the decision to get out hiking after work. I walked past the are that the Great Blue Herons typically nest at, but did not spot a single nest, which seemed very unusual to me at this point in the year. All I saw here was an adult Bald Eagle make a fly-by of the site. After that I reached White Hill, and headed down and around White Hill Lake to the creek bridge. As usual, I turned around from there and headed back.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk perched up in a tree next to my office complex!

Nothing much was moving around near the lake, and I didn't see any of the normal waterfowl either. An Osprey was calling from the nest on the north side of the lake, and a couple of Canada Geese did fly in, but that was it.  Once back up and over White Hill, I heard a Belted Kingfisher flying around the area of the western tidal creek. I did spot it eventually, but it was so far away the photos didn't come out real good. After I crossed the western bridge, I saw a Greater Yellowlegs wading around in the low tide of Broad Bay right up near shore. Also, there was a Great Egret back in the creek's marsh. The yellowlegs kept me entertained for a while as I took a lot of photographs to ensure I got a couple good ones. After this, I passed an active Osprey nest, and made my way over the eastern tidal bridge and along the beach back up inland on the Osprey Trail. Songbirds were flying in all directions just before the next Osprey nest, and another three Greater Yellowlegs were in the marsh to the north making quite a racket before they took to the air. I passed the small marsh to the south where a pair of Canada Geese have taken up spring residence, and saw a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers near the Osprey nest off to the south. Between here and the Long Creek Trail Junction I spotted a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, but absolutely could not get a photo of it since it was constantly on the move through the thick foliage! While I was trying to focus on it, another bird crossed my line of sight, and it turned out to be a Black-and-White Warbler! I got one decent shot of it, which makes this my first migrating warbler on the year! Ironically, this is only the second such bird I've seen in my life, and the first was two years ago almost in this same spot in the park. The sun was now starting to get low, and then rest of the walk back to the car didn't yield any further sightings, but it had been a great evening walk. My Virginia Beach species total is now up to 109 birds on the year! Hopefully, the migrants will keep moving through the area in the coming days, as it appears this week is really their first week of having shown up in Hampton Roads.

Great Blue Heron at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Perfect weather continued on Friday, so yet again, for the 4th day this week I was able to go out hiking after my work day ended. Being Friday, I left around 2:30 in the afternoon and was heading out of the parking of my office when I saw a Cooper's Hawk fly over top of me and land in a tree at the back of the lot. Since I was going hiking anyway, I had my camera in the car, so I reversed the vehicle and drove over towards where it had landed. I got out, assembled my camera, and located the bird high up in a pine tree. I got a few photographs of it and then headed out to actually go wildlife viewing. Couldn't believe it showed up right at my office like this, and that I had a camera with, usually it doesn't happen this way. It was fairly cloudy out, as a warm front was on it's way through the area, but I went down to Back Bay NWR anyway. The West Dike trail had opened up on the 1st of the month, so finally I can get some miles in at the park without having to walk the beachfront down and back. When I got to the park, I finally got to use my annual pass that Ruth had bought me for Christmas, since they started charging entry to the park, also on the 1st. There was a ton of cars in the lot, more than I'd ever seen on a weekend morning so far this year. It turned out that a class from CNU was visiting to study reptiles & amphibians. I got stuck behind them on the boardwalks, so had to abandon my plan to walk the Bay Trail. Instead I headed right down the West Dike. I photographed a Great Blue Heron that was barely off the loop road, and didn't seem to mind that I was right next to it. When I set out on the West Dike, right away I saw large numbers of Snowy Egret, probably over 50 in total. Mixed in with some Snowies was a Glossy Ibis, and later a lone White Ibis juvenile flew in as well. With the trail now open, you have access to viewing the freshwater impoundments that were previously closed to the public over the winter.

Yellow-bellied Slider at Back Bay NWR...the turtles are all back out for the spring.

There was a TON of waterfowl out in the water. Northern Shovelers dominated, but there was also Gadwall, and I saw my first pair of Blue-winged Teal on the year as well. Great Egrets were also very abundant, mixing in with their smaller cousins, the Snowy Egrets. Right out in the center of the first major impoundment, a Caspian Tern was sitting on a mud flat that was barely submerged. In addition to the birds, the turtles were out in force. Almost every log I came across was full of Yellow-bellied & Red-eared Sliders, and also what looked like maybe a Painted Turtle at one location. I saw several Savannah Sparrows walking on the exposed mud shorelines around the impoundments as well. With the warm front passing through while I was walking, the skies finally were able to clear off, and it got much warmer as I neared my turn-around point for the day (the beginning of the maritime forest's intersection with the dike). Near this point, large numbers of American Coots were swimming out in the water, and I also saw several Muskrats swimming about, though I struggled to get any good photographs of them since they sit so low to the water when they're swimming. In this same area I saw my first Dragonflies of the year, but didn't get any photographs. On the way back north towards the contact station, now with the sun out, I could see a bit better out on the impoundments. A lone adult Bald Eagle was sitting far out on one on top of a deadhead. The Caspian Tern (first of the year for me) was still sitting out there as well. Some Red-winged Blackbirds were calling from perches in the cattail marshes off the dike, and both Common & Boat-tailed Grackles were around as well. The Egrets were all still in the same position on the way back, and I was able to get better shots of them, and both species of Ibis. Not far off from the egrets, a Cooper's Hawk was sitting quietly in a tree watching for something to prey on.

My first colorful migrant of the season, a beautiful male Prairie Warbler at Back Bay NWR.

Also, shortly after this, I heard some commotion in a shrub off to the bay side of the trail, and as I waited and watched, thinking it might be a Thrasher or a Towhee with how much noise it was making, I saw a beautiful little yellow bird make an appearance. With it's beautiful black and yellow face, and rust colored shoulder, I knew right away it was a Prairie Warbler, my first of the season! I hadn't seen one since last year when I saw my very first one in Freemason in Norfolk, right about this same time of year; they're migrating through the area finally. After the warbler, I came across a 2-3' long Eastern Cottonmouth in almost exactly the same spot that I photographed one last year along the West Dike. It was slithering along the shoreline in the water, and came to a stop when it saw me. I carefully looked around for others, while I moved down the bank to get into a good spot to photograph it from. I took a ton of shots of it, but it was difficult to get into a good spot with the sun, and with the grasses not in the way. Just a few hundred yards left of the West Dike and I was back on the Loop Road, where I saw my first Tree Swallows on the season. Also in this area, I scared off quite a few frogs into jumping into their little spring rain water pools, but was unable to actually see any of them, just heard all the splashes they would make as they leaped away from me. In the area where I had been seeing Field Sparrows throughout the winter I saw a Mud Turtle laying eggs in the sandy ground off the roadway. This is the first of them that I've come across so far this season.

Snakes are out now too! Eastern Cottonmouth (venomous) at Back Bay NWR.

It had heated up into the 70s by this point, and I got some relief from the heat by sneaking over the Dune Trail down to the beach. The ocean was full of wildlife today, and the strong easterly breeze cooled won the air probably 15 degrees cooler than it had been just over the dune line. Herring, Ring-billed, and Great Black-backed Gulls, as well as Laughing Gulls showing off their new black-head plumages were all out. I saw Royal Terns, and what was either a Common or a Forster's Tern. Double-crested Cormorants, Brown Pelicans, and Northern Gannets were also seen out over the water. Even an Osprey showed up, having just caught a large fish, and flew right over top of my position. It was truly an incredible day of photography out at the park, and with all the new birds I was seeing today, I'm up to 115 species on the year in Virginia Beach alone. Last year I saw 121 in total, so I'm almost at that same mark but only just over 3 months into the year! I walked back over the Seaside Trail to the parking lot and decided that my luck couldn't get any better, so I didn't walk the Bay Trail, just headed to the car and took off towards home.

Magnolia in full bloom at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens!

Saturday it had cooled off considerably, sitting probably in the upper 50s low 60s. Ruth & I had decided to head up to Gloucestor to see the Daffodil Festival parade. While on the way back we stopped at Gloucestor Point Park in the hopes of spotting the Eared Grebe that has been seen around the pier, but came up empty since the sunlight was playing murder on the water's surface and I couldn't verify the ID of any of the grebes I was seeing offshore. We stopped at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens after this, hoping to spot some migrating songbirds, but came up pretty empty handed. I took a few photographs of some Northern Cardinals, and an American Robin, but that was about it. I think the windy conditions just had the birds sitting tight hidden in cover. The gardens were looking pretty though, with the Daffodils and Cherry Blossom Trees in pretty well full bloom.

Male Northern Cardinal singing from the treetops at Norfolk Botanical Gardens.