Week Ending September 7, 2014

This week we were blessed with a 3-day weekend, being that Monday was Labor Day. Because of this, I was fortunate enough to continue my hiking spree for a third day in a row. Late on Saturday night I saw some postings on the Listserver about a lot of birds being spotted down at Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge just over the border from Virginia Beach in North Carolina. Karen & Tom Beatty, and Keith & Karen Roberts both got good photographs of a pair of Hudsonian Godwits, and also took some shots of an American Golden-Plover near the pumphouse junction. Because of those sightings of two species that I'd never seen before, I decided to finally take my first trip into Mackay Island NWR. The drive from my Kings Grant apartment complex is a fairly long one, probably close to an hour, but its a very peaceful one as you travel through the southern, rural portion of Virginia Beach known as Pungo, or sometimes referred to as "Princess Anne County". Once you cross the state line, its just a few miles of beautiful marshland with sparsely populated treed areas scattered about. The first couple of miles in the refuge travel down a gravel road along some freshwater impoundments (very similar to the dikes at Back Bay NWR). Along the roadway there was a number of Bullfrogs seen, and I saw a large Cooper's Hawk perched up on a tree branch, but as soon as I stopped to try and photograph it, it took off into flight.

Glossy Ibis at left, hanging out with a Tricolored Heron at right, taken at Mackay Island NWR!

As it flew across the marsh, I could see flocks of songbirds spiraling around it, frightened by this bird-eater. A short drive gets you to the pumphouse parking area, and this is as far as the cars can go during normal times, though there are some weekends where the roads are open to vehicle traffic, this wasn't one of them. I was greeted immediately by a pair of birders who I recognized quickly as Karen & Tom Beatty, clearly out to re-sight their Hudsonian Godwits and Plovers! Surprisingly, this was the first time we'd all met, but having discussed birding so much over the past 18 months via the group, and even before that through other pages on facebook, it was very nice to finally get some face to face time. They each pointed out a number of shorebirds that were wandering around the nearby mudflat, and were both very much better prepared than I was, with their binoculars and spotting scope. One of these days I'll finally bite the bullet and get a scope, especially for these little shorebirds that all look very similar in fall. After learning a few things from them on ID'ing the little birds, Karen went for a short walk with me southward along the impoundment roadway. We didn't happen upon the godwits, or the golden-plover, but there was so many birds visible, and Karen said there was way more on Sunday. I ended up walking a loop around the main impoundment, which is roughly 3 miles. The sweltering 90+ degree heat, and complete lack of shade really got to me though, so I wasn't too bummed out when I found that the roadways I was originally going to hike were actually closed off areas of the park. On the way around I saw large numbers of Canada Geese, which made for great backdrops to some scenery photographs I took for the website. Greater & Lesser Yellowlegs, peeps (Least/Western/Semipalmated Sandpipers), Semipalmated Plovers, and Spotted Sandpipers were all seen.

Large numbers of Canada Geese were seen at Mackay Island NWR this week!

Short-billed Dowitchers were also extremely numerous, and one of the few shorebirds that really stood out to me with their large bills and stocky bodies. For the non-birders that might happen upon this post, there was also a large amount of turtles and frogs out and about in the impoundment, as well as quite a few Black-and-Yellow Garden Spiders with their zigzagged webs placed along the trail. While walking back to the parking area, I was greeted by the Beattys and a few more people that happened to have showed up. Keith & Karen Roberts were both there, as well as Kevin Johnson & Yung-Han Chang, who had actually been walking the same path I did just out ahead of me. They had all gathered near the pumphouse and were watching the pair of Hudsonian Godwits that had finally returned! I finally got my lens on them, and was surprised to see that they appeared quite small at the long range, but definitely godwits with their long, sword-like bills probing the mud for a meal. Keith was kind enough to also point out a Pectoral Sandpiper to me that was walking near a seemingly tiny-by-comparison Least Sandpiper. So I finally was able to get my first verifiable shots of a Pectoral, though I'm sure I've seen them before and just was unable to truly ID them. Everyone stayed and chatted for a few minutes & Karen Beatty was able to get some photographs of us all for the group page, which I may end up adding to the website here at some point as well. Once everyone had gone, I had planned to do some more walking, but I decided with the heat, to just call it a morning and I headed out from the refuge. I did pay close attention along the causeway road leading back to the mainland, since Karen Beatty had mentioned that a Common Gallinule family had been seen there throughout the summer. I thought I came upon it, then slammed on the brakes and backed up to try and photograph it, but realized it was actually a Wood Duck instead, but still a nice surprise sighting.

Semipalmated Plover, one of many, many species of shorebirds that are being seen around the region right now.

Feeling a bit bad about not doing more walking, I decided since I was all the way out in rural Virginia Beach, that I'd cut over the North Landing River and stop at the Nature Conservancy's Milldam Creek Boardwalk trail. With how hot it was, and being sunny, I thought it would be the perfect time to check for some Green Treefrogs along the boardwalk. Last summer, my girlfriend Ruth & I had stopped down there and seen quite a few of them, more than I'd ever seen at one time actually. This time, missing my treefrog spotter (Ruth), I was only able to locate one, and it took me a good amount of searching! But, all I needed was one to be able to get some neat photographs. These little green guys are a favorite of mine since they're so neat the way they're able to tuck their bodies up against a surface and seemingly just stick to it. So after a few shots here I headed back northward towards home. On the way up Blackwater Road I figured I should stop to see if the Anhingas were within viewing range, but all 4 of them were out in a far off tree so I wasn't able to get any quality shots. Still very neat to see them on their pond again, I'm hoping they come back again to breed next year! After all was said and done, I finally made it home about 1:30 in the afternoon and started the troublesome task of going through all my shorebirds photographs!

Black-and-Yellow Garden Spider (aka writing spider, garden spider, argiope) seen at Mackay Island NWR.

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were all quiet days as I spent my time in the office. On Wednesday I got to spent my evening celebrating my 4 year anniversary with my girlfriend Ruth, where we decided to grab dinner at our favorite local resturant, Stove. Being such a huge wildlife fan, I of course had to sample their current fish lineup, which was Wreckfish, and it was amazing as always. If you've never been to the restaurant, I beg you to go try it out! On Friday, the day kicked off with me in the office again, but also with a Sea Turtle release down at the Oceanfront at 9 AM. WVEC posted an article about the release which can be found here: http://www.wvec.com/my-city/vabeach/Virginia-Aquarium-to-release-three-sea-turtles--274069741.html. The jist of it though is that three turtles, Boston Bruin (a Loggerhead Sea Turtle), Maleficent and Gaston (Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles) were all rehabilitated over the past year by the Virginia Aquarium after being picked up by their stranding team, and were finally healthy enough to put back out into the wild. The Loggerhead is outfitted with a transponder that will report it's location to the website http://seaturtle.org/ for those who are interested in checking in on it's future status! Aside from the turtles, its another pretty quiet day here in Hampton Roads. I am actually heading out to Nashville, TN shortly to visit one of my good friends, and might get out to do some hiking in the foothills, but am mainly traveling to spend time in the city itself. 

Green Treefrog clinging to it's napping reed at Milldam Creek in Virginia Beach!

Well I made all my flights, and am now back in Virginia Beach. While I was on my trip to Nashville, my friend Smitty & I went to a park called Cummins Falls State Park, which was an hour or two east of the city. We parked up on some high ground, and walked a trail down into a large river gorge. The trail ends at the river, and from there, you walk a half mile or so upstream…literally up the stream. I didn’t anticipate getting as soaking wet as I did, but fortunately it was a hot, humid day in Tennessee. We walked up and river to a massive waterfall, and pool situated below the falls, quite an impressive sight actually. There was a lot of other hikes on the “trail” so I didn’t take a whole ton of photographs, but did get one very nice one of the falls with no people in the way to ruin it (see below). The falls here is unique in that fact that you can climb up different levels beneath it, and actually walk under and behind the falling water, something almost out of a movie. So we did this, getting soaked in the process, and then headed back downstream to the trailhead. We did another quick trail up to an overlook that looked down on the falls & pool, but again with so many visitors, it was very hard to get any true nature photography in. I’d also left my longer lens back home since I wasn’t anticipating doing any wildlife stuff this weekend, having just brought my scenery lens. Naturally, I saw several Spotted Sandpipers along the creek that would have made for nice photographs, and a pair of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds even flew past us, almost battling it out in midair, which could have been great. It’s always when I don’t have my gear, that I see such neat things!

Cummins Falls in Tennessee, a breathtakingly beautiful 75' tall drop into a clearwater pool!