Week Ending April 19, 2015

This week started off with gorgeous weather on Monday, so I brought my gear to work, and at 4 PM headed out for Stumpy Lake. Warblers and other songbirds have been showing up here on eBird reports so I wanted to see if I could see some of the colorful birds here in my hometown. This being my first outing to the park, I didn't quite know what to expect. Traveling into the park along a causeway, I saw a Pied-billed Grebe and a few Double-crested Cormorants out in the swampy waters. The parking area for the hiking trail is immediately to the left when you cross the causeway, and the trail picks up right at its side. The trail itself, roughly 1.5 miles long, is a figure 8 of sorts, with a larger loop on the west, and smaller on the east. I headed west initially, which takes you clockwise around the main loop, and skirts the edge of the golf course at first. I tried my best to pay close attention to the birds high up in the canopy, seeing a number of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a few Carolina Chickadees, a Pine Warbler, and a few Yellow-rumped Warblers along the first quarter mile stretch. After passing the middle cut-through trail of the figure 8, still heading clockwise, I encountered a Hermit Thrush, and about a hundred feet further west, heard something rustling on the ground. I watched intently as the bird, which I was hoping might be an Ovenbird, hopped out into the open. It wasn't an Ovenbird, but instead was a Wood Thrush! This was the first of its kind that I've seen in Virginia Beach (and #133 for my yearly Virginia Beach list) since getting interested in birding, so it was tough to collect myself and try for a photograph. I snapped a few as it rose ever higher into the trees, but the sun was shining right at me from this direction, so they weren't the best, but good enough to verify ID. The next half mile or so I followed the trail westward, as it approached the backside of a neighborhood. Sun shining in my eyes, and loud music from someone's house meant it was almost pointless to stare upwards, so I just walked this stretch. When I made the turn to the north, then again to the east on the loop, I began searching for birds once again.

A Tufted Titmouse perched upon a branch at Stumpy Lake Natural Area!

My first observation was a pair of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (#134) that came zooming through the canopy, stopping briefly on a branch, then again cruising out of view. Along this northern part of the loop, there is a swamp off the path, at times very close, so I tried standing still in spots along this part of the loop to see if the water was attracting more species. Several more Hermit Thrushes were seen in this area, and quite a few Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, but no migrant warbler species unfortunately. I could hear a couple Ovenbirds calling from a distance, but never when I was near enough to search them out. Clever birds. A few Common Grackles moved through the marsh, as did some American Crows, and a Black Vulture and a pair of Tree Swallows were seen hovering high up above the canopy. I listened very hard for my favorite song, that of the Prairie Warbler, but did not hear, or see any of this species. When I'd reached the east end of the loop, I turned 180 degrees, and walk it all in reverse, this time, walking quickly along the half I'd just birded, knowing the sun would be in my face. Along the way, I kept hearing a bird giving a call every 10 or 15 seconds, one I didn't recognize. I stared from tree to tree for about 10 minutes searching out the source of the call, when finally it flushed from its spot high in a tree, and landed slightly lower. Through the binoculars I could identify it as a Great Crested Flycatcher, another first of year species (#135). Being so high up, my photos (see link above) weren't the best, but still good enough for an ID. After it moved back up into the canopy, I continued on westward. Again the loud music at the far west end was quite annoying, but I turned the west edge of the loop and headed back eastward, now watching intently for small birds moving through the trees. It was all quiet until I got near the spot where I'd seen the Wood Thrush. Yet again, it came hopping out of the vegetation growing close to the forest floor, posed, and jumped up into a tree.

A very late season Snow Goose seen mixed in with some Canada Geese feeding in a farmfield off Independence Boulevard!

This time, the sun at my back, I got much nicer photographs of the beautiful bird. The sun was now getting pretty low in the sky, so when I hit the middle cut-through of the figure 8 again, I took it up to the marshy side, then decided to do one final loop counterclockwise (seeing if I could get a 3rd photo opportunity with the Wood Thrush with the sun at my back). This time, walking quickly, and stopping for a couple of shots of Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees, I again spotted the Wood Thrush, back in its same location. I only grabbed a photo or two, but spent more time watching it in my binoculars. Their white undersides with black spots, and beautiful brown backs make them just a striking bird to see in person. As with most birds, field guide photos do them little justice. After a few minutes watching, I moved past it, without spooking it off so it may very well be in this same spot today. I headed over to the parking area after checking out the eastern portion of the marsh, but finding nothing new. From the boat launch pier, about 20-25 Double-crested Cormorants had taken up a roosting spot atop a Cypress Tree, and a pair of Canada Geese flew in as well. I left the park about 6:55 PM, heading out down Indian River Road, and up Independence Boulevard. Thinking my birding for the day had come to a close, I was surprised when I saw a small group of 22 Canada Geese on the southwest quadrant of the intersection with Princess Anne Road...with 1 white bird clearly visible among them! I pulled a u-turn at the intersection, and parked just south of there on the street, put back together my camera, grabbed the binoculars, and walked up closer. The white bird, a Snow Goose, is the latest occurrence of one I've seen in Virginia Beach. It was quite a surprise, and a highly unexpected way to finish off my Monday excursion!

The common, but always photogenic Carolina Chickadee!

On Thursday, thanks to an afternoon meeting at the City of Virginia Beach that got out an hour early, I was able to get out for a nice long 7.5 mile hike at Back Bay NWR on Thursday evening. Driving through Sandbridge en route to the park I saw a pair of swallows on one of the overhead power lines paralleling the roadway, so I pulled a u-turn and parked nearby, got the binoculars up on them and ID'd them as my first Barn Swallows of the year (#136). Though a common bird, it was nice to finally see a pair of them sitting on a wire so they could be easily identified, even from the driver's side of a car. I arrive at the park about 3:35 PM, and noticed that no attendant was there today. I headed into the park, seeing a Northern Mockingbird along the way in, then parked up near the Kuralt Trail and started my walk southward towards the Loop Road. I stayed to the eastern half of the Loop Road, and almost immediately began hearing the calls of Prairie Warblers in the scrub terrain to the east. I tried to locate the birds at a couple of spots before I finally saw one of beautiful yellow and black songbirds singing its heart out from the top of what I believe was a Live Oak. These warblers were one of the highlights of the day, and could be heard calling all along the East Dike, with their signature 'countdown' song ringing in my ears still. Eastern Towhees, Brown Thrashers, and White-throated Sparrows were also present along the Loop Road, and all were singing as well, making for a perfect soundtrack to walk too. Heading southward along the East Dike Trail, I saw one massive Common Snapping Turtle in the ditch to the east, a few Carolina Chickadees hopping from shrub to shrub, and a pair of Blue Jays at the double 90-degree bend in the trail.Glossy Ibis, White Ibis, Snowy Egret, and Great Egrets could all be seen out on the nearer portions of the impoundments from this bend area, but they were too far out for 400mm photographs to be of any quality. Some Mallards also could be seen, but that was it for waterfowl, whatever is there still is far enough away that you need a powerful scope, or a wild imagination to identify accordingly.

Quite possibly my favorite warbler of the spring & summer here in Virginia Beach, the Prairie Warbler!

In this area also, I could hear a Yellowlegs calling from high up, but couldn't spot it. This time of year the park is full of both Lessers & Greaters, though with the West Dike Trail having not opened, it is more difficult, if not impossible to be able to see the shorebirds right now. Continuing southbound, a pair of Common Yellowthroats delighted me with some great views as they hopped around the cattails on a small puddle off the west side of the trail, and nearby, a Prairie Warbler (#137) seen close enough to the trail for a few good photographs. Their yellow & black neck and facial patterns, and the rusty spot on their back just make them gorgeous birds, dare I say one of, if not, my favorite of the spring warblers. Nearing the southernmost bend in the trail, before it starts tracking westward towards the junction with False Cape State Park's entry road, I was photographing a group of Yellow-rumped Warbler, and accidentally spooked what I believe was a Wilson's Snipe into flight. It disappeared extremely fast to the west unfortunately. Coming around the final bend, a large wading bird jumped out of the foliage across the ditch, showing itself plainly as a surprise Black-crowned Night-Heron adult! The bird hopped up into the tree, then flew up and over, allowing only some photos of half of its body, but still clear enough to separate from the much more common Yellow-crowns. This is only the second Black-crown I've seen at the park this year actually, the first being during the full ice over back in February/March up near the Bay Trail. I reached the False Cape entry trail, grabbed a drink of water, and attempted to photograph a pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers that had flown in to check me over. They repeatedly jumped from branch to branch, moving through a tangle of Live Oaks, making for difficult shots, but again, some ID worthy ones did come out of this.

A pair of White-tailed Deer peeking at me from the safety of the interior marshes at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge!

After this I headed back northward along the same route, walking a bit faster this time. I'd contemplated walking into False Cape and coming back north along the beach road, but this adds about 2.8 miles to the hike, and being an after-work hike, I wasn't sure if I could pull it off before the sun set. The walk northward was a bit more quiet, though I could hear the Prairie Warblers and Yellowthroats along the path, I mostly just walked the whole way up the East Dike Trail quickly. I spooked another Snipe, this time getting a good look at it in my binoculars as it landed out in the marsh, then disappeared from view. About a hundred yards or so south of the East Dike gate, a pair of White-tailed Deer were seen grazing up along the trail shoulders. While watching the deer, an American Bittern rose out of the marsh to my east, and then flew across the path! After it had moved far off to the west, I moved closer to watch the deer. As I approached, they of course ran off to the safety of the marsh to the west, but stopped, turned, and stared back at me, making for some nice photographs. The Loop Road again was filled with Prairie Warbler Song, and Eastern Towhees calling as well. While on the Loop Road, a group of 5 Tricolored Herons flew high over me, heading out over the ocean. This is the first time at the park that I've seen a group flying together like this, and earlier I had actually seen a group of a dozen or so Snowy Egrets doing the same thing. I took the southern beach access trail out across the dunes and onto the beach itself. The strong easterly winds were driving quite a swell into the beach, and a massive debris line could be seen from north to south. Because of the swell, I couldn't pick any birds out of the water aside from Double-crested Cormorants, of which there were thousands due to a massive cyclone of them off the northern mile of the beach. A few Forster's Terns were seen, a single Royal Tern, and the typical 4 species of gulls(Ring-billed, Herring, Lesser & Great Black-backed), with 1 Brown Pelican rounded out the beach birds. No shorebirds were observed here. I walked one last section of the park, the Bay Trail, but by this point the sun was dropping low in the sky, and though I could hear many Red-winged Blackbirds calling, and a King Rail cackling off in the distance, it was pretty quiet for birds. Two more Common Yellowthroats, and a Swamp Sparrow were seen, and then I was off back towards the car and out of the refuge. 

A beautiful Wood Thrush, seen at Stumpy Lake Natural Area on Friday evening. This is the only location in the City of Virginia Beach that I've been able to find this species, and this is by far my best photograph of one to date!

On Friday evening, I made another trip out to Stumpy Lake Natural Area in Virginia Beach in an attempt to nail down some more warbler species as they migrate northward. Monday had been my first ever outing to the park, and it gave me some insight into where I might be able to find some birds. Heading out from the parking lot, I walked the main loop clockwise again, but this time, it was quite a muddy mess. The rains we’d had the last couple of days, combined with the flat terrain of the park make for a lot of standing water. The American Robins were loving all the water though, and were actively seeking out worms, and drinking the water wherever a puddle existed. Near the same area I’d spotted the Wood Thrush on Monday, I saw a pair of them this time! Two Wood Thrushes, and a few photographs to boot, already a good outing. I kept onward through the mud, and came around the north side of the loop where the marsh is located just to the north. Here, I could hear the sounds of Prothonotary Warblers calling, and after a half hour of standing still next to a big cypress tree on the edge of the swamp, one finally came flying past me and perched up in a branch where I could positively identify it. This was #138 of my Virginia Beach County ‘Big Year’! Another bird that I was hearing repeatedly while waiting, but never quite seeing, was an Ovenbird. I have been hearing them all over this week, from my backyard, to the parks I’ve been hiking at, but laying eyes on them is much more difficult. They prefer to walk along the ground, or very low in the trees when flushed, so they’re tough to pick out. It took me a couple more trips around the loop before I finally spooked one that was close enough in to be seen, and as it ascended up into the tree branches, I was able to snap a photograph to make it #139 on the year! In addition to the two new warbler species, I saw many Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a few Pine Warblers, some Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice. As for non-bird sightings, for the second time in just a couple of weeks, I spotted a Raccoon sleeping up at the top of the canopy over the marshy area! These Raccoons are quite brazen, I’d have expected them to be sleeping in more of a hidden spot where nothing could get to them, but perhaps they just don’t have any natural predators around here. I headed out after the Ovenbird photograph though, so that I could get home for dinner and head to see a movie.

Frogs and Toads have been calling at dusk for a couple weeks now, but this is my first photograph of one: a Southern Leopard Frog!

On Saturday morning, I headed out from Virginia Beach to the Great Dismal Swamp about 7 AM, arriving at the Jericho Ditch Trailhead parking area just before 8 AM. On the way into the park, Prairie & Prothonotary Warblers could be heard from the car, almost deafening at this time of day. I walked the Jericho Ditch Trail southeastward, passing the junction with the Lynn Ditch where I could see a pair of Wild Turkey about a half mile or so down, one, a male, was all puffed up and looked massive even at that distance. It was almost hard to isolate other bird songs from the Prairie Warblers the first mile or so, there was an incredible amount of them singing along the trailsides. As I got further down the trail though, the Prothonotary Warblers became the dominant singers. About a mile in, the trail makes a jog across the ditch, then follows that side for the remainder, and in this area I spotted a rather large Black Bear track in the muddy path. It looked a few days old though as the rains of the week had warped it a bit. I saw a few more tracks as I kept moving southeast, heading in the same direction, but I never saw any bears on the trip. In the next mile of the trail, I spotted my first of year Black-and-White Warblers, as a pair flew across the trail to a tree, and scampered around the trunk. American Redstarts could also be heard in a couple of spots, but I never got a look at any today. Wood Ducks were seen scattered along the small ditches, and I spooked quite a few of them, though some were probably repeat birds. Zebra Swallowtails were by far the dominant butterflies in the area, and only a few Tiger Swallowtails and a lone Black Swallowtail showed up as well. In the final mile and a half before the fire tower, Gray Catbirds were the star of the show. There was tons of them along this stretch, and their calls of all different types made it impossible to hear the other birds of the swamp. I don't know if this is a known breeding area for the masses of Catbirds, but many of them were carrying nest materials, and a number of them were calling out in the open which isn't typical from what I've seen of this species.

People refer to them often as weeds, but there is something beautiful about our very abundant Dandelions! 

Near here also, I watched as a pair of Prairie Warblers chased one another down into the underbrush, snapping a couple of photographs as they attempted to breed in the dense foliage. I don't think my presence was too much of a hinderance for these birds. Once I reached the fire tower, a pair of Turkey Vultures were sitting at the top, some 100+ feet up in the air. I wondered what the view must be like from up there, given that it is taller than the surrounding tree canopy, I'd imagine one could see quite far from there. I kept going a bit further southeast, but the trail turned into a muddy mess, and the grasses are already started to grow high, so I made the decision to just turn around and head back the same way (I'd originally planned to do a circuit of this trail, the Middle Ditch & Lynn Ditch to get me back). Headed back northwest towards the parking area, I ran into a pair of hikers visiting the park the first time, hailing from northeast Canada. We chatted a few minutes and they kept on in the opposite direction. Just as they'd left, I noticed a dark shape move out onto the trail a few hundred yards ahead, and realized it was a River Otter. I called back to the folks to look that way, and they got to watch as two more shapes moved out. It was a whole family of River Otters, acting quite playful along the trail, rolling over one another, and dashing back and forth from side to side. As I neared them, they of course darted back into the swamp and disappeared, but watching them in the binoculars was good fun for quite a number of minutes. After this, the next fun observation was that of a Great Crested Flycatcher that was zooming back and forth across the trail, allowing me a photograph of it high up a tree. I was nearing the last mile and a half of the trail, closing in on where the trail jogs across the ditch, when I'd heard some movement ahead of me. Another River Otter came running out onto the trail, then jumped into the ditch. As I approached this one, I could hear thrashing in the water, and I got within about 5 feet of its source. I watched as an Otter was rolling around in the water, and my instant thought was that it was tied up on something given how it was behaving and that I got so close.

Another Prairie Warbler, one of very many that were seen at the Great Dismal Swamp on Saturday!

So I started talking aloud to it just to see its reaction. As soon as I did, it stopped, stared right up the bank at me, and dove off into the water. Clearly, it wasn't stuck or tied up to something, so what was the deal? Well, a few seconds later, a 3-4 foot long Red-bellied Watersnake came rushing out of the water at the same spot, up the bank, actually aggressively moved towards me, and then dove to the opposite ditch across the trail. I did not see the two together, but I believe the Otter must have been trying to prey on the snake, and was caught up in a struggle with it when I first approached. This is something I've never before seen in the wild, so if anyone knows more about the prey Otters typically take, let me know, I was unaware that they'd pursue large snakes. After this excitement, I kept onward, and the remainder of the trail was pretty quiet. Lots of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and the Prairie & Prothonotary Warblers were still singing though. I reached the car and headed off about 11:05 AM or thereabouts. Driving out on the gravel roadway, I saw a Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a branch above the road, and also encountered 2 more Wild Turkeys before I hit the entry gate. Since it was still early, and my hike got cut short, I drove over to Washington Ditch and walked the boardwalk area next. As with my outing last Sunday, I could hear a Northern Parula calling near the boadwalk's junction with the ditch trail, and it took me about a half hour this time, but I finally spotted it, and grabbed some poor quality, though, ID-worthy photographs! At this point in the day though, most of the birds had stopped singing, save for some Prothonotaries, and a few Ovenbirds, but I walked another couple of miles in the vicinity of the parking area before calling it a day and heading out. If you haven't made it to the swamp yet, now is the time, it is absolutely beautiful right now, having greened up immensely in the last week! On Sunday, the weather forecast had called for clouds and rain all day, but when I woke up at 7:30 AM, the sun was shining, so Ruth & I headed down to Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area’s Whitehurst Tract. On Saturday, a Swallow-tailed Kite had been reported there on eBird, and though we didn’t see this very rare bird while out walking, we did, as usual, find some other stuff. We arrived just before 9 AM to the parking area, and took off southward on the main access trail. It was pretty quiet as we neared the southern half of the park where the impoundments were, and many of the trails have become a bit overgrown already.

My first photograph of a lizard on the year, a beautiful Five-lined Skink, showcasing its blue tail!

With all the rain we’ve had recently, and with it being April, everything has really sprung up. We ended up walking around the northern two impoundments, noting a pair of Canada Geese, and two Mallards, and that was it for waterfowl. The last time I was here, just a couple weeks ago, the impoundments were filled with ducks, and were also just starting to be drained of water. But now, the water is limited to the deep moats surrounding the exterior edges of each impoundment, and so the waterfowl have simply moved on from this site. In their, and the water’s, absence, shorebirds typically move in onto the moist fields that remain where standing water used to occur. These birds will feed in the mud, sometimes in large flocks. Today though, it was quiet, with a single Greater Yellowlegs, and a loose group of about 10 Wilson’s Snipe taking to the air, landing, and immediately hiding amongst whatever vegetation was available to cover them. Since it was so quiet, we walked back northward heading towards the parking area, rather than following the outside edges of the park like I usually do. On our way back though, we were looking at some wild onions we had picked up out of the trail’s soil, and I looked up to see a pair of Eastern Kingbirds in a tree about 20 feet away, staring right back at us. We almost walked right by them, but this was another new bird for my county list this year (#140)! After leaving in the car, we stopped up at one of the farmer’s market for some fresh veggies, and then we headed down to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The sky was split right down the middle with sun on the north, and shade on the south, and we sat right in the shaded part all morning, so lighting wasn’t the best, it was a bit frustrating to look up and see all the blue sky just out of reach. Winds were blowing onshore from the ocean, creating a pretty strong surge of waves onto the beach at Back Bay. Only a few Forster’s Terns, and a Royal Tern were seen there. Inland, we heard a King Rail cackling, and several Prairie Warblers singing, but didn’t spot any of these two species. A Common Yellowthroat was also heard near the parking area, but was not seen. Having such a difficult time finding the birds, we didn’t stay too long, though we did walk about 4 miles on the morning in total, and we did see a Cooper’s Hawk fly past which is always a neat sight. Another April week down, with some great new list additions though, and another 25+ miles of walking, which has been the average the past 3 weeks for me, hopefully this next week can carry that streak onward!

The 140th species of bird I've seen in Virginia Beach this year so far, an Eastern Kingbird!