Week Ending January 4, 2015

The final week of the year, and the beginning of a new year, this was an exciting week. My mother & step-father were both in town from the holidays Monday through Wednesday, before heading back to the Chicago metro on Thursday (New Years Day) morning. Monday & Tuesday we had very rainy weather, but on Wednesday, the weather cleared up and Ruth & I took them up the Eastern Shore to Chincoteague Island for the day. Though not strictly a wildlife outing, we did make a quick pit stop at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel’s first island (South Thimble Island) to see if anything was out and about. There was a lone Long-tailed Duck out in the surf off the northern point of the island, but other than that it was pretty quiet, so we didn’t stop for long. Driving up Highway 13, my mother spotted a Bald Eagle perched in a tree alongside the road, and we also saw a couple of Red-tailed Hawks. When we reached the causeway heading across to Chincoteague there wasn’t many birds present out in the marshes. It is quite a different place here from spring time, when there are thousands of birds in the area and on the water. The marshes now show their full brownish color which will stick around through about April, then the green will start to return. Since this was my mother’s first trip to the island, we drove down the main street and then did a loop south through the interior, coming back up north along the west shoreline. Here, she again spotted two more Bald Eagles that were perched out on the pilings of a pier, for a total of three on the day. We drove again down the main street, then crossed over to Assateague Island onto the wildlife refuge.

One of several Delmarva Fox Squirrels that made an appearance for my mother, step-father, Ruth, and I at Chincoteague NWR on New Year's Eve.

We were just discussing how I’d hoped for them to see some of the “grandfather squirrels” (actually called Delmarva Fox Squirrels, I just call them the former due to their light coloration and large size). Suddenly a pair of them walked out onto the shoulder of the road and start eating some pine seeds. The first of the pair actually had a black coloration mixed in and was strikingly handsome, however, I couldn’t get my camera ready in time before it hopped back into the woods. The second one though, I was able to get a quick photograph of before we kept on driving. Our next hope was that the Chincoteague Ponies would be out in their main feeding grounds southwest of the roadway. This southern herd is fenced into the area south and west of the main road through the park, so I don’t really consider these “wild” animals, but they’re neat to see nonetheless. There was a small group of them pretty far out which I thought we might be able to view from the Woodland Trail not too far away. The Woodland Trail, a 1.6 mile long asphalt walkway loop, gives good views out over the open marsh, and also is home to a large number of the fox squirrels. So we parked and headed out on it. Immediately it was obvious that something was going on in the area, with many trees cut down along the parking lot and the first portion of the trail heading counterclockwise. However, with the open sky around the parking area, we were able to spot a pair of Red-tailed Hawks as they circled past us, though, I’d still prefer the trees to have remained, I’m sure there’s some reason for the park to be clear-cutting though.

An immature Black-crowned Night-Heron seen at Chincoteague NWR on New Year's Eve!

Very quickly along the walk around the loop we got some good looks at the Delmarva Fox Squirrels, and the pony overlook yielded exactly what I was hoping for, though the distance was still medium length. All along the trail we were seeing Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting about and disappearing as we walked by. Another Red-tailed Hawk showed up, a lone Golden-crowned Kinglet in a mixed flock of songbirds, and right at the end of the trail Ruth & I heard two eagles screaming back and forth, and watched as they flew past, spinning their talons at one another as they did so. We drove down to the beachfront at Tom’s Cove, seeing some Tundra Swans and other waterfowl, as well as plenty of gulls on the beach, then headed back to Chincoteague Island. We stopped at the Village Restaurant, but found it closed, so we instead went to my personal favorite, AJ’s on the Creek just on the opposite side of the road. After a great meal, we had to stop off at the Island Creamery for some ice cream. While digesting, we did a quick drive around the northern half of the island and then headed back to the mainland. The only wildlife sighting that occurred on the trip home was an American Kestrel on a wire in Northampton County along the highway. That was my last interesting sighting of 2014, which was quite a great year for me. Having written the blog for a full year now, you can always browse through and see all the photos I’ve taken along the way! I ended up the year having seen 185 species of birds in the state of Virginia, and 169 in my home territory of Virginia Beach, my best year to date, so all the learning and reading has continued to make me more knowledgeable.

A male Northern Cardinal feeding on seeds in the thickets next to the 88th Street boardwalk to the beach.

 On Thursday morning my mother & step-father headed out early in the morning on their 14.5+ hour drive back to Indiana. Also, Thursday & Friday were working days for me, in place of having Monday-Wednesday off while family was visiting. With Thursday being the first day of 2015, I did at least make a quick detour on the way home from work around Kings Grant Lakes to get my birding year started off right. I set a goal for myself to identify 200 species of birds within the boundaries of Virginia Beach (a major increase on the 169 I got in 2014, but I like setting goals to at least have something to push me, I’m hoping to see quite a few new lifers this season!). Typical ducks and geese, and both species of vultures were seen. When the weekend finally came around and I was freed up from quick pair of days at work, unfortunately, we had quite dreary weather, with temperatures in the 40s in the morning and an on & off rain coming down. I wanted to continue getting my year off to a good start in terms of the number of species seen so I wanted to hit a few of my local favorites that wouldn’t rely too heavily on long hikes due to the rain. I started off at North Lake Holly. North Lake Holly is a stormwater management pond along Pacific Avenue north of Norfolk Avenue, and south of Virginia Beach Boulevard. Often times in the winter, Black-crowned Night-Herons are visible along the shores, so this was my target bird. Unfortunately I couldn't locate any here today, but got a start on the other species with standard gulls (Lesser & Great Black-backed, & Ring-billed), Double-crested Cormorants, and Mallards. Rudee Inlet was my next stop in an effort to see if the Common Eiders that have been continuing in the area were still present. On Saturday, just one was present in the center of the inlet.

A Snowy Egret sitting atop a tree in the rain, taken just before I had to put my camera away for a little while.

A large flock of gulls was situated just north of the jetty, comprised of both Great & Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and many Ring-billed Gulls. Herring Gulls, Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants were also present, and a lone Great Blue Heron was sitting up along the bulkhead across the inlet. Fish Crows were there in large numbers, as were Boat-tailed Grackles. After leaving Rudee Inlet, I went up to 88th Street (please note Pacific Avenue is closed at Virginia Beach Boulevard/17th Street, so you need to go down Atlantic in the this area). 88th Street is one of my favorite spots to hop out onto the beach. Along the street itself, there is limited parking, but its a worthwhile spot thanks to a number of residents having feeders in their front yards. I saw my first American Goldfinch & House Finches of the season, as well as seeing some Song Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, and Northern Mockingbirds on the boardwalk going up and over the dunes. A hope of mine here was for a Snow Bunting or Lapland Longspur to show up on the dunes, but no luck today...one of these days I'll find one here as they've been seen in other years at this location in mixed flocks. Down on the beach, Ring-billed & Great Black-backed Gulls were seen out over the water, a lone Sanderling ran past along the beach (my first shorebirds on the year, and one of my favorites). Northern Gannets could be seen without binoculars very close in to shore, but I couldn't find any loons, whether they be Common or Red-throated. My next stop was Pleasure House Point Natural Area, just a few miles down Shore Drive from the 88th street area. I parked at Dinwiddie Drive so I could check the stormwater pond for Gadwall, of which several were present. It started to rain just as I'd pulled in and I thought for a second about just heading home, but really wanted to see if any Brant were still present on the mudflats.

A Bufflehead hen swimming on the freshwater ponds at Pleasure House Point Natural Area.

No luck on the Brants today, but I'm glad I stuck out the rain. For about a half hour it drizzled pretty well, and I had to put my camera gear back in the back to try and keep it from getting as soaked as I was. Well, about a minute after putting it away, a Northern Harrier erupted from the marsh about 50 feet from me, and headed out to the marshy islands offshore. I couldn't believe it, but what a sighting! Clapper Rails were heard, but none were seen today. Great & Snowy Egrets were both present. Ducks were abundant, with Gadwall numbering probably around 100 or more on the creek, and Buffleheads, Hooded Mergansers, American Black Ducks, Mallards, a pair of Ruddy Ducks, and 4 Red-breasted Mergansers all being seen as well. A single Osprey was sighted, I believe part of a pair that has overwintered along the creek the last few years. Songbirds were the group I saw the least of, though probably 20 or so Yellow-rumped Warblers cruised past in a mixed feeding flock with some Carolina Chickadees and a Kinglet I couldn't get a clear view of to distinguish, though fairly certain it was a Ruby-crowned. No luck today with the American Bittern that has been seen by many in the park over the last few weeks. My initial plan was to swing up to the first island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel after leaving Pleasure House, but with the weather, I just decided to keep the $13 toll fee for another day, when hopefully the conditions aren't as difficult for viewing long distances. Lastly, heading back to my home, I swung around Kings Grant Lakes off Edinburgh Drive, Watergate Drive, and Kings Grant Road. These ponds hold a great number of waterfowl in the winter time. Today there was Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, Northern Shovelers, American Wigeons, Wood Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, and a single Northern Pintail on the water. After the morning had ended, I finished up with 45 species for the day! Even on a dreary & wet day, its really nice to be able to see so many things around the region, it really is a birder's paradise here.

My best photo of Saturday, a Hooded Merganser drake seen at Kings Grant Lakes.

On Sunday, the rainy weather persisted, so I spent a portion of the morning birding from the car. I got to add American Robin, European Starling, Red-winged Blackbird, White-breasted Nuthatch all to my list while on the way home from running errands. Afterwards Ruth & I spent some time driving along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and observing from the first island (South Thimble Island). We had very unseasonably warm weather today in Virginia Beach, with highs in the 70s, and some very turbulent clouds moving through the area depending on where you were at. However, out on the bay, it was a beautiful, sunny at times even, morning and you could watch the storm systems moving across the land areas but breaking apart at the water, quite beautiful to see. As for the birds, there wasn't very much duck activity out there today. On my first pass, there was only a handful of female Red-breasted Mergansers, and 3 Surf Scoters present off the rocky point on the north end of the first island. Unfortunately no Long-tailed Ducks or Scaup were out today. Purple Sandpipers (3), and Ruddy Turnstones (2) also were present and were a pair of my target birds for the outing. A good sized flock of Sanderlings rounded out the shorebirds visible on the island. Northern Gannets, Brown Pelicans, and many Double-crested Cormorants were also visible as were typical Great Black-backed, Ring-billed, and Herring Gulls. After observing for a half hour or so, I headed up across the bridge towards the Eastern Shore, seeing a lone Common Loon south of Fisherman Island, and finding a Red-tailed Hawk and many Black Vultures on the island itself (viewing as I drove along).

A beautifully colored Herring Gull showing some very deep pink legs, which I thought could make it a Thayer's Gull, but the eye color isn't right.

Surprisingly, I didn't see any other ducks or loons along the way, except a small (~10) group of Buffleheads between Fisherman Island and the Eastern Shore mainland, that was it. Perhaps the hot & turbulent weather patterns have them scattering away from the open water on the bay. On the way back southward, I caught a flash of a cormorant that may have been my very first Great Cormorant, but with nowhere to stop or turn around, and just a split second look as I passed at 55mph, I'll sadly never know for sure. Hopefully the next time I'm out one makes an appearance. I see them showing up in many birders' reports but with not owning a scope, I've never been able to locate any. I made a quick stop at the first island again on the return trip to Virginia Beach, and this time instead of the 3 Surf Scoters, there was a pair of Black Scoters present, but with no other new birds in sight, I headed back towards home, stopping at a few sites along the way to try and knock out some of the more common suburban birds for my new year list, adding Dark-eyed Junco & House Sparrow after staking out the garbage cans at the local Wawa gas station (yes, birding isn't always glamorous!). I Finished this weekend up with 61 species in total, which made for a very fun time jumping from location to location! So the first week of this blog in 2015 was an exciting one for me, I’m looking very forward to continue it weekly for the second straight year, and hope that the folks who take the time to read it are able to use some of the information to their benefit, or at least appreciate the pretty photographs!

A beautiful Purple Sandpiper, a small species of shorebird that winters along the coast on rocky shorelines like at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.