Week Ending April 27, 2014

Made it out for the first time this week on Wednesday evening after work! I went up to the 64th Street entrance at First Landing State Park since it's just the easiest place to get to quickly after my workday has ended. Right away in the swamp next to the bridge on the Cape Henry Trail I saw a Green Heron tucked away back in the cover. This is the first one I've seen at the park this year, though they are quite common in the summer. In the past I've seen them mainly around the tidal creeks that come into the park from Broad Bay, this is the first one I've seen on fresh water. I walked my typical route down the Cape Henry, Long Creek, Osprey Trails to the bridge at White Hill Creek and back. On the Long Creek Trail I got to see an abundance of Hermit Thrushes, as I did the last time out as well. They should be leaving the region fairly soon, since they are just winter residents of the area, but move further north for the breeding season. When I got to the Osprey Trail, I found that the Mourning Dove that nested just above the trail in a nest of  Spanish moss last year has again taken up residence there. It is right out in the open, but you can still easily miss it if you aren't looking directly at it.

Hermit Thrush at First Landing State Park!

Once you find it, you'll laugh at how you never saw it before, hiding in plain sight. The Canada Goose pair is also still nesting out on the small puddle on the south side of the trail just before you reach the large Osprey nest on the right side of the trail. My Osprey nest that I monitor for Osprey Watch may have gotten blown down in this last batch of wind we got over the weekend; I couldn't locate it, although the leaves are popping out a lot more now so I might just not be able to see it. I ran into another birder between the two tidal creeks, and as a result I was able to locate my first Northern Parula of the season. I had just gotten finished asking if she had seen any warblers and then two of them flew into a tree about 50 feet away, what timing. I also saw a Red-headed Woodpecker nearby in the tidal marsh on a dead tree that is one of their favorite spots in the park in my experience. At the next tidal creek, the cackling Belted Kingfisher held true to it's usual self, evading my camera quite well. As I was heading up to White Hill, a Great Blue Heron flew in over top of me, and gave me a good opportunity to get some flight photos. I still haven't seen any fence lizards on White Hill this year, and its always been a hotspot for them in past years.

Red-winged Blackbird telling me to go away!

I hope that Black Racer I saw swallowing one last year didn't destroy the population. Hopefully in the next month or so they'll also start popping up, or I'll start to get worried. Ospreys & Great Blue Herons dominated around White Hill Lake, with all the wintering ducks having left the area (aside from 3 Buffleheads that I saw on Broad Bay). On the way back from the creek bridge, I scared up another Green Heron in the White Hill Lake overflow area's southwest corner. I took a few shots through cover, but the sunlight wasn't on it so they came out dark. Fortunately I got good looks at it though. Along the bay on the way back an adult Bald Eagle put on a good show flying in circles looking for fish before heading off to the south. The rest of the walk I mainly saw Chickadees and Hermit Thrushes, no other warblers showed up unfortunately. I'm hoping to get out later in the week to the Dismal Swamp again, though the park is hosting a Birding Festival on Thurs-Saturday so I may avoid the crowds, hopefully Sunday though!

Red-breasted Merganser and the beautiful waters of Back Bay!

This weekend we had some of the nicest weather we've had all year so far. Saturday, temperatures reached into the 70s and it was a perfectly sunny day. I went down to Back Bay NWR in the morning and found that a lot of other people had the same idea, the parking lot was full. Surprisingly though, I didn't really see anyone along the West Dike Trail, everyone must have been concentrated on the mile or so around the parking area, the beach, and the Bay Trail were probably packed. The shorebirds seemed to have returned in huge numbers now to the park. Greater Yellowlegs were the most numbers, I probably saw over a hundred throughout the day. Lesser Yellowlegs were also present in smaller numbers. I saw a couple flocks of Semipalmated Plovers along the West Dike, and a pair of Killdeers appears to have taken up a nesting spot in the field next to the contact station. About a half mile after entering the West Dike Trail I got a great surprise, I saw a tiny bird jumping through the underbrush. I thought at first it was a sparrow but soon I saw a yellow bill and realized I was looking at my very first Sora! A few minutes later, after trying to maintain visual contact with the bird, I noticed a second one in the same shrub that had been sitting stationary.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher finally stayed still for a photograph!

I had no idea how small the birds were. Having seen them only in field guides & photographs, I guess I had just assumed they were of similar mass to a Clapper Rail, but they are much, much smaller, and even tougher to find if you can believe that. The pair eventually flew off across the water to the marsh on the opposite side and disappeared into the grasses very quickly. I didn't get the best of photographs since they were small, in cover, and dimly lit but I got good enough shots to verify the ID with certainty which is all I can ever hope for. In addition to the shorebirds and rails, the egrets were out in large numbers again this weekend. Snowy Egrets outnumbers Great Egrets by a vast margin, but I still saw a lot of each. Unlike last week though, I didn't find any Ibis anywhere along the trail. Nutria were also very active today, I saw at least 4 of them swimming around and cutting down reeds for food/nesting material. There was a group of folks that were harvesting snakes for some college study, and were violating basically every park rule there is, like walking in areas closed to the public. I don't know if they had permission from the park, but it's really irritating seeing people always in places that are clearly marked as Closed. They said they'd got 4 Cottonmouths that morning, and a number of watersnakes. I did eventually end up finding 3 Cottonmouths later in the day, one of which I got some good shots of as it was basking in the impoundment nearest to the parking area. I walked the West Dike Trail to the False Cape SP entry sign and back this time again, which is a good 6.5 mile round trip, plus the 1 mile on the Bay Trail for 7.5 miles on the day. I had a good time in the maritime forest near the south end of the trail, seeing several Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and hearing a loud Prairie Warbler, then finally being able to locate it up in a tree.

Eastern Cottonmouth basking in the sun!

I'm glad I recently learned their song, now I hear it and immediately know what I'm looking for. It sounds like a ticking bomb that is about to go off, getting louder and faster until it stops. Along the Bay Trail, I got to add a second rail to my daily list, having found a King Rail on the small rainwater pool on the right side near the end of the trail. I watched it for at least fifteen or twenty minutes while it wandered around the edges of the pool poking around for food. It never seemed to be scared of me, so long as I didn't try to approach it, and even then it would just slowly back off in the opposite direction. Eventually, it wandered inland into the marsh. I then kept on down the trail, and came across another one on the large pond on the left side of the trail. This one was better concealed and I couldn't get any photographs but it was still neat to see. After that I headed back along the boardwalks, only to get stuck as the snake herders had a Cottonmouth on the boardwalk itself and I had to reverse direction and walk around the area. Clearly, they had no concern for the people trying to enjoy the park today, it was very annoying. 

King Rail at Back Bay NWR!

Sunday was even nicer than Saturday somehow. Sunny skies, and temperatures in the 60s made it the absolute perfect day for me to hike. With weather like this, I never break a sweat and am just very comfortable while moving. The wildlife agreed as well, and I saw a great deal of birds. I went out to the Great Dismal Swamp NWR for the second Sunday in a row after having been there last weekend for the very first time. The park was hosting their Great Dismal Swamp Birding Festival from Thursday through Saturday, so I was hoping the crowds would be gone by today. There was a few cars in the Washington Ditch parking area this time, and I ran into a few people right away. I also ran into a ton of birds right off the bat. I've never heard birds singing from all directions anywhere else around this area, it was really incredible. Trying to find the small songbirds is a challenge though, especially with the leaves now almost fully out. Even the colorful warblers can easily hide in the trees, making it more and more important for me to start learning all their songs better, since I only know a few of them good enough to ID. In the stretch before the Lynn Ditch junction, I saw several Prothonotary Warblers, and a Chipping Sparrow, and also some American Redstarts. Yet again, a pair of Wild Turkeys was sitting a couple hundred yards north on the Lynn Ditch Trail and ran off as soon as they saw me. From the point on, I didn't run into another person until my return trip from Lake Drummond, though I did have people in sight behind me that eventually turned around.

Tiger Swallowtail showing it's yellow against the green background of the swamp.

It really pays to walk the whole trail, the further out you get into the swamp, the more wildlife you see in my opinion. Also, I've only heard Prairie Warblers in the mile or so closest to the lake, never nearer to the parking area. I don't know if the habitat suits them better, or they just like the isolation, but they do seem to congregate in that stretch of the trail. I heard lots of them, and was finally able to see one high up in a tree. Common Yellowthroats were also around, and a number of Yellow-rumped Warblers in breeding plumage were seen as well. The birds weren't the only animals that were out today. I saw a pair of Nutria working the ditch near a Beaver lodge, and also a ton of Yellow-bellied Slider turtles in the same area. In some of the small pools, I saw Spotted Turtles, which are the first ones I've seen outside of First Landing State Park. Nearing the lake, I got to a spot where I heard a loud rustle on the forest floor to my left, and scanned the area for a few minutes to finally find a Ratsnake sitting under the leaf cover with just it's head sticking out. I think it must have been either attacking prey, or was trying to mate with another snake that must have gotten away. It was so loud I jumped when I initially heard it so close to me. When I reached the lake, I scared up a Spotted Sandpiper that had been in the shallows, but fortunately it landed right on the manmade observation pier and posed for some photographs, along with a buddy that must have been hiding elsewhere. I prefer to get photographs of them in a natural backdrop, but at least I could ID them from the photos on the pier. They flew off around the lake shortly after. The leaves really are out now around the lake, its all green & blue as far as you can see, save for the area on the south side of the lake that was burned off in recent wildfires.  On the trip back, unlike last week, I had the sun at my back, and could finally focus a bit more on where the birds were at. I saw basically all the same animals on the way back, but I did also scare up a male Wood Duck from the ditch before I could raise my camera, and found another pair later that also immediately burst into the air and disappeared into the swamp. I passed a number of people on my way back that were heading out towards the lake, glad I got the earlier start so that noone was in front of me to scare off the wildlife. Today I decided to take the boardwalk path instead of just going back to the car. It wanders around through the swamp for 3/4 of a mile, but I didn't really see any birds outside of a couple Prothonotary Warblers. I walked out to the ditch trail for a little more, and I think I saw an Indigo Bunting fly across the trail, but I didn't get a good enough look to say for certain that it wasn't a Blue Grosbeak, so unfortunately I can't count that one, which either way would have been my first of the year! After that I headed back to the car after 10 miles of walking around the swamp. I've been wearing bugspray the last few outings, and have yet to notice any ticks or really any other bugs outside of a few mosquitoes, but nothing remotely bad at all, I hope that trend continues. The weather for the week is looking like a lot of rain basically every day til Friday, so I don't know if I'll make it out after work at all, but hopefully the sun comes out at some point or I'll start to go crazy.

Turtle at Great Dismal Swamp NWR