Week Ending January 25, 2015

Unlike the previous week, the early weekdays were actually pleasant this time around. The weather remained cooler, with highs about 50, but it was beautiful sunny and no rain all the way through the week. On Thursday night, Ruth & I took a trek out into the countryside in the hopes of finding & photographing Comet Lovejoy, which is visible in the night sky right now. With the moon having just started anew, only a small sliver of light from it is brightening the night sky. Therefore, if you can find a spot dark enough with no surface lights in the way, the sky is brilliant. We drove out into Pungo, and I thought Mackay Island NWR might be a great spot to be able to pull off the road and look up, so we drove down that way about 7:30 PM. We stopped along the Marsh Causeway at the observation platform on the north side. Unfortunately, there was a sign there saying that the area was closed after dark, so I only stayed a brief moment, but we were able to see the the comet through my binoculars as a fuzzy snowball looking object. We stopped at the headquarters driveway on the way back and I gave it a shot with the camera, but wasn’t able to get anything to come out. But, the sky was gorgeous out here in the dark countryside, with tons of starts visible, though still nothing compared to what I was used to in Minnesota on a cold winter night. We headed back home from there, stopping at Handel’s Ice Cream, which is one of Ruth’s favorites, and then called it a night.

A vibrantly colored adult male Surf Scoter seen at South Thimble Island on Friday evening!

On Thursday, while on my way home from work I drove around the lakes in Kings Grant just to see if anything was out. While most of the ducks were out further in the water, coming around a turn on Kings Grant Road I found a group of Red-winged Blackbirds, American Robins, and a lone Common Grackle (my 100th species in Virginia Beach on the year)! On Friday, while scanning through the local eBird reports, I found that a Western Tanager had been sighted by Ernie Miller up at Pleasure House Point sometime between 9 AM and 3 PM yesterday. It was nice to see that Ernie not only noted the precise location in his description, but also provided a pair of photographs showing the bird.  So after work, at 3 PM I swung by Pleasure House Point to try and re-locate the Western Tanager. While I only spent a half hour at the park and was not able to find it, a couple other birders there (Tracy Tate & Clark Olsen) said they did indeed see the bird, and it's showed up in eBird reports, so it is still hanging around. Not much else was seen at PHP to speak of, a few Greater Yellowlegs, lots of Gadwalls and American Wigeons out on the creek, but again I didn't stay long. With the dreary weather, I wanted to get up to the first island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel before any rain started falling, and before it got too dark to see anything with the sun already being hidden behind the clouds. So, I headed up there and arrived at 4 PM. Walking the island counter-clockwise from the southeast corner, and then back yielded a fantastic day for ducks.

with it's yellow legs and bill, and very dark back, this is a Lesser Black-backed Gull, less common than the more abundant species here in winter.

I saw my first White-winged Scoters (#101) on the year, as one was swimming with a pair of Lesser Scaup at the southeast corner of the island (No Redheads were present this time out). Along the east side of the island, a great number of Ring-billed Gulls were present, with lower numbers of Herring, Great Black-backed, and a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls as well. At the point, the only duck I spotted was a Red-breasted Merganser, then located two Surf Scoters very tight to the rocks near the pier. On the return trip, about 20 Long-tailed Ducks could be seen out in the swift moving tidal currents north of the island, and a pair of 1st winter Common Eiders were also out there! As if that wasn't a good enough surprise, there was also a lone Harbor Seal swimming around in the vicinity, which I got to see just the head pop up twice far out (I did get one shot of the Seal and many of the Eiders. A group of Buffleheads, Black Scoters, and White-winged Scoters rounded out the sightings as I reached my car again and then drove the same route to get back on the southbound travel lane to the mainland of Virginia Beach. Turned out to be a great couple hours of evening birding to end the week, though I missed not having the beautiful sunset like last week. We're expecting a wet day tomorrow, but hoping the whole day isn't a wash out.

My favorite winter ducks in our area on a flyby, Long-tailed Ducks!

On Saturday, as a nor'easter scraped its way past us and moved further up the East Coast, we were hit with strong northwesterly winds that had the bay very churned up. I drove out to the first island on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel for a half hour of birdwatching, parking at the southeast corner like I usually do. Many gulls (Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed), Double-crested Cormorants, and Rock Pigeons are taking refuge from the winds on this corner of the island.I didn't notice any Lesser Black-backeds today, and there were no Sanderlings present. Working counter-clockwise up around to the northern point, the wind was howling, and the temperatures are probably not much above freezing, with much lower wind chills today. Large swells were moving through the channel, and a large group of Long-tailed Ducks was out riding on them, bobbing up and down as they passed. In addition to the Long-taileds, a good size group of Black & White-winged Scoters was in a bit closer to the point, with one first winter male Common Eider mixed in. I could not locate the second one that was out there yesterday evening, but it could have been resting on one of the rocks facing northward. The waves were crashing along the point though, so this might be unlikely. As with yesterday, there was one Harbor Seal with its head poking out of the water for a few minutes, but then it disappeared. A few Ruddy Turnstones, and a pair of Lesser Scaup rounded out the sightings on the island before I headed back to the mainland. Along the stretch to the mainland, tons of Northern Gannets and comorants were sitting out on the water. I stopped at Dockside restaurant just off Shore Drive, east of the Lesner Bridge for lunch, and watched as large number of Red-breasted Mergansers swam around in the Lynnhaven River. Also some Hooded Mergansers, Buffleheads, and plenty of gulls & cormorants were nearby. I'd hoped maybe a Bonaparte's Gull might come in closer to shore with the high winds, as I've yet to pick one out this year, but no luck there. Still, a very good lunch and nice to watch the birds and eat simultaneously from out of the elements.

Northern Gannet flies past the Rudee Flipper on our whale watching tour Sunday!

On Sunday, after seeing some of the great sightings people were posting from the Williamsburg Birding Club cruise on the Chesapeake Bay out of Lynnhaven Inlet (Harlequin Ducks especially!), I went out on a cruise from Rudee Inlet just to see what might be out there in the nearshore waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The main purpose of the cruises aboard the Rudee Flipper, are to see Humpback Whales as they pass through our stretch of ocean. However, the cruises are also a great place to be able to see some birds out on the water. The Virginia Aquarium here in Virginia Beach is supposed to start hosting tours, but a phone call this morning explained that they currently don't have a boat, so the Flipper is the only way to get out at present. (Tickets are $28). Leaving Rudee Inlet, we saw some Buffleheads and a Common Loon, but no Common Eiders were present this time. I'm not sure if others have noted them here recently, but there was a pair hanging out earlier this month in the inlet, perhaps they’ve moved out of the area by now. When we got out on the ocean, I got my first good looks on the year of some Red-throated Loons (#102), which we saw plenty of, as well as some Common Loons. Gulls were all over the place (Ring-billed, Herring, Great Black-backed), and when we reached a debris line of sorts, there was a large number of Bonaparte's Gulls (#103) sitting on the water. I'm curious if anyone knows what causes these lines to exist? The waves actually broke along them, and they paralleled the shore for miles in both directions. I wondered if it was a change in depth, temperature, or just a line that had something to do with the tides. If someone out there reading this has some knowledge on the topic, please send me a message with your explanations! Either way though, the birds loved it.

A mother & calf Humpback Whale breaking the surface just 50 feet off the bow of the Rudee Flipper, an incredible experience!

I looked adamantly for Storm-Petrels, hoping to see some (which would be my first), but I couldn't locate any. There was a number of Northern Gannets out there as well, some providing great shots. We ended up seeing at least 5 different Humpback Whales on the cruise, and the highlight was a mother/calf pair that surfaced just 50 feet or less in front of the boat. Seeing the dark masses rise up, before even breaking the surface is something I will always remember! So if you're interested in wildlife around southeast Virginia, this cruise is definitely something to consider, I'm very glad to have taken it today! Even with temperatures around 40 degrees, it wasn’t too bad because the sun was shining and there wasn’t any wind to speak of while the boat was at rest. After I got home I checked out all the reports on Listserver and on eBird and it appears that the folks out on the cruise of the bay found a Glaucous Gull in addition to the 4 Harlequin Ducks. Also, a pair of Razorbills was sighted, and I heard a report also of a California Gull being seen, which would be a real rarity in this part of the country. I’m hoping the Harlequins stick around for a little while so I can get a chance to photograph them, they’re incredibly beautiful ducks, and a species that I haven’t ever seen here in Virginia Beach. Also, the Western Tanager at Pleasure House Point was again re-sighted, so another trip might be warranted. However, we have a very strong nor’easter about to form off the coast just east of us tomorrow, and it could be a messy week because of it, so we’ll have to see if they stick around. This strong storm does also bring the possibility of new birds being pushed inland, and southward since it will surely dump snow on the northern part of the East Coast!

A Great Black-backed Gull and the beautiful waters of the Atlantic Ocean seen Sunday!