Week Ending May 4, 2014

We had an extremely rainy week here in Virginia Beach. Monday through Thursday it rained every day. Parts of northeast North Carolina received several inches of rain and there was also outbreaks of tornadoes across the state. The torrential downpours were very apparent when I went on my first hike of the week on Friday to Back Bay NWR. I first noticed high water when approaching the intersection of Sandbridge Road & New Bridge Road. The ditches along Sandbridge were extremely high, even flowing out onto the roadway edges. The Lotus Gardens were easily a couple feet higher than I've seen at times, with water filling up the grass shoulders around the bridge. All the farmfields and front yards had standing water across them, making all those crayfish 'chimneys' obsolete and allowing the crayfish to have some additional real estate for the time being. Apparently we've also had continuous southerly winds this week, which coupled with the high amounts of rainfall, caused Back Bay to rise up way above the standard elevation. Usually, it is the opposite effect on the bay, since we get northerly winds more often. Again, this is the highest water I've ever seen on Back Bay and the surrounding areas. When I got to the park, I started down the Loop Road's west side, en route to the West Dike Trail. The water was everywhere, filling forested areas where I've never seen water before. I saw a pair of Cottontail rabbits seeking refuge on a bit of high ground beneath the trees behind the contact station. On the way down the Loop Road, Red-winged Blackbirds were seen flying and landing in the cattails of the marsh everywhere I looked. I saw what could have been a small rail jumping through the reeds as well. Perhaps it was another Sora, like the ones I saw last week not far away. It seems that as the bay has risen upwards and therefore further inland than it usually does, it has pushed a lot of wildlife into areas where it can be seen. 

Common Yellowthroat (warbler species) at Back Bay NWR.

Under normal water levels, there is plenty of marsh & forest for the animals to hide within, but with the water moving into these areas, they have to seek out higher ground, which means they've moved up to the edges of the dike system and the inner impoundments. Even today, it rained a little bit on me the first 15 or 20 minutes. After that it stayed overcast, though very very dark further to the south, which made for a nice background in some of the photos in this gallery. With no sunshine, I didn't expect to see any snakes, and I didn't end up finding any. The animals that seemed to be the most numerous were again the shorebirds. Spotted Sandpipers & Solitary Sandpipers were both present. Greater Yellowlegs were seen on all the impoundments. The warblers are still around as well, and I saw a Common Yellowthroat in the exact same shrubbery that held my first Prairie Warbler of the season a few weeks back. With the high waters of the bay, I heard a lot more splashing around than normal, which at the time I just assumed were Nutria moving around in the water, it wasn't until later what I'd find out what it really was. As I was starting to near the maritime forest section of the trail, I had caught sight of a number of Red-winged Blackbirds off to the right in a large tree, one of several trees that dot the west side of the trail in this section. When they spooked into the air, I saw a pair of other birds, and a blue colored bird also fly off and land elsewhere. The pair of birds looked to have orange and black on them, so I first thought they were Eastern Towhees, but they appeared smaller, so as I snuck up on their location, and they again burst into the air I realized that they were actually Orchard Orioles! These were my first of the season, and only the second time in my life that I've gotten to see this species, after having seen one for the first time last May in Chincoteague NWR on my graduation vacation from ODU. I tried to snap photographs but only got one off in time, and it was quite blurry, though you can tell from it what the bird was. I didn't get another chance to see what species the blue colored bird was, out here it could be an Eastern Bluebird, an Indigo Bunting, or a Blue Grosbeak, any of which I'd greatly welcome. While I was standing there thinking about how I'd missed on the photographs I'd hoped to get I heard a loud splash behind me. I turned to find nothing there but focused my camera on where the rippled were, thinking again that it was probably a Nutria swimming around. 

Spotted Sandpiper in flight over the impoundments of Back Bay NWR.

While watching the spot, a figure slowly rose in the water column, and thanks to the very dark clouds overhead, I could actually make out the shape just under the surface, then it rose and leaped. I closed the camera shutter and from the photo I could see it was a very large Chain Pickerel (the southern cousin of the Northern Pike that I grew up with in Minnesota)! The Pickerel had a Bluegill tail sticking out of it's mouth, making for an amazingly lucky photograph! The fish didn't stop though, and kept jumping out of the water & thrashing back and forth like one does to try to toss a lure when hooked. I realized pretty quick that the Bluegill was so large that it was stuck in the Pickerel's mouth & gills. The Pickerel went belly up, and was just holding the Bluegill still, but it for some reason started swimming very slowly over towards me. When I'd first seen the fish, it was probably about 30 or 40 feet out from my position, but after a few minutes of slowly moving towards me, I was able to get a foot in the water, and reach it with a stick. It let me get my hand around it's neck and land it, like I've done so many times in my life, only while fishing, not while out hiking! After some effort, and several toothbites into my hand, I was able to push the Bluegill back out through the mouth & get it unravelled from the gills of the Pickerel. I got the Pickerel set into the water belly down and moved it forward and backward to get the water moving through it's gills again to give it some oxygen. When I let go, it swam off into the dark waters. Unfortunately, I could not get the Bluegill to steady itself, and when it kept going belly up, I had to take it out and put the fish down humanely. I left the carcass up on the trail thinking an Osprey or Eagle would find it in no time, and didn't want to throw it back in the water for the same Pickerel to choke on again. I like to think that over the years, I've seen some pretty incredible things out in the woods, but I'm hard-pressed to come up with another occurrence that was as unexpected as this one. I've never had a fish choose to swim towards me in what I can only assume was it's only shot to survive. 

Yellow-rumped Warbler in breeding plumage at Back Bay NWR.

Had it not done this, it would have choked to death on the Bluegill, I'm sure of it. It reminded me of being a kid on Lac la Croix in northern Minnesota, and trying to catch a Smallmouth Bass barehanded. I remember working around behind it, then slowly pushing it towards the shore, and then actually beaching it but unable to grab the fish before it flopped back into the water and sped off. That was the closest I've ever been to barehanding a free fish, well now, I can say I've done it, though it was only because the fish clearly allowed it to happen. A bizarre, but touching experience that I'm very grateful I got to be a part of! After this, I just headed back towards the entrance to the park, thinking there was no way it could get any better out there, and I was getting pretty hungry being a Friday evening. While walking northward, I continued to hear the same splashing around in the bay shallows that I'd heard earlier, and this time I got a clear look at what was doing it! Mixed in with the marsh grasses and cattails of the shallows, I could see fins moving around, and long pointed bodies. It seems that this time of the year, the Longnose Gar move into the shallows to spawn, and it was their fins breaking the surface that was causing all the rustling sounds in the water! Folks had been talking in the HRWE group about the Carp spawning in ditches around the region, but I had never expected to see Gar doing the same thing. After the Gar, I actually saw another Chain Pickerel in the impoundments, hunting in the shallows, they must just be very active right now for some reason. After all the fish excitedment, the weather cleared and let the sun through for a half hour or so on my return trip, giving me interesting light and backdrops for some Caspian & Forster's Terns, some Blue-winged Teal, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and the rabbits I had seen at the beginning of my hike. It turned out to be quite a walk, one I'll always remember for the bizarre fish rescue. 

Red-winged Blackbird perching on a cattail at Back Bay NWR.

Saturday morning Ruth decided to come hiking with me since it was going to be in the 70s and sunny. Because of how much I saw yesterday at Back Bay because of the high water, I wanted to get back out there again while the wildlife was still forced up to higher ground. We started off on the same route as I did last night, walking the western side of the Loop Road to the West Dike. Ruth spotted a Common Yellowthroat that was singing from the top of a shrub. With the clouds not having yet lifted, I couldn't get very good photographs, but it was in a spot where had I had some sun, the shots could have been great. Just after the Yellowthroat, we heard something making wood-knock sounds in the marsh, but we could not locate the culprit, even though it was probably only 20 feet away, just couldn't spot any movement in the reeds. Not sure on what makes that sounds, so I'll have to research later. Like Friday evening, the Red-winged Blackbirds were out in large numbers and provided constant entertainment for us while we watched them land on cattails throughout the marshes. The waters of Back Bay were still high, but not quite what they were the evening before, having dropped probably 6 inches or more. We again got to hear the Longnose Gar moving around in the marshy shallows of the bay, something I'd hoped Ruth would get to see or at least hear, so when I talked about it I wouldn't seem crazy.

A 1st year spring male Orchard Oriole at Back Bay NWR, first one of the season.

The Greater Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpipers were still around on the impoundments. As were a large number of Snowy Egrets, and a few Great Egrets & Great Blue Herons. When we reached the trees that held the Orchard Orioles Friday, we walked slow, but again scared off a group of birds, with yet again some blue colored bird mixed in. This time though, it flew off and perched up in a tree where I could photograph it, albeit poorly, but I was able to confirm it as my first Blue Grosbeak on the year. The Orchard Orioles managed to slip me again, this time without a single photograph. We walked through the maritime forest and then reached the False Cape State Park entry sign and turned back around to head northward. About this time I saw a Ruby-throated Hummingbird fly past quickly, one of 3 that we would see on the day, though no photographs could be taken. On the second pass through the maritime forest, we saw a Carolina Chickadee, heard several woodpeckers, and I photographed some Blue-gray Gnatcatchers in the same spot at the north end that I'd seen a couple weeks ago under better sky conditions. No Prairie Warblers were heard this time in the forest though. When we left the forest, we again had to pass the sections of trail that held the Orioles. This time, we were even more careful not to spook everything out of the largest of the trees, where they seem to be congregating. The birds were there again, but were extremely adept at sticking into the deep cover of the tree, or moving to the opposite side from us. 

First Eastern Kingbird of the season at Back Bay NWR!

So we both set up on opposite sides of the tree, which caused them to move upward to the top. I was able to get a couple photographs of a 1st spring male bird through the thick foliage, first time I've seen this plumage! Also around this tree, I got to see my first Eastern Kingbirds on the year. I don't know what it is about this spot, maybe that it is right at the edge of the forest/marsh boundary, or that it looks like a farmfield or orchard, but these migratory songbirds seems to love the spot. I'll keep my eyes open next time and hopefully I'll get my first Indigo Bunting, another bird that just seems like this would be a good location to find. On the way back north from here, we encountered several Nutria, getting to watch them from a distance without scaring them off as they fed on reeds. Also, while the tram was passing us, I saw what was either a Black Racer or a Eastern Ratsnake, but it zoomed off into the grass before I could take a photo. Caspian Terns & Forster's Terns again were seen on the impoundments. When we reached the Loop Road, we took it around to the east this time, en route to the Dune Trail access to the beach. On the way, we heard a Prairie Warbler, and I stepped off the trail to see if I could locate it in the sandy/scrub environment. While listening to its call, I got a look at one as it was flying almost directly at me.

Brown-headed Cowbird male at Back Bay NWR!

It missed me by just a couple of feet & landed in a nearby shrub where I got some photographs of it. They're one of the most beautiful little songbirds with their yellow & black patterns, and rusty colored shoulder patch. They're also becoming a favorite of mine since I know their song well enough to ID them, and can use it to help me search for the little bird making it. We walked the beach portion but didn't see much for birds, just a Bonaparte's Gull and one Common Loon in breeding plumage, not sure why it is still here as they typically fly north when they acquire it. Ruth stopped to sit on the pier back near the contact station, and I was en route to the Bay Trail when a Cottonmouth blocked my path on the boardwalks. So I went back, but on the way ran into Liza Eckardt, a volunteer at the park. She said she'd move the Cottonmouth so Ruth & I walked with. On the way, she showed us a Brown Watersnake & caught sight of an Eastern Ribbonsnake as well. While moving the Cottonmouth around she told us when to back off and when they are not a threat. I still don't plan on getting any closer than I need too to the venomous snakes though, out of due respect to them, and caution for my own safety.  We also saw a Marsh Rabbit and a baby Yellow-bellied Slider at the contact station. Afterwards we took off back to the car and headed out. 

Brown Watersnake, far from the water, at Back Bay NWR.

Sunday proved to be even nicer than Saturday had been, with temperatures peaking right around 80. Since I went out in the morning, it was a bit more enjoyable with temps probably still in the 60s. I went out to Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge for the third Sunday in a row, and the third time that I've now been there overall. I went again to the Washington Ditch parking area, and heading out down the trail. Very near the start of my walk I got a really nice surprise, a pair of Yellow-billed Cuckoos were hiding in the canopy of a large tree. They made very careful movements through the branches so that they stayed mostly concealed at all times, and then came to a full stop where you'd never have seen them if you had just walked up. I snapped some photographs of them, and remembered that this is the first time I've seen the species since the very first time I saw one on August 20, 2010. I remember the date off the top of my head, because it is also the day that I would later end up meeting my girlfriend, Ruth. It was nice to get a surprise of this magnitude to kick off another hike here.

My first Yellow-billed Cuckoo sighting since August 20, 2010! Taken at Great Dismal Swamp NWR.

I'd had good success in seeing & hearing a lot of songbird species, but less success in actually photographing them since in the swamp, they have an almost unlimited area to hide in. Now it has especially become difficult with the leaves having come fully out, and any warbler can now easily hide amongst the dense green of the forest. When I hit the junction with the Lynn Ditch Trail, unlike the previous two outings, I decided to head north onto it. This trail runs almost straight north-south and eventually ends up at the Jericho Ditch Trail parking area a few miles further to the north. Shortly after getting on this trail, I spotted one, then two Green Herons staring me down from behind the cover of the trees. They kept flying parallel to the trail as I moved, so I kept inadvertently spooking them. Before they flew off into the swamp, they posed on top of some trees for photographs. About a mile and a half north of the Washington Ditch, the trail has another junction with the Middle Ditch. I had originally planned to hike eastward on the Middle Ditch, hoping to maybe see a Black Bear as they area had been described to me by a bear photographer the week before. However, the ditch trail was overgrown and looked like an absolute haven for ticks and/or chiggers, and though I was sprayed down with deet already, I opted to just keep heading north on the Lynn Ditch. I ended up going about 2.5 miles more to the north, which put me just about 2 miles south of the Jericho parking area. 

Green Heron in the canopy of Great Dismal Swamp NWR!

The trail is much easier to walk than the Washington, both are very flat trails, but this one has a better base ground to walk on. You can easily walk silently on the trail as there isn't much gravel, and the north-south orientation helped funnel a nice breeze past me all morning so it never got humid. It was the first day I'd really noticed any mosquitoes out as well, though they were more abundant on the Washington Ditch Trail, I think the more open Lynn Ditch Trail kept them away due to the breeze I mentioned, and more sunlight getting down to the trail. Along my route north I saw a lot of Great Crested Flycatchers, and the now-standard lot of Prothonotary Warblers. In addition to those, and like the east end of the Washington, I began to hear Prairie Warblers in higher numbers the further away from the parking area I walked. They seem to enjoy the more interior areas of the park, I'd guess for either the scrubby habitat, or just the isolation maybe. When I decided to turn around and head back south, I got a photo of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird that flew in and landed on a branch, and I also was confronted with some blue birds that I could not validate as either Blue Grosbeaks or Indigo Buntings.

My first decent Dragonfly photograph of 2014, at Great Dismal Swamp NWR!

The birds were molting, far away, and in bad light. I keep going back and forth on which bird it might be, but I just can't say with certainty, therefore it remains anonymous. Unlike the Washington Ditch, the Lynn appears to have a much higher population of turtles living in it. I saw tons of them, mostly Yellow-bellied Sliders, but also Spotted Turtles, and probably others I just can't ID properly. I didn't come across anything too remarkable or noteworthy on the way back south on the Lynn Ditch Trail, but continued to see warblers, including a Prairie Warbler that finally came in close enough to view. Walking back on the Washington Ditch Trail, I took the boardwalk at the finish, and saw one Ovenbird, as well as my first Five-lined Skinks of the year. They were running around on the manmade boardwalk, but not providing the best of backgrounds for a good photograph. Oh, and so that folks know, when I walk trails like this where I don't get to a junction of any kind when I turn around, I have a method for always knowing how far I actually made it on a trail. I took some photographs at the far northern end of my walk, then used the GPS tag my camera places into the files to locate my exact stopping point on Google Earth. From that I can figure out how far I walked, roughly 9.5 miles roundtrip. This week, my sister Ellen will be coming into town Wednesday afternoon, and I've got Friday off from work for a trip out to Merchant's Millpond State Park with her, where hopefully I'll get to show her some cool stuff like I have there in the past! 

Black Swallowtail at Great Dismal Swamp NWR!