Week Ending May 24, 2015

After skipping a nice evening on Monday since I was just flat wore out from the previous few days of hiking, I got back out on Tuesday evening for  a quick walk up at Pleasure House Point. Arriving at 4:50 PM after heading home from work and grabbing my gear, I parked as I typically do on weeknights along Marlin Bay Drive, heading into the park and traveling eastward with the sunlight at my back. On the way in, an Eastern Towhee was singing loudly atop a pine tree, actually offering some looks rather than calling from the thick underbrush that I usually encounter them in. Pine Warblers could already be heard off in the distance as well, and a pair of Northern Cardinals was seen around the smaller of the two ponds that this entry trail splits between. Between the this pond and the deer carcass pond I encountered a brilliantly colored male American Goldfinch in its summer colors, a bird quite common around here but one I don't think I've ever actually seen inside the park itself. After it flushed, another bird came in and I thought it was a House Finch at first, but a look through the binoculars revealed it was a female Blue Grosbeak, one of two that I'd see on the day. As this one also eventually flew off, I heard a bird calling that sounded like a heron, and when I approached to investigate, it flew off over the creek, clearly a Green Heron though. At this point in the day, the tide was rather low, leaving lots of shoreline exposed, and the main cove of Pleasure House Creek that cuts into the park was almost completely devoid of water. I was very surprised when on my first pass around the cove I didn't pick out a single shorebird, perhaps they were just hiding too well. Around the cove though, Red-winged Blackbirds were singing from the tops of every available tree, and a Boat-tailed Grackle was also joining in song. A single Least Tern was seen flying over the cove rather erratically, making a photo of this small speedster pretty much impossible. The small interior creek that flows adjacent to the next bit of trail also proved empty of shorebirds on its exposed sides, but a single Semipalmated Plover came flying swiftly towards me, just a couple feet above the water, zooming past out into the marsh.

The very dapper Semipalmated Plover, seen here on the mudflats at Pleasure House Point!

This was a first for me at the park, though again something others probably have seen plenty of times before. Heading up towards the main point where folks often crab & fish, an American Oystercatcher was seen flying past, and shortly afterwards, a single Black Skimmer did so as well, skimming the water's surface of Crab Creek along the way. Walking around the sandy areas of the point heading towards the new pier it was obvious that the sandbars exposed were quite massive due to the very low tides. Upon reaching the pier area, it was also obvious that all the birds on the sandbars were out way too far for me to pick out anything rare. I could see plenty of Laughing Gulls, Herring Gulls, and Royal Terns, and did see one more Black Skimmer, but as far as anything smaller, I couldn't pick it out from this distance. Heading back westward, with the light now in my eyes, I realized that there was quite a storm building to the southwest. In fact, Town Center's skyline (if one can call it that) was draped in doom-looking black clouds. I watched the thunderhead build on itself, swelling upward, but it never seemed to get any closer to where I was, so I kept on walking back towards where I'd parked just in case. At the interior creek, this time a Spotted Sandpiper was sighted, and about 20 feet away from it, a single Semipalmated Sandpiper (showing black legs), one Least Sandpiper (showing yellow legs and slightly smaller), and one Semipalmated Plover were all walking around the high-and-dry oyster shells. I was surprised to find 4 shorebirds, all of different species right in the same spot! Eventually, another plover came flying in, chasing off the first and the two disappeared into the marshes. Walking around the main cove yielded 3 more Semipalmated Plovers, and a Greater Yellowlegs also landed out in the middle, where the water was just a few inches deep. Continuing west the birds were pretty quiet, though I heard & saw a few Chimney Swifts overhead. I didn't see much until I reached the far western fringe of the park, where a group of 3Mallards and a few Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were seen. From here I walked back east, passing through the woods and down the west side of the largest pond.

This Northern Watersnake was content to hide mostly under the submerged vegetation, peeking its head out to see if I was still around!

As I hit the junction with the shoreline trail, I heard buzzing all around me and realized there was a large wasp/hornet ground nest being built on the pond-side of the trail, blending in very well with the surrounding soil. I don't know much about insects in general, but I have a couple nightmare stories from Bald-faced Hornet nests I stepped on in Minnesota as a kid, getting stung plenty of times in the process. So when I see things like this I tend to back off quickly, not knowing if these types of insects are even aggressive or not, just be mindful if you walk past this area. It's easy for birders to get caught with their eyes solely on the trees, and these ground nests and kind of like the Cottonmouths at Back Bay, something to remind you to keep checking down as well. I spent a little time walking around the smaller of the two ponds, seeing a few Pine Warblers, and noting Great Egrets & Great Blue Herons out on the creek, but after this I headed back to the vehicle, since the sun had now been eaten up by the thunderhead and rain seemed imminent. Luckily, one final bird bid farewell to me, a male Blue Grosbeak male that was sitting atop the nearest tree to my car. On the way home, I decided to swing by Kings Grant Lakes in order to try and get a photo of the swallow that was flying around on Sunday evening here. When I arrived at the outlet to the lake, I could see a figure walking around in the back yard of where a boat was docked, a boat that the swallow seemed to hover near. I put my binoculars up, and sure enough, the figure turned out to be Ron Furnish, who had sighted the swallow in the first place on Sunday. He and his girlfriend Marie were both out in the backyard of the property it appeared to be building a nest near. After a half hour or so of trying, I couldn’t get any better looks at the bird than I had before, but Marie got some nice photographs of it, showing white underparts and brown chest band, making it the Bank Swallow (#168 in Virginia Beach this year!), that Ron had initially suspected it to be. This bird now ties the total number of species I observed in Virginia Beach last year as a whole, meaning I’m well ahead of the game for 2015. I attribute that to hundreds, if not thousands of hours studying up on birds, and reports of where to find individual species, and putting in the time outdoors throughout the year, whether it be in the freezing cold of February, or any other weather that’s occurred this year.

For the first time ever in my birding career, I photographed this Black Scoter on a marshy freshwater impoundment at Back Bay NWR! Typically, these sea-faring ducks are observed off the coastlines, usually leaving the area in late April to head northward to breed, so seeing one in May is rather unusual.

Wednesday evening we had weather in the 70s near the beach with a slight breeze and mostly sunny skies which made for a nice outing. My fiance & I took a stroll down the north end of Virginia Beach's oceanfront area, parking at 48th Street and walking northwards. The past few weeks I've been trying to spot my first Caspian Tern of the year here in Virginia Beach, as well as my first Common Tern, and while both species are indeed common and have returned to the area weeks ago, I just haven't been able to ID one of either. I've been seeing plenty of Royals and Forster's but no birds I could unquestionably differentiate from these two species. So my main hope for the walk was to get locate each of these species, which would round out the common terns for my annual county list. On the walk north, the sun was still fairly high in the sky and casting a good amount of light out onto the water. Many Brown Pelicans flew past moving northward as well, some in larger flocks, some singly. Great Black-backed Gull immatures and Laughing Gulls were seen continuously, most of the Laughing Gulls being part of small groups. Royal Terns were easily the most numerous birds, with new ones showing up every couple of minutes and passing us on their northward tracks. The surprise was a flock of 27 Black Scoters flying northward far out over the water at about the maximum of my binocular & camera range. A second flock of 15 flew past about 15 minutes later, and that was it for the scoters, which must be very late migrants since the Gold Book lists their typical departure date at 15 April, well over a month ago. We walked north to about 72nd street according to the GPS tag of a photo I took when we turned around, making the round trip about 3.2 miles. Heading southward, I finally got my first Caspian Tern (#169) of the year here in Virginia Beach when a large tern flew past, showing off its bulky, blood-red bill with black tip, and very black outer underwings. I snapped a couple quick photos of this one to differentiate from all the Royals I'd been seeing, some of which also had quite red bills being in heavy breeding colors, but lacking the black tips.

This Caspian Tern was seen at Back Bay, just a couple of days after I finally saw my first-of-year along the beach on Tuesday evening! 

The next great surprise came as the sun had fallen quite low, and a group of several smaller terns moved up the shoreline. These were clearly either Forster's or Commons just based on the size, and the bill size/color/shape. Viewing one of the birds for several minutes as it circled and dove into the water, I could see a much grayer underside to the bird that the typical Forster's show. This one was my first Common Tern of the year (#170), and I did get a couple of photographs showing the much grayer body than the Forster's white body. Shortly after, a Least Tern flew in and plunge-dove several times close to shore. Unfortunately the lighting was now so poor that the birds barely showed up when set against the sky as a background. But, set against the water, they still showed up fairly well, and though I only got 1 photo of it near the surface, it was good enough for an ID worthy shot. During the last stretch, several Dolphins, which I assume were Atlantic Bottlenose though can't back that up for certain, were seen close in to shore, moving northward like most of the birds had been. We watched them rise out of the water every half minute or so as they traveled along the coastline. Heading up from the beach back to where I'd parked yielded some Northern Mockingbirds, American Robins, European Starlings, Boat-tailed & Common Grackles, and an Eastern Towhee, finishing off the list for the evening, but being too dark for any photographs. With weather moving in on Thursday, it looks like Friday evening will be the next opportunity for me to get out around the area, hoping to add to my annual county list which sits at 170 species as of now!

Another species that has stayed later than it typically does, this American Coot was seen near the maritime forest at Back Bay NWR on Friday evening!

Memorial Day weekend got off to a nice start with beautiful sunny skies and weather in the low 70s on Friday evening. After work, I headed down to Back Bay NWR, arriving about 3:45 PM, parking near the Loop Road entrance. With success that many folks have had at the base of the Bay Trail, I made a quick stop to see if I could find any warblers here, but seeing & hearing nothing after a few minutes, headed down the Loop Road's western side instead. Red-winged Blackbirds were frequently seen, but birds were quiet on the Loop Road. One Northern Watersnake was seen swimming in the ponds adjacent to the gravel roadway, and photographed. This particular snake kept submerging itself and swimming down into the vegetation at the bottom of the shallow pond, then would rise up with just its head sticking out of the water's surface. I've never seen one act quite like this before, but it made for some neat photographs (see link above). Reaching the junction with the West Dike Trail, a pair of Eastern Kingbirds flew across the trail and headed off to the southeast. Throughout the next stretch of the trail, Boat-tailed & Common Grackles were seen, and one Great Egret made a fly-over, but still, pretty quiet for birds. Reaching the southwest corner of the large, marshy impoundment, I spotted a duck sitting out on the water, thinking it was probably a Mallard since they're really the only species around right now in any numbers. However, as I got closer, it was obvious that the bird was actually a female Black Scoter. I believe this is the first one I've ever photographed on freshwater before, and it was a strange feeling seeing it against a marshy backdrop rather than the open ocean. The bird never took to the air, but did dive several times, coming up to see where I was, then diving again. After a few dives, and a few photographs, I continued on my walk so that it wouldn't be disturbed. Near here, there is a junction with a trail that cuts east-west across the impoundments, forming the northern edge of a large rectangular pond.

This Greater Yellowlegs was seen at Back Bay NWR, and erupted into flight, allowing for this neat shot in front of the marshy background of the park!

On this pond, there are a couple small mudflats, though most of the pond is just open water. Semipalmated Plovers and Greater Yellowlegs could be seen on the mudflats in small numbers, with a pair of female Red-breasted Mergansers that were sitting on the exposed surface. Mallards & Canada Geese were out on the water swimming, and 7 Snowy Egrets were hunting out in the middle where it must be quite shallow. One Caspian Tern could be seen all the way across the pond on the eastern shore, and it later did a flyby of my location, providing some nice looks at the large amount of black on its underwings. Over the next stretch of trail, I passed the pumphouse that floods the impoundments with water from Back Bay when needed, and continued south, nearing the entrance to the maritime forest. In the couple hundred yards north of the maritime forest, I've been seeing a fair amount of Orchard Orioles, which seem to enjoy the few trees that dot this portion of the trail. On the pond near here was 1 American Coot, which is hanging around quite late into the month, and also a pair of Greater Yellowlegs that seem to be in this area each time I walk nearby. A beautiful male American Goldfinch was seen with a female companion in one of the small trees along the trail here as well, making it the second time I've seen one this week out far from suburbia and feeders. Entering the maritime forest, a Blue Grosbeak was seen calling from high up a tall tree. Also, a single Mourning Dove was perched up in a tree where the east-west trail crossing the park's interior hits the roadway. Along the roadway, I finally encountered my first cuckoos of the year when two Yellow-billeds (#171) jumped from an overhanging branch visible from the road up into the protection of the canopy. I snapped a few shots of one of the birds before it flew off into the forest (see above link). A single Prothonotary Warbler was heard in the forest also, and it actually flew right across the road in front of me, giving me good looks of a bird that I don't often spend time trying to put eyes on in this section due to the thickness of the foliage.

Another first-of-year (FOY) bird, this Yellow-billed Cuckoo was one of several sighted in the maritime forest of Back Bay NWR on Friday evening!

A pair of Great Crested Flycatchers also provided nice looks and photos along the forested roadway. Upon exiting the forest, a Nutria was pulled up on the shoreline of the adjacent ditch, cleaning itself and shaking off for a few minutes. I walked a hundred yards or so to the south, sadly seeing a very small, young Cottonmouth smashed on the roadway. The young snakes have a beautiful pattern of varying brown colors and are a sight to behold when alive, so this was a quite sad to see. I turned around here and headed back northward, seeing a couple of Carolina Chickadees in the forest but not much else. The coot, yellowlegs, and Black Scoter were all present on the northward journey again, and more photographs were taken. When I reached the northern end of the West Dike Trail, I took the Loop Road around to the east, hoping to get some looks at a Prairie Warbler, which are quite common along this section. Unfortunately, I didn't get my Prairie this time, but did find a pair of Blue Grosbeaks up near the Dune Trail's boardwalk. I opted not to walk down to the beach this time, instead heading directly up to the Bay Trail, which I walked out and back. Walking westward, about mid-way between the Bayside Trail boardwalk connection and the pond at the west end, a small songbird flew across the trail, pausing briefly on a branch before disappearing into the thick foliage. Fortunately, I got a good look at the bird while perched, clearly a male American Redstart (#172) showing just a little bright-orange and a mostly black body, my first of the year. Continuing west, I reached the end of the trail & made the turn-around, seeing a white bird flying over quite high up. Sporting yellow legs, a stocky yellow bill, and a rusty patch on the chest, this bird was my first Cattle Egret of the year (#173), so the Bay Trail turned out to be a good move this time. I headed back to the vehicle, not re-locating the redstart for a photo unfortunately, but still excited to have seen one here.

This is probably my first good shot of a dragonfly (Skimmer species) of 2015. With summer weather moving in quickly, the population of these will increase drastically as the birdwatching begins to slow down in June & July. 

After good success on Friday evening at the park, and after reading and hearing about the Red Knots that Ron Furnish & Marie Mullins had spotted along the beachfront near the False Cape SP border, I headed down to Back Bay again as soon as I woke up on Saturday, arriving at 7:40 AM. I started off with a walk down the Bay Trail, which again turned out to be a good decision. I had a warbler cross in front of me, that looked to have several colors on it, but it never stopped or stood still long enough to let me focus on it unfortunately. A part of me hopes this might be the Magnolia Warbler spotted near here by Karen & Tom Beatty recently, and all of me hopes if this is the case, that it sticks around so I can actually get a look at it! Behind the visitor center, in the hotspot apparent of the last couple of weeks I got a female American Redstart, and photos this time, so I was excited about that! Also, a flycatcher that was most likely an Acadian hopped through the dense foliage, but I couldn't get good enough looks to validate the ID. So the birds are definitely around this area, but they weren't giving me much time to see them today. The wind was really howling from the northeast at probably 15-20 mph, continuously, so birds in general today were tough to find in the open. Heading down the Loop Road, a Common Tern flew over me, as did a couple of Ospreys, but again the dominant birds now are the Red-winged Blackbirds. Walking the West Dike Trail yielded the same typical birds I'd seen the day before (Blue Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, Orchard Orioles, Eastern Kingbirds), but nothing new was sighted. A Great Blue Heron was seen trying to swallow a rather massive Bluegill that it must have caught just before I spotted it.

Not as colorful as its male counterpart, this female Blue Grosbeak still shows a wide range of patterning & shading across its plumage, seen at Back Bay on Friday!

A few decent photographs of this bird show just how gluttonous they can be. I wondered exactly how they're able to swallow these fish whole and digest them without the spines on the fins hurting their throats or stomachs, but I guess they've been doing for a while, and have figured it out. The Black Scoter had disappeared overnight and could not be re-located on any of the visible impoundments from the roadway, which I was happy about, since I was concerned it might be an injured bird given its behavior on Friday evening. The American Coot sighted yesterday was sitting right about in the same spot, as were the pair of Greater Yellowlegs. Entering the maritime forest, I felt I might see more birds than I had out in the open, given that the area was protected from the winds. Great Crested Flycatchers were again see, and Prothonotary Warblers were heard, but still the birds remained tough to find here. Exiting the forest, what was likely the same Nutria was seen again cleaning itself up. At the border road with False Cape SP I headed eastward, turning south at the main entry road towards the visitor center. Along this roadway a flock of Double-crested Cormorants cruised by overhead, and again many Red-winged Blackbirds were seen. Eastern Kingbirds, Tufted Titmice and Indigo Buntings were also seen here, and a single Red-tailed Hawk was flying in circles overhead. Near the visitor center, two birds flew by me overhead, calling a song I didn't recognize. They landed in a tree nearby, one, a red bird, the other, a greenish-yellow bird. Getting the binoculars up on them got me excited when I realized they were Summer Tanagers (#174), a male & female, and also the first I've seen this year. I never see a lot of these birds in any given year, last year I believe I only saw 2 as well (at First Landing SP), so they were a welcomed sight.

Great Blue Herons have been known to be quite gluttonous, taking on prey much larger than even this Bluegill, but what a sight to behold when it happens in front of you!

Continuing eastward from the visitor center towards Barbour Hill and the beachfront yielded a Blue Grosbeak, and good looks at a Prairie Warbler that was calling from a roadside shrub. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird was seen along a power line, and another was seen near some honeysuckle. A Mud Turtle, and a newly hatched Snapping Turtle were also seen where the power lines cross the road and there is a small marshy spot. When I reached the beach, I quickly scanned both directions hoping to locate the Red Knots I was after, but couldn't see them from the hilltop anywhere along the beachfront. Walking north on the beach, I had a pack of Sanderlings staying out in front of me for the first mile or so, before I finally walked closer to the dune line to get around them without spooking them. Ruddy Turnstones, Black-bellied Plovers, and Semipalmated Sandpipers were noted among the Sanderlings, but these were the only shorebirds seen for the day. With the winds whipping into shore, and the waves crashing, almost no birds were seen in flight over the open water. Brown Pelicans, about 50 of them in total, were sighted flying over the dune line, but again staying off the open ocean. Only a single Royal Tern, and two other unidentified terns were seen the entire way from False Cape to the parking area trails of Back Bay. Heading over the dunes on the Dune Trail to the Loop Road yielded an Eastern Towhee in the area they're typically seen and heard. Walking the Loop Road north, I stopped and attempted to put eyes on a few birds that were calling from cover, but just never could. I opted to walk the Bay Trail one more time, hoping to re-spot the warblers I couldn't get good looks at earlier in the day, but the trail remained quiet, with just one Indigo Buntings calling from a very visible spot high up a tree. I did get some nice looks at a Marsh Rabbit that was hiding in my favorite warbler spot. As a final check, I walked the Kuralt Trail, which is the short boardwalk north of the parking area, turning up a flock of Cedar Waxwings and a Carolina Chickadee, but nothing out of the ordinary. So I headed back to the car after the 10.5 mile walk, to go home and relax / sift through all the photos from the last two days. Hopefully tomorrow brings nice weather again, maybe a little less windy though so the smaller birds can be a bit more visible!

One of several species of shorebirds seen along the beaches of Back Bay NWR on Saturday morning, the beautiful Ruddy Turnstone!

On Sunday morning, I decided to try something a bit outside my standard wheelhouse of birding strategy. Rather than go for a long walk somewhere, hoping to note a new species, I opted to head to Stumpy Lake Natural Area, in the hopes of located a specific bird, the Red-eyed Vireo that has eluded my thus far in 2015. Typically, I bird for exercise, and to see birds, so going to a location with very little in the way of hiking trails, and spending most of my time staring up into the canopy while patiently staying in the same area is definitely not something I’m accustomed too. However, it turned out to be the way to go. When I arrived at the park at 7:15 AM, I found a Ruby-throated Hummingbird zooming around in the foliage adjacent to the causeway that the entry road passes over. I ended up stopping my car, and setting up my camera as fast as I could to snap a few shots out the driver side window. The bird moved a bit, so I got out of the car and followed after. Shortly thereafter, I heard a car horn, and turned around to find an angry golfer in his vehicle stuck behind my car. Of course, I shouldn’t have stopped on the causeway, or gotten out, or turned the vehicle off and left the car door open, but, I needed to photograph a hummingbird. Anyway, I went back quickly and closed the door and moved off to the side of the causeway so the car could pass. By this point, the bird had gone, so I drove up and parked in the actual parking lot. I decided to walk the causeway up and back, hoping to see some more birds, and get another shot at the hummingbird. Unfortunately, that was my only sighting of it, but I did get to photograph some Carolina Chickadees, see a Northern Parula that was calling from high up atop a tree and finally flushed, and I also saw some Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. After this I walked the trails, roughly 2 miles of them over the next couple hours. At one point in time, I heard an Ovenbird calling close in, so I spent about 15 minutes inching closer to the epicenter of the sounds.

A genuinely unique moment for me here...my mother's favorite bird (Chickadee, though this is a Carolina, not the Black-capped that she really loves). This bird actually plucked the spider that wove the web at right, and devoured it!

I finally got a look at the bird when it flushed from the ground, landing in a tree a few feet off the ground, and providing a couple of poor photographs. I turned around and continued walking, thinking to myself just how difficult it is to find these birds. As I was thinking it, another Ovenbird flew in and landed on a tree branch, not five feet away from me, stared at me, and then flew up higher into the canopy. It was one of those moments that makes you want to scream, and laugh all at the same time.  The irony of seeing a bird so close up, after I’d spent time trying to locate one, finally getting a quick glimpse, was something I did have to laugh at though. I did end up following this bird for a few minutes, getting some better shots than I had of the one before, so that was the silver lining. It was here, that I first picked up the call of a Red-eyed Vireo, my target bird for the day. Over the next 45 minutes, I followed this song around the park, hoping to finally put eyes on the bird. Its call, which sounds as if the bird is asking itself a question, then answering, and repeating the cycle over and over again, is hard to misinterpret as any other species, but I always want to make sure my first-of-year report for a bird is an actual visual sighting that I can definitely say was the species. Many birders don’t go by this, and are perfectly fine noting a bird just by sound, however at my current skill level, I want to be 100% certain, and I do not have the ear for birds that more advanced folks have, so I’m sticking with a solid sighting as my criteria for 2015. So after about 45 minutes of craning my head upward, the bird finally flushed from high in the canopy, and came down just low enough to be seen clearly in binoculars. As I always try to do, I also got a couple photographs that help document the ID, even though this isn’t a rare species by any means, seeing one was a great experience, and it became #175 on my Virginia Beach list.

Heard much more often than seen, seen much more often than photographed, this Ovenbird showed up just to prove me wrong at Stumpy Lake! Teacher, teacher, teacher!

Excitedly, I headed out from the park after walking the causeway one more time, and drove home to grab a special breakfast of cheese eggs, cantaloupe, sausage and an English muffin that Ruth had prepared while I was gone. She had plans to head out to the beach, and since the water still isn’t quite warm enough to swim comfortably, I went out after breakfast for another quick walk, this time at Pleasure House Point. The park was extremely quiet unfortunately in terms of birds, and tons of people had pulled up their boats and kayaks onto the sandbars where the birds are typically found at low tide. I did find a few Semipalmated Plovers and a Spotted Sandpiper, but that was basically it for the shorebirds. One Least Tern was seen over the main cove of Pleasure House Creek, and Laughing Gulls were sighted, but again, this was it for gulls/terns unfortunately. Walking from east to west across the park, and back east again, I only spent about an hour for the 2 mile trip, which ended up getting quite hot near the end, so I was ready to get home and relax after hiking 5 days this week! With the upcoming Monday being Memorial Day, it was really nice to be able to get 2 days of hiking and birding in, and be able to come home to relax, knowing that I also didn’t have to go in to work the following day, and could therefore go hiking again! Since I’m finalizing this blog entry post-Memorial Day, I’ll just say, it was a good one, but more on that in ‘next week’s’ blog!

Crows don't make it into my blog very often since they're common, though this is a Fish Crow, and not quite as common as the American Crows most folks see. However, when they're carrying nest materials, and are actually well focused in the right light, they're quite a creature to behold!