Week Ending June 14, 2015

Hot, humid, summer weather arrived in the region this week, making for some truly brutal outdoor conditions. With temperatures in the 90s throughout the week, I made my first venture into the outdoors on Friday evening after work. At 3 PM I headed down to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, arriving at my typical 3:40 PM. With the intense humidity, I decided to forego a trip down the Bay Trail where the air is very stagnant typically since it sits low amongst the surrounding foliage. In the winter it is a great spot since it protects one from the wind on cold days, but in the heat of summer, it’s a boiler room for the same reason. I walked first down the Seaside Trail boardwalk to the beach, then headed down the beach to the Dune Trail. Along the beachfront, a couple of Great Black-backed Gulls were standing on the sand, and a few Royal Terns fly by overhead, with a single Double-crested Cormorant in the air. Those were the only birds visible though, no shorebirds were present, and nothing out of the ordinary. Walking back up and over the dunes on the Dune Trail, Eastern Towhees were heard calling around the boardwalk from the groves of Live Oak trees. One Yellow-breasted Chat was also heard here, with its truly crazy sounding call that is worth searching & listening to online if you’ve never heard it before. An adult chat was perched atop the powerline that runs adjacent to the Loop Road, and a Prairie Warbler was singing its signature ‘countdown’ call from just down the wire as well. Walking around the Loop Road didn’t yield much after that though, so I decided to start down the West Dike Trail. However, after a few hundred feet, the heat was just unbearable and I turned around. Red-winged Blackbirds were present, and a couple of Common Yellowthroats were also heard singing but not sighted. Dragonflies though, are apparently now the dominant wildlife of the park, seemingly loving the humid weather.

These Royal Terns are the dominant bird seen over the coastlines of Virginia Beach during June (or so it seems from my recent outings). Here, one goes for a hand-off of fish to another! Photographed at Back Bay NWR on Friday evening!

At least this weather is accommodating for learning a bit more about the insects that inhabit the park, so during this down time for birds, my brain is still working hard. After abandoning my attempt at hiking the West Dike, I headed north around the west side of the Loop Road, seeing a Great Egret out on the D-Pool that the road encircles. While viewing it, a large Eastern Ratsnake moved out of the grasses near the pond up onto the gravel roadway, and crossed it to the other side. As it was stretched out, it appeared to be roughly 5 or maybe even 6’ in length, a rather large formidable looking serpent, though this species is rather docile and isn’t venomous. I snapped a few shots of it as it slithered through the grass, smacking its forked tongue around tasting the air along its path into the marshes. As it would turn out, this would be the first of two snakes sighted on the day. The second sighting came just a few minutes later as I walked down the Bay Trail (and yes, it was excruciatingly hot as I’d feared). This one, a much smaller snake crossed the trail a hundred feet or so from me, and so I walked up quick to see if I could re-spot it on the trailside. Camouflaging well with the surrounding vegetation, it took me a moment for my eyes to focus on this young Eastern Cottonmouth in its beautiful brown coloring. It was sitting just a few feet off the trail, holding still, so very easily could have passed on by it without noticing it had I not seen it cross the trail and been focused on finding it. Along the remainder of the Bay Trail, it remained quiet, with just loads of Dragonflies forming clouds around me as they picked off Deerflies and other biting flies that were trying to land on me. This is one reason I’ll always appreciate these insects, they eat the bugs that cause me lots of annoyance, and lots of itching. With the heat just never-ending, I headed home about 5:15 PM, ready to call it a day!

Named for the manner in which it rests atop the top of bullrushes and other marsh grasses, this female Halloween Pennant was sighted at Back Bay NWR!

Saturday morning, temperatures were already back in the 90s and I didn’t leave the house the entire day. On Sunday, it was slightly cooler, around 80 degrees Fahrenheit when I woke up around 7 AM. Having missed out on a full day outdoors the prior day, I chose to head out and give First Landing State Park a shot, with the goal of meeting up with Ruth at the 64th Street beach afterwards to cool off. I arrived at the 64th Street entrance to the park about 8:30 AM and walked into the park so I didn’t have to pay the entry fees that vehicles are required to. Under the thick forests of the park, there was little to no air movement, so the humidity really just hung in midair, almost visible to the naked eye. I walked the Cape Henry Trail to Lake Susan Constant and then cut up to the entry road which leads to the Long Creek Trailhead. Here I headed westward down the trail, noting a pair of Brown Thrashes at the first depressed area along the trail where I typically see Hermit Thrushes in the winter time. I got excited for a moment thinking they might be Gray-cheeked Thrushes after getting just a flash of them as they flew off, but soon got a better look at them, able to ID them positively as thrashers instead. About a half mile or so further west down the trail I came to a new trail sign and junction. Apparently, the junction of the Osprey Trail & Long Creek Trail has now been moved eastward about 0.75 miles. I imagine this was done since the last hundred yards of so of the connection used to flood over pretty bad during rainstorms, and was a muddy mess for days after the rains stopped. The new trail extension runs along the sandy “ridge lines” adjacent to the marshier areas. I say “ridge lines” because these areas are maybe 10-15 feet above sea level at the highest, and it is hard to call anything out here in Virginia Beach a ridge without the quotes, though, I enjoy our flat land! If you’re taking the Osprey Trail, you just do the same as before, staying to the left at the junction heading west though, so at least it is all marked well. The Osprey Trail as usual was full of, well, Ospreys! Several nesting sites within earshot along the trail provide some decent views of the birds, though this time of year with the leaves on the trees it is easiest to see them soaring overhead. Birds were extraordinarily quiet along the trail today, but when I reached Broad Bay, I could hear some Northern Parulas calling from the treetops, so those are still quite active. Additionally, what I initially thought was an American Crow flying towards me turned out to be a Green Heron, which are always a neat sighting, though I couldn’t get any quality photos of it. Missing today though was the Red-headed Woodpeckers that have been very active throughout the dead tree areas of the park the last few weeks. And also, I still couldn’t nail down that Hairy Woodpecker that has evaded me all year so far!

One of our largest snakes in southeastern Virginia, this Eastern Ratsnake was roughly 5-6' in length; seen along the Loop Road at Back Bay NWR on Friday evening!

I ended up walking to the western junction with the Long Creek Trail, taking that then westward all the way to where it turns away from the water and towards the Shore Drive Entrance. Stopped there and turning back around will yield an 8 mile hike, which was what I was shooting for given I’d missed out on Saturday hiking for the first time in many weeks. Along Long Creek and Broad Bay, I picked up some Great Egrets, a group of Canada Geese, and two birds that I believe were male & female Blue Grosbeaks, but I couldn’t get on them quick enough sadly. The first Blue Grosbeak I ever actually saw was on the Long Creek Trail back in 2009, and they’re so beautiful that I remember that fact to this day without having to search through my archives. Snakes were surprisingly not seen at all today, though many Eastern Fence Lizards and Five-lined Skinks were encountered. With the humidity though, and lack of light on the forest floor, photography has become quite difficult lately and most of my shots are forced into too high an ISO (camera terminology for graininess essentially). Lack of light at equivalent shutter speeds causes worse quality, a sad fact of summertime I suppose. At the bridge crossing of White Hill Creek, I did get some nice shots of a Great Blue Heron that had perched up in a tree in the open, providing ample sunlight for the camera. Heading back up White Hill and then down the remainder of the Long Creek Trail, my camera was mostly silenced by the lack of animal activity, though I did pause to take some Dragonfly shots, most notably of female Great Blue Skimmers that were seen in a number of spots along the trail. Also, a nearby call from a Northern Parula, and the subsequent minutes of searching the canopy did yield a nice view of one, but it flew off as I was focusing my camera lens in for the ‘kill’. By the time I reached the eastern edge of the park, I was pretty shot, so I got to the car, changed into swim trunks, which is a feat to do on a 90 degree day in the front seat of a sedan, and then walked the 2 blocks to the beach to the east. Ruth had arrived about 10:30 and I ended up spending about an hour in the water cooling off. I didn’t see any Dolphins during that hour, but she had spotted some earlier in the morning. Sadly, no shorebirds were present either, with probably just too many other people around, though 64th Street is a great spot, and always has far less folks present than the lower numbered streets in the tourist area of the Oceanfront. Some Royal Terns, Laughing Gulls, Brown Pelicans, and a number of Osprey (plenty catching fish) were seen, but that really rounded out the weekend. I would like to hope that the coming week will provide some relief from the heat, but looking at the weather forecast makes this unrealistic, so we shall see exactly what wildlife is available for photographing in the coming days!

Great Blue Skimmer female seen along the Long Creek Trail at First Landing State Park on Sunday morning!