After a wonderful kick-off to the new year last week in terms of the number of birds I got to see, this week stepped it up to a whole new level. On Tuesday evening, Ruth had gotten a bad case of food poisoning and unfortunately spent the majority of the night in agony. She was forced to stay home from work on Wednesday after only getting a couple hours of sleep and still feeling awful. I brought her some soup home for lunch since it was the only thing she’d be able to keep down. While heading back to work around noon, I saw a mixed flock of Red-winged Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds along Kings Grant Road. The cowbirds were my 60th species in Virginia Beach this year, so even under sad circumstances, the birds are still showing up. Later in the day, while driving to a meeting at the City of Virginia Beach’s municipal center, I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk (species #61) along Princess Anne Road feeding on a mammal that looked like a squirrel. No new sightings on Thursday, but we had some very cold weather move in overnight, with temperatures down in the lower teens on Thursday morning. As a result, the lakes in my neighborhood (Kings Grant Lakes) began to freeze up, with the smaller coves completely covered. On Friday at 3 PM I headed out from work and went down to the Oceanfront to meet up with Karen Beatty. I stopped first at the Sandpiper Motel at 12th Street & Pacific Avenue to take a quick look across North Lake Holly.
This time, the Black-crowned Night-Heron (#62) was present on the point directly across, though far away for decent photography. I left there and headed down to Rudee Inlet where I met up with Karen and we got a chance to watch the two Common Eiders that have been hanging out in the inlet this winter. They are both first-year males so have not yet acquired their beautiful adult plumage, but they’re still pretty birds. Once was in the center of the inlet this time, and the other was out very close to the rocks of the jetty. Though it had warmed up into the high 40s Friday, there was still a lot of remnant ice out on the rocks from the day before and overnight. It was very neat actually, since all the ice was in a horizontal layer above the high tide line where the water would wash it away, but not on top of the rocks. Out on the jetty we saw Herring & Great Black-backed Gulls but nothing unusual. We also had a good number of Sanderlings flying around and landing on the rocks, and the ever-present Ring-billed Gulls and Boat-tailed Grackles filled the parking area near the trash cans. After a half hour or so chatting and scanning for birds I followed Karen over to Owl’s Creek Boat Ramp just north of the Virginia Aquarium. I had joked with Karen that I’d hoped to maybe find a Red-necked Grebe or a Common Goldeneye at this location since she’d seen both species here in the last year. No luck on either species today, but when we first arrived we saw many Mallards, some Brown Pelicans, and passing by Double-crested Cormorants. We walked along the docks near the ramp as well as on the short trails through the near marsh, where we saw one Great Blue Heron. Additionally, across the creek Karen spotted a lone Bald Eagle (#63) perched up in a tall pine tree, which I was able to get a poor photograph of. As Karen stepped further on one of the trails, a hawk flew out from its perch in a tree and we identified it as a Cooper’s Hawk (#64).
We watched as a few Red-breasted Mergansers flew in from the ocean and landed out in the middle of the water, and I spotted a smaller bird nearby that we believe to be a female Ring-necked Duck from Karen’s photographs (mind came out poor from the great distance and lack of light). After watching it for a few minutes we went back to the cars and headed out as the sun dropped down below the tree line. On Saturday, I woke up around 7:30, a bit later than I’d wanted, but I had an exhausting week. Ruth was now feeling quite a bit better form her batch of food poisoning, but it was very cold out so I went out birding alone for the day. When I left home, my car thermometer read 28 degrees, which at just below freezing, is right on my preferred temperature for being outdoors. Its not cold enough that its painful as long as you’re moving, and its not warm enough where I just sweat the whole day. Driving past Kings Grant Lakes, they were all completely iced over now and no waterfowl could be seen. My destination was Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which I reached at about 8:15 AM. At the parking lot, there was a group of 4 birders setting up scopes to look across the bay, which was also frozen as far as the naked eye could see thanks to the last 3 days of freezing temperatures. The folks let me take a quick glance through the scope, and many Tundra Swans (#65) were visible on the other side of the bay. I could not identify any of the smaller birds with them at that great distance, so anyone’s guess is as good as mine. I headed out onto the Bayview Boardwalk, walking past the small pond where the American Bittern likes to hang out, but it too was frozen solid. I quickly realized I was not going to see some of my target species today with all the ice, but continued on. Walking westward down the Bay Trail, I didn’t see any bird activity until I reached the pond at the end.
Here, I saw what at first I dismissed as a cypress tree knee, but paused, and it moved, flying off across the pond. It was an immature Black-crowned Night-Heron, which is the first one I’ve seen in the park. Clearly, the poor bird must have been in starvation mode, given that everything was iced up and it can’t hunt, so I feel pretty bad that I spooked it as I walked by, as it was probably already low on calories. I walked to the end of the trail, and tons of swans, geese, and ducks were visible out on the bay from here. There was a few open water holes, which the American Coots (#66) were taking advantage of as well as many ducks like American Black, Gadwall, and Mallards. I headed east down the Bay Trail and ran into Erica Locher, a ranger at the park, who runs the park’s Facebook page as well. We talked for a few minutes and she continued out to see the swans while I went back towards the parking area to let the 4 folks know there was much better views of the waterfowl at the end of the trail. Unfortunately, they’d already left though and I couldn’t pass on the information. So I walked around the visitor center and walked the Loop Road counterclockwise. Along the road I was amazed when a shorebird flushed next to the frozen ditch, and it was a Wilson’s Snipe (#67), a bird that I very rarely ever see. It flew off incredibly fast but I got a couple poor quality ID worthy shots. I saw some sparrows which were most likely White-throated or Swamp dashing into the marsh cattails as I walked, but nothing definitive. At the gate to the west dike, I could see a good number of American Coots out in a hole in the ice, and several walking across it with their big goofy feet, it was quite hilarious to see. Shortly after, a Northern Harrier flew across the road, not the first I’ve seen this year, but the first I’ve photographed.
Unfortunately I couldn’t locate any Field Sparrows along the road in the area that I typically see them, perhaps its just too early in the season. I had envisioned walking out onto the beach for a while, but when I took the trail up and over the dunes to it, the wind and waves were incredible. Only 1 Sanderling was visible on the sand, with no other birds anywhere in sight, save for some Gannets far offshore only viewable through my binoculars, and one other bird that I feel was a Red-throated Loon, but cannot verify from photos. So I headed back inland, and again walked the Bay Trail. No new sightings this time, so I headed back towards the visitor center. Here I got some Song Sparrows, and a Swamp Sparrow (#68). I thought perhaps I’d see something on the northern beach access trail so I did a quick walk of it. Amazingly, a second Wilson’s Snipe flushed here and again didn’t allow good shots of it. On the dunes, I found a single Savannah Sparrow (#69)! After that I headed back to the car and left the park. My next stop was at Little Island Park, where I like to check out the kayak launch area on the west side of the road. Last year during a freeze-up, I saw a Great Egret swallowing a Rail or Gallinule whole here. When the chips are down, anything goes in the animal world. This time though, I did see 2 Great Egrets, but neither was dining. I added a Gray Catbird which I heard from the shrubs (#70), and a Brown Thrasher (#71) that stayed out in the open for some photographs. Some Carolina Chickadees and Yellow-rumped Warbler rounded out the walk, and I managed to get my left foot soaked in marsh mud as the thin layer of ice gave way. The cove was totally frozen so no waterfowl was present. Again, I headed northward, driving all the way up to 88th Street at the north end of the Oceanfront. Here I did a quick run down to the beach hoping for something on the dunes, but the bird of the walk here was a group of 10 Black Scoters bobbing up and down in the rough seas.
After 88th Street, I headed over to Pleasure House Point, hoping to find the Eurasian Wigeon that many others have seen over the past couple of days. I parked over at Dinwiddie Drive, seeing some Gadwall, Cormorants, and a Herring Gull on the stormwater pond. I checked the outlet to the creek and was stunned to find an American Bittern standing right against the cattails, making that my #72. I ran into a couple walking their dog and told them about the bittern, which they seemed intrigued by. Walking out along the trail around the visitor center there was no Brants present on the mudflats so another miss. As I neared the location where the wigeon was seen, a small flock of Eastern Bluebirds (#73) played nice and perched in the open so I could photograph them. There was many ducks out on the water, most of which were Gadwalls, with some American Wigeons and Northern Shovelers mixed in, but I could not locate a bird that looked like a Eurasian Wigeon, so I kept walking. A Snowy Egret and Great Egret were present on the deer carcass pond, and at the next pond I caught up with the couple I’d seen earlier and we talked about some of the stuff that could be seen. As they continued, a Bald Eagle flew across the sky so I hollered to them to look up. We stood out on the marsh edge and watched as the adult circled several times in the sky before moving off to the south. After a good chat, the couple (Jill & Troy I believe their names were), headed off down the trail, and I gave them and their dog a head start. Shortly after that, I passed a women with a scope in hand, so I introduced myself and she identified herself as Tracy Tate. Tracy is one of the most active birders in our area, so I was amazed it took this long before I ran into her. She pointed me in the direction of some Green-winged Teals, which I was able to photograph (#74).
Heading back east, I ran into her again, and she said she’d just seen a Black-crowned Night-Heron, so again I checked that out and sure enough it was still there, my first in the park. I returned the favor by finding some more bluebirds, and then she went off to look for the Eurasian Wigeon with her scope. I never could find it, but after walking past the area, I saw two more birders, that turned out to be Ron Furnish & Marie Mullins, another pair of very active folks here locally. They were staring at a Greater Yellowlegs (#75) that was walking on a small mudflat between land and the marshy islands near where I’d seen the Nelson’s Sparrows the first time last year. As we watched the Yellowlegs, Ron had just started to tell me about a Clapper Rail they heard, when one swam out across the creek! I walked with them the rest of the way back to Dinwiddie where they’d also parked. At the main mudflat, the Brants were again missing, but just then the flock flew across the sky and made several circles, so I got to add #76 afterall. I walked them by where the bittern had been earlier but it wasn’t present and we headed back to the cars and left. My last stop on this very busy day was the first island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. I parked in the first spot and then walked the perimeter of the island counterclockwise. Many Ring-billed Gulls and Rock Pigeons were on the east side. Off the rocky point at the north end, there was some Surf Scoters, and a group of 3 Long-tailed Ducks (#77), which are arguably the most beautiful ducks we have here in the winter time. A few Red-breasted Mergansers were also present, and one Black Scoter, but that was it on the day. I headed back and got home around 3 PM, a full day of winter birding, and one where I added 13 species to my yearly county list.
On Sunday, I got a later start, but the weather remained down around 30 so I was happy to see cold weather and the sun again. Since I hadn’t spent any time this year yet in the woods, I went to First Landing State Park to try for some songbirds and woodpeckers to add to my list. I parked at 64th Street as I always do, so as to avoid the $5 fee going in off Shore Drive (FLSP is the most visited park in Virginia, I have no problem letting the tourists finance its operation). I walked into the park and took the Cape Henry Trail southwest. All of the marshy spots were frozen solid, including Lake Susan Constant. I saw a good number of American Robins and Red-winged Blackbirds fly in overhead, and also saw a Brown-headed Nuthatch (#78), Tufted Titmouse (#79), and Golden-crowned Kinglet (#80) mixed in. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any Ruby-crowned Kinglets so will have to try again next weekend. I turned off the Cape Henry Trail and onto the Long Creek Trail, then took the Osprey Trail down along Broad Bay. At Broad Bay I found some Buffleheads, American Black Ducks, and while scanning with binoculars picked up the dorsal fins of two Dolphins, and a Common Loon (#81), which I was able to photograph poorly. Heading up and over White Hill, I got my first glimpse of a woodpecker on the year when a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (#82) landed on a nearby tree in the shade. While watching it, a Red-bellied Woodpecker (#83) also flew in to another tree. I walked down the hill to White Hill Lake, which also was frozen solid, except at the outlet where a pair of Hooded Mergansers was swimming.
Walking around to the bridge at the 3 mile mark yielded no new birds, but provided beautiful views across the frozen marsh. Heading back I stayed on the Long Creek Trail and forewent the Osprey Trail in an effort to hopefully see some more woodpeckers. This paid off, as I found a spot near the heron rookery where a Downy Woodpecker (#84) flew in, closely followed by another Red-bellied Woodpecker and also another Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, this time a beautifully colored adult male. I got photographs of all three species, and that rounded it out for the woodpeckers on the day, missing on the other 4 (Pileated, Hairy, Red-headed, and Northern Flicker), but those will come eventually if I spend enough time outdoors. Just after the junction with the Osprey Trail, I heard scratching on a tree and looked up just in time to see the very recognizable brown and black tail of a Raccoon go shooting into a hole in the side of the tree! I never got a good look at the animal, but that tail is something Ruth & I have discussed a lot lately, comparing our cat Buster to a Raccoon due to his voluminous tail. The last mile or so of the Long Creek Trail was quiet, until a small brown bird flew into the underbrush. I watched for about 10 minutes trying to get a good look through the heavy underbrush and finally it moved into an open spot, showing itself as a Hermit Thrush (#85)! That was the last bird of the day, aside from a Pied-billed Grebe on the now-thawing Lake Susan Constant, and I hit the car and headed out.
Karen Beatty had posted about Snow Geese having showed up on some farm fields in Pungo, so I thought about heading that way but decided I have more time before they’ll leave the area for good, but the Eurasian Wigeon at Pleasure House Point could leave at any minute, so I drove up that way instead. I parked off Dinwiddie and headed down the trail. Brants and gulls, with a lone Osprey were present out on the mudflats this time right away, and I kept going in the direction of the wigeon. On the way, near the spot I’d see Ron & Marie the day prior, a hawk flew up from the treeline and I focused in on it just as another hawk flew in and the two bared their talons and freefell. From the wing shape and size, both were Sharp-shinned Hawks (#87!). I watched them for a couple minutes before they flew off in different directions, but it was an incredible experience. Afterwards, yet again, with the sun’s glare, and the extreme distance, I just could not pick out a bird that looked different than the Gadwalls and American Wigeons. A bit frustrated, I decided to keep walking a bit further since I was there. I got to the pond with the deer carcass and decided I was going to walk back to the car inland hoping to find some more hawks or songbirds. Just then, I looked north onto the pond’s upstream end and caught sight of two birds. I pulled out the binoculars and I was astonished to find that one of the birds was a female Hooded Merganser, but the other was a female Common Goldeneye! I crept up closer and got some photographs, before getting a bit too close, as they two lifted off and flew west around the corner. They could easily have landed on one of the other wooded ponds in the park but I did not follow.
I was just so excited to have seen a bird that doesn’t show up here very often. In fact, this is my very first Goldeneye seen outside of Minnesota. Additionally, the Common Goldeneye is a very dear bird to me as it was the very first bird I ever identified solely using a field guide on my own. I recall well seeing my first one on Farm Lake in Ely, MN while helping my father work on a house in the summertime (perhaps 1992?) and seeing one down at the lake while getting water to use to make concrete foundations for a screen porch. At the time, he assured me it was a Ring-necked Duck, but I didn’t believe it, and finally used his Peterson field guide to prove to him it was something else! After watching the birds fly off, I headed back along the trail, not really even paying attention to what was there as much as I had been earlier. But, I did find a Clapper Rail that was out in the water, and photographed it as it worked its way to shore, and along the shoreline in the mud. A Greater Yellowlegs flew overhead as well, and then I made it back to my car and headed home to end a fantastic week of being outdoors, with beautiful winter weather. Hopefully this week I can continue to add to my 87 species in Virginia Beach! I’ll be trying to get a Common Grackle at lunchtime or after work, since that’s the last remaining urban bird I need.