Week Ending March 1, 2015

This week was dominated by frigid weather (by Virginia Beach standards that is), and we received a rather unexpected second snowfall of the season on Tuesday evening. Weather forecasters had assumed a slight dusting, but we ended up getting about 2 inches here in my neighborhood, and it resulted in a ridiculous amount of car accidents and interstate delays. Fortunately, I live just a few minutes from my office so it didn’t impact me. With the cold weather, the lakes have remained frozen for the most part, which is very tough on the wintering waterfowl. I see it daily on my drive to and from work at Kings Grant Lake, where the ducks have kept just a small area open in the ice. On Wednesday, we received our third snowfall event of the winter, this time a bit more rigorous. Snow totals were between 5-8 inches in Virginia Beach, and I think we were on the lower end in my neighborhood. The snow was deep enough though that smaller cars were unable to navigate the unplowed neighborhood streets, so I at least got a day at home on Thursday out of it. Unlike last week’s snowday though, I didn’t venture outdoors at all. So on Friday, coming off the day stuck indoors, I was more excited than usual for my Friday evening outing. After leaving work, I arrived at the first island of the CBBT about 3:25 PM, and parked at the southeastern corner of the island as usual. From the parking spot, I could see 3 female Common Goldeneyes to the south, with a group of Ruddy Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers. After having seen my first goldeneye in Virginia Beach this January, then a group of two here last week, seeing 3 seemed to continue on the pattern tonight. Walking up around the island was a bit tough since the snow is still sitting over the walkway, and thanks to the warmer weather during the daytime, it has gotten a bit mushy.

A "raft" of Scaup riding the massive swells off the north end of South Thimble Island on Friday evening.

But, it's easier to get around than it was last week with the snow/ice combination. Amazingly we've probably received close to a foot of snow this year, the most I've seen since having moved to the region in late 2005. At the northern point of the island, a very large group of at least 100 Scaup was present. Two Redheads (1 female, 1 male) were sitting amongst the group, and several Buffleheads were also. The wind, coming out of the north/northwest was pushing up quite a swell, and the raft of ducks were riding up and down almost hypnotically. Further out in the channel, Long-tailed Ducks and many Surf Scoters were diving in the rough waves. I ended up walking out to the end of the pier just to keep the blood flowing to my hands since holding the camera and binoculars just sucks all the heat right of them. From the end of the pier, I saw 2 Red-throated Loons flyby quite far out, and also a Common Loon bobbing up and down in the waves. I could not locate any Red-necked Grebes through my binoculars, which has been my prime target the last couple of times I've been up to the island. I'm still trying to spot my very first one. Heading back around the island, mostly the same birds were still present, since it'd been only about a half hour or so since I'd walked past the first time. A few Horned Grebes were sitting on the peaceful eastern side of the island, and I had flybys of Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls. Though, hardly any gulls were actually on the ground. One single shorebird was seen tonight, a Ruddy Turnstone that flew past and then landed on the parking area of the island. Earlier in the day it looked as though the snow might be on the way out, but after being on the island for over an hour, the temperature drop was noticeable, so it isn't going to disappear overnight at least.

Tundra Swans were finally sitting on open water of Back Bay thanks to the strong northerly winds that prevented ice from forming.

On Saturday, the sun was shining right off the bat this morning, and with temperatures in the high 20s I headed out about 7:15 AM towards Back Bay NWR. I was expecting the bay to be fully frozen over like last weekend, but apparently the howling northerly winds have caused so much motion on the water that it was unable to freeze up, even in the sub-freezing temperatures we've had overnight and yesterday. Also because of the strong northerly winds, much of the water has been pushed southward and the water levels are very low. Waterfowl were taking advantage of the lack of ice fortunately, and about 25-30 Tundra Swans were visible from the parking area and surrounding boardwalks. Among the swans, one could pick out Canada Geese, and many species of ducks (Scaup, Northern Pintails, Redheads, American Wigeons, Gadwalls, American Black Ducks, Mallards, and Green-winged Teal). I initially walked the Bayside Trail and realized quickly that I wasn't going to be sneaking up on any birds today with the crunchy snow still around. Fortunately on the gravel Bay Trail, the snow was more melted, and just around in the shadiest of spots. At the west end of the trail I saw a set of King Rail tracks in the snow, which was very neat as I've never seen that before, and about 90 minutes later on my second trip down the trail I did find the Rail, for a split second before it dashed under the boardwalk and out of sight. Back on the first outing down the trail, a Great Blue Heron, a Northern Harrier, and an American Bittern were all seen out near the pond, though the crunching of the snow sent them off before I ever got close. Walking around the Loop Road proved the best section of the park, since all the snow had melted on the gravel roadways. Unfortunately, there wasn't a whole lot to see along the way, though there were plenty of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Sparrows (White-throated, Song, Savannah, Swamp, and one Field) picking out seeds or grit in the cleaned off shoulders. I took the southern access trail down to the beach, then walked northward and back to the parking area.

Small amounts of snow remain around the marshes at Back Bay, though the winds have kept the waterway fully open this weekend.

The surf zone was quite wide today, so nothing was in close, and no shorebirds were out. Just a few Ring-billed and Great Black-backed Gulls in the air. There was a group of about a dozen Common Loons out of camera range though, but no ducks were visible with the strong winds crashing up the surf. With the snow situation inland, I'd wanted to walk the beach, but the catch 22 today was heading south, the sun was right in your eyes, and heading north, the wind was, so not exactly ideal conditions for observing and documenting wildlife. After arriving back at the parking area, I did one quick jaunt out the Bay Trail (seeing the King Rail this time), and running into Jim Marcum, who made mention of just how tough the snowfall had been on the smaller trees along the trail, causing many branches to break off, and in a few spots blocking the trail, though I'm sure the staff will have them cleaned up pretty quickly. I left the park about 9:45 AM and drove back north on Sandbridge Road. While driving I caught eye of a flock of birds and thought I'd seen the tail of a Cedar Waxwing as it passed over, so I pulled a couple U-turns, and meandered through the gridded streets, finally finding where they landed. There was about 20 Cedar Waxwings, and some Brown-headed Cowbirds, American Robins, and European Starlings all sipping water off the roadway and dining in the nearby front yard. I snapped a couple of shots from the vehicle as the Waxwings were another new species for me (#113 in Virginia Beach this year) and then kept going.

My very faithful Great Blue Heron at Back Bay NWR that always shows up for photographs, even when the wind has all the other birds in hiding.

After passing westward over the bridge at Hells Point Creek, I saw a juvenile White Ibis in the ditch on the north side of the road right where the RV Park entrance is. I'm surprised eBird still classifies these as 'rarities', they're quite regular around the tributaries that feed Back Bay in the winter time. It was kind enough to pose for some shots from my car as I sat in the turn lane for the RV park though, a beautiful bird. After I'd arrived back home, thinking the birding was all done for the day, I was excited to find out that the ibis was the 100th species I'd seen in Virginia Beach this month, but, it wasn't quite over yet. While heading out the door to go catch a matinee showing of the film Focus, a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Dark-eyed Juncos were flitting about in my very tiny front yard, and another bird flew in. Thinking it was something I hadn't yet seen this year I ran back upstairs, grabbed my binoculars and went back down to find that it was a Fox Sparrow, another first of year bird (#114!). Fortunately it stayed long enough for me to again run back upstairs, grab my camera this time, and head out the door. I know a lot of folks see this birds regularly in winter around here, but without having feeders anywhere near my home, this was quite a surprise for me, and is actually only the second Fox I've seen & photographed in my life. After that wonderful surprise, Ruth & I headed out to the movie, though I probably should just spent the rest of the day birding, and saved the movie for Sunday since the weather was hovering right at freezing, and it just drizzled on and off throughout the day, which unfortunately put an end to my outdoor excursions. Or so I thought...

First Cedar Waxwings of the year! I had to track these birds down after seeing the flock fly over my car driving down Sandpiper Road in Sandbridge.

Late on Sunday evening, about 9 PM I received a text message from Ron Furnish, who lives just around a couple of corners in my neighborhood. He had an Eastern Screech-Owl show up on his fence at his house. At the time of the message, I was dozing off on the couch and didn't read it til about 9:30 PM. Fortunately, Ron said that the owl was still present, and so Ruth & I grabbed on some warmer clothes, and I grabbed my camera & we drove over in the hopes of getting a look at it. It had stayed during our drive time, and when we pulled up, we were able to stand within about 15-20 feet of the bird without it getting spooked. Ruth & I watched with Ron & Marie Mullins as it dove to a clear spot on the ground free of snow, grabbed an earthworm in its bill, and then flew up into a nearby tree to feed. I took a few photographs while it remained still on the fence, and though they mostly came out a bit fuzzy, it was just so neat to see this bird that I didn't even care. This is the first time I've ever photographed an owl before, so I'm glad I woke up on the couch in time! I didn't expect to start the month of March off with an owl as the very first monthly species, but I'm surely excited about it kicking it off with a new county, state, and life bird! This upcoming week should be an exciting one as next Sunday, we set the clocks forward an hour, which means I can finally start going for hikes on Friday evenings instead of just quick birding outings before the sun sets. It also means I can move those shorter jaunts to the other days of the week, so I’ve really been looking forward to March getting here, and it has finally arrived! In just a few shorts weeks, spring migration will begin, and a whirlwind of colorful birds will move through the area. March is the month of anticipation though, so let the excitement commence!

A very beautiful juvenile White Ibis seen along Sandbridge Road on my home from Back Bay NWR on Saturday morning, with just a little bit of snow remaining in the woods!