With a very rainy start to the week on Monday, I don’t feel bad about being stuck in an office all day. I took some time to view the reports on eBird from over the weekend, and it appears that the Western Tanager is still being seen at Pleasure House Point by many a birder. Also, there was a report of a Dovekie on Sunday (Andrew Baldelli & Tracy Tate), down at the north end of the oceanfront, which is a bird I’ve never seen before. They’ve showed up in a few local reports this winter, with the most interesting being one a couple weeks ago sighted by Bob Ake down at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge that had overshot the water and landed up near the dune line (it returned safely to the water on its own accord per the eBird report). I'd brought my gear in to the office on Tuesday in the hopes of heading up to Lake Lawson/Smith this evening in search of the Common Merganser that James Marcum & Clark Olsen had previously reported on January 31 & February 2, respectively. However, around lunchtime, a report of 8 Pine Siskins seen at Rudee Inlet by David Clark showed up on eBird. So, I switched my plans due to the ease of access at Rudee Inlet with my short timetable before the sun sets (about 5:30 PM). Gear in hand, at 4 o'clock I headed out the door and arrived down at the inlet about 4:15 PM. The Virginia Beach fire & rescue squads appeared to be doing some sort of training in the large parking area on the north side of the inlet, making for quite a scene, which was unfortunate since all the activity clearly could have spooked all the birds off. I birded for about 10 short minutes and didn't find anything unusual...no Pine Siskins unfortunately, just typical Ring-billed, Herring, Great Black-backed Gulls, Double-crested Cormorants, Rock Pigeons, Boat-tailed Grackles, and a few Buffleheads.
I scanned the jetty in full and couldn't turn up anything else. There could have been some grebes, loons, and ducks on Lake Wesley (the body of water south of the inlet, inshore from the ocean), but with the sunlight glancing across the water, I couldn't pick anything out well enough to make a positive identification. After missing on the Pine Siskins, I decided to head down to 88th Street to see if I could pick out anything floating on the waves, or up in the meadow on the dunes (still holding out hope that a Snow Bunting or Lapland Longspur might show up on this stretch of beach at some point this winter). Arriving about 4:35 PM, I parked and walked the block to the beach access boardwalk, seeing a pair of House Finches on a wire, but nothing else. The wind was quite strong coming off the water, and temperatures were hovering around 30 degrees or a bit less. On the dunes I found a lone Song Sparrow, and was able to pick out a good size group of Black & Surf Scoters just offshore. Northern Gannets, Double-crested Cormorants, Great Black-backed Gulls and Sanderlings were the only other species seen, so I headed quickly back to the car. In the dwindling sunlight I headed up to Pleasure House Point in the hopes of turning up the Western Tanager that most folks have now seen by this point, but I unfortunately just keep missing. I arrived about 5:05 PM to the 90-degree bend on Marlin Bay Drive and walked out onto the trail at the east side of the pond it has been sighted near.
I gave it a few minutes, but saw and heard nothing, so decided to walk a bit of the trail along the creek. Right at the southwest corner of the same pond, a very bold Clapper Rail walked out of the marsh grasses and began fishing right in front of me! In the now-fading light, I was able to get some great photographs, though the ISO got kicked way up to compensate for the the dim conditions, they're still some of the best ones I've ever gotten of these usually secretive birds. Seeing this gorgeous bird up close made the evening well worth it! I spent another half hour or so around that area, seeing numbers of Gadwall and Northern Shovelers out on the creek, but not finding the Western Tanager. I was surprised to see that the other nearby canal-pond to the west was actually frozen partially over, I was so involved in birding that I really hadn't noticed just how cold it was out as the sun dipped below the horizon. Once everything started to turn dark around 5:50 PM, I headed back to the car and called it an evening, very thankful for the birds I got to see on a workday evening.
On Wednesday morning, I grabbed my shoes off the screen porch, and while doing so, I heard my first Pine Warbler of the year. I didn’t put eyes on it though, so I’m holding off to report this one to my yearly list, as I’ve been doing for several Eastern Towhees I’ve heard the past few weeks. The main reason for doing so is that I cannot be 100% of the bird identity based off just hearing the sound…even though I know their songs quite well. Ron Furnish had told me about hearing a bird on an outing, and then realizing later it was actually someone on their phone using playback of the bird song trying to call one in. So for this reason, I always make sure to put eyes on the bird in addition to the sound to verify with certainty, both the eyes & ears need to agree. So for now, I have a couple species missing off my lists that I’ve almost certainly seen, but the key here is ‘almost certainly’. So anyway, I grabbed my stuff again to take to work today… I figured I'd try it out again after work, though with a change of location. I first headed up to the CBBT and arrived about 4:30 to the southeast corner of the first island. Walking counter-clockwise around the perimeter yielded plenty of gulls (Ring-billed, Herring, Great Black-backed), but unfortunately, there was almost nothing in terms of waterfowl activity around the island.
With temperatures around 50 degrees F, and winds out of the south pushing the warm air out over the bay, it seems the ducks all headed out of the area. In 20 minutes of watching, I only turned up a single female Red-breasted Merganser, and a female Bufflehead. Along the rocks on the northeast side of the island a group of 28 Sanderlings, and 4 Purple Sandpipers were feeding and gave great looks, but worse photographs with the shade already hitting this part of the island. Realizing pretty quickly that there wasn't much out here, I headed back to the vehicle and drove over to the nearby Lake Lawson/Smith Natural Area in search of the Common Merganser turned up first by James Marcum on Jan. 31. Arriving at the park at 5 PM, I had a half hour to walk the trails along the lakes before the park closes. Viewing from several locations along the trails (this was actually my first visit to this particular park), I turned up a dozen or so species of very common birds (Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, Canada Goose, Mallard, etc.), but was unable to locate a Common Merganser. Nearing the end of the walk, a duck that looked merganser-like came flying past me and landed on a wooded cove. When I got the binoculars on it though, it was a female Hooded Merganser and not a Red-breasted as I'd hoped. Though, Clark Olsen's report said the two species were hanging out together when he'd seen it, so it gave me a few minutes of hope before I finally had to call it quits and get back to the car before the gate shut. With these couple of short outings after work this week not turning up much in the way of birds, I'm really looking forward to the weekend and hopefully a full day of birding! Having an hour or so between the end of work & sunset makes this time of year rough!
After the last couple evenings of trying to turn up new species, I decided to take a break on Thursday. It’s just too early in the season for after-work trips to be worthwhile during the week. I need to just suck it up and wait until March when daylight savings times hits and I get an added hour. I can still eek out a quick trip on Fridays though since I leave work about 3 PM. Well, on Thursday, the weather dropped greatly in temperature down to the 30s like a typical February day since we had intense 30+ mph winds out of the north pushing away all that warm air that just yesterday got brought up from the southerly winds. Overnight it got even colder, and when I went out to the car Friday morning it registered 22 degrees F. At 3 PM I headed out from the office up to Pleasure House Point to give it one last try at finding the Western Tanager, but, it wasn't in the cards for me. I walked the main trail from mid-way down Marlin Bay Drive around the Brock Center and back and the biggest surprise I had was the number of Northern Shovelers. There was several hundred of them in the main part of Pleasure House Creek, with mixed numbers of Gadwalls, American Wigeons, Ruddy Ducks as well. On the second largest of the interior ponds, there was a male Hooded Merganser with a harem of about 7 females, and a pair of American Black Ducks nearby as well. It turned out to be a nice day for birds of prey, as I saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk fly in over the marsh and disappear into the nearby trees, an immature Bald Eagle soaring along the water's edge, and Osprey, and a Turkey Vulture. Low tide was at about 3:30 PM or so, and as such, I got to see the park at probably its lowest water levels that I've been there for, with mudflats showing up where I hadn't even seen them before.
The largest of the mudflats were dominated by Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, with a few Great Black-backed Gulls scattered about, and a few American/Fish Crows. The Brants were not on the water or sandbars this time, but I did see two small flocks flying in the distance. The only songbirds I was able to pick out on this very windy day were a few Song Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Carolina Chickadees, and a single Northern Cardinal. After Pleasure House Point, I headed up for a quick stop at the first island of the CBBT and parked in the southeast corner like always. There was a lack of waterfowl yet again this evening, with a Bufflehead and Surf Scoter on the east shoreline, a pair of White-winged Scoter off the northern point with a small group of Red-breasted Mergansers out a bit further, and only a single Bufflehead on the west shoreline. It was nice to meet a couple other birders up there (Mark & Ellison), and Mark had mentioned seeing a Horned Grebe that I couldn't seem to spot. However, when I got home, it actually showed up in the background of one of my White-winged Scoter shots, to my own astonishment (#105 on my 2015 Virginia Beach list). We also saw a single Harbor Seal, that I then was able to photograph off the pier with some nice clarity given the weather conditions. On my walk back from the pier nothing new had showed up off the northern point, but a Common Loon was a couple hundred yards off the east shoreline. The typical gulls (Ring-billed, Herring, & Great Black-backed) were all present, and Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, and Purple Sandpipers were also seen. Not a whole lot of volume this evening for birds, but seeing the seal up close made it more than worthwhile! We're expecting highs tomorrow in the 50s, with partly cloudy skies so it should be a good day for being out.
Saturday turned into a whirlwind day of birding in Virginia Beach toda. I started off early, heading out before 7 AM and getting home finally about 3 PM. After about 12 miles of walking spread across 5 different locations, I must say, I'm exhausted, and it'll take me a while to get through all the photographs. At Back Bay, I was surprised to find another Orange-crowned Warbler along the Bay Trail (got some nice photographs), and also ran into a pair of White-tailed Deer on the way out, and again on the way back. The bay was almost entirely devoid of any waterfowl, which surprised me. These southerly winds we've had this week have pushed plenty of water northward on the bay, so even though the edges were frozen this morning, there is still plenty of real estate out there for swans, geese, and ducks. Only 6 Tundra Swans were seen, and I could not locate the Mute Swan that Bob Ake had spotted last week. I was excited to finally put eyes on an Eastern Towhee (#106), though I've been hearing many, this was the first I'd seen this year. Heading down to the beach I ran into the (presumably) same pair of deer that I'd seen earlier on the Bay Trail and got to watch them from a distance as they walked over the dunes and headed off south. From the beachfront, many Common Loons could be seen, and I picked out 1 Red-throated Loon as well, out at max range for my camera and binoculars. I don't usually see them in close enough to view so this was a nice plus. Upon leaving Back Bay, I made a quick stop at Little Island's Kayak Launch, where I accidentally spooked an American Bittern. This is the 3rd time this year I've seen at least one at this site, so it has become an easier spot to locate one than Back Bay in 2015. Continuing on northward, I made a stop at First Landing State Park. I walked from 64th Street in along the Cape Henry Trail, then did a loop on the Osprey & Long Creek Trails.
I was surprised to see several Hermit Thrushes, more out in the open than usual for these secretive birds. I had hoped to locate a Brown Creeper, Red-headed Woodpecker or a Hairy Woodpecker, but missed on all three species. Downy & Red-bellieds showed up though at least, and I still haven't seen a Pileated at the park this year which is pretty unusual. Usually they can at least be heard off in the distance, but, none so far. From the top of White Hill, a large raft of Ruddy Ducks (100-200 of them) was visible out on Broad Bay, which is the most I've ever seen at this location. Next stop for the day was Pleasure House Point, but I was already getting worn out, so I didn't try too hard to stir up every species I could. Instead, I just walked the trails and saw what came out. A few Brant were swimming out beyond the mudflats, but the flats themselves were covered only in gulls (Ring-billed, Herring, Great Black-backed). Plenty of ducks are still out on the large bay of Pleasure House Creek, mostly Shovelers, but with Gadwall and American Wigeons next in line. A few Bufflehead and Ruddy Ducks were also seen. I walked past the Western Tanager site and stopped for just a few minutes, but nothing was moving, in fact, hardly any songbirds were out today aside from the typical Yellow-rumped Warblers. Still waiting on my first Pine Warbler of the year, perhaps its the wind keeping them all down? My final stop of the day was at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, but as with yesterday, ducks were tough to come by. There were two Surf Scoters and 7 Red-breasted Mergansers visible, and that was it, no grebes or loons in close enough for me to spot with binoculars. Fortunately, a number of Sanderlings, Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers were all on the rocks off the northeast corner of the island. Aside from that, pretty quiet out on the bay, but at least the sun was out today, and it started to warm up around noon from the early 30s this morning.
On Sunday, we had absolutely beautiful, and rather unseasonable, weather here in Virginia Beach. Highs hit around 70 degrees F, with a strong southwesterly wind blowing warm air across the region. Ruth & I went down to Back Bay NWR to see what was out, and did a quick out and back on the Bay Trail to find that absolutely no waterfowl were to be seen on the bay itself. No Tundra Swans, no ducks, no geese, nothing. The strong winds also appeared to keep the songbirds at bay, though I picked one Ruby-crowned Kinglet out, and a number of Yellow-rumped Warblers. We next walked the Loop Road counter-clockwise, seeing a number of Swamp/Song/Savannah Sparrows feeding in the grasses along it, but it wasn't until I was about 3/4 of the way around it, on the east portion that I got good looks at a new sparrow species on the year, Field Sparrows (#107). Amusingly, my first sighting of these birds last year was also on February 8th, and in this exact same area, so like clockwork, they seemed to show up for me to see them. Heading down to the beach on the southern of the two access trails yielded some Eastern Towhees and American Robins on the trees in the dunes, and I could see Northern Gannets flying high over the water before I could see the ocean itself. When I got to the beach, there was a number of other folks out and about, but there was also an extreme amount of Red-throated Loons visible offshore. With the southwesterly winds, the ocean was extremely calm along the shoreline, being that it requires winds out of the northeast, east, or southeast to really get churned up. The long period, small waves were crashing right on the beach, rather than providing a large surf zone. Because of this I think, the loons were in closer than I've ever seen them before, and I finally was able to get some nice clear shots with my 400mm lens. Though 99% of the loons I saw were Red-throated, I did see a couple of Commons as well, and I would suspect there was probably some Horned Grebes out there somewhere, but my binoculars couldn't pick them out.
The Gannets were putting on a good show, as were the gulls (Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed). In addition to those, a few Forster's Terns were flying along the shoreline as well, the first ones I've seen this year out on the ocean as opposed to on the inland waters of the bay. After Back Bay, we made a quick stop at Little Island Park and checked out both the pier and the kayak launch area. From the pier, it was the same situation as down at Back Bay, with plenty of Gannets and Loons visible, and one potential Horned Grebe, though I couldn't confirm beyond doubt. Tree Swallows were also seen flying over the dunes, which seemed odd to me this early, though I did also see some at Pleasure House Point a couple weeks back. At the kayak launch, a couple of folks were having engagement photographs taken, so I think they probably had scared away the birds I was hoping to find (American Bittern & Cooper's Hawk), so I didn't spend much time there. We stopped in at Pungo Pizza for a quick lunch and then headed back out down the roads of Pungo, driving a loop around Charity Neck, Morris Neck, and Princess Anne Roads hoping to see some large flocks of geese, or perhaps a Merlin &/or Red-shouldered Hawk. Along Charity Neck, on a field, there was a good number of Killdeer (my first of the year & #108), as well as Red-winged Blackbirds, European Starlings, and a couple of Eastern Meadowlarks. Perched high on a wire a hundred yards back from the road was an American Kestrel, so I finally got my first photo of one this year, though it wasn't of the best quality. All in all, it turned out to be quite the weekend,with about 80 species or so seen here in Virginia Beach.