Week Ending December 28, 2014

This week was a short week of work, and I’m very grateful for that! I worked Monday & Tuesday, then Ruth & I headed up to Fairfax, VA for the Christmas Holiday in the evening. Ruth’s mother (Connie) lives in Lorton specifically, which is just a small component of Fairfax County. Her older sister (Heather), and her nephew (Christopher) were meeting us there, having left a couple days earlier from Charleston, SC. Also meeting us there were my mother (Peggy) and step-father (Bob) who had travelled all day from northwest Indiana. So Connie was to have a very full house, and when we arrived around 7 PM, Ruth’s aunt & cousin were also there. So we all had dinner and stayed up probably later than I’m used too. I’d planned on going hiking on Wednesday (Christmas Eve) morning, but when I awoke at 6, 7, and then at 8, it was consistently raining so that plan got scrapped. However, I did get my mom & Bob, and Ruth to swing by Great Falls Park while we were showing my mom around the region. We arrived in a light rain and walked the short trails to the three closest overlooks. The falls was incredibly beautiful with the overcast skies, due in part to a beautiful fog streaming overhead of the river. Along the trails, we saw some Eastern Bluebirds that my mom was excited about, and also Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and a Tufted Titmouse near the visitor center. After a half hour visit or so we headed out from the park.

The beauty of Great Falls of the Potomac River on a seemingly dreary day!

On the way out the entry road we passed a deer carcass that was being fed on by crows, and also by one Red-shouldered Hawk. I pulled a pair of u-turns and managed to get a few photographs of it perched up in a tree after it fled on our first pass by the carcass. It was a good reminder of how something similar happened the last time I’d been here with Ruth, when a pair of Red Fox had been alongside the road, only to run off through the snow (this was several years ago) when we passed by. This time though, I got the photographs I was looking for. We spent the remainder of the day driving around northern Virginia and then ate dinner at Connie’s and went to bed. On Christmas Day, I was all set to take Christopher out for a short hike, but unfortunately they decided they were heading back right after breakfast and there wasn’t time, so I didn’t get to take him out. After opening presents and downing our breakfast, I took my mom down to Lake Mercer, where I often hike, and showed her the South Run Stream Valley Park trail. We walked a couple miles along the creek valley, but didn’t see a whole lot in the way of wildlife, a few Carolina Chickadees and Eastern Bluebirds was really about it along the trail. Christmas evening we all went into the downtown DC area to see the national Christmas Tree, and then headed back again to Connie’s. On Friday, my mom, Bob, & myself headed back down to Virginia Beach after an Ihop breakfast off Route 1. We got home around 1 o’clock or so here after fighting the I-95 southbound traffic, which is unrelenting, unless you leave super early in the day, or super late at night. Since we got home in the afternoon though, I took my mom up to Pleasure House Point so she could see it for the first time, and dropped Bob off at the Starbucks on Shore Drive by the Lesner Bridge.

A male Eastern Bluebird seen on the South Run Stream Valley Trail in Lorton, VA.

We walked from Dinwiddie Drive westward to the biggest pond, then back to the car. Wildlife was surprisingly scarce in the park but, at the second largest pond, we found the American Bittern that has been hanging around. It was stalking along the far edge, barely visible behind a deadfall. Many Gadwalls, Buffleheads, and Hooded Mergansers were at least visible out on the creek, but really the big sighting on the day was the bittern. After picking Bob back up, I took them across the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel, just so they could see how pretty it is out there on nice days. We stopped at the first island, and I got to see some Black Scoters and a Long-tailed Duck. Rafts of Buffleheads and many Common Loons were also seen while driving across the bridge-tunnel complex northward, and then also on the southbound trip back to the mainland. The following day, Saturday, Ruth had planned to come back from Fairfax in the afternoon, but with the weather looking beautiful all day long, and several days of rain in the forecast moving forward, I decided to take my mom & Bob out on the Rudee Flipper for a whale watching cruise. I know Ruth wanted to go, but after last Christmas’ trip, my mom had been waiting and waiting for the opportunity to get out again, and I didn’t want to risk missing the potentially only sunny day of their trip. So we took the 11 o’clock cruise out of Rudee Inlet on a beautiful 60 degree, sunny, and almost completely windless day. Heading out of the inlet, I immediately caught sight of one immature male Common Eider.

The small, Bonaparte's Gull, a common winter resident in Virginia Beach off the coast.

The last week I had been down when two of them were sighted, but failed to get good photographs, thanks in part to a dog chasing them off. Yet again, this one was in a bad spot with the light so I was unable to get any quality photographs on the way out, but was excited to see it nonetheless. I know it’s a primarily whale watching cruise, but I’d have loved to hear someone on the loudspeaker say, hey everyone look, a Common Eider, not a bird that is seen here every year, and only shows up occasionally in small numbers in the winter. But, oh well, at least I was excited about it. We headed out beyond the jetty and then turned northward towards where the Chesapeake Bay enters the ocean on our search for whales. Last year, we saw three Humpback Whales, the first whales I’ve ever seen, and one even surfaced about 30 feet off the boat near my mom. Along the journey northward, we saw many Red-throated Loons in flight, as well as some Common Loons on the water. Double-crested Cormorants and Brown Pelicans were all numerous, as were Bonaparte’s, Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls. I did not notice any terns or ‘seabirds’ of any kind, though I had a hope in the back of my mind that I might see some Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, but no luck. However, we DID find some whales! We saw at least two different ones over probably a 45 minutes period of time, seeing probably 10 or 12 tail flaps! No full body breaches or anything crazy, but watching them surface, and then raise the tail up high and push down to reach the depths was awesome to view. It is always a guessing game when it comes to searching for the whales. The boat has to first sight a surfacing whale, then try to guess where it will come up next, all the while trying to position the boat so the onlookers can view it best.

One of the two Humpback Whales we saw from the Rudee Flipper on Saturday morning!

I was just amazed we had about the same temperature as last year, apparently in December here it can be 80 degrees all the way down about 10 degrees depending on the day. After we ran out of time watching the whales, we headed back towards Rudee Inlet, a few Northern Gannets were seen, but they stayed very far out away from the boat. Last year I’d seen some up much closer, perhaps thanks to the windier conditions pushing them in closer to shore. Also, last years, Scoters were visible on the water’s surface, but none were around this year.  Just before we’d reached the inlet, a Bottlenose Dolphin appeared to me and my mom just beneath the surface of the waves being created just off our boat. We both got great views of it about a foot under the water surface riding the wake! As we entered the inlet, a few more that had apparently been unseen following the boat decided to start putting on a leaping show, and the boat stopped briefly so everyone could see them. During this time, I moved up to the front left (Port side in nautical terms, which I just had to look up), to hopefully get a good view of the Common Eider as we travelled through the inlet. It was again present, but even moreso in a poor spot with the sunlight, so I guess this is not going to be the one I get great photographs of, but get ones just to document the sighting. The City of Virginia Beach has completed the sidewalk project along the north side of the inlet leading from the harbor, so it is no longer a deathtrap, which is nice. Unfortunately Sunday we had some poor weather move in so this was my last outing on the week, but a great one to go out on, especially with just a couple more days left in 2014!

A wintering Common Loon out on the Atlantic Ocean!