Week Ending November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving week has arrived! After working a 6-day week this past week, and only getting out for about an hour to Back Bay on Sunday, this week is getting here just in time. On Monday, we in Southeastern Virginia were treated to the first ever recorded sighting of a Crested Caracara, which was spotted Sunday by Julie Coari & Karen Roberts in Virginia Beach near the intersection of Blackwater Road & Hungarian Road. Over the next couple of days many individuals went out and observed the bird. By Thanksgiving Day though, it had left the area, and hasn't bee reported again since. While seeking out the Caracara, Keith Roberts also located what might be either a Couch's or Tropical Kingbird, but it was also unable to be re-found. I did not get the chance to see either bird, being that I had a full time job and this time of year, the sun is pretty much down on my way to and from that job, so it really kills any weekday birding for me. On Wednesday evening, Ruth & I traveled down to Charleston, South Carolina to visit her sister, nephew and visiting mother for the holiday weekend. The drive took about 7.5 hours, and we arrived around 11 PM. I went pretty much straight to bed, then got up at 6 on Thursday morning to get out hiking. We had made this same trip last year for the first time so I had at least an inkling of where I wanted to get out hiking. My first stop was to the I'on Swamp Trail, part of nearby Francis Marion National Forest, and a short 2 mile or so loop trail. I quickly realized while walking this trail that it is not the right time of year to be walking through thick woods. The only wildlife I saw here was a couple of Chipping Sparrows, which, were neat, but I think this spot might be a spring/fall stopping point for migrating songbirds more than it is a wintering spot, probably due to lack of feed (bugs) this time of year.

Great Egret seen against the marshes at Shem Creek Park, South Carolina.

I decided to also walk another nearby trail, a piece of the Swamp Fox Spur of the Palmetto Trail that runs about 50 miles through the forest. The part I did was about a 6 mile out and back, and I had the same issues that I encountered along the I'on Swamp. I found a Hermit Thrush, a Northern Flicker, and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, but that was about it over the couple hours of hiking. Clearly, the thick woods are not where the most species are this time of year, but if I ever come back to visit family in the spring, I will definitely key in on this location.  So after walking about 8 miles, it was still early, about 10 AM, and so I decided to hit a couple more spots that were along the coastline, and could potentially hold many more species than the woodlands. I drove back to Mount Pleasant, and then went to a place called Shem Creek Park, which is near Patriot's Point. This park has about a half mile or so of elevated boardwalks that allow you to walk through a tidal marsh and along the creek. Last year, Ruth & I had a nice surprise here when a Bottlenose Dolphin surfaced in the creek just feet away from where we were standing. While this time I didn't find any dolphins, I did get to see a number of wading birds (Great/Snowy Egrets, Tricolored/Great Blue Herons), Ibis and Pelicans were also present, and a Belted Kingfisher flew past as well. After walking the mile or so out and back, I drove over to Pitt Street Causeway, another birding hotspot that I found on eBird last year.

The beautiful Marbled Godwit, seen at Pitt Street Causeway, Mount Pleasant, SC!

Also located along a tidal marsh, this spot is an old roadbed and bridge that has been converted to a walking path and observation boardwalk on the intercoastal waterway.  It just so happened that I hit the spot right at high tide, and the heavy winds were bringing in quite a swell of waves. Because of the wind & tide, there were no shorebirds present. In South Carolina, the tides can change about 8 feet between low and high, something I'm not used to here in Virginia where the standard is about 3 feet only. With such a drastic change, the only time you're going to find shorebirds is right around the low tide when the maximum area of mudflats are exposed. Pretty much all I saw this trip was a Turkey Vulture, and a number of Boat-tailed Grackles. I did hear a number of Clapper Rails calling from the marshes, but never got sight of any of them. Some Hooded Mergansers were also present. On Friday, I again got out early, about 6:30 AM to spend the morning hiking off the food I'd eaten the day before at Thanksgiving lunch/dinner. This time, I knew the low tide would be close so early, so I did the reverse of what I had done yesterday. I went to Pitt Street Causeway first and found much better birds this time. Marbled Godwits and White Ibis were present. Willets, Black-bellied Plover, and Dunlin were seen as well on the mudflats. Like before, Clapper Rails were calling from all directions, and all the common gulls were also present. I walked out to the end of the boardwalk, getting some good photographs of a Belted Kingfisher as it moved from railing to railing cackling along the way. The godwits were the highlight of the outing, seeing them up close with their beautiful colors and long bill is always neat.

The very common, but very beautiful in the right light, Boat-tailed Grackle male!

After walking out and back on the path I headed over to Shem Creek Park. As with the prior outing, wading birds were present in good numbers and a pair of Snowy Egrets was sitting up a creek right near the boardwalk. When I'd reached the main creek, a beautiful Horned Grebe was right in close to shore diving under chasing fish and then swimming on the surface briefly before diving back down again. While I was watching the grebe, a Belted Kingfisher flew very close to me, hovering in midair looking for surfacing fish, and then sped off past me. It was there long enough though for me to get some decent photographs of it. After heading back again to the car, I decided that even though there was a lack of wildlife in the national forest, that I needed to get some exercise so I went back to the same parking spot on the Palmetto Trail, and walked 6 miles in the opposite direction. I've now done about 22 miles on this trail, and each year I plan to cut off a little bit more of it til I've walked the whole thing. This section of the trail was a bit more scenic, and I did see more birds, including what I believe was a female Purple Finch, which would be the first of the species that I've ever photographed. I'm currently waiting on confirmation from fellow birder, Ron Furnish, as to what he thinks about the photograph I snapped of it (Update: confirmed, new lifer for me!). In addition to this bird, I saw an Eastern Phoebe, and plenty of Yellow-rumped Warblers. But, little else was flying around on yet another cold, windy day, though at least the sky was perfectly clear as it was the day before. I headed back around lunchtime, and grabbed another full plate of leftover turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and gravy...my favorite time of the year. 

A Horned Grebe showing off it's winter plumage at Shem Creek Park.

On Saturday, I made it out for the 3rd straight day! First thing in the morning Ruth & I, along with her sister Heather & her nephew Christopher went out walking, first to Pitt Street and then to Shem Creek, for my 3rd visit in 3 days to each of the areas. At Pitt Street we again got to see the fairly low tide, so lots of White Ibis, Willet, Dunlin, Black-bellied Plover were present. Also, a Semipalmated Plover was seen at the end of the walkway, and several Pied-billed Grebes also. As we were walking, we heard a storm of cackles come from out of the nearby marsh, and as I turned around I saw 2 Clapper Rails come running out of the marsh reeds on a mudflat. They ran back and forth cackling at each other and then disappeared just as fast as they'd showed up. It was a very neat sightings, after having heard the rails at both locations the last two days, to finally see them, and get off a couple photographs felt great. This outing I noticed a pair of American Oystercatchers up right along the edge of the walkway, so I took Christopher out of their vision and had him sneak up on them to see up close. He was able to get just a few feet away before his shadow crossed over onto the water and was visible to the birds. They immediately took to the air and landed out on the mudflats. I don't typically like to disturb wildlife, but teaching a kid about birds, its going to happen. These birds are fairly used to people, as the walkway is a commonly used path for walkers, joggers, and dog walkers alike, so I don't feel too too bad.

An adult White Ibis out on the mudflats at Pitt Street Causway.

After Pitt Street, we headed to Shem Creek where we walked all the boardwalks again. Yet again, we found 1 Clapper Rail in the marsh, that was moving very slowly about 20 feet away, just enough to where we could see the reeds moving and be able to catch a glimpse as it moved through the thick marsh grasses. When we reached the main creek, a Snowy Egret and a Great Egret were hunting side by side, making for an excellent opportunity to see the size differential between the two species. Ruth & I continued on down to the end of the boardwalk, where she spotted a Dolphin surfacing out near the mouth of the creek! It began surfacing in an ever-closer line moving upstream, so we walked back along the boardwalk and waited for it to come in close. It made about 5 or 6 rises out of the water within about a hundred feet or so, giving great views, but proving tough to photograph due to the sun being directly in its way. Either way though, it was a great cap to our trip. The rest of the day, we spent walking around the city of Charleston, an absolutely beautiful southern city. While eating lunch on the water, I got to see a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron also, always nice to see them since they've left the Hampton Roads region behind for the winter and won't return til the end of March. So it was a successful trip to Charleston, and we made it home by 1 o'clock on Sunday after leaving about 6:15 AM. Ready to start another week!

Great Blue Heron in flight over the marshes at Pitt Street Causeway.