Week Ending August 10, 2014

After a bummer of a weekend due to overcast and rainy conditions, this week started the exact same way. Fortunately, it only lasted through Monday, and on Tuesday afternoon the sun finally peeked out of the clouds for the first time since last Thursday. After work I ran home and got my stuff together quickly, then headed down to Back Bay. This time of year the shorebirds begin migrating southward from their breeding grounds on the tundra of northern Canada. They can be found in increasingly large numbers along the beaches and coastlines of the East Coast as a result. I walked a couple mile section of the beach at Back Bay NWR from the parking area south towards North Carolina and back for a couple of hours. A couple hundred miles to the east, Tropical Storm Bertha was moving northeastward away from the coast, but the sea swell could be seen hitting the shores of Back Bay. Large, long period waves were moving into shore and it was quite beautiful with the sun shining overhead. The birds must have enjoyed it as well, as tons of them were sitting on the beaches today. I saw the usual gulls (Laughing, Ring-billed, Herring, Great Black-backed & Lesser Black-backed), terns (Royal, Gull-billed), Brown Pelicans, Ospreys, Double-crested Cormorants, and even a Red-breasted Merganser way down the beach line running on the sand. As far as the land-based shorebirds went, Sanderlings were out in huge numbers as they typically are this time of year, running back and forth with the waves and digging for insects and molluscs to feed on. Willets were the next most populous along the beach, easily visible with their tall and lanky appearance.

Ruddy Turnstone in breeding colors on the beach!

Next in line were Ruddy Turnstones, still showing their beautiful breeding plumage. And I also saw two additional shorebirds species in small numbers with 3 Black-bellied Plovers, showing off non-breeding colors, and 1 Semipalmated Plover mixed in with a group of Sanderlings. This one still had striking colors, and looked very dapper with it's single black neck ring. There was a report by Ron Furnish on eBird this week of a Piping Plover being spotted on the beach, but I didn't come across any on my walk. I did see a group of four White Ibis flying northward out over the coast, so those were probably the rarest birds I ended up with on the day. I'd like to get back out and walk further down the beach to at least the False Cape State Park boundary to see if more birds are out. Usually its pretty secluded on the beach with no vehicular traffic other than park officials, but there was a lot of trucks traveling through that must have been residents of the northeast towns in the Outer Banks, and are allowed on the beach under some grandfathering allowance. While headed back up from the beach, I took the southern or the two boardwalks, and was greeted by an Eastern Towhee sitting atop a shrub on the dunes. When I reached the Loop Road, a Prairie Warbler was sitting on the powerline that runs along the road. Usually it is their voice that alerts me to their location, but this one was just sitting still and was silent. I could barely photograph the color patterns that distinguished it as a Prairie due to the setting sun and lack of light. From there I headed back up to the parking area, seeing an Indigo Bunting and a Great Blue Heron along the way. From the parking lot a White-tailed Deer was also visible up on the dune ridge to the east. Dusk is the perfect time to see these guys in the park, but getting close enough to get clean photographs is very tough since the dunes are off limits to hiking. 

My first Willet in Virginia Beach this year, about time!

Wednesday the weather continued and so I did the same as the day before, ran home from work and quickly packed up and headed out the door. This time, I wanted to walk a beach again, but didn't want to go all the way out to Back Bay, and also knowing that low tide had passed, I didn't want to go to Pleasure House Point. So I went up to 88th Street at the oceanfront and walked up around Cape Henry as far as I could instead. Last time I was out here was about two weeks ago swimming during some big waves and I saw a lot of the usual stuff. This time, wearing hiking shoes and jeans, I could handle the walking a bit better than in a bathing suit. There was still a lot of people on the beach even though it was a weeknight, so that made it a little irritating since I don't like having my camera out around big groups of people on the beach. I walked northward towards the rock groins that protect the northeast corner of the cape and in doing so I got to see more of the usual birds that I'd seen the day before.

Lesser Black-backed Gull on the shore at Back Bay NWR!

Royal Terns and Brown Pelicans were the most numerous, with several Osprey also flying across the sky. Laughing, Ring-billed, Herring, Great Black-backed Gulls were all around, and I did see a pair of Forster's Terns today as well. On the ground, Sanderlings and Willets dominated, and unfortunately I did find a Willet that only had one foot, who knows what could have happened to the other one, though I assume some type of predator attacked and took it off, though I could be wrong. There was three Semipalmated Plovers walking along the beach as well, but these were the rarest find I had on the day, and they aren't too rare around here. As I was walking, a large pop-up thunderstorm formed right over top of the oceanfront and it looked pretty dire on my way back. I managed to not get soaked, or see any rain actually, but looking south down the beach it looked like it could be quite stormy. Crossing over the boardwalk on the dunes, I saw a Northern Mockingbird, heard an Eastern Towhee, and caught a glimpse of a bird perched far off on a shrub that may have been another Blue Grosbeak as they are quite common along the dunes. That was the bird I'd hoped most to get a photograph of this outing, but no luck unfortunately. Hopefully next time I'll get more of a chance, since I opted to leave a bit earlier than I'd like to have due to the storm building over top of me.

Forster's Tern along Cape Henry in Virginia Beach!

Thursday was a third beautiful day in a row, a third day of evening hiking as well. This time I chose to go to First Landing State Park since I'd again missed the low tide that makes Pleasure House Point a great birding spot. On days where I get there at high tide, Great Egrets and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are really the only waterfowl/shorebirds that I'll end up seeing. As I'm looking it up, I can't even believe the last time I went to First Landing was April 23, and that was the 10th time I'd hiked the park in 2014, so I guess after a 4 month hiatus, it was very nice to get back out. Usually First Landing is my go-to park since its very accessible for after hours hikes, I really can't believe its been that long. Anyway, I parked up at 64th Street and ended up walking the Cape Henry Trail southwestward to the Long Creek Trail, then taking the Osprey Trail along Broad Bay and back out the Long Creek Trail to form a loop. This loop is about a 5 mile walk and can easily be accomplished in a couple of hours after work. The majority of the loop is in thicker forested areas, which makes it a bit tough to find birds in this time of year, though in spring time it is a great place to be to spot migrating songbirds (before the leaves are fully bloomed up). Today was like the usual here, I didn't see much until I reached the beach at Broad Bay, 2 mile in to the walk. Prior to this, I only saw a lone Osprey up a dead tree near the lake at the east end of the park. But once I reached the beach, I came across a juvenile Tricolored Heron sitting perfectly perched on a fallen log near the eastern tidal creek bridge. Using the bridge to steady my camera, I took about 20 shots before it got sick of me and flew off.

First Tricolored Heron of the year at First Landing State Park!

It was just a week ago that I'd finally seen my first of this species in Virginia Beach on the year, but they are started to appear all over the area it seems. In the section between the two tidal creeks, a pair of Great Egrets and a Snowy Egret were standing out in the marsh to the north. Also I caught sight of a group of songbirds but am not quite sure what they were from the photos, perhaps female tanagers? After passing through that set of woods and coming out on the next beach, I saw a shorebird walking along the water, and it popped it's tail so I thought at first it was a Spotted Sandpiper. However, when I got closer I realized it was actually a Short-billed Dowitcher. They have quite a long bill for their size, but the Long-billed Dowitcher species has one about two times longer, hence the names. After seeing this one and photographing, I went up White Hill, scaring off a Great Egret a couple times as it moved slowly down the shoreline, and then I turned back on the Long Creek Trail towards 64th Street. The walk back along the trail was pretty quiet, seeing just a couple American Robins, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadees, and a whole lot of well fed Gray Squirrels. A number of hikers & bikers were all over the Cape Henry Trail like usual, so no wildlife was seen to speak of from there on out of the park. As fall migration kicks into gear soon for songbirds, I'll be trying to get our more into the park to see if anything interesting shows up, though I think I'd be better served across the bay on the Eastern Shore, where migration funnels millions of birds into the small bottleneck south of Cape Charles before forcing birds across the 10+ miles of open water where Chesapeake Bay opens up to the Atlantic Ocean. 

Also a first, Short-billed Dowitcher at First Landing State Park!

I took a break on Friday from the photography since it was overcast, but on Saturday I gave it another go. Ruth & I went down to Back Bay NWR so she could bike, and I could hike. Unfortunately the sun went away within the first few minutes we were there, and never came back out, so I had poor lighting conditions to deal with the whole time. I walked to False Cape State Park along the East Dike Trail, then did the close loop through False Cape to the visitor center and headed back north to the Back Bay parking area for about an 8.5 mile walk. Along the trails, there was a number of songbirds present, plenty of Indigo Buntings, and a few Blue Grosbeaks, with many Common Yellowthroats singing from the marshes, though I did only actually see one. No Prairie Warblers this outing, which is unusual for this summer at Back Bay, as I think I've seen them everytime I've been there the last couple of months.

Horace's Duskywing at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge!

The waterways, ditches/canals, along the East Dike were pretty full of water and there was no exposed mud flats to support any feeding shorebirds. The only shorebird I came across was a lone Spotted Sandpiper sitting about a hundred yards out west of the dike on the shore of the pond at the 90 degrees bend in the trail. I could see a number of wading birds further out towards the West Dike side of the marshes, but couldn't get good quality photographs so far away. On zoom, I could see Glossy & White Ibis, Little Blue Heron, and Great Egrets. As usual, Ospreys were numerous along the walk and I saw several returning from the sea with freshly caught fish hanging in their talons. No snakes were seen on this outing, but a fair number of turtles were perched up on logs in the waterways. I skipped on doing the Bay Trail at the end because I was pretty wore out, and the conditions weren't ideal. On the return trip to the parking area, a couple of Great Blue Herons made for easy photographs as they stood along the waterways of the Loop Road. All in all it was a good day, just tough weather to deal with, but at least it didn't rain at all!

Resident Great Blue Heron along the Loop Road at Back Bay NWR!

Sunday, August 10, was what would have been my father's 66th birthday, and every year I try to do an extra long hike to see as much stuff as I can since he was always into the outdoors. I decided I could get the longest hike in around here at Back Bay, so for probably an unprecedented third time this week I went down to the park early in the morning. This time I dropped Ruth off in Sandbridge so she could go to the beach as opposed to riding the bike through the park, though she did get 18 miles in yesterday while I was hiking. I planned to do the same hike as yesterday, only to do the return trip from False Cape State Park on the beachfront so I could see if any shorebirds have showed up that I didn't see last Tuesday on my walk. Along the Loop Road, I took the west side since the east side is the faster route for bikers getting to the East Dike Trail. I saw probably the same Great Blue Herons again today, and at the south end near the West Dike Gate I had a mated pair of Blue Grosbeaks flying from tree to tree posing for me, just on the wrong side of the sunlight. As with yesterday, the higher waters in the canals & ditches meant that no shorebirds were in sight along the waterways, except for yet again a lone sandpiper that may have been a Spotted or a Solitary. Wading birds were again see far out across the interior marshes towards the West Dike Trail area, which is closed to visitors this time of year unfortunately. It is my preferred trail through the park and seems to always hold interesting birds, though I'm always walking it in the springtime when it is open, so there may just be more birds in the park at that time. Again I did the loop counterclockwise into False Cape and passed the visitor center, and the spot where I'd seen an Eastern Wood-Pewee yesterday. This time at the center, I headed east to Barbour Hill and the beach, which this was the first time I've ever actually taken this route back. From the beach its about a 3.5 mile walk up the coastline to the first trail that cuts back into Back Bay NWR, since it is illegal to cross on the dunes back into the park, and there is a marsh running the whole length of the park behind them anyway. On the beach, just like on Tuesday, Sanderlings were by far the most abundant birds, with Willets, Ruddy Turnstones, and Semipalmated Plovers also quite numerous. Again I saw a few Black-bellied Plovers, and some this time still had their breeding black plumage on. The only different species I came across today along the beach was a pair of Whimbrels that passed high overhead moving southwards.

Some type of Grasshopper seen at Back Bay NWR on the Bay Trail!

Their long downcurved bills and patterned wings & tailfeathers made them easy to distinguish from ibis, which also have the downcurved bill around here. The standard terns and gulls were present, as were the pelicans. I did find a Black Scoter sitting up on the beach, which I felt was unusual, but the bird headed back out to the water as I passed, and seemed healthy enough. I had worried it might be injured since I've never seen one of these sea ducks, not in the sea. Hopefully he was alright, and I believe this was the same bird I could see off in the distance on Tuesday that I now-believe-mistakenly ID'd as a Red-breasted Merganser since I jumped to the conclusion by the fact it looked duck-like and was on the beach. When I got back into the interior of the park, I walked the Bay Trail, and got a few surprises, seeing another female Blue Grosbeak, a female Common Yellowthroat, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Also along the trail were tons and tons of dragonflies, mostly Halloween Pennants and Golden-winged Skimmers, and also one very large Southern Leopard Frog that was sitting right on the trail showing off it's beautiful green back with black spots all over. When I finished up my walk and measured at home, I ended the day with 10.5 miles of hiking, which is the most I've done this summer, and possibly even in 2014, I'll have to check on that. After last weekend of rainy weather it was great to have pretty much an entire week of gorgeous weather in Virginia Beach! I didn't get into the water like I'd hoped, but that was because I was too busy taking photographs, of which there are 175 in the gallery for this week, so click the link below to see them all. And I'd like to express my gratitude to my father who I'm shared played a big part in letting me see everything I did today! Next year I will try to get an even longer hike in.

Southern Leopard Frog sitting on the side of the Bay Trail at Back Bay NWR!