Week Ending August 31, 2014

The week started off with me continuing to furiously work on the website to get it ready for it's public release! However, unlike the previous week, I did get into the outdoors this week, which greatly helps when writing this blog and trying to update folks on what's been seen around the area. Having firsthand knowledge from my own outings gives me some great insight into what others are probably seeing as well. This week, we had yet another tropical cyclone (Hurricane Cristobal) head up along the east coast, but staying out to sea far enough that it's worse effects weren't felt here in our area. We did receive strong, strong northeasterly winds from the hurricane, and as a result, large waves and strong rip currents along the coast. These winds also helped in raising the tidal levels all across Virginia Beach especially, where waters were about 0.5 to 1 foot above normal. Also this week, the Virginia Aquarium released a statement that they had found a sharply cut DVD case in the stomach lining of the Sei Whale that died last week and washed up near St. Julians Creek, a tributary of the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River. They have not stated yet as to whether it was the actual cause of death, but something that could have affected it in a negative fashion. More on this as soon as they make the results of the autopsy public. 

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron immature up at Pleasure House Point in Virginia Beach on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, with beautiful, albeit, warm weather, I went for a quick couple-loop walk of Pleasure House Point to see if anything new has showed up. This time of year, the shorebirds (sandpipers, plovers, godwits, etc.) are migrating southward from their tundra breeding grounds in northern Canada. Along their path, they stop at beaches and fields on the East Coast, and after a long crossing of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, they find themselves tired and in Virginia Beach. It is the perfect time of year to find these birds, since it's also a great time of year to spend on the beach, where the wind and the waves can provide for much needed relief from the summer heat. The low tide happened to coincide Wednesdays and Thursday with about the time I typically get off work, so I was able to be at Pleasure House Point during primetime shroebirding. However, I didn't really find a whole lot of them. Typically they can be seen in numbers out on the tidal mudflats to the east of the park out in the Lynnhaven River estuary. This time though, there was a pair of kayakers who had pulled up onto the mudflat, and another gentleman appeared to be shellfishing. Because of these intruders, the birds were all farther out, away from them and out of range of my camera's 400mm lens and binoculars. Fortunately, the wading birds (herons & egrets) were numerous in the park, as is pretty typical.

Black-bellied Plover along the beach at Back Bay NWR!

Immature Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were seen all over, and several Great Egrets were as well. I saw a couple of Green Herons, both flying past, and then later feeding along the marshy islands. Clapper Rails could be heard out in the marshy islands as well, but like most days, none showed themselves long enough in the open to be seen by me at least. Gulls and Terns were around in their usual numbers, mainly Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns, but I did also see a couple of Caspian Terns, and there was Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls visible throughout the area as well. Walking mainly on the trails that follow the water's edge, I saw the birds I expected too, so I did also try walking some of the inland trails hoping to find some songbirds. Unfortunately nothing could be found this time, no Blue Grosbeaks were seen in the pine stand where I've found them in the past. Northern Mockingbirds and Mourning Doves were really the only non-wading or shorebirds seen this outing. I took off about 6:30 from the park to head home for dinner, crossing the Lesner Bridge on the way, which is now under construction. Over the next couple of years, a new bridge will be built to the north of the existing bridge, and then once traffic is shifted over to it, the existing bridge will be demolished. So far nothing has been done that has had a major impact on traffic, but I'm sure when the switchover is being made, traffic will be impacted, but that should be a ways off. 

Common Tern flying into a strong headwind at Back Bay NWR!

The weather forecast for the holiday weekend was looking extremely nice, so Saturday morning I got up pretty excited, having planned to hit Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge for a hike. When I woke up though, it as completely overcast, and thick clouds, with very little sun coming through. My girlfriend Ruth & I decided to still head down that way though in the hopes that it would break, and the sun would fill the sky as the weathermen had said it would. While getting into the car, we heard what turned out to be a Gray Squirrel, and glanced over to see it come screaming down the full length of a tall pine tree across from our apartment. Looking up above it revealed the reason it burst down the tree, as a large Red-tailed Hawk was perched up top, and then took off in disgust after not catching it's prey. I took a couple poor shots of it when it landed atop another large pine, but it was soon chased off by some American Crows and didn't return. So after the commotion, we headed out on the road. Ruth had planned on spending her morning on the beach at Sandbridge, where I often drop her off at Little Island Park on my way to hike at Back Bay, but given the overcast skies, she opted to come hiking with me instead. Like the last couple trips I've made to the park, I wanted to get a full view of what wildlife was out there. We walked from the parking area near the contact station south along what's called the Loop Road to the East Dike Trail. It was pretty quiet along the way, but a Great Blue Heron provided for some great photographs on the pond near the parking lot. The East Dike Trail is only open during the summertime, and at the end of October, it will be closed once again until March 1. This is done to protect wintering waterfowl, who use the marshes and impoundments as a winter refuge, essentially the purpose of the wildlife refuge. The East Dike Trail travels south towards False Cape State Park for roughly 3 miles. Along it, several large areas of fields are found. This time of year, they're pretty dry, looking like marsh, but without the water. In the winter, they're filled with water for the waterfowl to use. But this time of year, they're used by shorebirds, as I mentioned earlier in the blog.

A beautiful Willet showing off it's black & white wing stripes at Back Bay!

I could see tons of them flying in circles out over the fields, but too far out to be able to identify unfortunately. The only birds I could positively ID were a large number of Great Egrets that were also very far out, but large enough birds to be able to see clear enough. The trail eventually comes to a junction, and a set of signs that let you know you've reached the boundary with False Cape State Park, which I believe is the only state park in Virginia that cannot be driven into. Access is limited to those biking or hiking from Back Bay NWR, or from people walking the beach from North Carolina north into the park. A visitor center is set up about a half mile south of the northern boundary, and we headed that way. The "Friends of False Cape" were hosting a barbecue this weekend near the visitor center, but since we didn't bring any cash, we weren't indulging in what would have been a welcome treat. Total distance at this point was probably 4.5 miles, which didn't seem tiring at the time. The next mile of walking heads eastward towards the coast, and eventually spills you out onto a section of dunes called Barbour Hill before finally breaking onto the beachfront. It was extremely hot and humid along the dunes, so feeling the ocean breeze felt amazing when we finally reached it. From this point, I like to walked the beach back north, about 3.5-4 miles to the Back Bay parking area. A more direct route than the interior East Dike Trail, but a tougher walk on the sand. This time of year the beach is full of wildlife. On the trip north, we saw large numbers of shorebirds, the same species I saw last outing: Sanderling, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Black-bellied Plover, and Semipalmated Plover. In the air, Royal, Sandwich, Forster's, Common, and Caspian Terns were all seen, as well as Laughing, Ring-billed, Herring, Lesser & Great Black-backed Gulls. The usual other seabirds were seen, Brown Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants, as well as the main bird of prey seen along the coast, the Osprey.

One of the more beautifully marked shorebirds, a Ruddy Turnstone, in flight at Back Bay!

The sun did eventually start to break up the clouds, and it got even hotter, and much brighter out. So the nice easy beach walk turned itself into quite a trek. With about a mile left on the beach we were both getting pretty beat, and I kept thinking the trail back into the park was coming up soon. I wasn't even paying attention to the birds as much, just wanting to get back to the car. But then I saw a pair of Willets ahead, and it wasn't until I put my camera lens on the pair that I realized one of them wasn't a Willet, but a Marbled Godwit! Godwits are large shorebirds, with very long slightly curved bills that come to a sharp point, unlike the Willet's blunt looking bill. I have seen them in the past, but never in Virginia Beach, so this was a very interesting sighting for me, and I made sure to snap quite a few photographs before a pair of walkers scared the pair off into flight, and then I snapped a couple more! Having seen a new shorebird, my spirits were uplifted and we made the rest of the walk back to the car. Since the sun was now out, we got changed, and headed up to Little Island Park to spend the afternoon on the beach. This park is a city-owned one, and therefore they charge $3 for Virginia Beach residents to park, which isn't bad given what you can pay at other spots like the Oceanfront Resort Area. A quick walk over the duneline gets you down to the beach, which is almost always crowded unfortunately, but it's still just nice to be out in the water. We stayed the afternoon, and of course since I can't shut off my brain from looking for birds, I was happy to see some Boat-tailed Grackles nearby. Some of them have now shed their tailfeathers, and are molting their head & neck feathers as well, so they look quite pathetic. Soon enough though, they'll be in full feathers again. The waves were really rolling in today, and therefore the lifeguards weren't allowing anyone too far out, which is quite a bummer since I couldn't get out in the big waves which I enjoy doing on hot days. At least this time though I didn't have any jellyfish encounters like I had two weekends ago. I did get to see a number of gulls and terns, the same types I'd seen earlier, but its always fun to watch them while laying in a beach chair nonetheless!

The Marbled Godwit seen along the beach at Back Bay NWR, a new county lifer for me!

Sunday morning started off the way Saturday was supposed to, nice and sunny out. It was much hotter though, with temperatures expected to hit 90+ degrees, and very humid. I wanted to try out some places I don't usually go to so I decided to drive up to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT) and over to the Eastern Shore. I stopped at the first island (South Thimble Island) of the CBBT to see if any birds could be seen but it was mostly Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls, with one lone Least Sandpiper walking around down on the rocks at the north end of the island. So I quickly hopped back in the car and kept heading north on the bridge-tunnel complex. While crossing Fisherman Island, the typical Black Vultures could be seen perched atop all the highway light posts, and I did see a Great Blue Heron, and one goose of some type off in the marsh as I drove past at 55 mph. When I reached the Eastern Shore, the first place I stopped was Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge where I pulled into the lot near the visitor center. From the visitor center, there is a short (1/2 mile or so) trail, the Butterfly Trail, that more or less follows the highway but then goes to a secluded view of the inner marshes of the Atlantic. While walking, I had a number of songbirds cruise on past me, most of which looked like Eastern Kingbirds and American Robins. The trail hits a junction, where folks can walk to the rest area off the highway next to the toll booths, so I walked down this short trail also. Here I had a nice view of some kingbirds, and a new one for me this year, some Baltimore Orioles! The orioles didn't stick around long, and quickly flew off into deep brush, as did the other birds nearby. I saw a pair of Common Yellowthroats showing their lack of breeding plumage, but again they disappeared quickly into the brush.

The same Marbled Godwit in flight after a pair of walkers walked too close to it.

Continuing on down the trail, I stopped at the overlook, and was delighted to find a Snowy Egret and a White Ibis juvenile wandering around the nearest tidal creek finger. After that I headed back to the car and then drove off north down the Seaside Road to my next stop, Magothy Bay Natural Area Preserve. This park, half of which is a reclaimed farm field converted to songbird habitat, and half of which is maritime forest and marsh. I stopped here the first time back in the winter, when it wasn't overgrown, and there were no mosquitoes. This outing was the opposite, as both overgrown trails and bugs were quite prevalent. It was still plenty walkable, but I was walking faster than usual to avoid the bugs. While walking through the songbird habitat I didn't see much of anything other than some Common Buckeye butterflies. When I reached the woods it was also pretty quiet, but things picked up when I reached the shoreline levee system. The levees keep freshwater behind them, allowing it to spill out to the brackish marsh when it reaches a set elevation. This allows birds to use the freshwater when they need it. I saw a Spotted Sandpiper, and a Great Blue Heron around this area, and a large number of White Ibis flying out over Magothy Bay. Additionally, there were quite a few Laughing Gulls sitting on the dry marsh. From the marsh, the trail heads back inland through woodland and again across the songbird habitat. While transitioning from the woodland to the songbird habitat I saw two American Kestrels perched on a power pole line, for just a few moments before they quickly flew off into the trees.

Willet on the left, and Marbled Godwit on the right, showing off the difference in size between these two species!

Curiously, they were sitting right next to a pair of Mourning Doves, which I guess are large enough birds to have no fear of the similarly sized Kestrels. There is a property located along the south edge of this area where the owner apparently has a large herd of goats, and also has several Indian Peafowl that roam free, so if you're ever in the area and see or hear them, they belong to that property and will wander freely around. Made it back to the vehicle and again took off north down the Seaside Road. After a very short drive I found another pair of American Kestrels, again perched on a power line but along the main road this time. I took the Seaside Road all the way up to the village of Oyster, which sits right on a tidal estuary the flows out to the protected sound to the east. I saw a few gulls in the area, but nothing of any real interest so I turned around and drove back south, making a stop off on Magotha Road, which is known to house a population of Eurasion Collared Doves, though I didn't see any. I did see two large flocks of White Ibis, and an Osprey up in a tree nearby, but nothing out of the ordinary for the Eastern Shore this time of the year. I made one final stop off at the Eastern Shore NWR, just to walk the Butterfly Trail again to hopefully catch some more orioles. This time I parked at the opposite end of the trail, but didn't find any birds really at all, so I guess they must be more active in the park earlier in the morning, will have to remember that for next time. 

Common Yellowthroat starting to lose it's breeding plumage (black around face disappearing) seen at Eastern Shore NWR on Sunday!