Week Ending February 22, 2015

On Monday evening and through the night we received about 4-5" of snow here in the Kings Grant section of Virginia Beach. Depending on where you are around the metropolitan area, totals sounded like they went up to about 8-10", typically the further north, the higher the snowfall. We may actually have received a bit more than measured, but a thick layer of freezing rain came down in the early morning hours and covered pretty much everything by morning, so this ice layer may have smashed the snow totals down a bit. Since my office was essentially closed for the day since no one could get out of their neighborhoods, I got to stay home and Ruth & I decided to go for a walk around the neighborhood. My fiancé, Ruth, also had yesterday off for President’s Day, but my company doesn’t celebrate that one unfortunately, it could have been a nice 4-day weekend if we had. We left our apartment in Kings Grant Landing and starting walking towards the Kings Grant Lakes area to check on the resident waterfowl. Along the way, we saw a wide variety of songbirds in the trees and on front-yard feeders along many streets, including House Finches, American Goldfinches, American Robins, Blue Jays, Dark-eyed Juncos, Eastern Towhee, Northern Cardinal, and probably a few others I'm forgetting right now. Since we aren’t allowed to have bird feeders out in our neighborhood, I have to sort of stalk front-yard feeders that I can see from the road unfortunately, but I do see interesting birds every now and then while driving by some of them. When we reached the lakes themselves, the first set of ponds were completely iced over, except for a couple of holes that I assume were kept open by the River Otters that I’ve been seeing on the water the past couple of weeks. They’ll keep spots open so they can get to and from their homes dug out under the bank, accessible only underwater.

A layer of freezing rain fell late Monday night after we'd received about 4" of snow, encasing all the trees in ice.

On the main lake, there was only one small area that wasn't completely iced over, just offshore from the park on Kings Grant Road, at the site where most of the wintering waterfowl congregate since a homeowner there throws out feed to a flock of Domestic Geese all winter long. On this small area of open water, many species of ducks were present, and all nestled up to one another due to the extremely limited open water. I had to figure that with temperatures in the low 20s, sitting on the water was warmed for these ducks than sitting on the nearby ice was, though they seemed to rotate back and forth. In total, I counted 9 species of ducks in this single area, the highlights though were a single male Lesser Scaup, and a single male Green-winged Teal huddled up on the ice. These are both firsts for me here in the neighborhood, and they must have just stopped on the lake while flying over and seeing an open spot during the storm. Wood Ducks were very abundant, and I counted 25 of them at one point, the most I have ever seen in a single day. I always thought seeing 1 Wood Duck was an incredible day, because they’re such vibrantly colored birds, but seeing 25 of them all tucked in close, was nothing short of incredible to view. Mallards, American Wigeons, and Northern Shovelers were also numerous as they typically area in this spot. A few Gadwall, Northern Pintail, and Ring-necked Ducks rounded out the group. Absent from the normal list of birds I see on the lake were Hooded Mergansers, and I wondered if because they’re diving ducks & feed on fish rather than vegetation, that they needed to find a larger open water area to be able to keep feeding. When we left the park, we walked up around Watergate Drive to where the lake outfalls under the road into a tidal finger of the Lynnhaven River.

Female Common Goldeneye seen off the first island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel on Friday evening!

En route, we spotted a Pileated Woodpecker high up on a tall tree, but unfortunately I had my camera packed in my backpack so if I slipped on the ice while walking it’d have a better chance of not getting damaged. I’d hoped to find some birds at the outfall site on the brackish water, but even this was completely frozen over, showing just how cold it had gotten. Brackish water is a mixture of fresh and salt water, mostly found in estuaries that link up to the ocean and are therefore subject to tidal action, but also receive large amount of water directly from rainfall, which drops the saline content of the water body as a whole. After not seeing anything in this spot though, we walked back towards home, along the neighborhood streets and I noted a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and a Great Blue Heron out on another frozen pond. All in all, 30 species were counted, which could be the most variety I've ever seen walking the neighborhood streets, and the snow provided a beautiful setting, though photo opportunities weren't the best due to angle & distance to the subjects, I did get a few decent shots. Throughout the remainder of the day, the temperatures did rise and the snow began to melt a bit, but, it dropped back below freezing after sunset, and so whatever melt water was on the roads, just turned back into solid ice. On Wednesday, I did have to go back to work, though Ruth’s office was on a delay til 10 AM since they abide by the City of Norfolk’s closing schedule. Schools of course were all closed since buses couldn’t navigate the icy neighborhood streets, that for some reason just don’t get cleared off until the sun melts the snow here. Being from the Midwest, it drives me nuts, but, that’s an issue outside the goal of this blog. I caught up with all the reports from around the area, and several folks (Karen Beatty & Tracy Tate) got good looks at Common Redpolls (and photographs) due to the winter weather we had received.

A pair of male Redheads and a Surf Scoter were seen mixed in with a group of other sea ducks off South Thimble Island!

When it gets this cold here, the weather actually pushes species further south than they usually are found, and while Common Redpolls are indeed common up north, seeing them here is a treat. I recall well growing up in Minnesota and seeing them at our feeders in large groups of several hundred at times, but I’ve yet to ever digitally photograph one, since I didn’t get interested in photography until after I moved to Virginia. Some other sightings of note were a Thick-billed Murre that showed up at Rudee Inlet for Tracy Tate & Andrew Baldelli, and was re-sighted by Ned Brinkley later in the week as well. Common Goldeneyes were also seen in that area, which are not that common here, this being only the second set that has been reported in Virginia Beach to eBird in 2015 (the other was the one up at Pleasure House Point). Also, Red-necked Grebes have started to show up in larger numbers than in a typical year, which I presume is due to the extreme weather up north of here, and the fact that the Great Lakes are now 82% frozen over according to NOAA (http://www.wunderground.com/news/great-lakes-ice-cover-february-2015?cm_ven=FB_NEWS_AS_021815_3). When the lakes freeze, the waterfowl and other birds that winter there are forced to seek open water, and they move towards the Atlantic coastline accordingly, then travelling southward til they find something suitable. Ned Brinkley posted a photograph in the Birding Virginia Facebook group showing a group of 3 Red-neckeds taken from the first island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (South Thimble Island). The Great Backyard Bird Count ended this week thankfully, so now the sheer number of reports showing up on eBird.org should drop off back to normal amounts, and the accuracy of the reports should sharply increase, I saw a lot of reports of species that were highly unlikely to have been seen in the locations that they were noted, and more than likely an error in identification had occurred.

Snow & ice along the dunes at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday morning!

But, still it is a good event to get people interested in adding their observations and birding checklists to the eBird database. I do feel for the regional reviewers though this time of year, since they are the ones who have to validate whether the observations can be counted as accurate or not, and their volume of inspections surely increases ten fold. I know I’ve probably made errors in IDs in the past as well, and I’m sure I will moving forward at times, but in this day and age, it’s pretty easy to verify an ID with all the online birding communities that exists, and typically have resident experts that love to help out. In fact, if anyone who reads this blog ever has a question on an ID, I’m always willing to assist, I do know most of the species very well that are seen around here, I can always be reached on the Contact Form on this website. On Thursday, a Eurasian Wigeon was spotted on a small pond up near Lake Smith by Tracy Tate (photographs are on eBird), and it sounded as if the situation there is the same that I encountered in Kings Grant this week, with waterfowl action keeping open a small area of the lake from freezing, so many species all crammed into a tight area together weathering out the cold. I have a little application set up on my site that shows all the rare bird sightings across Hampton Roads, it’s extremely useful for those interested in keeping up with reports on a daily basis (http://www.rbnature.com/resources/ebird/). Thursday & Friday also, the snow remained, and we actually did get another half inch or so on Wednesday night, just enough to cover up the ice and make it appear safe to walk on.

One of the 4 species of sparrows encountered at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the Savannah Sparrow!

Low temperatures plunged down into the single digits, which I believe is the coldest I have seen it here since I arrived in the region in 2005. In fact, Friday morning, we apparently broke a record set back in 1896 when temperatures dropped to 9 degrees F at Norfolk International Airport. What does this say to me though? Record cold, means we should continue to see northern birds arriving in the region that we don’t typically find here. So I say, keep bringing on the cold weather. Friday morning, Brian Patteson posted his seabirding.com report from this past weekend out of the Outer Banks. While I have not yet been on a pelagic birding trip out onto the ocean, I do like to keep up with the reports, since they’re filled with a lot of useful information and some great photographs as well. It turned out that while Ruth & I were fighting the wind on Sunday down there, the boat trip scheduled had to be cancelled, but they made up for it on Monday, and saw a great number of birds, lots of Razorbills and Dovekies, and a Manx Shearwater, and an Atlantic Puffin. His report & blog is located here (http://seabirding.blogspot.com/) and is always worth checking out for neat stuff. I hope to get out next year on one of their 4 February trips, last year they even spotted a Yellow-nosed Albatross, which is an incredibly rare sighting in this part of the globe, being mainly a southern hemisphere bird. On Friday evening, I made a quick stop up at the first island of the bay bridge-tunnel after work, and was excited to find a wide variety of ducks present! I parked on the southeast corner of the island in the first parallel parking spot, and working my way around counter-clockwise. The walkways between the fence & the guardrails have not been treated for the snow, so it is still sitting there and covered in ice. Walking along it, I seemed to be scaring all the in-close birds so I walked on the asphalt parking area until I got within sight of some birds, then hopped the guardrail briefly to observe. Interestingly, there was barely any gulls to be seen today, where normally there are hundreds on the east side of the island. Not a single Herring or Great Black-backed was seen on the ground, though one Great Black-backed Gull did fly past.

A striking White-throated Sparrow seen at Back Bay near the visitor's center parking area!

Two Redheads were present along the eastern shore of the island, and just beyond them I caught sight of a pair of female Common Goldeneyes. These were just the 2nd & 3rd goldeneyes I've seen in Virginia Beach this year, having seen my first at Pleasure House Point last month when it was around for a few day stint. There was two groups of scaup, one at the south end of the island, and one on the calm waters protected by the northern point of the island. The northern group appeared to have 1 Greater Scaup and the rest Lessers. There was also several Ruddy Ducks dotting the shoreline, looking so tiny out there in comparison to the larger sea ducks. This was the first time I've seen this species out on the islands. I ended up walking out to the end of the pier just to get the blood pumping so my hands would warm up a bit, then walked the reverse path back to my car. On the return trip, the 2 goldeneyes were now out of the northern point in the channel with some Surf & Black Scoters, and the scaup/Redhead grouping had moved closer in..but upon hearing me walking on the ice & snow, moved back out of good camera range. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of my first Red-necked Grebes, given the temperatures, and the observations made by others recently out on the bay, but I couldn't locate any today unfortunately. However, seeing the 2 goldeneyes made the trip up there worthwhile for sure. Additionally, I did not realize it until writing this blog up on Monday evening, but I actually got photographs of a female Canvasback out off the northern point as well. After I’d left the island I texted Ron Furnish about the Goldeneyes and he reported seeing the Canvasback, as did Greg Tito on Thursday, and David Clark on Saturday, which prompted me to go back through my photographs. So I’m excited to say that Canvasback is now my 109th species seen in Virginia Beach in 2015. The Greater Scaup seen amongst a group of Lessers also adds to the toal as #110!

A Swamp Sparrow feeding between the remaining pockets of snow on Saturday morning!

On Saturday, with the sun shining early in the morning I headed down to Back Bay NWR hoping to get some wildlife, and some nice shots of the snow in a natural setting before it all melts. Upon arriving it was obvious that walking the trails wasn't going to be a valid option since they were still hard packed with snow, and ice on top. I was either skating on the ice layer, or punching through loudly and scaring everything off around me. So, I opted to walk down the beachfront a couple miles instead. Heading southward the sun is pretty much right in your eyes this time of year in the mornings, which makes it a bit harder to pay attention to what’s over the water while walking. So after about 2 miles I stopped and turned around, now with the sun at my back. Plenty of Common & Red-throated Loons offshore, lots of Double-crested Cormorants and Northern Gannets in the air. 4 species of Gulls were seen (Ring-billed, Herring, Lesser & Great Black-backed). While watching a gannet diving down into the water, I noticed a duck off to its side, which turned out to be a female Long-tailed Duck, the first one I've ever seen off the beach at Back Bay NWR. Lots of Red-breasted Mergansers were forming a large raft offshore about a mile south of the main beach access area. Walking back up over the dune line to the loop road proved difficult, with the sun having disappeared behind clouds, all the ice that had melted earlier just refroze. Along the loop road, and around the parking area there was plenty of songbird activity, so it wasn't such a loss to not be able to walk the trails. Savannah, Song, White-throated, and Swamp Sparrows were numerous, feeding on the exposed grassy areas.

Not another sparrow, though similar in color, this brown bird is a Hermit Thrush, related to the American Robin, and a bird not so often seen as they hide in the underbrush. 

Along the Kuralt Trail boardwalk, which was actually cleared of snow, several Hermit Thrushes and Robins/Catbirds/Thrashers/Mockingbirds were seen...and as always there was no lack of Yellow-rumped Warblers today. All in all it turned into a great outing, and as I was driving from the parking area north along the entry road, a King Rail (#111!) came running across the roadway, disappearing quickly into the brush, but giving a good look from the car. I was not expecting to see one of these today, given that all the freshwater in the park is totally iced over, but it was a new first-of-year bird for me so I'll take it! On the way home, driving down Sandbridge Road at the Lotus Gardens, there was some open water on the ditch that flows in parallel to the roadway that held some Mallards and Hooded Mergansers. I slowed down to observe them, when a shorebird jumped out on the ice. It was a Wilson's Snipe! So I drove up to the tee intersection ahead and pulled a u-turn, parked at the Lotus Gardens and then navigated the snowy shoulders of the road trying to get a photograph. A pair of Killdeer, a Great Blue Heron, and a Great Egret were all also present in this open water spot, and an Eastern Phoebe flew in and landed on a pine tree across the ditch (#112!). I did snap a few good shots of the Snipe, which are honestly the first clear ones I've ever gotten, as typically by the time I can raise a camera, they're already in flight and rushing away quickly. The trails were extremely icy, and I'd wished I had cramp-ons for my shoes at times this morning, almost biting the dust several times, but fortunately staying upright. 

This beautifully camouflaged bird, with its massive bill, is a Wilson's Snipe, and this is the first time I've ever been able to photograph one with any clarity before spooking them!

On Sunday, temperatures skyrocketed in southeast Virginia, moving up probably into the 50s or low 60s depending on where you were. Ruth & I drove up to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in the afternoon just to see what was out there now that the weather had changed so drastically. Out on the first island, the temperature differential between the air, water, and melting snow made for a wild scene. Enshrouded in thick fog, it was difficult to see out beyond a hundred yards or so from the island, but many, many waterfowl were in close enough to be seen. There was a large raft of assorted ducks in the channel just off the northern point of the island, comprised mainly of Lesser Scaup, but with Surf, Black and White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Buffleheads mixed in. One female Long-tailed Duck was very close in, and provided some nice photo opportunities from the fishing pier. Hardly any gulls were present on the island again today, with just a few Ring-billed and Herring Gulls observed on the ground. Northern Gannets were seen flying in and out of the mist, which was just wild to say the least.

A Killdeer along the icy edge of a free flowing ditch near the Lotus Gardens in Virginia Beach, one of few spots with any open water.

Double-crested Cormorants were abundant on the rocks, but I could not locate any shorebird species today. Several Horned Grebes were seen, and I finally got some identifying photographs of them. The sun did break through the fog a couple of times, giving some nice light for photographs, but it didn't last long. I could not locate any Redheads this outing, and and could not put eyes on the Canvasback this time either. The pair of female Common Goldeneyes I saw on Friday evening, and were again reported Saturday by David Clark were not seen today. The surprise in terms of waterfowl was the 2 American Wigeons seen on the slack water side of the northern point, and also the Ruddy Ducks nearby. Both species are birds I don't typically see out in the middle of the bay like this, but are usually birds seen on smaller ponds and lakes inland this time of year. Ruth drove us up to the Eastern Shore and pulled the u-turn just to see what could be viewed along the route. There was hundreds of Surf Scoters scattered about along the roadway piers, probably more than I've ever seen in a single outing if I could have added them all up accurately while driving. Several Common Loons were also seen while driving. The snow appears to be mostly melted around here, after sticking around for about 6 days now, which is pretty incredible for Virginia Beach. Usually when we get snow, its gone almost as fast as it showed up, but I hear we might be in for another inch tomorrow night when the temperatures drop again. What a wild winter it’s been here!

One fraction of the larger group of Buffleheads seen off South Thimble Island on Sunday afternoon during a break in the fog!