Week Ending July 6, 2014

This week, the full fury of summer's heat hit the area. All throughout the week, weather reached high into the 90s with dangerous heat indices over 100 several days. On Monday, I wrapped up my big project at work that I've been designing off and on for the last six years. Since I finished it up and got it submitted to the City of Virginia Beach, I needed something new to switch over too. Right now my company is working on a job for Virginia Natural Gas, where we are designing new gas mains through a few hundred miles of older neighborhoods. In order to do the designs, we have to have crews go out in the neighborhoods & take measurements to all objects that could end up being in the way (trees, fences, poles, water/sewer/storm mains, electric lines, etc.). Since I needed work, I spent the remainder of the work week out in the field performing these tasks. I had done some of this work earlier in the year when we had temperatures in the teens coupled with snow, now its exactly the opposite, and about 85 degrees warmer. So after working outside all day in the heat it was a little tough to get out hiking. On Thursday, we wrapped up pretty early in the day, and I went up to Pleasure House Point after work just to see if I could photograph anything interesting. It was close to 100 degrees though and I only stayed out for an hour or so because of it. I also managed to hit the park at high tide, like I usually seem too.

Great Egret & fresh caught fish at Pleasure House Point!

Unfortunately, when the tide is high, there aren't as many shorebirds since there is no visible mud flats for them to wade around and feed. I did see the typical birds though, Great Egrets and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. Also, there was Ospreys up in the air high up, and I did hear some Clapper Rails screaming out in the tidal grasses offshore. I ended up parking along Marlin Bay Drive this time and walked west to east first, a reverse of my typical route. But as I said, it was so hot out that it was pretty unbearable, so my hike didn't last all that long. Thursday evening, Ruth's sister Heather & her nephew Christopher came into town for the holiday weekend. Also visiting the area overnight was the first hurricane of the Atlantic 2014 season, Hurricane Arthur. They first started tracking the storm on June 30th late at night, when it formed off the coast of Florida. It slowly moved is way north to northeast up the east coast and on Thursday evening it made landfall across Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks as a category 2 storm with winds clocked at 100 mph. The Outer Banks had some severe flooding, but because the storm came in from the southwest, the storm surge wasn't what it could have been and therefore there wasn't any loss of life. Route 12 which runs down the Outer Banks didn't get fully knocked out as it has by past storms (Sandy, Irene, Isabelle, etc.) and folks were allowed back in the area on Saturday. Friday morning I woke up about 6 to see if we were getting any bad rain and wind, and then Ruth & I went down to the oceanfront to see what the sea looked like. We also drove through Shadowlawn (the area where I just completed my design project) to see how the roads were handling the rainfall.

Mallard Ducklings swimming up a rainwater stream produced by Hurricane Arthur.

Everything was fine, and we found a family of Mallard ducklings swimming in one of the roadside ditches in a fast flowing rainwater stream! At this point, the storm was already tracking out to sea, and we were getting strong north winds so it wasn't as choppy as it probably had been earlier when the wind was being directed right at the coastline. There waves were still churning pretty good off Rudee Inlet, and I'd hoped to maybe see some less common bird species due to the storm. I did see one adult male Black Scoter in the inlet, but other than that it was just the typical gulls & terns along the coast. After leaving the oceanfront, we went up to Shore Drive, where the wind & rain were really squalling. There was almost no beach visible along the bay due to the strong north winds that were piling up water along the shore. This north wind also pushed a lot of water from the bay into the Lynnhaven River, where it flooded inland higher than normal. We drove around our neighborhood so I could check out some areas to see if they had bad flooding but everything in Kings Grant seemed to have done fine with the weather, just a lot of leaves and small branches littering the street. There is two main reasons why I'm interested in these strong storms, 1). because they can push rare birds to areas that don't typically have them, and 2). because I'm a drainage engineer and I like to see the systems I've helped to design be put to a real test, which is only possible during tropical weather & nor'easters. 

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron & a freshly caught Blue Crab at Pleasure House Point!

The storm moved through the area very quickly and by afternoon it was actually a beautiful, non-humid, sunny day across the area. We grabbed a late brunch with Heather & Christopher at Panera and then I decided to head to Pleasure House Point again, just hoping to maybe see something rare from the storm. This time I parked in my typical spot off Dinwiddie Road and walked from east to west along the water. The water was again extremely high, flooding into all the freshwater ponds of the park and bringing in a surprising amount of jellyfish. The Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were really active today, and I photographed one that had just recently caught a huge Blue Crab. It was perched in a tree with it & unfortunately I think I spooked it into dropping the crab. Hopefully it picked it up off the ground right after I left it though. There was a number of Osprey & Great Egrets just like the day before. I also saw one very large Cicada perched on a small pine tree. It was buzzing continuously and I finally was able to locate it, but I'd never have seen it had it not been so noisy. Clapper Rails weren't calling at all this time in the marshes, but after having passed the area I like to crab, I did catch a quick glimpse of a Black Skimmer as it flew past. This is the first one I've seen in Virginia Beach this year, bringing my city total up to 144 species of birds in 2014. 

An unusually still Least Tern about to take off from the north end of the Virginia Beach Oceanfront.

On Saturday, we took Heather & Christopher to the zoo in Norfolk, so I didn't get out on a typical walk. However, after we left the zoo, I saw a Cooper's Hawk sitting on top of what was probably a starling in the parking area, so I did get to see some wildlife out of the trip. I did also see a few geese in the Elephant area, and a couple of Gray Catbirds in some other exhibits. Also, there is a small pond that flows in from the Lafayette River, and it was loaded with turtles and Canada Geese that weren't part of the zoo. After the zoo, we stopped for a pizza, and then came home and Ruth & I fell asleep for a couple hours. Saturday night, though it was the 5th of July, was the night that most of the local cities were shooting off their fireworks, since the approaching hurricane caused them to be postponed from the 4th of July. Ruth had tickets for us at Town Point Park in Norfolk to be in the VIP area where they had free food & drinks for everyone so it was nice to watch the fireworks from there for the first time, after having spent the last 5 years watching them from my apartment at the Hague. Before the fireworks started, a beautiful half Moon was visible in the southern sky, and I used the star map app on Ruth's iPhone to confirm that the star very near it was actually not a star, and was the planet Mars. So when we got home after the show, I went out and shot a few photographs of the Moon & Mars with my camera, the first time I've photographed a planet with my wildlife lens! 

Ring-billed Gull seen over the Oceanfront.

After seeing Heather & Christopher off on Sunday morning, Ruth & I went down to the north end of the Oceanfront & parked on 88th Street. It was extremely nice to get into the water after being boiling in the heat all week long. A pod of Bottlenose Dolphins was playing around just offshore as well which made it even better being out. Like I usually do at the beach, I got bored after an hour or so & decided to walk north along the beach onto Fort Story's property hoping to catch some birds with my camera. Since we were at the north end of the public beaches, it was very nice to just walk a bit and be able to again see some wildlife. Right away, a pair of Least Terns was seen sitting on the beach, and its the first time I've been able to actually get clear shots of them, since typically they are flying around and performing aerial acrobatics. I took quite a few photos of them, and then a lot of the Ghost Crabs that inhabit the beach also. They were very active, running all over the place on the beach. A number of Brown Pelicans were seen as well, and the typical Laughing, Ring-billed, Herring & Great Black-backed Gulls & Royal Terns were all in the air as well. Unfortunately I never did find any rare birds as a result of Hurricane Arthur, but hopefully we get another good storm sometime this summer that could bring some in. It'd be really neat to see some true pelagic birds like shearwaters or petrels inland after a storm. After walking the beach for probably a mile, I got back in the water again, then walked it all over again with Ruth. This time, we saw a Great Black-backed Gull feasting on what looked like a massive dead fish out on the water. I got some more shots of the Ghost Crabs, some showing off their camouflage in all it's glory, which looks very much like the sand particles of the beach so that birds flying overhead can't see them. The Least Terns weren't on the beach this time, but we did see several of them flying out over the water. When winter comes around again, I'll have to get out along this beach to see if any migrating birds make it a stopping ground. In the past I know that folks have seen Snow Buntings on the beach around Fort Story, so that would be very neat to see. Hot weather is expected to continue all week long, and I will again be working in the field so after work hikes probably aren't going to happen since I'll already be burnt out from the day in the sun. Hopefully next weekend though I'm able to get out for some longer hikes, though I did at least get some interesting shots this weekend & I had a great time with Ruth's family as well.

An Atlantic Ghost Crab showing off it's beautiful camouflage that keeps it invisible to birds overhead.