Week Ending April 12, 2015

With last week being one of the nicest weather-wise that we've had in Virginia all year, this week has been somewhat the opposite. On Monday, Ruth & I got out for a quick 3 mile or so walk around the neighborhood. We checked out one of the nearby parks that I thought might hold some warblers, but we didn’t see any. I did snag a few photographs along the walk though of Eastern Towhee, Northern Cadinal and American Crow, and we saw a few other neat birds like White-throated Sparrows. From the time after the walk, until Friday evening, the sun made no appearances, which gave me a bit of time to rest my legs after a long week last week. On Friday evening when I got off work, I went hiking down at Back Bay NWR. Arriving at 3:30 PM, I parked on the east side of the visitor center and headed quickly south down the Loop Road en route to the newly opened East Dike Trail. My first observation on the roadway was just how many people were around. Being that it was about 85 degrees out, apparently it was a good day for folks to get outdoors. Fortunately, the crowds thinned by the time I reach the East Dike gate for the most part, as the vast majority of folks walk just the near trails to the parking area, and out on the beach. Along the east side of the Loop Road I heard the distinct call of a Prairie Warbler, but was unable to put my eyes on the bird. This was the first I've heard this spring here in Virginia Beach, though it should become a common call over the next few weeks. Birding along the East Dike was pretty slow on my southward journey towards False Cape State Park.

With warm weather arriving this week, plenty of Cottonmouths were out and about at Back Bay NWR!

A pair of American Kestrels provided entertainment as they swirled around on the winds and hunted over the impoundments at the north end of the trail. It was actually the reptiles that stole the show on my trip southward, with at least 4 Eastern Cottonmouths, a pair of Northern Watersnakes and even a very large Black Racer being seen. The Racer had its front half in the ground, with just the tail section sticking out, so I'm not sure just how big it was, but the girth was quite impressive, I would guess the snake to be at least 5 or more feet long. Several Cottonmouths were seen in the ditches that parallel the east side of the trail, and one was also seen on the roadway itself, given how hot it was today, I expect activity to be high. Throughout the southward walk, I added a few Great Blue Herons, Great Egret, a single Tricolored Heron on a flyover, an American Coot, a few Yellow-rumped Warblers and a number of Savannah & Song Sparrows that were feeding on the trailside, before flying off into the brush as I walked past. I stopped once I reached the False Cape sign, turned around, and then headed back northward. On the northward trek, snakes again were showing up often, with several more Eastern Cottonmouth being sighted. After I'd reach the double-90-degree-bend portion of the trail (about 1.75 miles south of the parking area), I began thinking that it'd been quite a quiet day for the birds. I did have a female Wood Duck fly over in this area, but that was the only waterfowl species seen on the day. Additionally, a single Northern Harrier flew past heading south, which is a bird I don't see much this time of year, moreso in the winter around here. Without a scope, its very difficult to spot anything out on the impoundments to the west unfortunately.

One of several first of year birds seen over the weekend, this is a Chipping Sparrow, seen in James City County.

Continuing north about a half mile or so, I was walking and happened to glance to my right (east) towards the dune line that is visible a couple hundred yards away. I noticed a brown shape on the dunes and immediately assumed it was a White-tailed Deer, so I put the camera up just to snap a shot. As the lens focused, I became quickly aware that what I was seeing was no deer, it was a Bobcat! I should have known instantly from the size, but at the distance, the color overwhelmed my brain apparently. This was the first time I have ever encountered a Bobcat in the wild, or any species of wild feline for that matter! As a kid growing up in Minnesota I'd always wanted to see a Lynx, and ever since I moved to Virginia, I've wanted a shot at seeing their smaller cousins, so I was incredibly excited! I actually felt a chill run up my back as I was photographing it! After about 30 seconds or so, it glanced across the marsh at me, laid down briefly on the ground, and then sped off forward to the south along the dune line. After this, I could have seen nothing for the rest of the outing and been perfectly fine with it, but, there was a few other animals that showed up to keep things rolling. A pair of Greater Yellowlegs flew in and landed on the northernmost marsh to the west of the trail, and I caught a few Eastern Towhees & Blue Jays along the Loop Road, once again hearing but not seeing a Prairie Warbler. I took the southern boardwalk out to the beach, only to find that the waves were pretty strong, and there were no shorebirds to be found. A few Forster's Terns were flying out over the breaking waves, diving in the water at every opportunity. Gulls (Ring-billed, Herring, Lesser & Great Black-backed) were seen in the air, and I could see tons up on the 'northern mile' of beachfront which is inaccessible to anyone other than park staff. Hundreds of gulls were situated on that part of the beach, along with a massive ball of probably a thousand Double-crested Cormorants. A single Common Loon was seen off the beach, and sadly there was a deceased Red-throated Loon washed up on the beach. It was sad to see just how beautiful these birds are up close, and unfortunately this is by far the closest I've ever been to one to see. I headed up over the dunes and back to the parking area, then walked out on the Bay Trail on a really quick out and back. Birds were again quiet along this trail, not so much as a Yellow-rumped Warbler showed up. One Eastern Cottonmouth was resting on a branch overhanging the waters of the small pond at the west end of the trail, and this was really it for the wildlife. But, seeing that Bobcat was probably the most amazing sighting I've had this year, so it just goes to show, sometimes wildlife isn't about quantity, but quality!

An Eastern Phoebe, one of several, seen at Greensprings Interpretive Trail near Jamestown!

On Saturday morning, I awoke to overcast skies, after a rain storm had moved through during the late night hours, providing quite a lightning storm. My fiance, Ruth, and I had plans to head up to Gloucester County for the annual Daffodil Festival, and needed to be up there at 8:30 AM to meet friends for brunch. Before we could leave, I put together my pack and camera, and grabbed my shoes off the screen porch where I keep them. From my Virginia Beach porch I could hear an Ovenbird calling from the marsh behind our apartment, which is the first one I’ve heard this year. I couldn’t spot the little bird though, as is typical with Ovenbirds, but it shouldn’t be too long before I do see one, since they are quite common in the spring & summer around here. It took about 75 minutes or so to get up to Gloucester, but on our walk from the parking area to the restaurant, I heard and then saw two Chimney Swifts flying overhead, another first of year bird. After brunch, we watched the festival’s parade, and then meandered through the labyrinth of booths set up on all sides of the main intersection near the old courthouse. It was about Noon or a little after that we headed out from Gloucester, and we stuck to our plan of traveling the Colonial Parkway over to Jamestown. The sky was still overcast, but a strong line of blue was moving slowly our way. When we reached the James River stretch of the road, Caspian Terns could be seen passing over the shorelines near College Creek, and Powhatan Creek. This was another first of year state bird on the day, and I hadn’t even hiked at all yet. The blue sky finally reached us, and just in time, since we left the parkway and headed up to the Powhatan Creek Trailhead at Clara Byrd Baker Elementary School in James City County.

Another first of year bird, a Green Heron seen flushing from a small creek, then landing in this tree to watch from!

This trail follows the creek’s watershed as it travels southward, then bends off to the west and intersects with the Greensprings Interpretive Trail. So we walked the path, first noting a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and then seeing many of the typical backyard birds that are common along the trail, given its proximity to, people’s backyards: Northern Cardinal, Common Grackle, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-throated Sparrow, and probably a few others I’m forgetting at the moment. Plenty of people were out on the asphalt path over the first couple miles, given it was in the 70s and absolutely gorgeous out. We would up around near the intersection with the Greensprings, and encountered some Eastern Bluebirds, and a Common Yellowthroat. Walking the Greensprings loop clockwise, we reached the main boardwalk, and spotted several White-tailed Deer off to the west of the trail feeding along a small rainwater stream. Ruth & I watched them for a few minutes and then cut across the middle of the loop on a smaller boardwalk. Here we encountered Eastern Phoebe, and my first White-eyed Vireo of the year! One lone Canada Goose was out on the beaver ponds, but that was it this time. In the past I’ve seen lots of other waterfowl and wading birds, including Little Blue Heron here, but it was quiet today. We met back up with the main loop trail, and headed south towards the Powhatan Creek Trail. A couple of years ago, I had found a hawk nest near here and photographed the fledglings as they peered down at me, so we kept on the lookout for it this time, eventually locating it, high up a tree right near a small stormwater forebay with an instructional sign next to it.

One of our migrant warblers that just showed up this week to coastal Virginia, an American Redstart. This particular one must have been attacked, because it is missing all of its tail feathers!

An adult Red-shouldered Hawk was sighted right nearby too, and it circled several times overhead, keeping close watch & verifying as with last year that this is its nest, and this was another new bird for my yearly state list. As we were continuing around the forebay, and I remarked to Ruth that I had seen a Mallard sitting in the grass the last time out, a Green Heron flushed from the small trickle of water, and landed up in a tree, staring at us with raised crest to let us know it wasn’t pleased. We watched it for a minute or so, and then it flew off in a circle around us, holding its head upright in flight, which is very distinctive of this species. Linking back up with the Powhatan Creek Trail, we saw some Dark-eyed Juncos, a Northern Flicker, and more of the same species seen earlier. As we traveled on a stretch close to the creek, I caught sight of a flash of yellow jutting out from behind the thick Cypress trees, realizing quickly that it was a Prothonotary Warbler, yet another first of year state bird. I was able to get a few poor shots of the bird as it moved quickly, and often through the dense marsh vegetation. I’ve seen these birds in the same habitat, mainly at the Dismal Swamp and at Back Bay NWR, but this was the first I’ve seen here. As we continued up the watershed, we encountered a Great Blue Heron along the high bridge crossing the creek, and then it was pretty quiet the rest of the way uphill to the parking area. Except, for a pair of Chipping Sparrows that were hopping around the grass at the very end of the trail, adding one more bird to my state list right at the end of the walk! After the hour or so long drive back to Virginia Beach, I stepped out of the car only to find another pair of Chimney Swifts circling high above the apartment complex, which was a perfect end to the day as that was a new species (#132) for my Virginia Beach yearly list. I’m still intent on getting to 200 species this year in my city/county of residence, so every species I can add gets me closer!

A favorite warbler of mine, the strinking, almost-robber-looking, Common Yellowthroat!

Sunday was a third beautiful day in a row, and with all the rain earlier in the week, the leaves have really started to pop & the forests are looking quite green, almost overnight! In search of migrant songbirds, I headed out to Suffolk to visit the Great Dismal Swamp NWR in the morning and arrived about 10 AM to find only one other vehicle present, with a pair of bikers heading off down the trail. In the parking area, I encountered some Blue-gray Gnatcatcher overhead, and a Dark-eyed Junco that posed for a photograph on one of the wooden railings. Heading down the Washington Ditch Trail, the first mile was pretty quiet, with just a few Prothonotary Warblers calling from both sides of the ditch. Once I reached the Lynn Ditch Trail junction, the birds started showing themselves a lot more. The water elevation gauge at the weir read 20.82 feet today, down from the 20.97 feet it was on Good Friday last week. Over the gurgling sound of the moving water, I could hear a pair of American Redstarts (first of year birds), singing, and soon put eyes on a female, then the male, snapping a few photographs as well. Prothonotary Warblers have really arrived to the park now, and could be heard singing the entire length of the trail. I saw probably 15-20 birds, and heard far more along the 10 mile hike.

One of a great many Yellow-bellied Sliders seen along the Washington Ditch at Great Dismal Swamp NWR!

I had forgotten just how difficult they can be to track down after hearing them though, since they're such small birds, and with the sunlight streaming in at me from the east, it was tough on the trip out to pick them out. Belted Kingfishers were also plentiful today along the ditch, with individuals hunting over the ditch on their length of territory. Interestingly, not one of them cackled at me as it flew off, and I spooked at least half a dozen of them today. No grebes were seen this outing, so the Horned Grebe I saw last Friday must have moved onward from the swamp. At about the 3 mile mark in the trail heading eastward, I spotted a dark blob about a half mile ahead move out onto the trail, and with binoculars raised, could tell that it was a Wild Turkey (another VA first of year for me). As I approached it moved back to the north side of the trail, and so when I reached the spot, I stopped to see if it was still in close enough to spot. After a minute of so of looking, I was just about to move on, when it exploded out from the brush about 10 feet away, rose up in elevation, and flew off northward over the treetops. The sound of wings hitting brush made me jump off the ground, and I stood there helpless as it disappeared, camera still in hand. 

The most common butterfly of the Dismal Swamp currently, a beautiful Zebra Swallowtail!

Shortly thereafter, the bikers that had gone to Lake Drummond passed me on their way back to the parking area, mentioning that they'd seen a log with 16 turtles situated on it. Turtles were indeed all over along the ditch once I hit about mile 2. In the final mile of the trail before Lake Drummond, Prairie Warblers were heard calling their signature ascending series of rapid notes that decrease in length. I finally put both my eyes, and my camera on one up in the treetops, though it was quite high up. Also, a second one showed up very low in the brush, but I was unable to manually focus it fast enough as it moved through the branches. Nearby, I could hear a White-eyed Vireo calling, but was unable to spot it. The last mile was absolutely covered in Zebra Swallowtails also, with Tiger Swallowtails, and Black Swallowtails also being present. The insects are definitely out now, though I didn't encounter any biting flies. Six-spotted Tiger Beetles were seen along the trail as well, showing their beautiful turquoise colored bodies off. With the sunny skies, and just some whispy clouds, the view over Lake Drummond was a gorgeous one today, and one boat was out on the water taking advantage. After a few minute stop to enjoy the view, I turned around and headed westward down the trail. My first encounter was at the first bend, where a Dark-eyed Junco was flitting about in the lower branches, and a Song Sparrow was also seen just down the way. More American Redstarts showed themselves in the first mile, and also a Common Yellowthroat in nearly the same spot as I'd seen one last Friday.

The most common of the spring warblers at the Dismal Swamp, this Prothonotary Warbler nests in tree cavities in marshy areas, making the swamp the perfect habitat!

Prairie Warblers continued to call, as did Prothonotary Warblers. This farthest mile is really a wealth of birds, and I think most folks don't walk all the way out there, making it a very special area for me. Wood Ducks were seen in multiple spots on the way back, taking quickly to the air before I even saw them on the water in the flooded trees. One of the neater sightings I had on the day was when a White-tailed Deer was seen running along the north of the trail, moving off through the swamp. I believe this is the first deer I've seen, especially this far out in the swamp, though I'm sure there are tons of them out there. The Belted Kingfishers continued to be seen, and also a few stray flocks of Rusty Blackbirds could be seen. For as many as I saw, they're quite difficult to actually get photographs of. They stick close to the water, in thick brush, and their coloring also make them a tough target for photography. The black feathering makes details difficult to capture, even in good light like I had today. In the shallow puddles along the north side of the trail, at least 4 Spotted Turtles were seen, but in every case, they took to the water just as I was focusing my lens on them. One of these days, I'll get a good shot of them though, I've seen them in the same spots twice in a row now. Near the turtles, at about mile 2 (measured from the parking area), a large Black Racer was seen sliding along the trail, then disappearing into a hole. I've seen a number of Ratsnakes and Racers in the park, but never a Cottonmouth. I wonder how many of them are out there, it seems like a great habitat for them afterall.

Another species of butterfly common to the Dismal Swamp, this is a Question Mark butterfly!

One Great Blue Heron was seen rising out of the ditch at about mile 1.5, but this was the only wading bird sighted on the day. When I hit the Lynn Ditch Trail junction, I started running into other hikers, and several couples passed me on their way eastward, but none appeared to be birding. When I reached the junction with the boardwalk trail, I turned right onto it, and moved in on a bird I could hear calling from the canopy. The call was that of a Northern Parula, but after about 10 minutes of searching, I was unable to locate the bird. I ran into a pair of birders here, one from Virginia, and one from Oregon, who said they'd spotted a Black-and-White Warbler and a Palm Warbler along the boardwalk. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to re-spot these two species, but, I was able to find a tiny Winter Wren, my first on the year, rummaging through the leaves on the forest floor just off the boardwalk. That bird turned out to be the final bird of the outing, though I did see a lot more Tiger Beetles, and even a couple of skinks running through the ground litter, the first I've seen on the year. It was a great weekend for hiking, and I loved seeing the warblers of the swamp again, it is truly a magical place to hike during the month of April! If you haven't ever been, now is the time to go check it out before the biting insects really start to come out once May arrives!

Over the last week, with rain, and sun, the leaves have really popped out, especially here along the Washington Ditch at Great Dismal Swamp NWR!