Week Ending February 15, 2015

Monday morning began with warm temperatures just like Sunday had finished with, and it was about 65 degrees F when I went to lunch at 11 AM. However, when I left work at 4 PM, it had dropped to 40, so the warm weather ended just like it began, rather abruptly. Heading home from work, I drove down Kings Grant Road as I always do, but this time, on the pond with the large emergent vegetation mat I saw some movement. A Great Blue Heron was sitting atop the mat, but I could see the mat moving in several spots so I pulled a u-turn to get on the right side of the street to view from. After sitting for a moment, I saw a head pop up through the vegetation, then another, and another. It was a family of River Otters seemingly playfully fishing along the vegetation. They’d pop up in one spot, then dive back down and pop up elsewhere, just like the whack-a-mole game. Of all days, I didn’t bring my camera to work since I didn’t anticipate going out looking for wildlife. But, when it shows up like this, I had to run home and grab it and then head back out immediately, all while hoping they’d stick around. It probably only took about ten minutes roundtrip, but it seems so much longer when you’re worried about your targets moving off. When I got back to the pond, I parked and headed out onto the thin strip of land between the road and the pond that is on City of Virginia Beach public property, near where a storm drain pipe connects this pond to the downstream one across the street. Luckily, the otters were still around, though hard to pick up with my lens in the overcast conditions and with the daylight dwindling.

Valentine's Day sunrise from the Comfort Inn - Nags Head, North Carolina!

I took some photographs of them swimming around, and a few as they popped up and down in the vegetation mat. While watching them, at least 3 from my count, I also had a Great Egret nearby walking along the shoreline that I photographed. Farther out on the pond, I could pick out a pair of Wood Ducks, and then I had a group of Canada Geese come flying over and land right in front of me. While I was focusing on the geese, movement higher up caught my eye, and an adult Bald Eagle cruised quickly past me. It never ceases to amaze me as to how much wildlife can be seen even in the middle of suburbia here in Virginia Beach. Once the otter activity faded off, as they moved further down the pond onto private property, I headed home to warm up, as the temperatures just kept dropping. Tuesday, the weather turned even drearier, with rain across the region, and temperatures barely staying above freezing at about 33 degrees F.  Strong winds out of the north were affecting the region, as another low pressure system formed off the coast of the Carolinas to our southeast. This nor’easter is expected to intensify rapidly and then slide northward along the coastline in the next couple of days, dumping more snow on New England, and it should cause a lot of wet and windy weather here in Virginia Beach as well, which will again make me feel alright that I’m working indoors during the week anyway. Tides over the next couple of days are expected to run 2 to 2.5 feet above normal, which is significant. I actually enjoy seeing these huge storms, as they and tropical cyclones are the only storms capable of testing the drainage systems I design for my job, and they also tend to push species of birds into our area that we wouldn’t otherwise find here as the birds are forced to get out of the path of these massive disturbances. Unfortunately, I never made it out during the week to check for anything unusual.

My first Black-bellied Plover of the year, seen at Oregon Inlet on the southeastern cove.

It was Friday after work when I finally got outdoors, and just for a quick jaunt up to the first island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. I’ve been trying to get my first Greater Scaup and Great Cormorants on the year, but just can’t seem to find them. The CBBT is the best place for finding both species from what I’ve gathered. When I arrived, I parked at the southeastern-most parking spot and walked the island counter-clockwise as I always do. Large numbers of Double-crested Cormorants and Ring-billed Gulls filled the east shoreline of the island. But, there was almost no waterfowl to speak of. I saw a group of three scaup (2 males and a female), but they were Lesser Scaup, not the Greaters that I had been hoping for. The two species are remarkably similar, but from the splotchy flanks (not all-white), the small nail at the tip of the bill (as opposed to a wide one), and the general head shape, I could discern properly that these were indeed Lessers. I kept on walking, noting a few Herring Gulls mixed in the with Ring-billed Gulls, and just one or two Great Black-backed Gulls as well, though there was no Lesser Black-backeds this time like I’d happened to see a few weeks ago on an outing.

The first Harbor Seal I've ever seen in North Carolina, where Oregon Inlet opens up to the Atlantic Ocean!

At the northeastern corner, a pair of Surf Scoters were up close to shore and I took a few photographs of the male and female combo. Around the rocky point at the north, no birds were seen, but the entire rock surface had ice on it from the heavy waves that battered the island this week with higher than normal high tides and heavy wind. Fortunately for me, it was pretty calm while I was out, though the temperatures were only in the 20s. Once again, a single Harbor Seal was sighted, but far out, and not for very long, just bobbing up a couple times in the water. I walked out to the end of the fishing pier and back, not adding anything new, and then back around the island. I actually didn’t see any Purple Sandpipers or Sanderlings this trip, which is unusual as they are typical residents of the island this time of year. Working my back to the car didn’t yield any new species so I headed out. And actually, it was probably for the best that I left after about an hour, because Ruth & I were heading out to the Outer Banks for the weekend anyway this evening. I got home about 5 o’clock, finished packing, and we headed out down I-264 as soon as she got home around 5:30. Making good time, we figured we could be down about 7 PM or so for dinner in Nags Head, but unfortunately, traffic had another opinion on that one. It took over an hour to get from Greenbrier to 168 on I-64, a distance of about a mile and a half. Because of that, we didn’t get to Kitty Hawk until 8, so we stopped for a dinner at Hurricane Moe’s, which was fantastic, a definite must next trip.

A few of the many Sanderlings seen along the beaches of the Outer Banks!

We had only eaten lunch there previously, but the dinner was great. We made it to our hotel, the Comfort Inn in Nags Head about 9 o’clock, and knowing that Karen & Tom Beatty (Virginia Beach birders) were also staying there, we stopped in to see them for a half hour or so before getting to sleep in our 6th floor oceanview room. On Saturday, we were up and going around 6:30 AM. We grabbed breakfast downstairs and came back up to watch the sunset from the room, which turned into an incredible show as a shrimping boat passed along the horizon nearby. We headed out down the road southward about 7 AM with our first stop being Bodie Island Lighthouse. No other vehicles were present in the parking area, but one set of tracks was seen on the frost along the wooden walkway out to the observation platform. The entire pond at the lighthouse was completely frozen over unfortunately, and we quickly realized that there wasn’t anything in the way of waterfowl present because of it. So we headed back to the vehicle and got moving again. We continued southward down Highway 12 across the Bonner Bridge, and parked at the old coast guard station lot at its southeast corner. Walked from the car back up to the road where I’d thought I’d seen a seal, we found a large floating can, unfortunately not the seal I had hoped for. We walked the catwalk along the eastern side of the bridge, seeing a number of Double-crested Cormorants, Red-breasted Mergansers, and some Horned Grebes as well, which Karen & Tom had warned us about being the most prevalent species they’d seen on Friday. Last year at this same time, Ruth & I saw many White-winged & Surf Scoters along the catwalks, but not a single scoter was to be seen this time around. Also last year, the Red Drum fishermen were all out in the small cove near the base of the bridge, and we watched several fishermen bring in fish. Today, I don’t know whether it was the cold weather or what, but not a single fisherman was around.

A new Life Bird for me at Oregon Inlet, a Red Knot!

After the catwalk, we walked the jetty trail that follows the rocky man-made shoreline around the southern part of the inlet out to where the ocean meets it. On the cove’s beach, there was a number of Dunlin and Sanderlings (or so I thought) dashing about, with a Black-bellied Plover and Willet also mixed in. After snapping some photographs there we kept on moving. Along the rocks I saw a Horned Grebe in close, and after it dove I ran up towards the rocks for a better view, but the loose gravel gave out under my right foot and I went to the ground, fortunately catching myself in the act and stopping my camera lens about 3 inches above the ground. My binoculars unfortunately flew off as the strap came undone, but no damage was done that I could see. I did catch up to the grebe afterwards for some shots, and came away with just a couple of cuts on my right hand, so was very fortunate. It has been a while since I broke any camera gear (about 4 years or so), and I’d like that timeframe to keep extending. Along the jetty trail, there is a secondary beach at lower tide levels out near the ocean. Reaching it, a group of Sanderlings was very visible, and one larger bird with yellow legs was amongst them. When I saw the larger bird, I immediately targeted it, and thought for a second that it could be a Red Knot. I dismissed the idea though almost as quickly as it came to me, instead going with a Pectoral Sandpiper due to the bright yellow legs. Fortunately, after a lot of photographs and some time at home after the outing, I deduced that my first inkling was indeed correct, and it was a nice life bird for me, a Red Knot! I took a lot of photographs of this one, so it made it even more of a special lifer, getting great looks at it all the while. Nearby also, we spotted a Harbor Seal out in the water, and Ruth & I watched for about 10 minutes as it moved along the shoreline, diving down and popping back up, then rolling around in the water.

One of many Horned Grebes sighted at Oregon Inlet!

This is the furthest south I’ve ever seen one along the East Coast and it was a great surprise after I thought I’d seen one earlier from the bridge, only to find that one to be just surface flotsam. After spending time with the Red Knot and Harbor Seal, we headed back towards the parking area along the jetty. Usually we’ll see Savannah Sparrows here, but today we didn’t note any. In November, we’d made a day trip to this area for my birthday, and spotted a Northern Harrier nearby, but no raptors this time out. A group of American Black Ducks, and a pair of Greater Yellowlegs did fly by at one point though out over the meadow. When we arrived back at the first beach, the Dunlin were still present, and a Killdeer, and a Semipalmated Plover had each joined the feeding frenzy in the shallows. It wasn’t until I was home, but I noticed that many of the birds I’d written off as Sanderlings were actually smaller Western Sandpipers, showing their similar plumage, but longer bills and black legs (to separate from Least Sandpipers). After the visit was done, we’d seen 10 species of shorebirds here which was fantastic. Typically it’s the waterfowl that take refuge in this cove that I’m after, so it was a nice change up from my expectations. From Oregon Inlet, we headed southward again on Highway 12, stopping next at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge’s visitor center area. Pea Island is a fantastic site to find shorebirds and wintering waterfowl, similar to Back Bay here in Virginia Beach, but with areas open to the public in view of the impoundments. There is about a 1 mile trail leading out to an observation tower between two of the largest impoundments, and typically lots of species can be seen in both directions from the trail. Since I’ve begun using my binoculars more and more every week this year, they provided great views of some of the further out birds that my camera just can’t pick up. As I was getting out of the car, a flock of Snow Geese passed overhead.

A Killdeer, one of about 10 species of shorebirds seen at Oregon Inlet on Saturday!

Their majestic black wingtips and all white bodies, viewed against a beautiful blue sky background, were amazing to watch. After they passed over, I quickly realized that as with Bodie Island, the bulk of the impoundments were totally frozen over. The small pond at the beginning of the trail was solid ice, so my hopes appeared dashed right away. However, as we kept walking, and we passed through the part of the trail that travels underneath thick brush, we had three juvenile Black-crowned Night-Herons jump off the nearby shrubs and fly out over the nearby marsh. I hadn’t expected to see any night-herons this outing, so a quick surprise that lifted my spirits immediately. Nearby, a Snowy Egret, a Tricolored Heron, and a Great Blue Heron were also standing around in the marsh. Continuing on, I spooked an Eastern Meadowlark from the trail, and thus began a 10 minute adventure of quietly pursuing it, taking photographs, watching it fly, and repeating the cycle. I did manage to get some nice shots showing off its beautiful yellow and black under-colors! Meadowlarks are a species I haven’t seen very often due to the locations I typically bird not being near agricultural or open fields. So when I see them, I always get giddy with excitement. Moving forward we saw groups of waterfowl, mainly Northern Shovelers, American Black Ducks, Tundra Swans, and a couple of Green-winged Teal, huddled around the few openings in the ice. A long thin strip of white birds could be seen far out, but it wasn’t until Karen & Tom Beatty showed up that I could be told they were the American Avocets that I’d hoped to find this weekend (my first time on the east coast, having only previously seen them in California).

Running across the wet beach sand, this is a Semipalmated Plover!

Ruth & I spotted Karen & Tom as we were at the top of the observation tower, and it was another 10 minutes or so before we finally walked close enough to be able to say hello. We noted a number of Forster’s Terns, which sadly, couldn’t do much dive-fishing with the ice everywhere. Also, a single American Coot, and a number of Red-breasted Mergansers (one that I thought was a Common, but couldn’t get a photo, so likely was just a Red-breast without proof). We again hit the car and headed south. From here we typically drive all the way to the town of Buxton, since there aren’t many pull offs along the way. About a mile or two south of the trail we’d just hiked, we found where all the Snow Geese had been flying to, a nice muddy marsh alongside the highway. We pulled over on the shoulder and I took a number of photographs from the safety of the car (acting as a blind in this case, and a warm one at that). I snuck out and shot a few from around the car as well, being careful not to cause the entire flock to burst into the air. After ample time, we headed onward down Highway 12. We crossed the “temporary” bridge that was constructed out of makeshift materials back in 2010 after Hurricane Irene decimate the island, and cut a new inlet through the area to the sound (it has since been refilled with sand). The next town up was Rodanthe, where we’ve seen amazing storm damage done after big storms, but for now, it was a picturesque day in the town from the highway at least. However, the pier in Rodanthe had been catastrophically damaged from the strong winds & waves earlier in the week, with portions collapsing completely. We drove past it quickly just to take a look.

Just a fraction of the main flock of Snow Geese that was seen at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge!

These wooden piers are built with a short life-span in mind. Wind & waves were what created the Outer Banks in the first place as sand from the ocean floor was pushed upward to create shoals, and then islands, so any man-made structure sitting on them should be assumed to be a temporary structure. After continuing south, we passed through the town of Avon, where I noticed an unusual sight along the road. In a small pond, not much more than a glorified, wider, ditch, I saw a Red-throated Loon! Red-throated Loons are common out on the ocean waters here in winter, but to see one on a pond inland, just is something I’ve never encountered. I pulled off on a sidestreet and walked back up to the pond, taking about 50 photographs of the bird to confirm for myself that it was what I thought it was. I also got some shots there of some Yellow-rumped Warblers, which were surprisingly absent from the trails we’d hiked in the morning hours. Heading back out, our next stop was the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse area, where there is a small pond next to the road, and typically deer around. We did spot a pair of deer, but the pond was pretty quiet, just a few Redheads, Mallards, and Northern Shovelers & Canada Geese out a ways. We drove around the campground area, and out towards the beach, but found the roadway flooded from whatever heavy rain they’d received earlier in the week.

Typically seen out on the open ocean, this Red-throated Loon was seen alongside the highway on a stormwater pond, the first instance I've seen like this!

Fortunately, we did see an American Kestrel perched up on a wire in this area, so it was a worthwhile trip down the road (and we saw two more deer). After exiting this area, we continued down Highway 12 to its terminus in Hatteras Village. Here we walked out to the ocean just to see the view, a beautiful one, from atop some sand dunes, and then headed back out the opposite direction. Nearby here is where Brian Patteson leads his pelagic birding excursions out onto the Atlantic Ocean. For three weekends in February, he and his crew take 20 passengers out to spot seabirds that don’t come close enough in to shore typically to be seen. I’d later find out that they spotted many Razorbill, Dovekie, and an Atlantic Puffin on their excursion Saturday! The trips are $160 for the day, but it apparently is quite the adventure, and a full day at that, leaving at 6 AM and getting back around sunset. I wasn’t able to get the money saved up for one this year, but next year, when I am more knowledgeable on seabirds hopefully, I fully plan to hop one of the cruises. Anyways, we made a stop right about noon at my favorite restaurant in Buxton, the Diamond Shoals Restaurant, where I got their delicious Spicy Tuna Wrap and fries. We ate pretty quickly and again headed northward, passing the same massive group of Snow Geese along the highway, and then stopping at Pea Island NWR to hike the same trail as this morning. This time around, the ice had all melted as the sun was shining brightly all day, and the temperatures got into the mid 30s.

Having only seen these birds in California in the past, these were my first east coast American Avocets!

As a result, there was more waterfowl present this time fortunately. Still though, the same species were encountered for the most part with Northern Shovelers again leading the way. Northern Pintails could be seen on the impoundments and a number were also seen flying overhead. While looking off to the south, we noticed that the entire flock of Snow Geese had gone airborne, and it covered a large portion of the sky. An incredible sight to see: Hundreds, if not thousands of geese flooded overhead in smaller V shaped formations for several minutes as they headed northward. We walked the trail to the observation tower and up it. This time, unlike this morning, the wind was whipping around like crazy, so we didn’t stay up long. However, Ruth spotted a pair of White-tailed Deer off in the marshlands to the west, and we watched them as long as we could stand the wind, then headed back down to ground level where the wind was subdued by the nearby tree line. Heading back to the car, we had some American Avocets fly over, close enough to get a positive ID and get some photographs of them! At this point, clouds began to move over the northern half of the sky, and it was projected to get mostly cloudy later in the day, making way for a heavy storm to move through overnight. We decided to do a quick hop over the dunes to the beach to see if any gulls were present. Just prior to crossing the road, we scared a Killdeer that had been standing on the roadway edge, silently. It walked away quickly as I got a couple photographs. Heading up and over the dunes, the wind was already tossing sand every direction, but it was well worth the visit, as hundreds of Bonaparte’s Gulls were seen in close to shore, and Ring-billed/Herring/Great Black-backed were also seen, as well as many Northern Gannets, and a couple of Sanderlings.

Just one of the many, many Bonaparte's Gulls we saw along the beachfront of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge!

We stood for probably 15 minutes along the beach, staring at the beautiful green water, the massive waves coming ashore, and all the birds, it was a wonderful timespan! From there, we headed to the car and up to Oregon Inlet for a second chance. As we were entering the parking area, the clouds had moved southward enough that they covered the sun. Without the light coming through, the temperature plummeted, and the wind made for a tough walk. Ruth & I did a quick trip out on the jetty trail, seeing a few of the same birds from this morning (Red-breasted Mergansers, Horned Grebes, Sanderlings, etc.), but we didn’t stay too long due to the temperature drop and the wind in our faces. We made a dash to the car and went up to Bodie Island Lighthouse, which was to be our last stop on the day. On our way in to the parking area, we saw 6 Eastern Meadowlarks out in the grassy circle made by the winding road. Ruth stayed back at the car this time, as we’d already walked 7-8 miles on the day, so I headed out on the boardwalk on my own for the first time on the day.  Plenty of folks were out this time at the lighthouse, and there was no chance of being the only one on the observation tower. I saw a large number of Northern Pintails, with American Shovelers, Green-winged Teal, and Blue-winged Teal as well. A single American Avocet was also walking around out in the now-melted pond. I was glad to see all the ice was gone, as with Pea Island, since that meant much more waterfowl could use the pond for feeding on vegetation submerged beneath the surface. I walked back to the car, and the sun decided to come out from behind the clouds, so I headed back to the tower again, only to be thwarted once more by clouds… so, I again walked to the car.

Snow Geese in flight against the beautiful blue sky!

The sun again decided to come out, so I played around with taking photographs of the meadowlarks in the parking area, then, when it appeared that the sun would indeed stay out for awhile, I walked the boardwalk again, taking hopefully some better quality shots of the waterfowl that were near the trail. Finally, we headed out, back to the hotel about 3 PM. We dropped our stuff off in the room, and then headed down to the 4th floor to see what Karen & Tom had found during the day. They had their scope set up on the balcony, so Ruth & I each took a look through it. I noted a Black Skimmer, and a few Common Loons, the skimmer being my first one the weekend and a nice addition. Karen was able to find a pair of Merlin during the day, a species I’d hoped to find, but just didn’t see this time out. She even got some nice video of it, and a great one of some American Avocets dancing on the ice at Pea Island. From there, we headed back to the room to clean up, then grabbed a fantastic Valentine’s dinner at Pamlico Jack’s restaurant right on the water, where we got to watch a gorgeous sunset. Pretty much the perfect day of being outdoors for me! Overnight on Sunday, the wind picked up dramatically, and when we were up around 6:30 AM on Sunday, sand was flying in all directions on the beach, and massive waves were breaking far offshore, with the wind causing a ton of spray off their peaks. We again stayed long enough to view the sunrise, an utterly brilliant one that I got some fantastic photographs of. It was a few minutes later this time since a cloud bank was sitting on the true horizon.

Drab from above, but gorgeous from the side, this is an Eastern Meadowlark, seen at Bodie Island Lighthouse!

After the sunrise, we grabbed a quick breakfast downstairs, and then headed out with all our belongings to the car. Getting to the car was an adventure on its own, as the exit to the hotel formed a nice wind tunnel that made it difficult to even open the car doors. We had initially planned on hiking the 5 mile trail up at Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary north of Duck, but with the winds whipping up a chill in the single digits, we passed on it. We made a quick drive down to Oregon Inlet, just to see the waves in full force from the Bonner Bridge, and I jumped out for some quick photographs at the small cove at the southeast side of the bridge. Here I got my first American Oystercatcher of the trip, but that was about it, as I spent only 5-10 minutes outside before the wind drove me back to the vehicle. We drove back up to Virginia Beach, stopping just once for gas along the way, and made it home by 10 AM. We unpacked, cleaned up, and, since it was really a strong northerly wind, we went up to Dockside for lunch. Dockside sits along the Lynnhaven River just east of the Lesner Bridge off Shore Drive. I thought perhaps with the strong winds out of the north, that some birds might be seeking refuge along the northern shoreline where Dockside sits. We saw a few Hooded & Red-breasted Mergansers, and lots of Double-crested Cormorants, but that was about it. I did run into June McDaniels, who is an engineer in Virginia Beach like me, and also a very avid watcher of birds, moreso than me in this instance since she remembered to bring her binoculars to the restaurant, while she was doing counts for the Great Backyard Bird Count. The rest of the weekend was spent sifting through the 1,000 or so photographs taken over the last 7 days. The next 7 could get interesting, as we have a lot of snow forecasted for Monday night, so we’ll see in the next entry to this blog how that turned out, but, as far as this one goes, one of the best weekends I’ve had outdoors in a long while and much appreciated!

Sunday morning's sunrise was even grander than Saturday's from the hotel room, as 30+ mph winds whipped up the ocean waves and sent sand blowing in all directions!