Week Ending August 16, 2015

A hectic work week, and extremely hot temperatures (again in the 90s) this week didn’t allow for any outdoor ventures until Friday evening. After work, I again walked the beach from the parking area at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge to the boundary with False Cape State Park & back. One hope of mine for this outing was that perhaps I’d get another look at some Black Terns, or possibly seeing an early Marbled Godwit somewhere along the beach. Interestingly, shorebirds were almost nonexistent at the park over the first mile walking south along the beach towards False Cape, however, the further I got along on my walk, the more they began popping up. In terms of shorebirds, the Semipalmated Plovers were down in number from last Friday, but Black-bellied Plover & Ruddy Turnstones were both present in much higher numbers than I've seen on any outings over the past 5 weeks. Sanderlings and Willets were again the most numerous birds, though there wasn’t hundreds of Sanderlings like there has been in the past couple of weeks, in fact, had I been keeping an accurate count, the Willets may have actually come close to outnumbering them. There was also a lot of immature Laughing Gulls flying along the coastline, mostly moving along with the wind at their backs, with plenty of Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the air and on the beach as well. Herring, Ring-billed & Great Black-backed Gulls also present in low numbers. Royal, Common, and Least Terns all present in high numbers with a few Sandwich Terns, and I got a fabulous surprise on my northward trip when a single Gull-billed Tern flew from north to south past me, affording me my first photographs of this species for the year, though being the second sighting I’ve had. The last one I saw was in May, and I just wasn’t able to fire off any photographs before it had disappeared, so this was a nice redemption, as I always like to have a photograph of my species for my yearly lists, that removes any doubt from other birders that I did see what I reported having seen, and gives me of course a nice shot to go back to.

A young Snowy Egret seen near the parking area at Back Bay NWR!

Additionally on the northbound trip, while viewing some Black-backed Gulls in the distance I noticed that a smaller bird was harassing them at high speed. I instantly thought that it could be a Jaeger (a word that I learned from the film Pacific Rim is German for “hunter”). Jaegers typically live along the coastline, but further offshore than most terns & gulls. They feed by harassing gulls and terns into dropping their own catches, being very opportunistic feeders. There are three species that can show up along the Atlantic seaboard including Parasitic, Long-tailed, and Pomarine, however, the Parasitic is the most likely according to all my field guides to be seen from shore. So when I saw this bird chasing after the gulls, it seemed to fit the bill (pun intended), but as I got closer I realized that I was mistaken. Instead, what I was treated too, was a juvenile Peregrine Falcon, the second I’ve seen over the last couple of weeks. The behavior reminded me of one I had seen a couple years ago during the springtime at First Landing, when a Peregrine chased a gull all the way across Broad Bay, not allowing it any time to recover, constantly taking dives at it with intense velocity. This falcon today also took several sweeps through the gulls, banking at seemingly break-neck speed and then quickly gaining altitude, only to come screaming back in towards them. It did this at least 3 times before rising up above the dunes, and catching the wind blowing southward, speeding off along the coastline. Of course, this bird stayed right in line with the sun, meaning the side I could see was all in shadow, but I did get a couple of photographs that were worthwhile shots to include in my weekly gallery at least! After this excitement, I finished the last mile or so of the beach, and headed back over the dunes to the Loop Road, turning north towards the parking area. At the marshy patch next to the parking lot, a pair of Greater Yellowlegs, a Willet, Great Blue Heron & Snowy Egret were all seen. So unfortunately this week, there was no Whimbrels, Piping Plovers, or Black Terns noted on my hike, but I was greatly excited to get my first photograph of a Gull-billed Tern and any day I get to watch the fastest bird on the planet (Peregrine Falcon), is a good day! So I headed back home to get some dinner (Ruth cooked up a recipe she found for mahi, but used swordfish as a seasonal replacement, and it was absolutely fantastic), and get some sleep for the next day of outdoor ventures.  

Run away! A Great Black-backed Gull being chased by the waves at Back Bay!

Saturday was August 15th, and last year on this date, Bob Ake spotted a Ruff at the Whitehurst Tract of Princess Anne WMA. Two days later, on the 17th (a Sunday), was the first time I ever visited the park, in the hopes of finding this same bird. On that particular outing, I ended up meeting David Gibson of Chesapeake, and together we attempted to find the vagrant! However, inexperienced with shorebirds at the time, I'm not sure if I would have been able to ID the bird even if I'd seen it. Since then, I have been to the park a good dozen or more times, and have become much more comfortable with identifying the shorebirds that pass through coastal Virginia. This week, while browsing back through my photographs from that outing last year, I was able to pick out a Stilt Sandpiper (likely the same one noted on eBird that day by Rexanne Bruno & Tracy Tate), and it was confirmed as such via the Hampton Roads Wildlife Enthusiasts Group on Facebook. With the excitement of adding a Life bird, though a historic one, combined with the date of the Ruff sighting last year arriving, I decided to head out early in the morning to the WMA in search of shorebirds. Of course, I've also birded this area pretty heavily over the last 6 weeks, hoping for some shorebirds to stop on the impoundments as their southward journey progresses. What I failed to recognize on my prior outings was the lack of suitable habitat. Thanks to looking through the photographs from last year's outing I realized that the entire northern cell of the southern impoundments was covered in very short grass, a great environment for the shorebirds to land and feed on. This year, all but a very narrow stretch in the center of this cell isn't overgrown with 2-3 feet of grasses. I do not know the reason for this change in habitat, perhaps different policies on the upkeep of the park? But, what I do know is that it has surely resulted in less shorebirds.

Loads of juvenile Laughing Gulls were sighted this week!

Today, I saw only 1 Spotted Sandpiper in the park. I take this as a good lesson though, that habitat does change from year to year, and birders must also adjust their strategies to match this change. While frustrated a bit after turning up just the 1 shorebird, I kept on walking around the preserve, and was greatly rewarded for the efforts of walking through high grasses, and getting soaked by the morning dew. In the same area I'd heard & seen the Northern Bobwhites recently (near the abandoned farmhouse at the northeast corner of the property), I had a Hairy Woodpecker fly in and land very close to a Downy Woodpecker! Now, Hairy Woodpeckers seem like a common species, but there are not too many verifiable observations of them each year here in Virginia Beach. This was the the first I've seen this year that was completely distinguishable from the much more common Downy Woodpeckers, and it was pretty neat to see them in the same view through the binoculars and also through the camera lens (see gallery at link provided below). That was species #185 in Virginia Beach for the year, so yet another step closer to hitting my initial yearly goal of 200! After seeing the Hairy, and jumping up and down doing my celebratory dance that no one else is ever around to see, I walked back along Munden Road towards where I’d parked. Along the roadway, as is pretty typical, I spotted some Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks, and even an American Goldfinch, which is always a good sight to me since I don’t have bird feeders, which is where most folks will see these birds. Also, a Yellow-breasted Chat was calling its rather bizarre sounding call from a shrub on the south side of the road, and several Field Sparrows could be heard singing in the distance, though I never did see any of them. Also, while exiting the park (and entering earlier), I noted that the corn field on the northeast corner of Munden & Morris Neck Roads has been completely cleared. This field produced my very first Horned Larks earlier in the season, and I’m sure plenty of Eastern Meadowlarks use it when the crops are taken out of the equation. Also, it could be a place to locate shorebirds after heavy rains in the next month or two. So far, it is the only field I’ve noticed being cultivated in southern Virginia Beach. Once others follow suit, it’ll be easier to spot wildlife that would otherwise be able to hide.

A Least Tern transitioning from breeding to nonbreeding plumage!

Continuing onward from this area, I drove down into southwestern Virginia Beach, across the Pungo Ferry Road bridge over the North Landing River, and down Blackwater Road to the Nature Conservancy’s Milldam Creek Boardwalk. Here, I was excited to here & then see a bright yellow Prothonotary Warbler over the first creek crossing on the boardwalk, which follows through the marshes around the creek for about a quarter mile or so. Along the boardwalk, I kept my eyes peeled and ended up spotting quite a number of Green Treefrogs clinging to reeds, ranging in size from youngsters only a half inch or so in length, all the way up to the larger adults about 2 inches in length. These frogs like to curl up against the green foliage during the daytime to remain camouflaged from predators, since they are mostly active at nighttime. Every time I see them here, I’m reminded of Ruth & I’s visit to her friend Amy’s father’s home in North Carolina, where they came out by the hundreds as the sun set, and clung all over the outside of the house. It was awesome to see. Most of the frogs at Milldam Creek were visible as shaded patches on the backside of their leaves given how I was walking with the sun hitting them. That made it a bit easier to find them, just looking for a dark patch, then checking the other side of the leaf or reed for the cause. Lots of grasshoppers and Black-and-Yellow Garden Spiders were out as well. In fact, I even saw one of the massive spiders wrapping a large grasshopper up in its silk for a later meal. Nature is brutal. On the way back towards the car I was stopped dead in my tracks as a Northern Bobwhite called out several times to the north of the first creek crossing. I of course was never going to see this bird since it was far off across the creek, in ground littered by dense vegetation. After leaving the Milldam Creek parking lot, I drove south on Blackwater Road until just before it crosses into North Carolina. There I turned down Reed Road, which took me across the state line, and another right turn onto Middle Gibbs Road eventually wound me back into Virginia Beach land. This area at the very southwestern corner of the city boundary is very rural, with long gravel roads leading up to many of the homes. Actually, the homes out there are gorgeous, and have a lot of land between them, making it a nice part of the city that I doubt many people every travel through. Because of the lack of people, my hope was that perhaps I’d be able to find some Wild Turkeys here (a species that is very tough to find in Virginia Beach, though quite common throughout the rest of the state, even being seen often from the interstate highways) to add to my yearly list. While driving along Crags Causeway & Baum Road, it was apparent that all of the fields are still fully grown with corn & soy beans. Hopefully in the next couple months, the grains are harvested, and the fields become a location that birds can be found in from the roadways.

Willet in flight against the crashing waves!

Sunday, August 16th, was my fiancé Ruth’s 32nd birthday! Of course, she wanted to spend time at the beach, so in the morning we went in opposite directions, with her heading to the oceanfront, and me heading out for a bit of birding (though we met back up in the afternoon and had a great dinner at No Frill Bar & Grill, our favorite, followed by some frozen yogurt from Skinny Dip nearby). But anyway, as for the birding that was done, since this is a birding blog… On Sunday morning, after pondering the evening before just where I might be able to find a Pectoral Sandpiper, I headed out to Back Bay NWR for the second visit of the weekend. Instead of walking the beach like I have been doing each Friday evening after work, I opted instead to try my luck on the East Dike Trail. From April 1 to October 31 each year, the park staff opens the East & West Dike Trails to the public, in an alternating fashion, keeping one open and the other closed. From November 1 to March 31, both remain closed in order to protect the wintering waterfowl (ducks, geese, swans), and a few other species that use the flooded waterways like grebes and wading birds. Typically on April 1, the West Dike is the first to open, however this year the staff decided there was still too many waterfowl present on the impoundments, and instead opened up the East Dike to kick off the season. In May, the West Dike was opened up, and in July, the switch was made again to the East Dike. Now, I tend to like the West Dike much more than the East because it provides better views of the interior impoundments, and of Back Bay itself. The East Dike, in the summertime, is one of the hottest places to be in Virginia Beach, with no shad along its several mile path, and a usual lack of wind due to the dunes to the east stopping the breeze off the ocean. What the East Dike does have though, is several small fields along ditches that this time of year are a perfect spot to see migrating shorebirds that don’t prefer the beaches. This includes birds like the Pectoral Sandpiper, and often Killdeer. So anyway, I started off in the parking area, heading south on the Loop Road for the first 0.75 miles until reaching the gate to the East Dike Trail.

An adult Great Egret takes flight at Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area!

From here, the trail continues south another 3 miles or so until it reaches False Cape State Park. There are no access paths to the beach through this section of the park, so once you commit to the trail, you’re pretty well stuck on it. My first sighting of the day wasn’t that of a bird, it was actually a Black Ratsnake that was sitting off on the grassy shoulder, that I only noticed because I was getting off the trail to allow bikers to get around me. There was probably more bike riders out today than I have ever seen in the past actually. At the ‘dogleg’ bend, a double 90-degree change in direction, there is a good sized field, and today it held a number of Semipalmated Plovers, with either Least or Semipalmated Sandpipers also see but too distant to make out their leg colors to differentiate them two species. If any Pectorals had been there, they would be much larger than these species by comparison, looking like a giant version of a Least Sandpiper, also with yellow legs. After this, I heard some crows cawing loudly, and immediately thought that crows in groups will do this if a raptor is in the vicinity. As I turned around to see the crows, sure enough, a Red-tailed Hawk cruised on ahead of them, being chased off by the group. They will also do this with owls, so if you hear crows, it is always worth taking a second to check them out to see what is bothering them. Over the remainder of the southward journey, the remaining small fields turned up more Semipalmated Plovers, but no Pectorals like I had hoped for.

The Monarch's lookalike, this is actually a Viceroy!

I considered heading into False Cape SP, and then walking the beach back to the parking area, making it about a 10 mile loop, but my legs were still a bit cut up from the past couple days outdoors from my jeans rubbing, so I opted for the shorter, 7 mile out-and-back trek. On the northward journey, I again stopped at all the same viewing spots along the fields, and while I did add a juvenile Spotted Sandpiper, and a juvenile Willet, I didn’t find any Pectorals. Though, I am convinced if I’m going to find them anywhere in Virginia Beach this summer, it is going to be here, or possibly in a flooded farmfield in Pungo, but that would be moreso in the fall after the fields have been cultivated. Also of note, a male Common Yellowthroat was calling along the trail in some shrubbery and he responded quite abruptly to my “pishing” (saying pish pish pish out loud), which birders use to get warblers to come investigate them, so they’re actually visible in the brush. This time of year, since breeding is all done, I don’t mind doing this, but during the breeding season, when the birds are all hyperactive, and territorial, I prefer not to bother them, though I see nothing ethically wrong with doing this, since it is basically akin to saying ‘here kitty kitty’ to my cat at home. While reaching the parking area again, the marshy patch to the east held a couple of Snowy Egrets, a Great Egret, a Great Blue Heron, some Killdeer, and what was likely the same White-tailed Deer fawn that I had encountered a couple weeks back on my Friday hike. While I didn’t get my bird today, I at least made it through the weekend with another species added (the Hairy Woodpecker), so I still sit with 15 remaining to reach my goal of 200 species. Fall migration in September & especially October will be the key to either completing my goal or not. Any species I can grab before then is a bonus, and takes some pressure off finding the rarer birds as they blitz through our region! 

A young Green Treefrog resting on a reed at Milldam Creek in southwestern Virginia Beach!