Week Ending May 25, 2014

Like the past week, this week I opted to get out for a couple walks in the neighborhood after work since it's tough to get home & change, then drive out to a park to take photos all evening and take care of everything else I need too. Tuesday & Wednesday I walked my 6 mile loop through the neighborhood, and on Wednesday I had a great sighting of a Broad-winged Hawk along Harris Street in Little Neck. I heard it screech twice before I finally got a look at it as it flew in low over the street, harassed closely by an American Crow. This was the first Broad-winged I've ever seen outside of Minnesota, where they were a common sight, and sound when I spent summers up there. I was quite surprised when I heard it, it's not a sound you forget apparently. Ruth & I were set to head up to Chincoteague Island for a weekend getaway, courtesy of our Comfort Suites rewards points we had a free night stay on the island on Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend, when rates skyrocket for everyone else. Since we just had the one night at the hotel, we planned to leave early on Saturday morning. So I was able to get out Friday as well to Pleasure House Point for a short hike, since the weather was near perfect and I couldn't justify not getting out. I parked near Loch Haven Park like usual, and got to see a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron feeding on the outlet weir of the stormwater pond there. I walked the length of the park from east to west and back, adding another 3 or slightly less miles to my week of walking. I had mainly gone to the park in the hopes that I'd be able to spot some shorebird species that I hadn't seen yet this year, but when I got to the water, I knew this wasn't going to happen.

Great Egret in the flooded marsh of Pleasure House Point!

The Lynnhaven was so high there was almost no trail along it's shores, the water went right up into the grassland which is normal dry, even during a normal day's higher high tide (there are two high tides per day, and one is usually slightly higher than the other, termed 'higher high tide', very scientific). Due to the extreme water level (the highest I think I've ever walked in while at the park), there was no exposed mud flats or sand bars in sight, which means the smaller shorebirds had no land to walk on to search for food. This did however leave the larger birds still out, like Great Egrets, and the always present Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. I saw a total of 6 different night-herons in just an hour and a half or so, with 2 immatures mixed into a group of 3 birds. Since I wasn't spending any time looking for shorebirds, I got to concentrate a little bit more on the songbirds, the smaller, more colorful group of birds that exists at the park. I was able to track down a Pine Warbler after following it's repeated song in the high pine trees just west of the largest freshwater pond, and nearby there while trying (and failing) to photograph an Eastern Towhee breeding pair I saw my first Common Yellowthroat in the park to date. Unfortunately, the songbirds were very good at avoiding the sunlight, and excelled also at hiding in dense thickets so I didn't get any good shots. I did also find some Carolina Chickadees, but that was honestly about it for the day. One neat thing I came across was that at each of the freshwater ponds, where an outlet pipe allows high rainfall amounts to exit into the Lynnhaven River, the water was actually reverse flowing back up into the ponds, bringing brackish water into the normally freshwater areas. I wondered what effect this might have on some of the animals that live there, since a change in salinity is usually not a good thing for most wildlife species. This is the first time the tidal river has been so high that I've gotten to see it back flow, though I'm sure it happens frequently, especially during storms. Hopefully it doesn't end up having a negative affect, perhaps they need to add some flap gates to the pipes in the future like Back Bay NWR has...

A Dunlin showing it's breeding plumage (black belly and rufous back) at Chincoteague NWR!

As planned, Ruth & I left at 6 AM from Virginia Beach, and we were able to make it to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge by about 8:15 AM. The first thing we did was go to the WIldlife Loop parking area. I had expected there to be mass amounts of mosquitoes, like we've seen in past trips, even in our November 17 trip last year, but somehow there was absolutely none present. We walked the Wildlife Loop counter-clockwise, like most people do, and also walked to the Swan Cove & Marsh Loop trails that spur off the Wildlife Loop. Large amounts of peeps were all over the marsh's mud flats, but they're so small, and so hard to get good far away photos of that I can't ever seem to properly identify them. A lot of the larger ones were Dunlins, but the smaller were either Western Sandpipers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, or a mix of both. The Bald Eagles that nest just south of the loop were present, and an immature flew into the trees near the nest when we walked past the closest approach.

The endangered, and adorable, Delmarva Fox Squirrel!

Near the Swan Cove Trail junction, we found a Rabbit feeding on the clover & grasses next to the road. This has been a hotspot for rabbits the past few times we've been up here, they seem to love this area. Nearby also, not this weekend, but on a past trip, we saw several Sika Elk feeding in the brush. The mammals seem to enjoy this area. Along the Swan Cove Trail, a few Tree Swallows were seen over the marshes, and on the nest boxes that they have taken as their own along the trail. When we reached the ocean, it was quite beautiful, very blue water and not-so-hot-temperatures. There was plenty of Atlantic Ghost Crab holes visible on the beach, and Ruth saw one running, but unfortunately I didn't get any photographs. It will be later in the summer when I get these guys I think, once it's too hot to go hiking & I start spending more time on the beach both swimming, and taking photographs of the beach wildlife. We kept on counter-clockwise around the Wildlife Loop, reaching the causeway between two more marsh areas. Here we saw a number of shorebirds (again probably Western & Semipalmated Sandpipers), and some Canada Geese, Glossey Ibis, and Mallards. We reached the portion of the loop has an offshoot that extends to the north, open only to hikers.

A Forster's Tern searching for fish in the shallow waters of a freshwater pool.

I hadn't realized prior that you could hike in this area, and will need to remember it for the future since it will help eliminate a good majority of the crowds. The crowds, which I hadn't mentioned, were extremely high (being Memorial Day weekend), and bikers were all over the place (unfortunately). On the last leg of the loop, Ruth & I were reminded of the time we were here last May, celebrating my graduation, when we got stuck in a downpour in this spot, and eventually just walked in the rain after we were completely soaked. Afterwards, we got to see a pair of Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and then walked the Marsh Loop before heading back to town to get some lunch. In the afternoon I walked to the Woodland Trail while Ruth went to the beach. On the way we got good looks at the famous Chincoteague Wild Ponies that were grazing south of the roadway. This herd is usually visible, and they almost always have a group of Cattle Egrets, which feed on insects right off the horses, nearby. In addition to the Cattle Egrets, I got to add Tricolored Heron & Little Blue Heron to my Virginia birds list for the year, having seen both near the Tom's Cove Visitor Center. Before that though, I hiked the Woodland Trail. Here I got to see a couple of the Delmarva Fox Squirrels that inhabit the island. I also found my very first House Wren, singing from a tree branch high off the ground. When I finished up the trail, I walked along the causeway near the visitor's center and photographed some terns & shorebirds that were feeding in the ponds. 

The striking Semipalmated Plover on the mudflats of Tom's Cove.

On Sunday, we did pretty much the same thing as Saturday afternoon... Ruth went to the beach, and I walked the Woodland Trail again. This time I couldn't get any photographs of the Delmarva Fox Squirrels, though I did see another pair off in the woods. I walked the causeway near the beach again and photographed some Least & Forster's Terns. Unfortunately, the Black-bellied Plover that had been out the day before wasn't around, but I did get to photograph some Semipalmated Plovers instead. They were mixed in with a group of Western/Semipalmated Sandpipers which I still can't seem to identify properly. There was several Snowy Egrets & Great Egrets flying from mudflat to mudflat looking for food. Also, there was a Great Blue Heron & a Tricolored Heron out in the marsh today. Dunlin continued to be the most numerous species that I could see out on the marshes. After photographing everything I could here, I changed & headed over to the beach, where I was surprised by the lack of birds along the beach, no Willets, no Sanderlings. Perhaps it was due to the huge number of people though that Memorial Day had brought in to the area. I opted not to walk the beach since it was just a never-ending collection of vacationers. Instead I got in the water, which is still pretty cool, and only a few others as far as I could see were in it without wet suits. I stayed in for probably a half hour or so before the cold started to get to me & I got out to dry off. I'm hoping the next time we come it'll be a lot less crowded. I should have expected crowds, but I can honestly say this is the most people I've ever seen while hiking, outside of perhaps Old Rag Mountain, which gets a ton of hikers on a daily basis. Despite the crowds however, I did get to tally several warblers on the weekend though, as we heard a Prairie Warbler & Pine Warblers on the Wildlife Loop, and I found a Blackburnian Warbler (first in VA for me) on the Woodland Trail! And, I got to add a new life bird, the House Wren, to my list, which is now at 224 species!

Double-crested Cormorant in flight over the Chincoteague marshes.