Week Ending October 4, 2015

As was the tale of last week here in Virginia Beach, so went this week. Clouds, wind, and rain began the week on Monday and continued into the week. On Tuesday, east of the Bahamas, Tropical Depression 11 formed, and though it didn’t appear an immediate threat to and land areas this wouldn’t hold true for long. On Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center upgraded the cyclone to a Tropical Storm, and later in the day again to a Hurricane. As of the 5 PM update on Wednesday, the storm models put the now-Hurricane Joaquin on a track moving straight towards the Hampton Roads area. While the thought of a hurricane making landfall right near my home, of course many thoughts were going through my head. At the top though were probably, what might this weather pattern do to seabirds in the Atlantic Ocean? Might it push some birds into the region that we don’t typically find here? How would my civil engineering design projects near the Oceanfront area of Virginia Beach handle the added rainfall and the battering waves & storm surge? Do I have any snackfood to gorge on if the power goes out? And many others. One thing to mention right now though, we’ve had rain for about the last 10 days, and the ground is already incredibly saturated. This condition existing in advance of a hurricane is not a good thing. Basically as the hurricane arrives, the ground will not be able to take on any additional water, therefore it will all sit on the surface, or run off to the nearest standing water (rivers/bays/ocean/etc). This will only add to the depth of standing water that is brought in by the inevitable storm surge, which in itself will be massive if the 115 mph winds persist for any duration while out at sea. Heading into Wednesday, a potential for landfall existed along New England, but by the National Hurricane Center’s 5 PM update, the landfall site had shifted right over Hampton Roads. Fortunately, this predictions wasn’t very long-lived, just enough to cause panic among the region’s million-plus residents. By the 2 AM update on Thursday, the storm landfall begun shifting to the east up the coast once again, and by the evening updates, the storm was no longer expected to landfall on US territory. Of course, I kept watch on the updates still, since it provided me a good chance to go out and photograph some of my design areas for my job. Dreary weather persisted through the remainder of the week, though it never really rained hard, it was just a continuous issue. Tidal flooding was of concern on Friday, when Sewell’s Point his 6.20 feet, and on Sunday when it hit 6.50 feet above MLLW (mean lower-low water). MLLW is an average of the lower of the 2 low tides for every day over the past 19 years.

A female Common Yellowthroat moves through the thick foliage along the Bay Trail at Back Bay NWR on Saturday morning!

With the rains continuing through Friday, I didn’t even make an attempt to go out birding, having been out earlier in the day for work purposes in Virginia Beach and Norfolk to document the high water marks in several neighborhoods. On Friday night, I had checked in with the forecast, and a small window was showing in the morning where I might be able to get out. So I woke up at 6 AM on Saturday, checked it again, and headed out the door. To my amazement, there was actually a sunrise, though obscured by some clouds, the sun was visible for the first time since the previous Wednesday, making for a long week. I drove quickly down to Back Bay NWR and arrived just a minute or two after 7 AM. Driving along the entrance road towards the parking areas, one thing was immediately clear, the persistent rains had caused all the roadside ditches to swell. Nothing was flooding onto the roadways, but there was a lot of water where just a couple weeks ago, there was dry mudflats. I parked nearest the Bay Trail and headed down it in the hopes of finding some more transient warblers that should still be moving through. Typically the first week of October is their best time of the season to be found. Walking the Bay Trail west though, I encountered Northern Cardinals and Blue Grosbeaks, but the only warblers I found were a pair of Common Yellowthroats back at the western pond’s edge. As I approached the observation area at the end, I found a Belted Kingfisher perched upon the wooden railing, having not realized I was creeping up on it yet. Kingfishers are not a bird I sneak up on often, and usually, you hear their cackling well before you even see the birds. This one did follow suit by flying off quickly as I raised my lens and tried to focus, somehow giving up my position to the bird. The forest floor around the trail held a lot of standing water, which I scanned for Rails but sadly found none.

A new Virginia state lifer, a White-crowned Sparrow! This bird was seen briefly on Saturday morning just behind the visitor contact station at Back Bay NWR!

Walking back eastward towards the parking area, I ran right into Ron Furnish & Marie Mullins who had just arrived, and parked in the other lot to the northeast. They had said they’d seen a Black-throated Blue Warbler, and a Northern Parula already, and I mentioned how quiet the trail was. We went in opposite directions, with Marie making the comment that Ron’s phone was still at home, so I couldn’t phone in any rare sightings. Of course, having said that, I’d need to do just that in a few minutes. Walking around the base of the Bay Trail, and heading northwest on the concrete sidewalk behind the visitor contact station, I scanned the now-leafless trees in the thicket where I’d seen the Nashville Warbler & Northern Waterthrush a couple weeks ago. Nothing was moving here, but when I reached the gravel trail that leads to the small pond with the ‘dock’ built on it, I saw some birds sitting right on the ground. Focusing on a pair of Northern Cardinals, and then a smaller bird, which I first thought was an early White-throated Sparrow, I quickly realized it was actually a White-crowned Sparrow, a much better bird! This being my 196th species on the year in Virginia Beach, and a Virginia first for me! I didn’t recall it at the time, but I had seen this species prior in California on my first trip to San Diego, so it wasn’t the lifer I initially though it was. For those who’ve been following my #s throughout the year, I was at 194 as last week came to a close, but I realized, thanks to my photographs from September 11th at First Landing State Park, that what I was calling a Peregrine Falcon juvenile, was actually an adult Merlin, so that bird became a new one for the year, since I’d seen several other Peregrines also. I am sure I’ll see more Merlins as the year moves forward, but it was nice to get this one found so I can focus efforts elsewhere, especially now that I only have 4 species to go to achieve my goal of 200 species within the county in one year.

Showing exactly how it got its name, this is an Eastern Cottonmouth, one of Virginia's three venomous snake species, seen at Back Bay NWR on Saturday!

Laughing to myself that I couldn’t text or call Ron, I jogged back around the same way I’d come, hoping not to scare the bird away. Fortunately, they were only a little ways down the Bay Trail, and quickly turned around to come see what I’d found. Of course, when we reached the site of the sparrow, it was nowhere to be found, and watching intently over the next 10-15 minutes, it never made a reappearance. Fortunately, I had taken a few photographs initially before jogging to find them, so I at least had some proof, though I do wish I’d had the chance to get some better quality shots, but they were certainly ID-worthy. I did find out later that the bird was spotted independently by others around 10:30 in the parking area, so it must not have been too far away from us. From there though, we all walked together around the parking area, and the Kuralt Trail, seeing a Semipalmated Plover right up in the parking area on the way. Marsh Rabbit abounded along the grassy fields of the parking lots, probably because their primary habitats had been flooded out by the rainfall of the last couple weeks. En route towards the small pond, we spotted an American Bittern, my first of the season, standing off in the cattails to the north, and it eventually flew right over top of us. We also got a Pied-billed Grebe in the rocky protected area of the bay, and a Spotted Sandpiper walking along the shoreline armoring next to the pier. On the small pond, we got some nice views of an Eastern Cottonmouth that was basking on the water’s surface just off the small dock. Birds were pretty quiet though around this area, so we didn’t stay too long, opting to head down the East Dike to see if any waterfowl might have shown up, now that the water is high everywhere once again. In fact, the E Pool near the parking area, was full of water to the point where small shrubs were flooded. Just a couple weeks back, even the shorebirds weren’t using this area because the water had gotten so low and most of the mudflats had dried up completely. What a change the persistent rains have made. Walking the eastern side of the Loop Road, we had a firetruck and other vehicles pass us, not knowing why at the time, though I could see one of the rangers, Erica Locher, out ahead of us so something clearly had happened. We walked the Dune Trail boardwalk to the beach, just to see what it looked like. On the way we got a nice look at a large Praying Mantis that was hanging out on the boardwalk. The section going up over the dunes had been completely re-carved by the high onshore winds throughout the week, and it looked quite different now.

A typical beach scene, but one showing a moment of our very short window of sunlight for the week, where clouds, rain, and wind took over for all but about 4 hours on Saturday morning!

Each time a major storm passes us, I’m always amazed to see the change in the dunes. Sand gets moved around from one place to another, and it’s like being in a place for the very first time, even though I’ve been there hundreds of times before. Black-bellied Plovers, Sanderlings, and gulls (Laughing, Ring-billed, Great Black-backed) were all instantly visible, as were many fisherman, probably hoping the storm had pushed some fish in tight to the shoreline. Walking back over the Dune Trail to the Loop Road again, we found out that there had been a fire started by a downed power line but it had been extinguished. While standing there we also got to meet the refuge manager, who had pulled up in his vehicle with the license plate ‘AVOCETS’, a clear indication of a birding enthusiast no doubt. Walking south we had Northern Mockingbirds, Blue Jays, and Eastern Towhees visible in areas, and some large flocks of Canada Geese to the west over Back Bay heading southward. Big groupings of Double-crested Cormorants were also seen, and to my amazement, we picked up at least 4 Peregrine Falcons that were zooming past on the strong northern winds. One was potentially a Merlin, but I couldn’t verify that for certain. About a mile south on the East Dike, I had just mentioned that I’d seen Bobwhite in the area a few years ago, the only time I’d gotten them at the park, and not 100 feet further down the trail, 5 Northern Bobwhites erupted from the high grasses on the east side of the road! As with the others times I’ve seen these birds, they caught me completely off guard, and were back into the brush before I ever even raised my camera up. A 6th individual also came shooting out, and flew to the west side of the trail. We watched the area thinking we might get an opportunity for a photo, but they never appeared in the open while we stood there. I’m sure the 6th member met up with the other 5 as soon as we continued southward.

One of my most commonly photographed bird species, but one I love to see each and every time, a Great Blue Heron!

It was just a crazy coincidence, perhaps some of the birds were even present in 2012 when I saw the other covey of Bobwhites. Walking south, we had some good views out over the C Pool to the west, though not nearly as good as the views the West Dike could offer, though it is closed now. Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and a single Little Blue Heron were seen, as well as a big group of Yellowlegs. South of the double 90 degree bend, a pair of Black-bellied Plover was observed on the East Dike itself, a strange place to find these birds that typically hang out right on the beach. I pursued them for a better photograph, but they kept moving south ahead of me so eventually I turned around. While heading northward, we spotted at least two more pairs of the plovers, one of which was feeding on two Praying Mantids on the road surface. I wasn’t previously aware that they would feast on such a large insect, but I suppose in bad weather, food is food. No Bobwhites appeared this time in the same area, but we did get nice surprises in a pair of Eastern Kingbirds that are beyond their typical departure date for the season, and also several Baltimore Orioles, also late in the area. When we arrived back to the parking area, I walked the Bay Trail one more time on my own, but no birds at all were sighted, though I got some nice shots of Obscure Birdwing Grasshoppers and a strange looking spider, I’d gladly have taken some warblers over that. I checked the parking area one last time, and Ron & Marie were both there as well still. No new birds were added here though, so we all headed out. Heading to my car, I found a rather large Atlantic Ghost Crab sitting on the sidewalk behind the visitor contact station, a strange place for the sand-living creatures. This weather has surely disrupted the normal behavior of wildlife in the park! Typically after Back Bay, I’d go check some other spots, but it was clouding over again and I was beat after 5-6 miles of walking around throughout the morning, so I headed straight home. It turned out to be good though, since just after I arrived back to Kings Grant, the rainfall started again, and our few hours of sun had disappeared. But, at least I made it out for a good birding trip finally, after going stir crazy all week long.

Black-bellied Plovers were seen right up on the East Dike roadway for the first time ever. This one was even dining on a Praying Mantis, seen below it on the gravel.

On Sunday, I got up again at 6 AM and gave it a shot. Parasitic Jaegers had been reported on Saturday up at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, and a Blackpoll Warbler had been seen at Lake Lawson & Lake Smith Natural Area off Northampton Boulevard, so I figured I could hit both spots and hope to add something to my list. I arrived up at Lake Lawson just before 7 AM, but it was actually too dark to see anything given the sun wasn’t up and it was deeply overcast, though not raining. The winds had really kicked up overnight, with us now getting the onshore winds from Hurricane Joaquin that was skirting past us far out to see, but still affecting the region now with its weather. I quickly drove to the CBBT instead, arriving there about 7:20 AM. It was quite a sight to see with huge, battering waves, hitting the dunes on the south side of the Chesapeake Bay. Even on the first island, the waves were hitting so hard, and high on the rocks that the spray was coming up on the parking lot, some 20 feet above the water’s surface. I watched as best I could with my binoculars, but the best bird I got here was one very stoic, Ruddy Turnstone that refused to let the winds drive him from his rock. With just abysmal conditions for birding, I headed back over to Lake Lawson now that it had brightened up a bit. Walking around the trails of the park offered very few chances to photograph anything. Most birds I saw were high up in the canopy, but with the cloudy skies as a backdrop, no colors were visible on anything. It all just looked dark, and the small birds were too far up to get good IDs based solely on silhouettes and body shapes. I did pull a few Northern Parulas, and a couple American Redstarts out of the lower branches, but those were the only noteworthy birds on the day. I headed back home pretty early from birding given the conditions just weren’t working out.

When birds were tough to find, these Obscure Birdwing Grasshoppers provided plenty of entertainment. They are quite large, about 5" in total length!

In the afternoon though Ruth & I headed out on an ‘extreme weather’ adventure. Though we weren’t really getting any rainfall, and the winds from the passing Hurricane Joaquin were strong, but not to the point where they’d be dangerous, the tidal flooding was the highest level that we have seen across the region over all of 2015. We first headed down to Rudee Inlet to see the 1:30 PM high tide there, and to view how it would affect the Shadowlawn neighborhood. Big Sam’s Restaurant was surrounded by water, which is pretty typical. The levels were just slightly higher than that seen on Friday afternoon in the same area, so we didn’t stay too long. After this, we drove up to 86th Street to check out the beach, of which there was none left, with water rising all the way up to the dunes, and battering 40+ mph winds sending a spray of foam across them. We and many others enjoyed the views of the massive wave build-up onshore, and enjoyed seeing the foam flying around inland. Continuing along Shore Drive through First Landing and up across the Lesner Bridge, it was a sight to see the massive waves even on the bay, and the complete lack of tidal marsh visible out in the Lynnhaven River estuary. Pleasure House Point looked to be completely submerged as well from our passing viewpoint on the bridge. The west side of Shore Drive had the same issues, as we checked out the beach behind Aeries on the Bay and found the waves piling up right to the dune line, cutting into it a bit even. After this, we headed down Shore Drive and Little Creek Bouleavrd, heading into the Riverpoint & West Belvidere neighborhoods on the north side of the Lafayette River. Here, the high tide was at 3:15 PM, and we got to see the highest tidal flooding yet. Waters here were a good 3-4” higher than on Friday’s high tide, probably due to the extreme easterly winds pushing more water into the bay. Driving around Norfolk, we continued to downtown. The waters at Waterside were just above to spill onto the promenade near the Spirt of Norfolk, but fell just short, so it wasn’t as bad as we’ve seen it in the past. In fact, the 6.50 registered at Sewell’s Point’s tide gauge, was still 1.3 feet short of the Nor’easter of 2009 that got me interested in the weather in the first place, so it can get much worse! Hopefully, the rains, wind, and clouds die down in the next week, as migration is hitting its crest, and I’d love to nab a couple more transient species before they all pass through to our south!

Where'd the beach go? 40+ mph winds battered the coastline all day Sunday, pushing a stream of waves & water up onto the beach all the way to the dune line!