Week Ending June 21, 2015

Just as the previous week closed out, this week began with extremely hot and humid weather across coastal Virginia. On Monday, temperatures soared to a peak of 99 degrees Fahrenheit at Ocean Naval Air Station (the nearest airport to my residence which provides the official temperature reports for the city (information can be found Here with archived temperature data for any date). This heat surpassed the previous monthly high of 97 degrees set just a couple days prior on Saturday. That yearly high was not to last though, as on Tuesday we upped the ante yet again, this time to triple digits, rounding out at an even 100 degrees F at Oceana. Amidst the morning commute I did have one interesting wildlife sighting as two American Goldfinches, a brilliant male & female, perched up on a fencepost while I was stopped at a light on Lynnhaven Parkway. Unfortunately, my camera was safely stored at home, and I couldn’t capitalize on the sighting. Goldfinches are very common birds, but mainly for folks who have feeders in their yards. Since I lack the feeders, I do not see these birds very often, which I’m actually glad for since I haven’t become jaded as to how beautiful they are and still get excited every time I see one. So, that brightened up my day, even if the heat was excruciating, though I can’t truly complain since I do work indoors, and I can avoid the heat without any trouble. On Wednesday the temperature had dropped ‘significantly’ to being just in the high 80s, but Thurs-Sunday was expected to hover in the mid-to-high 90s once again. Given the heat, I had no plans to make it out on any after work hikes this week, and actually through June and July, most of my outdoor activity will be done solely on the weekends with the chance of Friday evening outings. This time of year, I step it back a bit after really pushing myself throughout mid-March through the end of May when peak springtime migration sets its eyes on the region. Once fall migration kicks into gear in late August through early November, I’ll again ramp back up my outings, blog, and photographs. This is not to say that I will not be writing a blog each week, because I most certainly will continue to do so. However, it might not be quite as lengthy as the migration write-ups were, but there will still be plenty of information made available. After all, the reptiles, amphibians and insects are still plentiful in the summer months, even if the birds have taken a step back out of the spotlight to care for their youngsters. Interestingly, most folks are doing the exact same thing during the summer, spending more time with their own families with schools having let out. Given all of the above information, it was quite good timing for this week that one of Ruth’s best friends was getting married and the two of us got to travel up to Connecticut on a 4-day getaway. So if you’re only reading this blog to catch up on local Coastal Virginia sightings, read no further, the remainder of my week was spent up in New England, far removed from the heat & humidity of the south!

Wild roses were seen in several spots along the trails of Bluff Point State Park in eastern Connecticut!

Ruth, being a bridesmaid for I believe the 9th time, and this being something like our 20th wedding together, I prepared as always for the chance to visit some new locations and see what birds I could find there. On Wednesday evening after work we headed down the road northward, crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel en route to the Eastern Shore first. Given how sunny it was, I made a quick stop on the first island just to see what birds might be found at this point in the season. During the winter, I went up to the island pretty much every Friday in January & February to look for wintering waterfowl. Well, the waterfowl have all moved on north to breed, and not much was left hanging around during the hot summer month of June. Walking from the southeast corner of the island counter-clockwise towards the fishing pier I saw a ton of Rock Pigeons, but very little else. One Double-crested Cormorant was out riding the waves, a few Herring, Laughing, and a single Great Black-backed Gull were observed in flight, and a few terns passed very far out offshore, being both Royal and Common Terns. At the northern point of the island, I could see some brown shapes beneath the water’s surface, thinking at first they were mats of vegetation. However, they moved freely, and not just with the flow of the water and waves, and I quickly realized that it was a Cownose Ray! A couple summer’s back, Ruth & I got our first encounter with one of these when it swam a circle around us in the water while swimming off Sandbridge Beach in southern Virginia Beach. This was the first time I’ve seen them since though. While I was trying to point it out to Ruth, she noticed several others on the opposite side of the point, seeing a fin come out of the water and splashing around. I believe this was a female being courted by at least two trailing males, and its “wings” made several flaps on the surface of the water before they disappeared.

A creature that doesn't range into Coastal Virginia, but was quite numerous up in Connecticut, the Eastern Chipmunk!

I was able to photograph what could be seen above the water, but it is tough to capture things like this from where we were standing. Still though, it was a really neat sighting of an animal I’d only ever seen one time in the past. With that sighting wrapped up, we walked to the pier but having spotted nothing more, we walked back to the car, with me finishing up back at the southeastern corner just hoping to get a photo worth posting in my blog that was local this week. We headed onward, reaching Wilmington, Delaware for the evening, where I was able to use my Choice Hotels points for a free night stay near the interstate. In the morning on Thursday, we drove the remainder of the trip to Mystic, Connecticut, crossing through New Jersey, New York, and into Connecticut, all for the first time for me. It was pretty neat to see the skyscrapers of Manhattan from I-95 in New Jersey, some distance off, the first time I’d ever seen the city. Though, many of them were up in the clouds on a rainy, dreary morning. We made it to Connecticut around noon, and grabbed a bite to eat downtown, heading to Mystic Pizza, made famous by the Julia Roberts film that I have never seen. I was surprised at how good the pizza was, thinking the location might just bank on the fame of the film, and lack actual taste, but it was impressive.  Thursday evening was the rehearsal dinner of the wedding on Friday, and Friday morning since Ruth was busy with wedding day madness, I had the day free to get out hiking. I had printed off maps from several parks while at the office this week, planning out my efforts in advance. I first headed just down the road to Bluff Point State Park, which looked to have a good amount of hiking trails, and from reports on eBird.org, had a good number of bird sightings of a variety of species as well. Leaving the hotel, my first sighting was a Gray Catbird in the parking area, which ended up being a sign of what I would find throughout the day. When I reached the state park’s parking area, Barn Swallows and House Sparrows were seen in numbers, and an American Goldfinch flew past before I could ever get sprayed down with deet. I took no chances this week after having pulled out a few ticks over the last few outings, covering myself completely in spray to hopefully avoid the absurd itching and reaction I get to their bites once they’ve drilled in.

An American Toad that helped guide me along the trails of Bluff Point State Park!

Heading down the first trail, I saw a Yellow Warbler, which for me is a very neat bird, given that they pass through Virginia Beach, and I might pick up a few each year, but never seen in large numbers. Well, apparently in Connecticut, that doesn’t happen. There, they seem to be quite a common species, and I saw at least 20 or 25 of them at the park over the next 2.5 hours. Though, even with all the sightings, most were far and high up in trees, preventing good photographs. I’d probably seen less than 10 of these before the weekend, and now I’ve seen a good 50 or so. In non-bird sightings, it didn’t take long before the first Eastern Chipmunk made an appearance. I was delighted to see one of these large-cheeked rodents because they do not range as far south as Virginia Beach, at least along the coastline, therefore I never get to see them unless I’m on vacation in the mountains (higher elevation) or further north in latitude. I do enjoy the squirrels of the coastline, but there is something about chipmunks that just makes me smile when I see them. Also along the trail southward, I added what I believe to have been a Veery, which is a life bird for me if it turns out to be one (they look very similar to several other Thrush species) so I need to look into it more. In addition to these songbirds, I spotted some Cedar Waxwings, a number of American Redstarts (both males and females), and also some Common Yellowthroats. Seeing the warbler species felt a bit like travelling back in time for me since all these birds had passed through weeks ago in Virginia, I haven’t seen any there recently. Along the southward trek, I also got another songbird surprise in the form of a brilliantly colored adult male Baltimore Oriole! This is the first one I’ve seen since last fall when I found one on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. With all the Orchard Orioles I have been seeing throughout the springtime, it was nice to finally find their closely related cousin species. At the southern end of this park, there is a large rocky point that juts out into what I believe is Long Island Sound. The bluff, probably where the park gets its name, stands roughly 30 feet or so above the water surface and gives a great view out over Long Island Sound. Immediately as I arrived at the bluff, I could see a pair of ducks out on the water, moving further away from shore very slowly. But, noting their very sloped foreheads it was obvious that they were Eiders.

The crystal clear waters of Trustom Pond in southern Rhode Island, which reminded me of northern Minnesota for its appearance. 

I couldn’t tell whether they were King or Common Eiders, both species of which I don’t have much expertise in since they rarely make it as far south as Virginia Beach. Fortunately, the internet came through and someone identified them as Commons, apparently a rarity as far as eBird standards go, but a species that has been observed with some frequency throughout the past month in the same general area so locals probably weren’t surprised by my report. Throughout the early morning it had been quite overcast, but around the bluff, the sun came out for a while, shining brightly and really lighting up the water. Off in the distance, many sailboats could be seen and far away shoreline dotted the horizon. It was quite a beautiful spot, and a habitat that I don’t see around my home region being that the coastlines here are all marsh/sand/dunes as opposed to the carved rocky points of the northeast. It actually reminded me of a mixture of the two states I grew up in, being Minnesota and Indiana. Mostly deciduous forests reminded me of Indiana, but the large rock outcroppings everywhere reminded me of the Canadian Shield country of northern Minnesota. Walking around the point, the warblers kept adding up, mostly Yellows though, and when I ran into a group of rather loud-talking walkers, I decided to turn around and head back the same way rather than be stuck behind them. On the northward trek I spotted a single American Oystercatcher out on the rocky beach’s backside where it was protected from any wind or waves. It had some company nearby also, being a Red-breasted Merganser female that at the distance I first thought it was a Mallard. Fortunately, the photograph I got of it revealed its true identity before I reported it differently, lest I appear amateur at identifying very common birds. Herring Gulls were fairly common along the trip also, with some Great Black-backed and Laughing Gulls appearing as well, but nothing that I do not already see lots of back home. Just before I reached a connector trail to the east half of the loop (see map: Here), I encountered what was more than likely the same gorgeous Baltimore Oriole moving through the tree tops. Its bright orange and black colors stood out well against the green background of the canopy.

This is probably my best photograph of a male American Redstart to date, sighted at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island!

On the connector trail (labeled on the map with a 0.18 mileage distance), I encountered many, many Gray Catbirds, and also got to add a House Wren to my list after seeing it emerge from a tree cavity. An American Toad also made an appearance on the trail, allowing some nice close up photographs. Turning north on the main trail again, I encountered a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and what I believe may have been a Hairy Woodpecker but couldn’t get a good look at. It could very well have been a Downy, as the species are pretty much identical except in size and bill proportions. Of course, I’ve been searching for a Hairy Woodpecker in Virginia Beach all year to no avail but seeing one out of state would have been nice. The calls of an Ovenbird could be heard along the trail out in the forests, and an Eastern Wood-Pewee was also heard from afar giving off its peeee-weee call, but neither bird was sighted. Finishing up the northward trek back to the parking area, I finished up the hike around 10 AM and headed out the entry road back towards the interstate. Since it was still early and I didn’t need to arrive at the wedding until 5 PM or so, I drove up along I-95 northward into Rhode Island so I could knock off another state that I’d never been too. I’m now up to 32 states visited, leaving just 18 left to make it too. Seeing every state has never really been a goal I’ve been hellbent on achieving, but I’d like to see as much countryside as I can because it allows me to see species of wildlife that I may not find in my home region. In Rhode Island, I stopped at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, which like Bluff Point State Park, I had researched in advance and figured out the trails and how to get there before ever setting foot in the state. The ‘pond’ referenced in its title refers to what I believe is an overwash area during storms from the Atlantic Ocean. The waterway does not connect to the ocean, but has a thin strip of beach separating the two. I would suspect that the water is mostly rainwater drainage from higher land around the pond, and that it is enhanced also when heavy storm surges pile up waves over the narrow beach. This would make the water probably brackish with a mix of sea and rain waters. See map Here.

Easily the most numerous warbler seen along my trip to New England, this is a Yellow Warbler, a very obvious choice for a name!

I hiked from the entrance to the Farm Field Loop Trail, seeing more Yellow Warblers, American Robins, Common Grackles, and European Starlings in the process (most of which were feeding at a seed feeder set up near the small park contact station). Taking the loop trail to the west (left on the attached PDF as opposed to the standard right since it is oriented with south at the top and north at the bottom for whatever reason) I encountered wildlife right away. In the field many Tree Swallows were soaring around showing off their beautiful teal colored backs. Next, walking out to Otter Point yielded some interesting birds, but mainly just a ton of Gray Catbirds which were the dominant birds for the trip, it almost reminded me of being back home at the Great Dismal Swamp, the only other place I think I’ve seen this many catbirds on an outing. At the point itself, I could see a pair of Mute Swans and their youngsters paddling around on the waterway. I counted at least 6 or 7 of the “swanlings”, if that is a word? This is the first time I’ve ever had to think about what young swans would be referred to as, and given geese are goslings, and ducks are ducklings, it makes sense to me. However, now that this is bugging me a bit, and I’ve googled it, apparently they are referred to as “Cygnets” according to Cornell University’s website (the foremost authority on birds in North America), so I’ll stick with that word instead. Anyways, grammar aside, this pond reminded me very much of the lakes of northern Minnesota, with rocky shorelines and very clear waters, and having similar vegetation like lilies along the rocks. Walking back north the same way I’d come in along the point to the Red Maple Swamp Trail, I took it out to the next overlook spot, located at Osprey Point. Along this section of trail, I got some great close-ups of an American Redstart male that very surprisingly paused over the trail, and also some clear shots of a brilliant Yellow Warbler as well. I was a bit apprehensive on this section of trail since it was overgrown, but I actually didn’t pick off any ticks during the day which was something to be very thankful for. From Osprey Point, a good view of the beach was provided, and many Canada Geese and Mute Swans could be seen along the far shoreline. Also, lots of Double-crested Cormorants and gulls (Laughing, Herring, Great Black-backed) were visible as well.

Blue Flags were seen along the moist trails at several locations along the coastline in Connecticut & Rhode Island!

On the way back from the point, I paused just long enough on the trail to realize that a Green Heron was peeking at me from the nearby shoreline. It had something stuff to the tip of its bill but I couldn’t tell if it was fishing line or just something from the foliage. I moved quietly down the trail so as not to scare it away, I was very curious if a large group of birders that passed me earlier had spotted it or not. Reaching the farm field again, I heard the calls of a warbler, clearly angrily shouting from the thick underbrush. While looking for the bird, I noticed a Garter Snake’s pattern but could only see a few inches of its body. Since it was so thick, I suspect that the snake may have been eating eggs from a ground nest of some sort, and the parent bird was angrily trying to get the snake to stop, but unfortunately not able to do so. This is just my guess at what was going on, but with a snake, and a bird calling, I don’t know what else could have been happening. I left the spot a bit puzzled, and while walking heard a snort from a few feet away. I looked down just in time to see a rather large Woodchuck running straight at me. I jumped out of the way as it ran around me and dove into cover. Now I was really confused, I’ve never had one run towards me before, and perhaps it was just seeking out an escape route after spotting me, but it was enough to make me jump out of the way. After that, I reached the car, photographing some Cedar Waxwings that were feeding on some type of berry up in some short trees, and then headed out towards Connecticut. Or, so I thought. Apparently Route 1 in Rhode Island is set up in a way that if you’re on the south side of it, you can only get onto the route going eastward. And, if you’re on the north side, you can only get onto the route going westward.

Feeding on berries up in a tree, this Cedar Waxwing was one of several seen across all three parks I visited on the day.

The directions are divided by a grass median, and no bridges cross the travelway. It was one of the more bizarre roadway designs I’ve ever seen. Traveling east, I finally came to a turnaround in the median that allowed me to get back going the right way towards Connecticut. Apparently it must be an effort to save money by not building bridges, and just having turnarounds everywhere. However, I don’t understand why they wouldn’t just have at-grade intersections with flashing yellow lights if that was the concern. Things like this tend to drive me crazy since I’m an engineer, even though I don’t deal a lot in highway design, I can’t believe this was the best option for one. So, confused I continued on, not stopping at Ninnigret National Wildlife Refuge like I’d hoped because I just couldn’t figure out how to get to it with the road layouts, and so I instead stopped at Barn Island Wildlife Management Area back on the Connecticut side of the border (where the roads made sense again). Now about 1 PM, I parked and headed down the trail from the west side of the park (see map here http://www.theday.com/assets/pdf/NL80928210.PDF). During my drive over, I’d received a call from Ruth and needed to make it back by 2:30 to pick some stuff up for her to take back to our hotel (she had stayed with the bride & other bridesmaids the night before), so this was a quicker outing than the earlier ones. I ended up walking about an hour so maybe 2 miles along the marshes, which still proved to be long enough to see some wildlife. American Redstarts and Yellow Warblers were again very common, and a pair of Common Yellowthroats provided some pretty nice photographs. Now mostly sunny, it was actually heating up a bit, but fortunately nowhere near to the level that was taking place back in Virginia. Ospreys, Great and Snowy Egrets, and many types of gulls were seen out over the marshes.

The tidal estuaries of Barn Island Wildlife Management Area in eastern Connecticut!

Red-winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows, and Tree Swallows were abundant. Two breeding plumaged Willets were also observed, one in flight showing off its black and white wing markings and a separate bird that was standing in the marsh near a culver outlet. These were probably the highlight of the park for me since I haven’t seen but a few Willets all year long thus far. They should start showing up more in August to Virginia Beach though, at least along the beaches of Back Bay and False Cape. Nearby, a Blue Jay and a Great Crested Flycatcher were observed for the first time on the day, furthering the list of species by two. When all was said and done I saw almost 40 species in Connecticut and about 20 or so in Rhode Island. After arriving back into Mystic, I got ready and attended a wonderful wedding ceremony (Congratulations to Ted & Lindsay Anderson!) and a beautiful outdoor reception right along the river. Saturday we all grabbed a pretty amazing lunch at Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough, apparently similar to Virginia Beach’s Chick’s Oyster Bar in terms of popularity, as we waited about an hour to get up the line to place an order, and parking was a bit hairy. But, my huge lobster roll made up for it, and the views out over the water were pretty incredible. So it turned out to be a great trip, and I look forward to making it back up to New England to visit the remaining states (Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine) that I’ve yet to see. So, Ruth & I headed back down towards Virginia on Sunday morning about 5:30 AM, arriving home at 2 PM after a very efficient trip with just one ten minute stop to gas up and grab a subway order to go. Arriving back to Virginia Beach & stepping out of the car into the 95 degree heat felt like walking into a volcano, and it made me want to turn around and promptly drive back up north, but, hopefully it will cool eventually here, June & July are just going to be hot, every year. I’d have gone out hiking with the beautiful sunny skies on Sunday, but that heat was just too much for me and I was pretty exhausted after spending 9 hours or so in the car. So, hopefully this week I’ll get back into a groove with the local hiking and photography. While I was away there was a report of an Arctic Tern having been sighted by Andrew Baldelli up on the mudflats offshore from Pleasure House Point, which would be a lifer if I could get a look at it. But, we’ll see what the temperatures do this week. The outlook doesn’t look too great right now! 

One of my favorite birds, this male Common Yellowthroat moved in from the foliage to check me out on two occasions at Barn Island WMA!