Week Ending June 28, 2015

At the closing of last week, we were expected to get some hot days during the work week. As it turned out, meteorologists were correct and it was, in Fahrenheit degrees, 93, 100, 88, and 88 on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, respectively. The high temperature on Tuesday matched the highest we’ve seen in Virginia Beach thus far in 2015, and made it back-to-back Tuesdays with high temperatures in the triple digits! When Friday rolled around, temperatures “plummeted” to only 82 for the high so I did an after work outing up at Pleasure House Point to celebrate. Unfortunately it had been overcast throughout the day, and I had initially planned to do a lengthier outing down at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. With the overcast, and sometimes foreboding skies above, I decided it would not be in my best interest to get too far away from my car if it were to suddenly downpour. So, Pleasure House Point was the obvious alternative. Additionally, on days when the sun is hidden well behind the clouds, I find that my best photographs are of birds that have a lot of white in their plumage. The white will get washed out, and look too bright on days when the sun is shining brightly on these birds, but on the low-light days, the feather details of white birds can be seen much better by the camera. Pleasure House Point typically hosts good numbers of egrets, both Great & Snowy on any given day, as well as holding a strong population of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons that make for good photo opportunities when the birds are quiet elsewhere. So with this in mind, I headed out from work at 3 PM, traveling down Great Neck Road towards the Lesner Bridge. The bridge, which is currently under construction to shift the lanes to opposing bridge decks instead of just one deck, offers good views of the Lynnhaven River and Pleasure House Point. Traveling over it lets me know before I arrive to the park whether it is high or low tide, or somewhere in between. This allows me to prioritize where I want to hike first. For example, if I arrived to find it very low tide, I’d try to park closest to the sandbars off Dinwiddie Drive so I could check them out quickly while there are likely to be shorebirds present.

An immature Green Heron with crest raised, after accidentally flushing the bird from its hiding spot at Pleasure House Point!

If it is high tide, like in the case of this outing, I’ll park over on Marlin Bay Drive and walk the main trails, not so concerned with shorebirds since there won’t be any due to the high water that stops them from being able to feed in the mud. Also, the view provides knowledge of whether boaters or kayakers have pulled up on the sandbars if they’re visible, and as a result have scared away any birds that might have been observed there. The water this time was very high, higher than a normal high tide cycle, due mostly I would suspect to strong winds that help push the surface water into the river. Wading birds didn’t appear bothered by this deeper water though, which was a good thing. Walking into the park on the main access trail between the two ponds I heard an Eastern Towhee, and saw some crows of unidentifiable species since they weren’t vocalizing at the time, and the only way to tell between Fish Crows and American Crows is through hearing their calls. Fish Crows have a very nasal sounding caw, kind of like an American Crow if it had a sinus infection. One Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was also seen in a tree alongside the largest pond, affording a few photographs. Actually the fact that it was in a greened up tree helps make them stand out a bit on overcast days also. Anytime you can avoid getting the sky as the background on cloudy days makes the subject pop a lot more than it would. Arriving at the Shoreline Trail, I headed eastward towards the main point area. Passing along the south edge of the second largest pond it became very obvious where the fire had occurred back on June 15th. Right at the southeastern corner of the pond, the pine trees were all scorched, and all the underbrush was completely burned away revealing a scorched ground beneath. I don’t know if the cause of the fire was every discovered, though it was not a controlled burn done by the park from what I understand.

Blackberries are in bloom across the region, like these seen at Pleasure House Point on Friday!

I’ve heard kids or teenagers back in the thick woods there before, probably doing things they shouldn’t be doing given that there are no official trails in that area, so my personal bet would be that someone dropped a cigarette and it caught the brush on fire, but don’t quote me on that hypothesis if it comes up in an official sense. Some of the trees that burned unfortunately were preferred perching locations for the Yellow-crowned Night-Herons that frequent the park. I’m hoping they aren’t too affected by this, but it will definitely affect photographers since this was a great spot to catch them. While I was viewing the damage from the trail, there were actually a pair of adult Night-Herons in the marsh on the other side of the trail, so, at least they’re still around this spot even if they can’t perch there now. Continuing on down the trail I spotted a few Royal Terns in flight over the main portion of Pleasure House Creek, with several diving into the water and flying off with minnows to feast on. One Sandwich Tern was also seen out over the water, which are one of the less common, of the common terns here in Virginia Beach. Least Terns, our smallest common terns, were also seen along the shoreline. So at least the terns & gulls were present in the air, because there was nothing in the way of their kin found on the ground, being that the water was just too high up. As I rounded the largest cove of the creek, I spotted a white bird flying out over the marshes, thinking it was a Great or Snowy Egret but not getting an identifying look at it. Fortunately a minute or so later, it came flying higher up towards me, moving north, and was very obviously not either species. Instead, it was a White Ibis, a first summer individual with a plumage somewhere in between that of a juvenile and that of an adult bird. As far as I can recall, this is the first White Ibis I have ever seen at Pleasure House Point, so while it is not necessarily a rare bird around Virginia Beach, it was a unique one for me at the park!

A young Yellow-crowned Night-Heron showing just how frustrating living in high humidity can be on the 'hair'!

I snapped a few poor shots as it traveled up the creek, watching as it appeared to drop in elevation around the bend, so I’d hoped to re-spot the bird on my trip westward. Continuing onward, while I was passing around the interior creek where Clapper Rails are often sighted, I started to think perhaps I could encounter one of the Ammodramus species of sparrows (Seaside, Saltmarsh or Nelson’s that is) since they inhabit the marsh grasses, and at high tide, their availability of hiding places decreases greatly with most becoming submerged. As I was thinking about this and gazing intently at the surrounding marsh grasses, a bird jumped out and made me leap into the sky. The rush of wings really caught me off guard, even though I was hoping for a sparrow. This was much larger though, and it was very clearly a Green Heron that had flushed, landing in a branch across the channel about 50 feet or so away. An immature, this bird didn’t have quite the vivid color palette that they adults hold, but it was still a beautiful bird, and given that it was spooked a bit, it was holding its crest raised, giving it a neat look in the photographs I took. Green Herons are pretty common around the area in the summertime, but I still love to see them. To me, they always remind me of a larger version of a Belted Kingfisher, at least in appearance with their crest that can be raised and lowered, and their ability to be quite chatty if you accidentally disturb them. Couple those attributes with the fact that they’re usually one step ahead of photographers, and are great escape artists, they’re quite similar species on the surface. In addition to the Night-Herons, and the Green Heron, other common wading birds were seen as well. Great Egrets were out in good numbers, which was perfect, because they were my initial target for photography anyway. I did also see one Great Blue Heron, which aren’t always at the park, but are always around the region. When I’d reached the sandbar viewing area just east of the new Brock Center’s pier, it was quite obvious that nothing was there to be seen. The sandbars were submerged by the water to the point that nobody was even out walking around on them.

My first White Ibis at Pleasure House Point, showing first summer plumage!

Usually I’m glad to see no people out there, since it allows the birds to use them, but when it’s too deep for even people, it’s also too deep for the birds. With the water so high, I turned around on the trail, walking back across the sandy meadow, and keeping my eyes peeled for the Diamondback Terrapin (turtle species) that are actively nesting there now. I didn’t spot any unfortunately, but hoping one does show up one day for me to photograph. Passing by where the Green Heron had been earlier, I scanned for the bird with my binoculars, hoping to not spook it. Though, once again, it scared the living daylights out of me, flushing from about 2 feet away and landing on the same branch again very briefly before lifting up into the air and heading to the treeline to the north. The only bird that has done this similar thing to me in the past is the grouse I grew up around in Minnesota. They also were experts at remaining still, and then zooming out of sight, leaving you searching for your breath. In this same area, several Common Buckeyes (butterflies) were flitting about, landing on the sand and on the vegetation, though not sticking around for very long in each place. Also not too far away, around the big cove, blackberry bushes were starting to show ripe berries. I’m not sure what, if any, birds eat these, but I didn’t see any hanging around them today. On the main plain next to the deer carcass pond, a pair of what I believe to be fledgling Blue Grosbeak that were flying and landing on the dead log in the middle of the meadow. In the field, I somehow convinced myself that these birds were Northern Rough-winged Swallows.

White birds like this Great Egret always look great on overcast days when the sunlight can't wash out their more intricate details!

Clearly, since I haven’t added any new birds to my 2015 Virginia Beach list since the end of May, I’m going through withdrawal and seeing the birds I want to see. Fortunately, my photographs showed the correct version, and they were not swallows. Walking westward, I caught sight of the White Ibis that I’d seen earlier, a couple hundred yards further away, near the fire burn. Another fellow was out with his camera, and he had also seen it fly overhead earlier so I mentioned to him that I could see it to the west. We both crept up that direction and got some distant shots before moving in closer. I was out front, and got within about 50 yards when I found an immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron perched in a tree just off the trail. I grabbed a couple shots of it, thinking that if I kept walking it might flush into the air, causing the Ibis to also flush. So I walked extremely slowly around it, at a range of about 10 feet only, and was able to get past it without spooking it into the air. The Ibis, unaware of where I was, continued feeding in the marsh, right next to a pair of Night-Herons that I had also seen earlier in the walk. Over the next 15 or so minutes, I snapped about 80-100 photographs of the birds foraging in the high tidal waters of the shoreline marshes. It was excellent to get to see this bird up close, and it gave me some very nice photographs! Continuing west towards the end of the trail the birds were quite hard to come by. I did discover that the ground nest of wasps/bees/hornets had been destroyed by the heavy rains we’d had since my last visit, so that was good to know. I ended up walking eastward down the trail back to the deer carcass pond area, then back westward again to the entry trail & to my vehicle. Songbirds were the ones that were hard to come by throughout the walk, with just a few Northern Cardinals, Eastern Towhees, American Robins, and Blue Jays being seen.

A portion of the recently burned area of Pleasure House Point. These were the unfortunate trees that were within the burn, but the foliage will come back, and grasses have already started growing up through the ash. 

On Saturday, we were under a tornado watch for most of the day, with a warning actually being issued in the afternoon. During which, Ruth & I, and Buster watched intently out the windows to see if any funnel clouds were moving our way. Fortunately, the storms were coming from the south, where we have a decently long view in that direction which could prove helpful if a tornado was approaching. We never did see one and none were proven to have touched down, but a good line of heavy rain did hit us at least. On Sunday, the weather was more conducive to being outdoors, so I got up and headed out about 7:30 AM. My first inkling was to head over to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge since I didn’t go that way on Friday, but to be perfectly honest, after 24 visits to the park already in 2015, it is good to have a little break from it. June & July are the toughest months for birding, so this seems like a good time to just try out some new areas where I won’t feel as if I’m missing out on seeing species. As such, I decided to forgo Back Bay, and went to Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area instead. There are very few reports on eBird from observers in this park during the summertime. Part of this is probably due to the fact that the grasses on the trails grow high, and ticks, chiggers and other biting flies become a concern. Also, it gets very hot & humid in the park since the surrounding trees pretty much stop the air movement, and the grasslands cause all the heat to be held in close to the ground. Lastly, since it is a quiet time of year already, most of the birds that summer here have already been observed by folks during April & May. Waterfowl have moved northward to breed in Canada, and the shorebirds that would inhabit the impoundments are also further north along the coasts and up on the tundra doing the same. However, it was Einstein who defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. Given this, I wanted to try something new, and hope to find birds that I haven’t already. Arriving at the park about 8:25 AM, I sprayed up my whole body from head to toe with 30% deet spray, and put some 95% deet on my shoes and socks just to make sure nothing got on me.

Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area on Sunday morning, showing the vivid blues and greens that the summer weather brings to the region!

Fortunately this week, I did make it through the weekend without adding any new tick or chigger bites to my body. Clearly I just need to be more adamant about spraying every inch of me when I go out from mid-May onward through the fall. Anyway, on the entry trail that heads south from Munden Road into the park, there was plenty of dragonflies in a wide variety of species and colors already out. They love the hot, humid weather we’ve been having, and literally thousands of them can be seen on a hike. What is wonderful about this though is the fact that no mosquitoes dare come out in the open, and those foolish enough too don’t last long. Great Blue Skimmers, Needham’s Skimmers, and Common Whitetails were the most abundant of the species (lacking in birds lately has afforded me some time to learn the dragonflies a bit better to where I can now ID a few in the field). Along the wooded edge of the trail, a few Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks were encountered, but one other blue species that I hadn’t expected to see today was found as well. A beautiful Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was seen and photographed as it meandered through the canopy of deciduous trees. I saw plenty of these birds in the springtime, and they’re one of the first migrants that return here typically in mid-to-late March, but seeing one today was great! Arriving at the southern set of impoundments I noticed that the park officials have now run a new water distribution main to the area and cleared off some trees in the process. Also, the westernmost of the southern cells is now completely cut down of trees, and it appears that a deer ditch moat has been started on the eastern edge. I presume they are turning this area into another workable impoundment where the water levels can be controlled depending on the season, adjusting high for waterfowl, and low for shorebirds as they need arrive and depart. The water right now is low in all the impoundments, except for around the outside rings where the ditch moats are located. Surprising to me though, there wasn’t a single individual of any species of shorebird present at the park. I thought perhaps a few Killdeer or Yellowlegs might be found, but none were.

Not to be confused with their 'cousins' the Monarch, this Viceroy shows a black outline running through the orange portions that the Monarch lacks. Seen at Princess Anne WMA!

Over the next few weeks though, birds should start showing up as shorebirds begin to migrate southward in July. While there was no shorebirds present, I did see a few Snowy Egrets and even more Great Egrets on the northern cell. Overhead, I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk, and two Cooper’s Hawks, showing their long tails in flight as they traveled west over the northern cell. An Easter Kingbird was also seen nearby. Walking away from the southern set of impoundments, I walked the northern half of the Whitehurst Tract counter-clockwise so the sun wasn’t right on me and the trees could shade it. I spooked one White-tailed Deer along the wooded edge, which has become a typical count when I’m at the park, I usually see at least one on the trails. A single Great Blue Heron was found in the northern impoundments, and the egrets moved back and forth so it was hard to get a firm number, but I believe the total was 3 Snowies and 5 Greats. No sparrows species were encountered, so I couldn’t find that Chipping Sparrow I’ve been after all year, and no Hairy Woodpecker or Red-shouldered Hawk either, those being the other two common birds I just haven’t found yet this year that would possibly be seen at the park. Walking up to the road in the northeast corner or the park past the old farmhouse, then back along the roadway to the vehicle yielded a couple of beautiful Orchard Orioles that sadly evaded my camera lens into cover. Northern Mockingbirds, Gray Catbirds, and a Common Yellowthroat were also seen in this area, with Northern Cardinals being quite populous as well. When I reached the car, I headed out, and decided that it would be a good day to head down to Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge, a place I hadn’t been since back in the winter when Ruth & I drove out there at night to see Comet Lovejoy without the city’s light pollution obscuring the view.

The impoundments of Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge just across the border in North Carolina!

From Princess Anne WMA, you just head south down Morris Neck Road til it winds around to Princess Anne Road, then taking that south across the North Carolina state line, the road heads out onto Knott’s Island. The causeway that crosses the marshes to the island usually has good numbers of wading birds adjacent to it, and Ospreys and gulls/terns can be seen as well. This time, about 25 Glossy Ibises flew over the bridge, which was a sight to see. The refuge encompasses all the marshes to the west of the more solid land that has been developed, and a few people live there. Knott’s Island is pretty unique in the fact that there are no roads from mainland North Carolina that go to the island; one must cross into Virginia first. Due to this, the North Carolina ferry system does provide service to the island from nearby Currituck, just a few miles across the Currituck Sound to the south, but many miles saved by not driving all the way around through Virginia. So Mackay Island NWR is a neat spot, because it isn’t counted in Virginia parks, but it really feels like it is an extension of Virginia Beach. I’ve only actually hiked the park one other time, on Labor Day of last year just before I headed out to Tennessee. Driving along the entry road in the park this time yielded a good view of Bald Eagle being harasses by the much, much smaller Red-winged Blackbirds. The roadway continues up to a pumphouse and then it is only hiking beyond. Last time I was here I met Karen & Tom Beatty for the first time, and a few other HRWE members, but this time, there was only 2 other cars in the lot, and I didn’t pass them til I hit the trails. The waters adjacent to the pumphouse were quite high, quite a variance from last time when this area was ripe with shorebirds including my first ever sightings of Hudsonian Godwits. This time, again, not a single shorebird was found in the park. Wading birds were the only family well represented in the high waters of the impoundments. A set of 3 Cattle Egrets was seen as I first headed out on the trails, and it wasn’t long before I began seeing Great & Snowy Egrest out in the marshes. A Tricolored Heron even made an appearance, flying across the trail from the sound, and landing in the marsh. Red-winged Blackbirds were far and away the most numerous of the birds in the park, being seen everywhere I walked.

My first Green Treefrog of the year! Look how intricately their bodies are designed to fold compactly against a bullrush! Seen at Milldam Creek boardwalk in Virginia Beach on Sunday!

As the trail wound around and started going northward, I encountered a Little Blue Heron that flushed from the trailside. Initially, I’d thought it was a Green Heron given what I’d experienced earlier in the weekend at Pleasure House Point, but with a longer and more streamlined neck & legs it was clearly a Little Blue. Anyday I encounter 5 or more species of waders I consider to be a good one, so with 6 so far including the Glossy Ibis, it was already a great one. Along the main trail heading back eastward towards the parking area, I found another Orchard Oriole, and heard some Common Yellowthroats. Mourning Doves were also seen flying across the trees here in a small forested area. When I reached the car, I headed back out towards the developed Knott’s Island, and then back into Virginia Beach. On such a beautiful day, I didn’t want to head right home, so I made the call to swing by a little spot that has afforded me with some interesting shots over the last couple of years. In extreme southwestern Virginia Beach, across the North Landing River on the Pungo Ferry Road, there is a boardwalk that extends out into a marshy estuary called Milldam Creek. The boardwalk was actually built and is maintained by The Nature Conservancy, but it doesn’t show up on most maps. I actually stumbled upon on it eBird when looking for new places to check out back in 2013, with Ruth & I going to see it shortly after. While birds aren’t too numerous here, it is a great spot to look for Green Treefrogs, one of my all-time favorite animals! Arriving about 11:45 AM, I headed out down the boardwalk, noting that it had heated up to about 85 degrees F, and the humidity was pretty high as well, making for a steamy walk. Walking out down the half-mile boardwalk, I saw a very Turkey Vultures overhead, but that was really it for the birds. I had an outside shot of maybe finding a Least Bittern in the vegetation that surrounds the marsh, or so I thought. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find one, though, it was really unlikely that I would as they’re an incredibly secretive bird around here, and I’ve only ever seen 1 before (in downtown Norfolk at the Pagoda Gardens of all places back in 2013). On the walk out, I stared intently at all the marsh grasses, cattails, and reeds that I passed, looking for a bulge on one that is the telltale sign of a sleeping treefrog. When I’d reached the end, and not seen any frogs, I could hear a woman and a kid coming up behind me. They said they were looking for dragonflies, so they were in the right place, as they were everywhere with the lack of wind and hot air. I got out ahead of them on the way back, and after a few minutes of searching, I found my first Green Treefrog of the year! It was tucked up against the side of a reed sleeping as they usually area. It is amazing how their legs seem to just interlock with their bodies to make them look like part of the plant’s stem or leaf as opposed to an animal perched on it. I pointed the frog out to the folks when they caught up, thinking, what kid doesn’t like frogs?

I am not sure on the species here, but this is some type of grasshopper, seen at Milldam Creek perched on one of the plants growing from the water!

The remainder of the walk back, I didn’t find any others, so I had to settle for more and more photographs of dragonflies, which at least were providing something to take pictures of in the birds’ absence. As I reached the car and broke down my camera, placing it back in my backpack, I heard the unmistakable pish pish pish sound of a Prothonotary Warbler calling from the forest east of the parking lot. I’m always happy to find a place that has these birds around, so the trip here was worth it for the birding knowledge as well as the treefrogs! After listening but not seeing the bird, I headed back north along Blackwater Road. Being that I was in the area, I swung by the pond where the Anhingas were nesting last year to see if I could add them to my yearly state list. On the way north, a White-tailed Deer was spotted feeding out in one of the fields just after crossing the creek that forms the border between Virginia Beach & Chesapeake. Unfortunately, the homeowner who was kind enough to let birders park in his secondary driveway last year and view the birds has since roped off that access. More than likely after hordes of birders descended on the lot last year to see the rare-for-Virginia Anhingas, the homeowner realized it was just too much of a nuisance. More power to him, keep the rare birds safe from the public I say. As you drive north on Blackwater Road from his pulloff, there is a brief opening in the foliage adjacent to the roadway where a quick view can be made of the pond & trees where the nest was located. I was able to see that the nest was again there this year, but I couldn’t spot any of the Anhingas from the driver seat of my car. Unfortunately, there is usually some traffic on this country road, so looks have to be done quickly. I think the best way to try to find them is to have someone else driving and drop you off there, then pull a u-turn further up and pick you back up. There just isn’t any real good places to pull off the road without affecting traffic in some way, which many birders don’t always care about when seeking out a rarity, but they should be cognizant of. I will have to check the spot again later in the summer to see if any young do fledge, which in that case, the adults will probably be easier seen near the nest even from the roadway. In leaving the area, I briefly considered making a stop at Stumpy Lake to get a little more walking in, but, I’d already taken a few hundred photographs so figured my work was already cut out for me upon returning home. The summer heat should continue through the next few weeks, so as I said last week in closing, we’ll see what the weather decides to do in the coming days.

Another first on the year, this Black-and-Yellow Garden Spider (some may refer to as Writing Spiders or as simply Argiope, their genus) was seen at Milldam Creek on Sunday!