This week, I spent the vast amount of Monday through Wednesday tied up in my office trying to get a project out the door. On Wednesday night, I flew to Nashville to visit my buddy Smitty, and I spent the next 3 days in the city before returning to Virginia Beach on Saturday evening. So unfortunately missed out on spending time looking for first of season arrivals. However, it appears from reports on eBird that not many migrants have begun arriving yet. So after sleeping in a bit on Sunday morning due to exhaustion from a day of travel, I got out to Back Bay NWR to see if I could spot anything new that might have showed up overnight. When I first arrived, temperatures were in the upper 40s, with a soft breeze blowing onshore out of the northeast, and very overcast skies. Throughout the walk, the sun break through a couple of times but not for a very long duration. I walked the Bayside and Bay Trails first, seeing a Carolina Chickadee, Red-winged Blackbird, and a few Yellow-rumped Warblers. Viewing out on the bay from the observation areas at the west end of the trail, it was obvious that the waterfowl that have wintered here have moved on. Only a few Gadwall were visible, no other ducks, and no Tundra Swans even in the northern reaches of the visible bay. A few American Coots were also seen near the shoreline from the farthest observation area. After the Bay Trail, I walked the Loop Road counterclockwise, picking up a few Song Sparrows, a Savannah Sparrow, and a few other passerines common to the park like Northern Mockingbird, Eastern Towhee, Blue Jay and American Robins.
On the east side of the loop, a few Field Sparrows were encountered in the same spot I've come to expect them, a hundred or so yards south of the southern beach boardwalk access trail. Also in this area, a large flock of about 35 White Ibis cruised over me heading northward. Walking the beach access trail next, and heading up over the dunes, I was treated to a vast gathering of Northern Gannets, with thousands of them dotting every available piece of ocean surface in sight. I've never seen so many just sitting on the surface before, and have only seen large numbers like this when they're actively bombing a shoal of fish. Among the gannets, were large numbers of Red-breasted Mergansers, and 5 species of gulls (from most abundant to least: Ring-billed, Herring, Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, and Laughing). No Royal Terns have showed up thus far, and no Forster's were seen today either. Along the shoreline, Common Loons were still present, and they're starting to acquire their very dark breeding plumage. Their cousins, the Red-throated Loons were also seen further offshore out of camera range. Horned Grebes rounded out the species seen in the water. Walking northward towards the northern beach access trail, I could see a massive blob of Double-crested Cormorants in the inaccessible beach area, too far off to scan for any Greats among them. I headed up over the beach, and did another quick out-and-back walk on the Bay Trail, but didn't turn up anything out of the ordinary, though I added a few Pied-billed Grebes, a Great Blue Heron and a Northern Harrier to my daily list before I headed back to the car and out of the park.
While driving on Sandbridge Road, a flock of about 20 White Ibis were present across the street from Baybreeze Farms (farmstand on the north side of the road). I was on my way to Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area, and Indian River Road is still undergoing construction so is closed south of New Bridge Road to Muddy Creek Road. Because of this, I went around to Princess Anne Road, and headed south from there. I arrived at the park around 2:15 and found one other car in the lot, though I never ran into its owner. I headed south from the parking area onto the Whitehurst Tract, walking along the treeline that forms the park's boundary in a counterclockwise path. My first birds encountered were 2 juvenile White Ibis on the first ditch visible, but aside from this, the birds were quiet for my first 20 minutes or so. During this time, I noted that some of the ditches were low on water, and I'm not sure if this has to do with the new culverts that have been placed, or if some water has been pumped, or, if we just haven't had enough rain to keep them full. I encountered one White-tailed Deer along the western stretch that was completely bedded down in the thick brush staring out at me. I'd never have noticed it had I not stopped for no apparent reason, and turned to look across the ditch right at it. Encounters like this always make me wonder just how our subconscious is tuned into nature. There was no reason I should have expected to find a deer there, but, there it was! I know everyone's had those types of encounters, but it also makes me wonder just how many animals I walk right past and never see. The waterfowl at the park have dropped off it seems as of today's visit, but when I reached the furthest southern impoundment, good numbers of Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, and Hooded Merganser were seen. Additionally, I had one Ruddy Duck, get frightened, and I don't know if it was injured or not, but it didn't fly, it flapped its wings along the water, then dove to hide. It surfaced, laid out like a log, covered in weeds and stared out at me. I tried to approach it to see if it was hurt, and it again dove, so I decided to continue walking so as not to keep disturbing it. Strange behavior that I haven't encountered out of a lone duck before. The birds here are extremely weary, and I attribute that to the fact that the park is open to duck hunting during the weekdays according to its website.
On Sundays it is open to birding, but the birds are just very hard to approach, binoculars here are a must, and I suspect a scope is really the way to go here if you have one. A few Mallards, American Coots, and Wood Ducks rounded out the water bird sightings for the day. One Red-tailed Hawk made an appearance, as did an Osprey, which hovered over top of one of the impoundments. Following the tree line, I eventually arrived at the far east end of the park, and met back up with Munden Road. The last quarter mile or so was a walk along the asphalt, and surprisingly a feeding flock of birds yielded some neat ones. Several Swamp Sparrows, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and even a single Orange-crowned Warbler moved through the thick underbrush. A Gray Catbird also moved through. When I arrived back at the parking area, a Great Egret flew over me just in time to get added. I headed out from the park, and on the way home along Princess Anne Road I got a nice look at a Cooper's Hawk feeding on some animal in a farmfield adjacent to the road. I stopped quickly for a photograph, but couldn't figure out the prey before I had traffic coming up on me unfortunately. This week should start to bring in some new birds, and the leaves should start popping on the trees pretty quick as well. In addition to what I’d mentioned earlier, I also saw my first frogs of the season at Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area. Bradford Pear trees have begun blossoming, and they’re always the first, so it’s nice to see some blooms starting finally. Its feeling like Spring, and this is my favorite time of the year!
I can’t wait for all the colorful migrating songbirds to really start showing up. For those interested in tracking the migration, check out the page on my site here dedicated to tracking migrants using eBird maps. The page is basically a big table of links to eBird maps pre-set to 2015 sighting of a selected species. I have taken the time in advance to lay out all the expected spring arrival species in the order they typically arrive according to the Gold Book's extreme dates. So instead of having to think about which bird you want to study, and typing it in to eBird, here is a full table of all the arriving spring species, that you can just quickly select from: http://www.rbnature.com/resources/bird-distribution-spring/. By clicking any link from the table, a new tab will open with your map, just close the tab and select another, rather than typing in a species & setting the desired years/dates/location you wish to view. Or, if you want to pull up multiple species maps simultaneously, just click the Roll Wheel of your mouse over each desired link in the table, and multiple tabs will open for you to browse quickly across a variety of species. For example, you could select all the links of Wood Warblers in 2015 on the East Coast, then just slide from tab to tab as they're opened to view all the species sighting maps very quickly. Hope there are folks out there that find this a useful page, and hope it gets some bookmarks. The maps are always updating based on other folks’ observations, so this is extremely powerful.