Week Ending October 19, 2014

This was the first week that I'm now settling down to just Friday evening & weekend outings due to the lack of sunlight after my normal Monday through Thursday working hours. On Monday, after a great weekend spent with my mother, I had to get her off to the airport and headed back to Indiana, hopefully she enjoyed her time, though I'm pretty certain she did. So through the week we had some good weather, definitely feeling moreso like Fall now in Hampton Roads. On Friday, I left work at 3 PM like usual, and decided that instead of going down to Back Bay NWR like I had initially planned, I went up to Pleasure House Point to try and maximize my outdoor time while the sun was still high enough to provide light for decent photography. From my office I can make it up there in about 20 minutes or less which makes it ideal for short duration outings like I can fit in on Friday evenings this time of year. With the sun setting slowly, I parked on Marlin Bay Drive and headed first eastwards to keep it out of my eyes. It was a beautifully sunny day with highs right in the lower 70s, which is my preferred temperature since I can walk and walk and not sweat like crazy. Throughout the week, a number of reports had showed up on eBird.org referencing Saltmarsh & Nelson's Sparrow sightings. Because of this, I was very excited and hoped I might be able to find both species for the first time.

My very first Nelson's Sparrow, seen at Pleasure House Point!

I had seen a Saltmarsh recently, but the Nelson's is still one missing from my life list. Well today I got my first one, and then several more in the same area, when a flock of 7-8 Nelson's Sparrows was working the shrubbery immediately adjacent to the tidal creeks around the park. I was amazed when one actually stood up between a pair of reeds, grasping each with a leg, and stayed relatively still for a few minutes, moving just a few times, and allowing me a lot of good quality photographs. In addition to the sparrows, the birds in general were pretty numerous tonight. The tide was about at high tide, and the mudflats to the east of the park were covered up, but the water was still shallow enough for large numbers of Black Skimmers, Laughing Gulls, Royal & Caspian Terns, and Herring Gulls to still be out standing on top of them, keeping their bodies just above the water line. Quite a few Osprey are still seen around the park, and last year a pair of them over-wintered, so I think I'll be seeing them all year here again. I didn't see any warblers today, and really the only songbirds that were seen was an Eastern Towhee, a few Carolina Chickadees, a Blue Jay, and several Northern Cardinals, all very common at the park. But, after getting good looks at the Nelson's Sparrows for the first time ever, it didn't matter to me if I was to not see another bird the remainder of the hike. Also, I got to meet Melinda Carr, along the trails, and later she posted a photograph to the Facebook group of a Nelson's Sparrow, I was wondering if she would get them! This weekend we're expecting beautiful sunny weather both days, with temps in the 70s again tomorrow, and then cooling into Sunday with highs in the upper 50s/lower 60s. Should be a great weekend down here!

Another shot of my first Nelson's Sparrow, showing off just how colorful these seemingly "brown" sparrows are when viewed up close!

Saturday was yet another beautiful day in Hampton Road, again with highs in the low 70s and very sunny, just like yesterday. I went down to Back Bay NWR and got there at about 8 this morning. At the gate there was a pair of White-tailed Deer feeding just off the road, a nice surprise since I don't see them very often in the park, and definitely not this close up. My first bird sighting was a group of 19 Pied-billed Grebes that were near the kayak launch area next to the parking lot. While watching them, an American Bittern flew out over the water as well, they're seen often in the park during fall & winter but, they usually stay hidden pretty well so seeing a flyover was very neat. I started off by walking the Bay Trail like I'll typically do when it's not yet crowded at the park. Right away, I ran into MC Miguez, who was also out early trying to get a photograph of a Merlin that had been seen along the Bay Trail this week. We ended up chatting and shooting a few photos side by side for the next half hour or so (a beautiful Northern Flicker posed pretty nicely, though a bit out of range for me, her shots turned out great). After parting, I headed down the East Dike trail down to False Cape State Park. I thought I mind find some ducks on the waterways that run adjacent to the False Cape/Back Bay boundary line but unfortunately did not. The only ducks I saw were a few very far out over the marshes to the west, and I couldn't properly ID them. Waders were around in good numbers as usual, with lots of Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, and a lone Snowy Egret as well. Shorebirds were almost nonexistent in the park, and I only saw one group of 7 Semipalmated Plovers. However, I did not walk the beachfront today so I can't speak as to what may have been out there. Raptors sightings were few and far between. Along the 8 or 9 miles I walked, I found one Peregrine Falcon perched in a dead tree west of the 90 degree bend on the East Dike, and my FOS Northern Harrier up near the parking area on the way back to the car. Driving out of the refuge though I did get to see a Cooper's Hawk fly in right overhead, and also a Red-tailed Hawk just after I'd left the park along Sandbridge Road. I did not see any other species of Warblers aside from the common Yellow-rumped Warblers that we see very often in fall & winter here. Though, I did hear a Common Yellowthroat calling from False Cape. It seems the migrants have moved through, or, I just happened to miss them today. 

Yellow-rumped Warbler, our most common winter warbler, starting to show up in big numbers around the region. This one was seen at Back Bay NWR!

Beautiful weather continued for a 3rd straight day on Sunday in Hampton Roads, though a bit cooler out (50s this morning), and with strong 15-20 mph more-or-less continuous winds. When I woke up and saw how overcast it was in spots, and how the trees were whipping, I decided to try out Pleasure House Point again thinking that maybe something interesting would have been blown across the Chesapeake Bay and taken up refuge at the park from the winds. The mudflats (near high tide) were full of several hundred Laughing Gulls, a number of Herring & Great Black-backed Gulls, some Black Skimmers (though not as many as on Friday), a lone Willet, and one American Oystercatcher that I did not see in the field, but was able to uncover while looking at the photographs at home (see link below). Several Royal Terns, and a single Caspian Tern were also seen. I ran into a number of other birders out there today (probably close to 20 or so), and it was great to discuss what we were all seeing throughout the morning, and also just to meet a number of folks who post to eBird & use the VA-bird Listserver and be able to put a face to the names. Lynnhaven River NOW (a local environmental organization) was hosting a birding walk, which was led by Virginia Beach Audubon member Stephen Coari.

A beautiful adult Great Blue Heron seen along the East Dike Trail at Back Bay NWR on Saturday!

This was the first time we'd gotten to meet, though thanks to the internet we've been able to correspond in the past. Among the group also were Susan Compton, Jim Lowe, and Pam Monahan, so was very nice to finally meet each of them. It seemed many were looking for both the Nelson's Sparrows seen recently, and the Lapland Longspur that showed up in an eBird report this week. With all the wind, I was actually very surprised to find quite a few songbirds flitting about, including a flock of about 20 Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a lone Ruby-crowned Kinglet. The typical wading birds were all present with several Great Blue Herons, a number of Great Egrets, a lone Snowy Egret perched in a distant tree across the creek, and several Yellow-crowned Night-Heron immatures. Also had a flyover twice by a Bald Eagle, though moving with the wind it was about as fast as a falcon overhead. As with most outings, many Clapper Rails could be heard cackling from the outer marshes, and one very close in (within 100 feet or so), but could never put eyes on any unfortunately. A great outing, and a very nice way to end a week of beautiful weather. Next weekend I will be heading out to Charlottesville, Virginia, and the rest of the surrounding Blue Ridge Parkway and/or Skyline Drive, so not sure that I'll get many wildlife shots next week, but I should get some very pretty scenery shots along some of the trails that my girlfriend Ruth & I will be visiting. 

My first Ruby-crowned Kinglet of the season. If you look very closely at the very tip top of the head, you can see the Ruby colored feathers that give this bird it's name!