Week Ending September 21, 2014

I'm very excited to announce that I will finally be in the Hampton Roads area for a full week this week! I returned home to Virginia Beach from my trip up to Boone, North Carolina late on Sunday (9/14) evening, and now get to hopefully venture out into our local outdoors looking for some wildlife this week. Over the weekend I got my 201st species of 2014, which is now a new personal best after seeing 200 species on the dot last year in 2013. The bird that put me over was a beautiful Blue-headed Vireo (photo featured in the last blog posted). I was very happy that after the first night of my good buddy's bachelor party I was up at 7 AM to see the sun rise in the mountains, and was rewarded with some great sights of migrating songbirds, including Black-throated Green Warblers, American Redstarts, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and the aforementioned Vireo! Now back to Hampton Roads... On Monday, overcast weather, a lot of work to do at my job, and this ongoing nasty cough (presumably allergy related since I always get sick for a week or two this time of year) unfortunately kept me stuck inside. On Monday, the Kiptopeke State Park Hawk Watch continued showing good results, with 80 American Kestrels and 47 Ospreys as the leaders. Merlins, Broad-winged, Sharp-shinned & Cooper's Hawks were all seen as well, so as I keep saying in my blogs, its a great time to see some raptors if you head up to the Eastern Shore. Songbirds were on the move as well on Monday, with Tim Fearington posting some great shots to our Facebook group of Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, and Red-eyed Vireo from his outing at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach. I anticipate there being a lot more photos of songbirds posted this week from Back Bay, Weyanoke, and First Landing on the Southside, and any of the parks (Kiptopeke, Eastern Shore NWR, Magnothy Bay, etc) on the Eastern Shore.

Variegated Fritillary seen at Pleasure House Point!

Tuesday and Wednesday were busy days for me so I didn't make it out at all unfortunately. Thursday though, I headed up to Pleasure House Point after work, and go there about 5 o'clock. I parked along Marlin Bay and headed eastward so that the sun on the horizon would be at my back. I'm saddened to say you can visibly see the change in light after work now, as we are heading into fall and the days are getting much shorter. Soon, once daylight savings time kicks in, I will no longer be able to get out photographing wildlife after work hours, my least favorite couple months of the year. But at least for now I get a couple hours of photography in still. Anyway, at Pleasure House Point, the first birds I came across along the coastal trail were Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. They are very numerous in the park, most of them being immature birds. The tide was all the way up this time, and again even higher than a normal high tide cycle thanks to persistent onshore (northeasterly) winds over the last few days. Because of the high high tide, no exposed mudflats or shorelines were visible along the park, which eliminates the capability of shorebirds to feed around the park. However, this same problem, also turned out to be of great benefit to me.

My first Palm Warbler sighting of the season, made easy to ID by the yellow undertail coverts.

Along the south side of the park, near the marshy islands, I had a pair of sparrows continuously moving from shrub to shrub along the water, and I spend a good half hour or more chasing them around slowly trying to get a clean shot at one. I believe them to be the same species when I saw them in the field, but after reviewing a whole bunch of hard to see photographs, I was able to decipher that they were indeed two different species, the first a Seaside Sparrow, only my second such sighting in my life, and in the same location as the first just a month ago. The second bird, turned out to be a Saltmarsh Sparrow, very similar to a Nelson's Sparrow, but with a much more white throat and chest. The Saltmarsh was the first one I've ever seen, so I got to add another lifer to my list, something I was not expecting upon leaving work just a couple hours prior. Thanks to the high water, the available real estate to hide amongst was greatly decreased, wich allowed me to see them much better than I could have if the water was low, and they could get into the undercut banks and foliage to hide. Aside from the sparrows, there wasn't a whole lot of activity out at the park. I could hear numerous Clapper Rails cackling out in the marshes, but with the high water, there was nowhere to see them run out in the open. Typical birds were there, like Royal Terns, Laughing/Ring-billed Gulls, Brown Pelicans, etc. I did run into Kathy Spencer for the first time so it was nice to also get to meet her out at the park. I ended up heading out about 6:30 PM or so, and the light was already noticeably getting darker so basically, I get an hour and a half after 5 PM to do things outdoors right now, and it will slowly slip away to nothing over the next 6 weeks or so, very saddening. 

Sanderling rooting around one of many, many masses of washed up vegetation due to high winds this week.

On Friday, I brought my gear to work so I could leave right away. I headed down to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Virginia Beach at 3 PM. Earlier in the day several folks had reported lots of snakes being sighting around the contact station area. They were definitely accurate. While walking the Bay Trail, I very quickly found a Black Racer that had slithered quickly off the trail, with just it's tail still visible. Just a few minutes later, I got my first Eastern Cottonmouth sighting of the day. This snake, about 3 feet long or so, was right off it the vegetation next to the gravel trail near where the boardwalk hits it. It was a little unnerving since I didn't see the snake til I was about 10-15 feet away from it. Their brown coloring matches the color of the dying water reeds this time of year and it will get continually more difficult to spot them as the weather changes. But, they also won't be out for too much longer as the weather cools off into fall. Right now, they're all out in the open trying to suck up as much heat from the sun or ground as they can. During the heat of summer, they tend to move off into other areas of the park since it's hot everywhere, and they can maintain their body temperatures with ease. Spring and Fall appear to be best if trying to locate these snakes, and it also lines up correctly with when Back Bay NWR offers their reptile walks that Liza Eckhardt leads. It turned out that there was actually a schedule walk Friday as well, as I ran into Liza about an hour before it was going to start. She pointed out another large Cottonmouth near the end of the Bay Trail that was coiled up and sitting next to the small freshwater pond. This one was in the process of molting, and it's eye was showing a solid blue color due to the skin starting to off the head. Nearby, a group of 3 or 4 small snakes molts were seen, presumably from a whole batch of youngsters that was molting for the first time before leaving their nest area.

A nymph Katydid seen at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge!

Liza also pointed out a couple of Obsure Birdwing Grasshopper, which are absolutely giant, probably 4 or 5 inches in length. After walking back down the Bay Trail I had a songbird fly in fast over top of me and land in a small evergreen. I followed it around and was able to identify it as a Palm Warbler in fall plumage, a first for me in 2014. After, I did a loop around the Loop Road, finding just a Great Blue Heron, a couple of Belted Kingfishers, and an American Crow. I thought I might run into some more warblers but unfortunately this was not the case. It was pretty windy out, and that might have the smaller birds sticking to heavy vegetation. I didn't hear any Prairie Warblers off in the scrub area of the park either, so they must all be gone already and headed further south. With the songbirds clearly not out, I went down to the beach in the hopes of at least finding some shorebirds. The standards were all out there...Willets/Sanderling, gulls, terns, pelicans, cormorants, etc., but nothing unusual was present along the beach unfortunately. So I headed back up and over the dunes towards the parking area, photographing a beautiful Viceroy (very similar to a Monarch) on the way. I knew the reptile walk was going on so I just tried to avoid whatever crowd it attracted by walking the Bay Trail just to the Bayside Trail and back around to the visitor center area. Here I found yet another Cottonmouth, outstretched on the trail in the same location that the American Bittern was hanging out in all winter last year. This Cottonmouth was quite girthy, apparently having been well fed recently. I did a 180 and walked all the way around to try to get in a better spot for photos with the sun behind me. When I got to it's spot, it was no longer there. That's not a fun feeling, thinking it must have gotten into the brush somewhere nearby, but noone its there watching you. I did spot it finally and it then went out onto the small pond, swimming across the surface gracefully thanks to it's large body which floated very well. I took a few shots and then headed off home. Saturday & Sunday we had overcast skies so I worked hard pretty much all day long on updating the website, moving things around, and I finally completed putting species ID tags into all 70,000+ photographs I've taken over the last 5 years, so now I can just type a bird name in on my computer, and it'll show me all the times I've photographed them. This will greatly help me in completing my Photo ID Guide here on the website so its nice to finally have all that out of the way. The next few are looking cloudy as well but hopefully I can get out after work at least sometime during the week.

Eastern Cottonmouth showing just how buoyant their large, girthy, bodies can be.