Week Ending September 27, 2015

Characterized primarily by rain and dreariness, the start to the week was a tough one for anyone looking to find some birds. Early in the week, a large, low pressure system set up southeast of Cape Hatteras and buffeted the entire East Coast with strong northeasterly winds; a classic fall nor’easter. Nor’easters are similar to tropical cyclones in that their low pressure causes strong winds to form in a counter-clockwise fashion around them. When they sit offshore, their winds are pushed onshore causing surges in tidal levels, and their precipitation adds another level of damage to areas that are impacted. Being that fall migration is heavily underway for songbirds, starting out for raptors, and coming to an end for shorebirds, these strong northerly winds can bring some interesting birds to the region. Case in point, on Wednesday morning, a Zone-tailed Hawk was sighted by the Cape May Hawkwatch and roughly 4 hours later, it was picked up passing over the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch on the north side of the Chesapeake Bay by summer hawkwatcher, Eli Gross. According to a post Ned Brinkley made on Facebook, that means the bird averaged about 31 mph, cruising along with the winds, and traveling from New Jersey, through Delaware, Maryland and into southeastern Virginia. I believe this is a first state record for Virginia of this species, and what is most interesting, is that it is likely the very same individual that spent its summer last year in New England. Last fall, it was picked up on its southward journey at Cape May on September 27, just 4 days behind this year’s September 23 date! Perhaps next year the trend will continue, and you better believe there will be a plethora of birders out there looking for it. According to eBird, only 1 other individual of the species had ever been recorded on the East Coast, and that was in 1976 in Nova Scotia, Canada (reported by Roger Burrows). The reasons for this bird being so out of range (they’re a southwestern US bird essentially) are unknown, but it will see its fair share of records committees soon, as it was also sighted in Connecticut on September 20th, another first for the state. It was also the first to be seen in Rhode Island & Massachusetts. The agonizing part is thinking that it probably flew right over top of Virginia Beach, and no one was able to spot it, before the winds pushed it south into North Carolina; at this point, it could be hundreds of miles further south given that the winds have continued to help it along. The early part of the week also saw huge numbers (in the hundreds) of Merlin passing the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch site, so birders in Virginia Beach should start noting these more frequently in eBird reports, as Ron Furnish & Marie Mullins did on Wednesday evening when one zoomed past their house while out with their dog around 7 PM.

Hiding among a group of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, I found this juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron showing its yellow lower bill to help differentiate, at Pleasure House Point!

On Thursday, the strong northeasterly winds continued to affect the region, but we did have some sunshine, with most of the clouds forming to the southwest of the Chesapeake Bay. After work, I drove up to Pleasure House Point Natural Area to check the area for birds. Earlier in the day, Eric Alton had posted more photographs of the Lake Sparrow that he has seen now two days in a row at the park on the main point. Given how heavy the winds have been, the tides have been running about 1.5-2 feet above normal, so I figured maybe some of the sparrows that inhabit the marshes here (Seaside, Saltmarsh, Nelson’s) might be able to be seen. During the high water events, the volume of marsh grass that they can hide in drops considerably as the water overtakes the lower portions of the saltmarsh. Additionally, a hope of mine was to see a Merlin flying over the park since so many have been picked up lately at the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch site. Sadly, both of these thoughts didn’t pan out for me over the next 2 hour as I walked the trails of the park. With the wind howling, only the larger, wading birds were being seen, with songbirds essentially absent altogether from the park. Herons (Great Blue, Tricolored & Green), Great Egrets, Night-Herons (both Yellow & Black-crowned) and a continuing juvenile White Ibis were all observed along the shorelines. The Black-crowned Night-Herons ended up being the highlight bird of the day, with a few reports of them having shown up on eBird recently, but these being the first I’ve seen since winter in the area. Both individuals sighted were juvenile birds.  Songbirds were extremely tough to come by in the park. I did run into Timothy Barry for the first time, and we walked the waterlogged trails out east and back towards Marlin Bay Drive. This might have actually been the highest I have seen the water at the park, with several breaches into the sand berms occurring around the perimeter trails forcing a good run & jump to continue on around the trail. I also met Tim Solanic for the first time, he runs the Pleasure House Point group on Facebook and is quite active around the park.

A juvenile Green Heron was found in the precise spot it was a week prior to this outing at Pleasure House Point!

On Friday, the easterly winds continued, but there was some excitement to the day as Ned Brinkley and others had re-sighted the Zone-tailed Hawk on Thursday. With dreary conditions continuing on the southside, I decided to check out the Chesapeake Bay Brdige-Tunnel, and the southern tip of the Eastern Shore, just in case the hawk might still be around. Also, I was hoping a bit for some seabirds to be pushed into viewing distance at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay by the continuously strong easterly winds. If a Merlin or two were to fly over as well, that’d have been swell. Making a quick stop on the first island of the CBBT at about 3:30 didn’t yield anything unusual, and the area was pretty empty of birds. The waves were impressive to say the least, with the spray actually reaching the parking lot after each crashed upon the armored shoreline of the manmade island. It felt a bit like I was winter birding, when I typically head to the islands in search of waterfowl, but the 70 degree weather quickly ended this illusion, reminding me that it is not yet time to find the ducks here. Driving up to the Eastern Shore, I noted a few Caspian Terns and Great Black-backed Gulls, seemingly the only birds strong enough to handle the intense winds. When I’d reached Northampton County, I started following every vulture-looking bird I could find in the air, which took me down Ramp Road at Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge first. Here, several Peregrine Falcons were in flight, zooming past at seemingly a hundred miles an hour with the intense tailwinds driving them westward. Turkey Vultures were soaring all over, so I tried to cycle through each one in search of the Zone-tailed Hawk, which supposedly has a similar flight appearance. Eventually I ended up at the parking area for Magothy Bay Natural Area Preserve. I felt that this spot would give me a location with 360 degree views of the surrounding farmlands, and if the hawk was going to pass by, this would be my best spot to actually get a look at it. I didn’t stay real long, maybe 15 minutes or so, but during that time I saw quite a few American Kestrels/Merlins, tons of Vultures, both Black & Turkey, an Osprey, a juvenile Bald Eagle, and a swift moving Sharp-shinned Hawk. Raptors were surely on the move around the peninsula, though presumably not crossing the bay with the cross winds. The Zone-tailed Hawk though, was not sighted by me, or as I’d later find out, anyone else on the day. Once it began to rain pretty heavily, I headed back to the southside & home, with not much in the way of photos to show for the day, though it was fun to see the raptors in good numbers.

They're quite abundant birds here in coastal Virginia during the summertime, but in a couple of weeks, this and other Yellow-crowned Night-Herons will begin their southward journeys once again!

On Saturday morning, rain and wind continued for the 6th or 7th straight day, a bit frustrating to wake up to at 6 AM. Since it was pouring, I waited a couple hours, eventually heading down to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, arriving about 9:20 AM. Birds were again tough to find, and the intense easterly winds were whipping all the vegetation around, making it impossible to get on birds with binoculars or a camera even when they did appear briefly. A group of Pied-billed Grebes were set up in the middle of the bay, which was extremely low, due to the northerly winds from earlier in the week that push all the water south into Currituck Sound. I didn’t stay at the park very long, just walking the Bay Trail out and back and checking around the parking lots from my vehicle. Heading north, I stopped off at Little Island Park to photograph some Tree Swallows that are now swarming up in huge groups for their fall migration. Since the rain persisted, I figured it might be worthwhile to drive around the roads of Pungo, and Blackwater areas in southern & southwestern Virginia Beach, in search of Merlins or Wild Turkeys, or anything else that would be a new addition to my county Big Year. Driving around Muddy Creek Road, Horn Point Road, and Morris Neck Road turned up a Cooper’s Hawk and a Bald Eagle, but not much else. I headed over the Pungo Ferry Road bridge towards Blackwater, and then made a stop off at Milldam Creek Boardwalk since the rain had let up for a little while. Not much in the way of birds was seen here, with a couple American Goldfinches, Northern Cardinal, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and a Wood Duck being seen, but at least I got 15-20 minutes of walking before the rain began again. I did also snag a few shots of a single Green Treefrog along the boardwalk, the only one I could find in a typically good location for them. After Milldam Creek, I drove around some of the backroads here in Virginia Beach, near where Chesapeake, and North Carolina all come together. To my astonishment, after a few minutes of driving, I ran into a flock of 8 Wild Turkeys! Wild Turkeys, while common birds in the state, are tough to come by within the Virginia Beach boundaries since most of the area is developed, but I had hoped driving the rural sections would eventually yield some, and it surely did! I took some photographs from the vehicle while stopped on the empty roadway, and watched as the birds crossed several fields en route to the nearby woods, clearly wild birds and not some farmer’s ‘pets’. The turkey now takes me up to 194 species on the year, inching closer to my goal of 200 with just over 3 months remaining in the year. The concept of having only 6 birds left though is a deceptive one…each of these remaining species will be tough to come by since all the easy ones have already been used up. With the new addition of the turkey though, I headed back home to dry off, and to get my lists & photos posted.

My very first Wild Turkey sighting within the City of Virginia Beach boundaries! Taken during heavy intermittent rains in the the Blackwater area of southwester VB on Saturday morning!

Sunday began pretty much the same as Saturday. I awoke at 6 AM, and though it wasn’t pouring, it was definitely hanging in the air. I decided to give it a shot at Back Bay again, arriving at the park moments after 7 AM to a pretty steady rain. Naturally, it hadn’t rained my entire drive down to the park, but started as I passed the gatehouse, typical. I sat it out for a little while in the car, and as it lightened up enough, I walked the Bay Trail, the parking area, the boardwalks, and the Bay Trail again. An intensely quiet morning at the park, just as Saturday was, though I did pull a couple of Yellow Warblers out of the thick vegetation, and the more common birds like Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Gray Catbird, Eastern Towhee, Blue Grosbeak, European Starling were all moving about. A Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, and a few Eastern Cottonmouths provided some entertainment on the small pond at the west end of the Bay Trail as well. Heading back towards home, I made stop offs at all the little parks in Kings Grant, hoping to come by some warblers. At the outlet from Kings Grant Lake to the Lynnhaven River I had the most success, as a mixed flock of songbirds passed through the trees above me, containing at least a few Northern Parula, American Redstarts, and a Black-and-White Warbler. I couldn’t scan every bird quickly enough though, and as they cruised onwards I was left wondering if I’d missed anything among the group. Fall warblers are flat out tough birds, they’ve all dropped their bright spring plumage making a few species tough to separate, and they’re small, fast moving birds that can easily hide amongst the canopy leaves right now. Later in the day while heading home from watching football games on Shore Drive, Ruth & I passed by Kings Grant Lake to find Ron Furnish & Marie Mullins scanning for warblers in the Crepe Myrtles. I ended up going home, grabbing my gear and coming back, seeing a few American Redstarts and Northern Parulas again, but nothing outside those two species, so I headed home again. Later in the day, Bob McAlpine posted a pair of beautiful shots of Bay-breasted Warblers to the HRWE group page, so the rarer species can be found, it is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and the next 1-2 weeks are going to determine whether or not I can pick up any of these transient species before the fall songbird migration comes to a close. If I haven’t hit 200 yet, I’ll need to switch my gameplan up, and focus on birds that I am still missing like Merlin & Red-shouldered Hawk, as well as hoping for arrivals of some of the early winter birds like Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, Nelson’s & Saltmarsh Sparrows, Snow Buntings, and a handful of others that are hit or miss each year across the region. We will see what this coming week brings, hopefully at least 1 more year bird though!

All the wind this week made photographing smaller birds almost impossible, but the wading birds, like this juvenile Great Blue Heron were there to take up the slack!