Week Ending April 20, 2014

With Friday being "Good Friday", and a holiday for my company, I was able to get out for a hike at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in the morning. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate, with completely overcast skies, a strong 15-20 mph northeasterly wind, and temperatures in the mid-to-upper 40s. I walked the western dike from the contact station south to the False Cape State Park entrance sign. While walking the west side of the Loop Road I saw a shorebird with a long downcurved bill fly past out over the Back Bay marsh. The size & shape assuredly made it a Whimbrel, which was my first of the year! On the way down the dike I saw a Pied-billed and a Horned Grebe up very close. Also, a pair of Killdeer must have been nesting near the dike at one spot since they kept circling me in the air and screeching at the top of their lungs. Off in the middle of the impoundments I saw what turned out to be a large cloud of Glossy Ibises circling around the marsh. From the photographs I counted at least 114 of them, which is the most I've ever seen in a day. While watching them land on the marsh, I also saw a young Bald Eagle fly over heading southeast towards where they were at. The impoundments were very choppy with waves today since the wind was screaming across from the northeast. I'm guessing it was because of this strong wind that there was no dabbling ducks to be seen, when last time I was there a couple weeks ago there was hundreds of them.

Carolina Wren uncharacteristically sitting still long enough to be photographed.

In fact, the only two ducks I saw the entire time hiking was a nesting pair of Wood Ducks on a small freshwater swamp in the forested area of the west dike. There wasn't much in the way of Gulls today but I did see another Caspian Tern, and some Forster's Terns. There was a small group of maybe 10 terns out in the impoundments but it was too far to positively ID. At the far southern end of the dike, I had a hawk fly past quickly, but was unable to get an ID, though I suspect it was a Cooper's Hawk since it was large, and I didn't see the white rump that a Northern Harrier would have. I've seen both species in the park in the past so it wouldn't surprise me if it was either. Walking back up the west dike I got some additional photographs of the Glossy Ibises, which had moved further northwest from their original spot, and were much closer to the dike while in the air. Once they landed in the marsh though, they were completely invisible from my position. I saw a Great Egret & a Snowy Egret seemingly hunting together along a small tidal creek leading up to one of the impoundment release valves. I think I actually saw more people today than birds, as every few minutes another vehicle was going past me on the dike for whatever reason. When I got back up to the contact station I walked the Bay Trail and then the Kuralt Trail but came up very empty handed on both, seeing just a few Red-winged Blackbirds, and that was it. 

The view down the Washington Ditch Trail at the Great Dismal Swamp NWR, and a Wild Turkey staring back at me.

With a never-ending drizzle on Saturday, I was unable to get out hiking. But, Sunday morning was unpredictedly beautiful. The sun was actually up, while the forecast had called for an all overcast day. I finally made it down to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge for the first time ever. I've seen so many photographs come out of this area in April of the beautiful songbirds that are migrating northward. Apparently the park is one of the largest stopping locations for them since it is about 175 square miles of undistiburbed swamp & forest. Nowhere in the Hampton Roads area is as large of a wilderness area. I got down to the Washington Ditch access at about 8 AM and right away I was greeting with a group of 7 Wild Turkeys in the farmfield to the north of the access road. After taking some shots from my car (had I gotten out, they'd have surely run off), I parked at the trailhead and started down the Washington Ditch Trail towards Lake Drummond. The lake is a rather large (about 5 square miles), freshwater, and is one of only two natural lakes that exist in Virginia. Waters from the surrounding swamps filter through a series of ditches that were designed & installed in the early 1800s and empty into the lake. The Washington Ditch was surveyed & constructed under the supervision of George Washington himself! This trail travels 4.5 miles right through the heart of the swamp, and reaches the lake at it's most northern point.

A Pearl Crescent, one of several species of butterflies seen at the Great Dismal Swamp NWR.

Along the 4.5 miles I had the sun directly in my face, which made it difficult to see things in front of me, so I had to do a lot of walking and stopping to look back away from the sun. There was an absolutely incredible amount of bird songs in the air, probably more than I've heard anywhere around here. I was constantly looking in trees trying to find the culprits, but more often then not, I couldn't locate where the bird singing actually was. The leaves aren't fully out yet, but there was enough for the small colorful warblers to hide easily behind. On the trip out, I saw probably a dozen Prothonotary Warblers, a couple of American Redstarts, a Common Yellowthroat, and also a White-eyed Vireo. All four species were the first I've encountered this year, and the Prothonotary Warblers were the first ones I've ever gotten focused photographs of. For some reason, the autofocus on my camera has been getting worse & worse each time I use it, and it was not able to focus on the birds with any accuracy. I ended up having to manually focus most of my shots today, which in the dense cover of the forest, on tiny songbirds, made for a very difficult day. At the junction with the Lynn Ditch Trail, I saw another pair of Wild Turkeys off to the north, but as soon as they realized I was there they took off running quickly in the opposite direction. At this junction, there is a water elevation control structure, kind of like a dam, though it has the ability to close or open valves to let more or less water through. There was a several foot drop in the ditch at this spot so I felt higher up for a little while walking along the ditch. The trail adjacent to the ditch is actually built on top of the material that was removed while creating the ditch, which is why they are side-by-side. I'm sure material has been added to strengthen the trail at some point, but for the most part, it is the fill material that just came from the ditch construction.

First White-eyed Vireo of the season!

The further I got away from the parking area, the more birds & especially the more butterflies I began to encounter. I had an inquisitive Carolina Wren hop around on a stump very close to me for an extended duration so was able to get some nice photographs of it; which is very uncharacteristic of these small & hyper birds. As for the butterflies, I started seeing them about 3 miles east of the parking area, and the final mile & a half to the lake was just full of them. Most of them were Zebra Swallowtails, but also had a number of Pearl Crescents, Painted Ladies, and one Black Swallowtail also. About the 3 mile mark as well there is a sizable Beaver lodge, and close downstream the Beavers are actively building a dam across the ditch. Backup from the dam has the trail almost flooded across for a hundred yard or so section. The water was just inches from the trail top, percolating upward into the tire treads that sit on either side of the trail. If the dam continues to grow in size, the trail will definitely be flooded as a result. Next time I'm out it will be interesting to see what this area looks like. But for now at least, I was able to keep walking and made it to the lake probably around 10:30 AM. At this point, I finally was going to not have the sun in my eyes, having made the turn westward to head back to the parking area. Of course, out of nowhere, it became completely overcast & I lost the sun anyway, after I fought staring into it the whole way out. So from that point on the light level was very low for photography, being that the sun was gone, and I was in deep, thick forest & swamp. On the trip back I scared up a couple of ducks that I believe were Wood Ducks, and I encountered another American Redstart, being the 3rd on the day.

Another species of butterfly that was very numerous, Zebra Swallowtail.

The Prothonotary Warblers continued to sing and be visible all over the place along the trail, but at a far enough distance where extreme closeup shots were impossible. I also came across a spot where 3 Yellow-bellied Sliders were sitting on logs out in the swamp. While I was walking I realized just how remote the park gets, I hadn't seen a single person all day, and I was the only car in the parking area when I'd arrived in the morning. It wasn't until about mile 7 that I finally saw a group of folks walking towards me. Of course, the trail is perfectly straight, so it took me another 15 minutes or so to actually reach them. Just before that, I found my first Eastern Ratsnake of the season, about a 3 or 4 foot long specimen that was arched upward on the trail looking at me. I took a few photographs of it from ground level on my knees and sat there waiting for the group of people to approach so that I could let them know it was there. They were all looking at it as I walked onward, hopefully nobody tried to mess with it, looked like a group of William & Mary students. Also on the way back, I heard a warbler singing that sounded like the sound bye the movies use when a bomb is going to go off, I later found out that it was the call of a Prairie Warbler, one of the prettiest of our spring birds out here.

First Prothonotary Warblers of the season at Great Dismal Swamp NWR!

Unfortunately I never located any of them, but I at least can confirm their ID by voice now which is something I need to work on for the other birds. When I reached the parking area again, I had wanted to walk the 3/4 mile boardwalk trail that starts there as well, but I was pretty exhausted from the 9 miles to and from the lake, and with the overcast skies making photography not work out I opted to head back, it was around 12:30 PM anyway so I was ready for some food. Thinking about it afterwards, I definitely understand why this is listed as a major birding hotspot. There is just a massive amount of undisturbed habitat for the birds to eat, drink, and nest in. I didn't see any birds of prey today, but folks keep posting sightings of Red-shouldered & Red-tailed Hawks in the area so maybe next time. Ruth is having some of her friends from Connecticut come down next weekend & I'm hoping to get back out here at least one time. Once the leaves have fully opened up throughout the park, it'll make it that much more difficult to locate all the small singing songbirds, even though they're very bright & coloful, they can still hide extremely easy in this environment. 

Eastern Ratsnake taking a peek out over the forest floor at Great Dismal Swamp NWR.