Week Ending March 15, 2015

With Daylight Savings Time kicking in this past Sunday, this was the first Friday this year where I was able to get out for a long hike as opposed to just doing some stationary birding before the sun could go down. I headed out of work at 3 PM towards Back Bay NWR, under beautiful sunny skies and temperatures in the mid 50s. On the way I saw a Cooper's Hawk fly across General Booth Boulevard, but that was it, I seemed to be stuck behind every slow driver that was on the roads, which at least gave me a chance to peek around. When I arrived at the parking area at 3:35 PM, the temperature had dropped to about 45, being right on the coastline, and subject to the winds. Today was the first day that I've been able to trade out my winter knit hat, for my father's old Carhartt baseball cap that I wear all through the spring, summer and fall, but I did still need my usual fleece long sleeve shirt to stay warm, so spring isn't quite in full swing yet. I did a quick walk along the Bay Trail but decided to head out to the beachfront instead since some folks were ahead of me on the trail, and likely would have just scared everything off before I caught up and passed them. As I was heading to the beach, the sky began to fill with clouds out of the east, and it wasn't long before they overtook the sun. I got about a half hour of walking in before the sun dropped out of sight behind the clouds, but I did get to see and photograph a Red-throated Loon and several Common Loons that were close in to shore riding on the large waves as they broke. A few gulls (Ring-billed, Herring & Great Black-backed) were seen on the beach and in the skies above it, and I did get my first of year (FOY) Laughing Gull (#119 in Virginia Beach this year so far!), showing a full black head and flying offshore a ways, only viewable through the binoculars.

A Red-throated Loon rides the waves off the beach at Back Bay NWR on Friday evening!

One of the birds I was hoping to find today was my first Royal Tern of the season, since they typically show up in the area mid-March (last year my first was on the 15th), but I didn't see any of these today. I walked about 2 miles down the beach before the skies became completely overcast, and actually quite ominous looking to the west (perfect weather for a Friday the 13th I suppose). Walking in an area like this beach, it is sometimes hard to tell exactly where you turn around for measuring distance purposes. So what I always do in terrain such as this, is take a photo of the ground, and then check the GPS coordinates at home in Google Earth to verify that location. It's a quick way to help measure a route if your camera is capable of this. While on the way back northward, I had a flock of Forster's Terns cruise on past me from south to north, so they were able to sneak up on me, and I didn't see them til they were slightly past. I stopped to do a "seawatch" of sorts, though it was just for a few minutes. But, during this, I noticed large numbers of Red-throated Loons streaming northward on the horizon, and had a massive flock of Red-breasted Mergansers, numbering at least 500 birds heading northward. I don't know if this is typical of them as nighttime approaches, or if they were heading northward to get out of the path of the storm headed over the beachline. Whatever the reason though, there was a ton of them filling the sky. Black Scoters and Surf Scoters were also seen in good numbers traveling along the horizon. I also had a good time photographing a pair of Horned Grebes as they road up and down on the waves near shore. Just before I was about to reach the southern access point to the Loop Road, I saw a small bird walking on the beach in some tire tracks. Up to that point, the only birds walking on the beach that I'd seen were Sanderlings (No other shorebirds were seen today), so this one was quite a surprise. I thought for a brief second that it might be the Lapland Longspur that James Marcum had spotted near here earlier in the week, but once I got my camera on it I realized it was actually an Ipswitch Savannah Sparrow, the first one I've ever seen in Virginia.

Another loon, this one a Common Loon, was also seen in the waves at Back Bay NWR!

Quite beautiful, they have a very white body overall, but the yellow lore was still visible, and they're quite large for a sparrow. This is their favorite habitat type, so it shouldn't be a surprise, but it was great to see. I walked back over the dune line to the Loop Road, and walked around it clockwise. As I walked south, an Accipiter flew across the path low to the ground, then flew back again and landed up on one of the power poles on the east side of the road. With the cloudy skies I couldn't see any of the coloration and it was hard to judge size, so I'm not sure which species it fits under unfortunately. It flew off as i walked closer, disappearing off eastward into the scrub land of the dunes. On the nearby ditch, a pair of Mallards and American Coots were swimming around, and on the ditch at the West Dike gate, a Pied-billed Grebe 'submarined' out of sight as I approached. Now heading northward on the western part of the loop, I again had a bird of prey cross the trail, but I couldn't get a good look at it. It was very small, so either a Kestrel, Merlin or Sharp-shinned Hawk, but I'll never know for certain. Once I reached the parking area, I did a quick out-and-back on the Bay Trail to see if anything was stirring. Now, the lighting conditions were truly abyssmal, as the sun was setting behind the overcast skies. Along the trail I checked both observation 'platforms', and almost no waterfowl was visible, just Tundra Swans far to the north were identifiable. On the way back towards the parking area I saw one Downy Woodpecker, which is actually a bird I don't see much of at Back Bay so that was a plus for sure. Lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers were around as usual, but not a whole lot of other songbirds were present. Walking the Bayside Trail boardwalk, a single Ruddy Duck, and a pair of Mallards and American Black Ducks were visible. Just before I'd left, a Northern Harrier flew across the near bay to the Kayak Launch area, though at this point it was too dark for any photos of quality. It turned into a pretty good outing, seeing some neat birds, though I wish the sun had stayed out, at least I was finally able to get a longer hike in after working hours. 

My first Virginia Beach "Ipswich" Sparrow, the very white subspecies of Savannah Sparrow that inhabits beaches & dunes!

On Saturday, I was stuck working in my office for the day on a project that has a rather demanding schedule. However, it rained throughout the entire day, so I didn’t really miss out on any outdoor outings. After a very dreary day in southeastern Virginia on Saturday, Sunday was a complete 180 degree turn. Beautiful sunny skies, and temperatures near 60 degrees F made for a great day to be outdoors. I got a late start unfortunately, but Ruth & I made it up to Pleasure House Point Natural Area a little before 1 PM, parking at the Dinwiddie Drive end of the park, and walking east to west, then returning. Very high winds kept all the smaller birds at bay, and I only saw one Northern Mockingbird, and one Song Sparrow, that was it for passerines along the 2 mile route. Gadwall were seen on the storm water pond at Dinwiddie as they usually are, but the the dominant species of duck at the park is now Northern Shoveler, with a hundred or more visible on the main branch of Pleasure House Creek. Several Laughing Gulls were seen on the mudflats, sporting their fresh black heads, and one Bonaparte's Gull was also seen there, a first for me at the park, though I know many others see them regularly. I also had a group of 4 or 5 of them fly over, so perhaps the heavy winds have driven these inland as opposed to out on the open water where they're usually found. With the low tides, I'd expected to see some shorebirds, but the only instance of these was when a group of 10 Greater Yellowlegs landed on the shall bay that the trail winds around just west of the Brock Environmental Center.

A striking male Bufflehead shows off its iridescent head at Pleasure House Point!

They didn't stay long, but I got to see them swimming around in the shallow water, as opposed to walking like they typically do. Since it was so beautiful out today, the park was absolutely full of walkers, and dogs, which made it a bit hard to sneak up on any birds, given how much ambient noise there was all around the trails. Among the many walkers was Jill & Troy again, amusingly that’s the 4th time I’ve run into Jill while walking at Pleasure House Point & First Landing State Park. I’m glad to hear they’ve been checking out this site, so perhaps they’ll see the shoutout here! At the far west end of the park, American Black Ducks and Green-winged Teal were seen, and a pair of Ospreys made several passes overhead, with one fellow saying he also saw a Bald Eagle earlier. On the return trip, a few Brants were seen on the main mudflats, but all around this was a very quiet outing to the park. After Pleasure House Point we went up for a quick stop at the first island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, only to find that ducks were just about nonexistent. Only 3, 1 Bufflehead female, and 2 Surf Scoters at max binocular range were seen. There was still one Red-necked Grebe hanging out offshore of the southeastern corner of the island. Walking the perimeter up to the pier and back yielded the standard Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls, Ruddy Turnstones, and a group of 4 Purple Sandpipers. Out on the northern point was a grouping of Double-crested Comorants, with no Greats mixed in. Northern Gannets, Horned Grebes, and the many Rock Pigeons of the island were the only other species seen. A very quiet outing for the island.

Heavy winds kept most of the songbirds out of the air on Sunday, but they made for some wild waves on the Atlantic Ocean!

Some roadway construction along Great Neck Road made it so I needed to completely bypass that route to get home, so I drove Shore Drive to the Oceanfront, and made a quick stop at 88th Street to see if I could find a Royal Tern on the beachfront. A massive flock of several hundred Greater/Lesser Scaup was on the water offshore, and a few Red-throated Loons could be seen with the binoculars as well. One Osprey, and a few Brown Pelicans cruised past, but again it was relatively quiet. Black Scoters, Ring-billed, Herring & Great Black-backed Gulls were all seen, but in small numbers. No shorebirds showed up unfortunately, I'm still searching for my first Dunlin of the year. Despite the lack of birds in close, the water was absolutely gorgeous with the 100% clear, sunny skies overhead really bringing out the blues! Our last stop of the day was another quick one down at Rudee Inlet, where a pair of female Redheads were seen in the inlet itself. A Common Loon, and a Ruddy Duck were seen where the inlet opens up into more of a 'lake' of sorts. Laughing, Ring-billed, Herring & Great Black-backed Gulls were all seen, but in small numbers, with none being seen on the jetty for the first time this year. Boat-tailed Grackles were the only passerines around, I actually didn't even see any Yellow-rumped Warblers today which is all but unheard of here this time of year. Since we were already at the oceanfront, we stopped and had an early bird dinner at Rockafeller’s, one of our favorite seafood joints. So despite the lack of birds today, it was an utterly beautiful day so I can't have any complaints, it's really starting to feel like Spring has set in here at the beach. I’m excited for the early migrants to start showing up very soon!

Completely sunny skies and temperatures near 60 degrees F made for beautiful views over the coastline on Sunday!