Week Ending August 9, 2015

It was another hot start to the week with highs in the 90s through Wednesday, when I made it out for my first birding venture of the week. With low tide expected to occur around 8 PM, this was an idea chance to get up to Pleasure House Point after work to scan the sandbars for shorebirds that are steadily arriving on their southbound Fall migration. Passing over the Lesner Bridge the water appeared quite low already just before 5 PM. I parked off Marlin Bay Drive like I typically do after work, and then walked the shoreline trail east towards the main point. When I arrived, the flats were loaded up with birds, with Semipalmated Plovers leading the way. At least 135 were counted through my binoculars, and there could have been more further out that I couldn’t see clearly enough to be certain. In addition to the plovers, American Oystercatchers, Black Skimmers, some peeps, Terns  (Royal, Sandwich), Gulls (Laughing, Herring, & Great Black-backed Gulls) were all also observed. There was very little in the way of songbird activity, with a couple Blue Grosbeaks being the only real highlight, though even those are fairly common in the park during summertime. One Clapper Rail made an appearance at long range before disappearing into the marsh grasses where the trail meanders around the interior creek connecting Crab Creek with Pleasure House Creek. I ended up doing two cycles of the park, giving the sandbars a little time to allow for more species to arrive, but on my second trip, the count was about the same. My big surprise of the day came while standing on the narrow piece of trail sandwiched between the creek and a freshwater ditch where I was seeing the Nelson’s Sparrows last Fall. Here, while watching the marshes, a raptor came flying past very quickly, and I was able to discern from the photographs and the flight profile that it was a young Peregrine Falcon! While it is isn’t a new species for me on the year, it is only the second sighting of one that I’ve had in Virginia Beach this year. The other one occurred near this same spot at Pleasure House Point, but was an adult, on April 1st. This definitely was a good sign for the week though, and an exciting observation since Peregrines are shown in the Gold Book to not arrive typically for another month, in early September. I was told that this juvenile may have hatched out not far away, and that the Peregrines have really been changing their distribution patterns up since 2007 when the Gold Book (Virginia’s Birdlife: An Annotated Checklist, Volume 4) was published. With that sighting under the belt, I headed home for the evening to get out of the 90 degree heat.

With overcast skies, this Snowy Egret's details can be seen better than during a bright, sunny day!

Thursday was a day off hiking, but on Friday, I was back at it again. As I have done now the past four Fridays in a row, I headed to Back Bay NWR to walk the beach from the parking area to False Cape State Park, and back. Leaving the office, as usual, at 3 PM, I arrived to Back Bay at 3:40 to find rain just starting to fall. I can’t count how many times it has happened that as soon as I arrived at my destination, the weather decided to give me the metaphorical middle finger. I figured that since I had already driven the distance, I might as well pull into the lot and see what the weather was going to do. On the way down the entry road towards the parking area, I had a hawk that was likely a Cooper’s Hawk pass over the car. Pulling an immediate u-turn to try to spot the bird again didn’t work, and it had already cleared the viewable sky. When I got to the parking area, drops of rain were still coming down, but it was pretty light, so I decided to just go for it. I through on some bug spray, got my camera assembled, and tossed my binoculars around my neck and headed south on the gravel Loop Road leading towards the East Dike Trail. Of course, I had no intention of walking the East Dike, but rather, to walk the beach since this time of year staying on the interior trails subjects you to horrific heat and lack of a breeze, the beach’s redeeming quality in the heat of summertime. On the E-Pool, the marshy patch to the southeast of the parking area, there was a pair of Snowy Egrets right out in the open, and close in to the road. With the overcast skies blocking the blinding sunlight, the birds were in good position for quality photographs. A pair of other photographers was nearby, and said that I “looked like I was on a mission”. I found that amusing, since I clearly was. My mission of course was to try and track down the Black Terns that I’d been hoping to see as they migrate south along the beach en route to their winter home in the tropics. Walking down the Dune Trail boardwalk, I hit the beach, and headed southward. A Great Black-backed Gull and Ruddy Turnstone were in close here, my first shorebird of the day.

The beautiful Whimbrel, with its downcurved bill, was again sighted this week at Back Bay NWR!

Looking to the north gave off quite an ominous feel, as a very dark sky was extending out into the ocean, and moving slowly my direction. I thought at best, I could continue southward and perhaps the storm would just move out of my path, or I could stay ahead of it long enough to get some birding in before I got drenched. Within 5 minutes, the fact that I chose to do the hike was well worth it, as a beautiful Whimbrel came flying past me from the south, affording me some nice in-flight shots before it passed. It actually landed on the beach to the north, but I didn’t realize it until I was going back through photographs of the black skies looking north, and could see the bird’s silhouette on the beach. Had I realized it at the time I probably would have turned around to try to get more photographs of it. But, as it was, I kept on southward, past the sea turtle nest that is fenced off, noting plenty of Sanderlings and Willets. About 1.5 miles south on the beach, I caught sight of a small, black bird out over the water, and after an agonizing minute of trying to photograph it and view it through binoculars, I couldn’t decide if what I was seeing was a Black Tern, or a Black-bellied Plover still carrying it’s breeding colors. At that distance, it was impossible to be 100% certain, so I couldn’t make the call. My heart sank a bit, thinking I may have missed my only shot at one of the birds that I have tried so hard to find the past few weeks. That sinking, was short lived! A couple hundred yards south, I found a large flock of gulls & terns sitting on the beach, probably trying to stay out of the winds caused by the thunderstorm cell to the north. As I scanned the flock with my binoculars, noting mostly Royal, Common, and Sandwich Terns, I noticed one smaller bird with all dark colors. It was a Black Tern! Adrenaline started pumping through my veins as I realized that I had just added a new bird to my Virginia Beach Big Year, making it #183! I slowly stalked up closer to the flock, hugging the dune line as best I could so as to not frighten the birds into flight. Typically with these big flocks, once one bird flies, the rest erupt as well.

My very first photograph of a Black Tern! A new addition to my life list, though I did see two as a child in Minnesota!

I worked up close and took several shots of the flock (for some comparison photographs of the different species), and many of the Black Tern, which was meandering through the flock almost like Cackling Geese do in large groups of Canada Geese, where they are easy to overlook. Fortunately in the case of the Black Tern, its colors are distinctive among the surrounding mainly white terns, so it stood out like the ‘black sheep’ of the collective ‘family’. Eventually, the flock did take to the air, though they didn’t move far down the beach behind me, so I decided to move on, excited that I had gotten the tern I’d been hoping for. It wasn’t until afterward that I had realized that my camera settings had been altered, and were on creative auto, rather than on auto, which could explain some of the trouble I had focusing on the birds in flight, and forcing me to use manual focusing when it wasn’t ideal. An amateur mistake, I need to be better about checking the dial before I head out from now on. Fortunately, photos still came out OK. Continuing south, I got another look at a Black Tern in nonbreeding plumage as it flew past. Lots of juvenile terns were out today, which is a big reason the Fall is a very tough birding time. In Spring, almost all of the birds passing through during migration are breeding adults heading north to their species respective breeding grounds. Because of this, they’re all vibrantly colored, with fresh feathers. By Fall, even the adults have begun molting feathers, and many have transitioned altogether into their non-breeding plumage. Additionally, the youngsters born on the breeding grounds are also moving southward, adding to the confusing plumages seen in most species. So essentially, Spring is the easiest time of year to maximize the number of species seen, and to be able to identify them the quickest. Fall, is a lot more challenging, but can be more rewarding, since the variety of plumages among the age groups makes for a more interesting study. As I neared the boundary line with False Cape State Park, I spotted a Piping Plover, making it the 3rd of 4 outings in a row that I’d see one here at the park. Perhaps the same bird, but it isn’t banded or distinctly marked so I can’t be sure. When I turned around to head back north, I was amazed to find that the storm north of me had essentially dissipated into just standard overcast skies. Meanwhile, another cell had started growing further south, where it wasn’t of much danger to me.

In between a pair of very turbulent storm cells, the terns decided to seek out refuge on the beach. Black Tern can be seen here at left!

It was of great surprise that I never got rained on during the southward hike, especially after getting some drops right at the get go. On the way north, I passed the Pipign Plover again, and then also found a second one further north to my surprise. Semipalmated Plovers were picked up in a few spots, with again associating with a Piping Plover as was the case a couple weeks back. To my amazement, a group of 6 Black Terns passed right over me on the beach, and another pair was seen out over the water. I had never anticipated seeing at least 9 of the birds in one outing! In fact, all the other eBird reports through the years here in Virginia Beach are of mainly individual birds being picked out, not large groups. Over the course of the weekend, many others went out in search of the Black Terns, but no one else managed to find any unfortunately. I almost feel as if those birds were meant specifically for me. Why do I perceive it this way? Well, August 10th just a couple of days away, would have been my father’s 67th birthday. Back in July 1996, when I was just 13 years old (and was already crazy about birds & the outdoors), my father and I were out canoeing and we saw a breeding pair of these birds on the north end of Low Lake outside Ely, MN. I was so taken back by their beauty in flight, that I still vivdly remember that sighting to this day. In my 31 years, those were the only 2 Black Terns I'd ever seen until this weekend, and while they do tend to pass along the Virginia coast this time of year on their southbound migration, I just do not believe it was a mere coincidence that I happened to be standing on the beach during a timeframe when I spotted 9 of these over a couple hours! Perhaps it was just my lucky day, or the culmination of considerable effort (28 miles of walking the past 4 Fridays), or any combination of possibilities, but I'd prefer to think these birds were there this weekend for a reason, and they certainly made me remember all the times spent outdoors with my father, which always becomes more and more vivid in my daily thoughts around his birthday, perhaps because this is the time of year I’d typically be returning from my summer’s up north to head back to school in Indiana (my own annual migration, maybe that is why I like birds so much?). So these Black Terns were very special to me! They were a great way to end my workweek, and a great way to start the weekend! Throughout the remainder of my walk, I mostly saw the same species again, and the thunderstorm cell to the south was ever-growing northward, so I picked up the pace quite a bit, arriving back at the car just ahead of it. Some shorebirds were out in the E-Pool, but I couldn’t ID them properly at the distance, so I called it a night and headed home.

Common & Sandwich Terns were the most frequently seen birds at Back Bay, along with the non-pictured-here Royal Terns!

On Saturday morning, I drove out towards Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area, but the rainfall just wouldn’t allow me to get out to hike, so I ended up turning around and coming home. Ruth & I went out to brunch instead at Hair of the Dog just down the street, which was really good. After we swung by the movie theatre, and then I worked on my photographs from Friday through the afternoon. Eventually the rain cleared, and we had a beautiful evening in the 60s/70s! I’ve waited all summer for that weather. On Sunday morning, after enduring the extremely rainy weather Saturday, I again headed out for some birding. Leaving early, as I was chomping at the bit, I got out of the apartment at 6:30 AM. Also, I needed to be back home in time to shower & drive out to Chesapeake for a meeting at 10 AM. So, I headed quickly down to Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area’s Whitehurst Tract in the hopes of finding the Pectoral Sandpipers that I’m hoping will show up there this month as they did last year in mid-August. Arriving to the park about 7:10 AM, I stepped out into beautiful 67 degree F weather, with no clouds visible in the sky. While spraying myself up with deet, I was already tallying birds as they zoomed past, with Northern Cardinal, and swallows being seen, and Field Sparrows being heard. Somehow, the nozzle on my spray bottle got locked in place and I inadvertently sprayed some right into my eye. Of course, it burned pretty bad, as deet is not supposed to be sprayed on the face in general, much less right at the eyes. I spent a few minutes quickly flushing my eye out with water from my drinking bottles, which fortunately I always carry two 64-oz bottles with me during the Spring through Fall due to the heat. After feeling satisfied that I’d gotten all the chemical completely rinsed away, and when the burning stopped, I headed southbound onto the trails. Moral of this story is don’t ever be in a hurry when getting ready to head out hiking, it will only hurt you in the end.

A beautiful Willet in flight along the breakers, showing off its distinctive black and white wing patterning!

Birds were quiet along the entry trail, which is seemingly not as overgrown as it had been even a month ago, perhaps due to the grasses starting to die off a bit, or the competition for nutrients is sapping some of them. Dragonflies were common here as usual, with Great Blue Skimmers and Needham’s Skimmers the most active, even this early in the morning and on a “cold” day comparative to what we’ve been having recently. Actually, it felt amazing out I must say, I wish it could be this temperature year round, but, I do enjoy having 4 distinct seasons here which all provide their unique bird species sightings. When I reached the choke point between the northern and southern halves of the park, I walked counter-clockwise along the tree line, wrapping around the western impoundment first, then splitting between the southern and middle impoundments til I was at the southwestern edge of the impoundment nearest the barn house. By doing this, it ensures that when I reach the northern impoundment, the sun will be behind me. This is important for two reasons, first, it means that any photographs I take will have the subject matter illuminated, and second, it means any wildlife on the impoundment will be forced to look towards the sun to spot me approaching, which makes it slightly easier to sneak into a better position without being noticed. Along the prior stretch, I had a group of 17 Canada Geese fly over me, and 2 Great Blue Herons did flush from the middle impoundment. Also in the middle impoundment, a single Eastern Meadowlark flushed and then landed atop a series of Cattails out in the center. Indigo Buntings, Northern Cardinals, and Blue Grosbeaks were also encountered. Upon moving northward towards the northernmost impoundment where the Ruff was seen last year, a Spotted Sandpiper took off and hovered/flew along for a ways before disappearing.

Quite a successful catch for this nonbreeding Royal Tern at Back Bay NWR on Friday evening!

The rains over the last 24 hours clearly had an impact on the water levels of the park. The northern impoundments was considerably higher than it had been last week, essentially flooding out all the available mudflat space out in the middle. Because of this rise in water, the habitat shifted just across the line to being unsuitable for most shorebirds, and the only birds on the impoundment were 4 Spotted Sandpipers. No peeps were seen this time, and no Killdeer encountered at this spot, though 3 did fly over as I stood on the shoreline. A bit bummed out, I continued on, realizing I was not going to get my Pectorals again this weekend. However, while walking around the northern half of the park, I did spot another few Killdeer, and I had a flurry of excitement when a songbird showing much yellow landed in a tree near me. It turned out to be a juvenile Yellow-breasted Chat, but I was so sure early on it was a rarer warbler species due to the marking which I was unfamiliar with at the time. Field Sparrows continued to sing, but for the third outing in a row, Northern Bobwhites were not heard calling, so I’m glad I did get to enjoy their presence back in July when they seemed to be hanging around the area. At the abandoned farmhouse at the northeast corner of the park, the large trees to the west again held a few species of birds including Mourning Doves, a pair of juvenile Eastern Bluebirds, a Red-winged Blackbird, and a Northern Mockingbird. Typically at this point in my circuit of the park, the species count starts to stack up as the songbirds seem to prefer the habitat here and along Munden Road. No Orchard Orioles showed up this time, but I did see a pair of American Goldfinches along the roadway, and more buntings and grosbeaks were seen on the power line wires as well. I reached the car at about 8:10 AM, and headed back towards home to shower up and head out for my 10 AM meeting. Upon leaving the park, I ran into an American Kestrel that was sitting up on the power line over the roadway. I pulled the car over quickly, assembled my camera for a photograph, and then realized it had flown away during the commotion, as they do basically every time I go through this process. They’re one of the toughest birds to photograph since they’re speedy falcons that don’t typically like people being around them. Usually they’re also at far distances out over fields also. After this, I did head home.

With it's scaled back, black bill, and black face, this is a juvenile Common Tern! The youngster are really showing up now, and making identification of all the birds a bit more difficult. 

After my meeting, it was still so gorgeous out, though closer to 80 degrees, I decided to head out again, this time going north to Pleasure House Point Natural Area off Shore Drive. Parking along Marlin Bay Drive, I quickly entered the park and headed eastward towards the sandbars. I had anticipated that with the beautiful weather, and being later in the day now, there would be a lot of visitors to the park. I was sadly correct. I ran into many walkers and beachgoers along the trails. Sadly, at the sandbars, which were showing quite well, there were tons of boats and kayaks pulled up on every available spot. Because of this, there was no gulls, terns, or shorebirds standing on the tide-exposed ground. A group of a few Short-billed Dowitchers flew over me on the trails, but that was the only shorebird encounter I had. Wading birds were out in typical numbers, and I again saw at least two juvenile Tricolored Herons, which have been quite numerous over the last month at the park. Young Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were also scattered about the shorelines, though I only saw one adult this outing. Great Egrets and a flyover by a Green Heron rounded out the waders. Songbirds were only seen in low variety which is pretty common. This could partially be since I walk the shoreline trails and stay out of the woods for the most part, where they’re probably more commonly seen. The highlight for the songbirds was a few American Goldfinches that flew over while showing off their brilliant yellow feathers. Ospreys were seen at several times but there was unfortunately no repeat of the Peregrine Falcon I spotted on Wednesday evening. After doing the quick out-and-back on the trails, I decided to head out, and forego a second loop just because of the volume of people on the trails.

While not uncommon birds, Mourning Doves just have a beautiful aura about them, seen here at Princess Anne WMA!

After arriving back home, I started the at times trying portion of photography, going through all my photographs from the week and editing them for inclusion into this blog & the other sections of the website. Needing a break, I sat down on the couch to watch some television, which quickly turned into an unplanned nap. Apparently while I was sleeping, my phone had rang, as Ron Furnish, who lives in my neighborhood, had called to let me know there was a Black-and-White Warbler hanging out in the tree in his front yard. His house seems to always bring in the birds somehow, with the Mississippi Kites landing in his backyard quite often, something that doesn’t just happen to anyone. Ruth had been down at the apartment complex’s pool, and when she came back at 4 PM, she woke me up. I then saw the missed called and text message, and immediately grabbed my gear and headed out the door. Arriving a half hour or so after he’d first tried to call, I didn’t have high hopes. But, we stood under the tree chatting for a while anyway. After a half hour or so, to my amazement, the Mississippi Kite that had been showing up there, showed up! It cruised across a blue portion of the sky, and I snapped some quick in-flight shots of it as it rode a thermal higher and higher up into the air before disappearing. This was now only the second time I’ve seen the Kites, which are nesting a couple miles away by air, across the Lynnhaven River, up in the Thoroughgood neighborhood. After viewing the Kite, we went back to staring up into the tree, watching for movement. A Northern Cardinal, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird passed through while we were watching, and then suddenly the warbler appeared! From high up in the tree, it began working its way down one of the larger limbs, then proceed to hop across to other limbs, working them in a similar fashion. For probably 15 minutes, the bird hopped about, though never pausing for very long. Since my lens has been having issues lately, I had to manually focus every shot, which on a hyperactive little bird makes for tough shooting. I’m actually a bit embarrassed that I didn’t get some better shots given how close I was too it, and how cooperative (in terms of warblers) it had been. However, I got plenty of ID-worthy photographs, and this being a first of year bird for me, was now #184! After the rainy day on Saturday, and the tough pair of outings to Whitehurst Tract & Pleasure House Point earlier in the day, I really needed this sighting to keep me optimistic! Now with 16 species remaining to meet my goal of seeing 200 species in Virginia Beach this year, I’m starting to get anxious. Each species I add, becomes one less species that is available to me. At this point, I’m going to have to find quite a few birds I’ve never seen before in Virginia Beach, and also need some luck in terms of rarities showing up. I am still going to give the Pectoral Sandpipers another shot, though they aren’t showing up in local reports anywhere chaseable. Hopefully this coming week, I will finally pick one out, though a Marbled Godwit, or White-rumped Sandpiper on the beach at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge would also be a great blessing!

Species #184 in Virginia Beach this year, the Black-and-White Warbler that descended upon Ron Furnish & Marie Mullins' front yard on Sunday. Thanks to you both for notifying me about it!