Week Ending October 11, 2015

With the worst of the effects from offshore Hurricane Joaquin hitting our area on Sunday, this week got started off in a more positive direction. Monday, though still dreary outside, proved to be a good start to the week when several Parasitic Jaegers were reported up on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. They would turn out to be the only seabirds that were seen due to the storm’s movement past us, but as Monday continued on things drastically changed. Ned Brinkley posted on Monday night of massive amounts of migrating birds being sighted on the Eastern Shore outside of Cape Charles, and it appeared that the 10-day stand still was now at an end. With the weather having lifted, and favorable northerly winds pushing south, the birds were all in motion. On Tuesday morning. Ron Furnish & Marie Mullins counted hundreds of warblers moving through Kings Grant Lake Park between 8 & 8:30 AM. Among the flock were some rare transients like Blue-winged Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, and even an amazing Wilson’s Warbler! From that point on through the remainder of the work week, the floodgates were open and rare & unusual species were being found all across the region, seemingly a new rarity being found every hour. I should have taken a week of vacation, and might well have to do it next year come the first week of October, as I spent most of my time seeing the reports flying in, but unable to go act on any of the sightings. Magnolia Warblers, Cape May Warblers, Chestnut-side Warblers, Swainson’s Thrush, Connecticut Warbler, Nashville Warblers… you name it, someone saw it this week during the 7 AM – 4 PM hours I spend at my office. There was so much activity, it was almost impossible to keep track of what birds were being seen where, and by whom? So, I set up a little table on my website to try to help people prioritize what species were important at the current moment. That listing can be found under the Distribution tab above, by clicking the Noteworthy Observations section. Pending some rare weather pattern randomly occurring during the rest of the year, this week will go down as the best in birding for 2015, no doubt about it.

The first male Black-throated Blue Warbler I've ever seen, such a beautiful sight!

Of course, I missed out on Monday, but I came ready to work on Tuesday at least, armed with binoculars and camera. After receiving texts from Ron throughout the day, I did hit Kings Grant Lake on my lunch break for about 40 minutes, though just seeing American Redstarts and Northern Parulas, as the massive blob of migrants had already passed through in the earlier hours of the day. When 4 PM hit, I headed out for the evening to Lake Lawson & Lake Smith Natural Area off Northampton Boulevard in northern Virginia Beach. When I arrived at the park about 4:20 PM, I headed directly towards the causeway that is built up between the two lakes, which are connected by surface elevation, so it really is more like one lake, but anyway. The causeway seemed a likely spot when I was out on Saturday morning here, so I figured it was worth a try. Just before I hit the causeway, I had two grayish looking birds flit across the trail, one of them stopping briefly in a short tree. Its black and dark blue plumage was unmistakable, a clear male Black-throated Blue Warbler, not the first of its species that I’ve logged, but the first time I’ve seen a male! I furiously snapped photographs, and got one that came out really nicely, which will no doubt be included in this blog post come Monday evening. Heading from that spot to the causeway, birds picked up, with many moving through the tree tops along the narrow strip of land that acts as a natural funnel. At the south end, I stopped, and turned around, setting up my spot to watch from. Throughout the next 40 minutes or so, tons of birds moved through, and I could easily spot the Carolina Chickadees, and Yellow-rumped Warblers among them. When the Yellow-rumps show up, they tend to take over, moving in huge numbers, and staying here through winter.

Black-and-White Warblers have been pushing through in good numbers, but they are still a challenge to photograph!

These were the first-of-season Yellow-rumps, as no one has sighted them prior to Tuesday, since they left the area back at the end of spring. Northern Parulas, American Redstarts, and more Black-throated Blue Warblers all moved through, as well as several beautiful Black-and-White Warlbers! I even had a few high up that I wasn’t sure on the IDs until I got home and could piece together different characteristics from different angles at long distance. One that came out of all the post-outing effort was a Blackpoll Warbler, #197 on the year here in Virginia Beach, and a new county lifer at that, being #209 on that list as it currently stands. Obviously, this was the bird I was most excited to see in terms of my county big year, but the Black-throated Blues were the fan favorite, they’re just incredibly beautiful. While standing in the same area, I did also grab my first of fall Black-throated Green Warbler, though I had seen a more colorful one in the springtime (the only spring sighting in Virginia Beach). A couple other nice surprises were seeing first-of-fall Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (a woodpecker species that winters here), and also first-of-fall Golden-crowned Kinglet! Clearly, all the birds were in motion with the weather having cleared, and it wasn’t limited solely to songbirds, with the Sapsucker being of great surprise. Other birds to round out the outing were Belted Kingfisher, Chimney Swifts (getting late for them), and even a White-eyed Vireo. The variety was just incredible to see in such a short period of time. Given that I spend the vast majority of the sunlit hours in my office, one never knows what to expect during the hour or two I can spend outdoors, but it did not disappoint. Of course, I didn’t get the massive blob of migrants like those in the morning hours had, but this was still pretty darn awesome! I imagine just in reading this, you can tell how excited I was. After leaving the park, I swung by Kings Grant Lake Park again on the way home, this time getting a couple more American Redstarts, but also adding one more male Black-throated Blue Warbler to the day’s tally before heading home for some supper!

Northern Parulas have also been seen in good numbers throughout the week, though we are at the tail end of their migration southward!

On Wednesday, the adrenaline rush of the previous stay was still flowing full force through me, so I again brought all my gear to work. And actually, I was so excited from yesterday morning’s sighting reports, that I stopped along Kings Grant Lake for about a half hour before work, hoping to get a glimpse of some of the birds. The problem now is that the sunrise is after 7 AM, which is typically when I go to work, though we don’t technically start the day until 7:30 AM. So on Wednesday, I was able to find 19 species of birds before still arriving on time at 7:30 to work. Among the species included the American Redstarts and Northern Parulas that seem to be the most plentiful warblers the past few weeks, and I also got a Red-eyed Vireo, a first for me around the lake, though by no means a rare bird here. Since it wasn’t as active throughout the day locally around my office, which I was able to glean from the many emails, texts, and message board posts that the internet has made available nowadays, I didn’t go out on my lunch break. But when 4 PM hit, I was out the door and again headed directly up to Lake Lawson & Lake Smith Natural Area. This time, instead of taking I-264 to I-64, then cruising down Northampton Boulevard, I got off I-264 and rode up Independence Boulevard to Northampton; a route I won’t do again. It is shorter by distance, but the addition of about 10 stoplights, which are always red mind you, made for a long trip. Still though, I got into the park a bit after 4:25 PM, and again headed for the causeway. There was noticeably less birds moving through, though still plenty to see, it’s just that the previous day was crazy. Most notable on this outing were the number of Blackpoll Warblers, I must have seen 10 or more of them, so it was kind of funny to think that the previous day I had to piece one back together by many photos at different angles. This time, I got one really nice side shot of the bird to easily aid in the identification process. To my surprise, I didn’t pick up a single American Redstarts, and Northern Parulas were also harder to come by. In a typical year, they will be gone though in a few days, so perhaps Tuesday’s movement of them was their last hurrah. Heading home, I stopped off at Lynnhaven House Historic Site on Wishart Road, but its small boardwalk didn’t afford views of any birds aside from a pair of Northern Cardinals. After this I headed home and enjoyed a 3-4 mile walk around the neighborhood with Ruth before grabbing some dinner and crashing again.

County year bird #197, the Blackpoll Warbler, seen here at Lake Lawson & Lake Smith Natural Area!

For the third straight workday on the week, I brought my gear in again, checking out a couple spots around Kings Grant Lake on the way in, but not seeing anything interesting or noteworthy. After work, yet again I made the trip up to Lake Lawson & Lake Smith Natural Area, taking the interstates this time out thankfully. A quick trip to the causeway, and right away I knew the birds had quieted down even more since the previous day. All the movement seemed to be from Yellow-rumped Warblers, now present in huge numbers, and Carolina Chickadees. A few Blackpoll Warblers were seen, and after walking the southern loop of the park, I did add a pair of adult male Black-throated Blue Warblers. Both were down in very low light areas though and the photographs leave much to be desired, but, they’re still beautiful birds! Walking around the causeway and trails I had a couple of close misses on birds that could have been good ones. I caught a pair of ducks that looked like Mergansers in flight, but too far out to get on quickly enough with the binoculars, and shortly after I missed a Hawk by a split second as it headed into the trees. This could have been the Red-shouldered Hawk I’ve been searching for all year, or it could have been another Red-tailed Hawk, but, I’ll never know for sure. It seemed to be the story of the week for me though, running around all over as quickly as I could during the short amount of time available to me while the sun was still up, but missing birds all along the way. Some people had probably added 10-15 new species to their yearly lists this week given the extreme variety of migrants that was pushing through the area, but so far, I’d only added 1. Now, I did have some excellent birds in previous weeks that others missed out on, but they seemed to catch up just fine this week. A bit frustrated, I left Lake Lawson, and drove the few minutes east on Shore Drive to Pleasure House Point Natural Area to give it a shot.

My beloved Yellow-crowned Night-Herons will be around for just a couple more weeks, so I'm cherishing each opportunity to photograph them!

At Pleasure House, I parked at the extreme east end of Marlin Bay Drive, thinking it would give me the best shot at reaching the marshy areas of the park the fastest. My goal? There are 3 species of marsh-dwelling sparrows that I have not yet seen in 2015: Seaside Sparrow, Saltmarsh Sparrow, and Nelson’s Sparrow. I found all three last year during Sep/Oct, and finding these birds would get me to my goal of 200 species in Virginia Beach for the year, since I currently sit at 197. Arriving about 5:30 PM to the park, I dashed in towards the shoreline trail. Standing water from this past weekend’s extreme water levels were still very evident across the park, with some areas still holding plenty, and some just being extremely soggy soil. I ran into Kathy Spencer a few minutes into the walk, and she mentioned having seen a sparrow just to the east that she couldn’t get to stay still long enough. I had thought that it was probably a Song Sparrow, since it wasn’t in the marshes, and was more upland. Songs are the most common of the sparrows here, followed probably by Savannah Sparrows which are just starting to return to the area for the winter. Walking along, I actually spotted a sparrow roughly halfway from where Kathy and I bumped into each other and where she had seen one. So I spent a few minutes watching, grabbing some poor photographs in the process, but believing it had to be a Chipping Sparrow due to its markings. I continued on after it moved further back into the thicket, though not finding a whole lot in the area. I did see one Clapper Rail moving along the marsh edge but that was really the highlight from here on eastward. While walking back westward, I again spotted the same sparrow as earlier, and since it had been so quiet elsewhere, I spent about a half hour trying to get some better quality shots of thisbird. The more I watched the bird, the more it didn’t feel right for Chipping Sparrow, and though it wasn’t until I got home to consult my field guides that I realized what I had, I just had a feeling it was something more special. Indeed, it turned out to be a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow, which was a first on eBird for Pleasure House Point! I was not sure if it was of the Gambel’s race, which is a bird accepted for recognition by VARCOM (Virginia Avian Records Committee) or just an eastern race bird, but never got a resolution from anyone, so I assume it must have just been the more common, eastern race, or no one could tell the difference on the juvenile bird.

A juvenile White-crowned Sparrow sighted at Pleasure House Point on Thursday evening, a first for the park!

With Friday being the end of my work week, I again brought all my gear, and monitored the reports throughout the day to see where I might head towards at 3 PM. Since reports were sparse, I decided to just go back up to Pleasure House Point, where I met Ron & Marie at 3:20 PM along Marlin Bay Drive. They were enjoying their final vacation day of the week, though most of the excitement was on Tuesday. We walked into the park hoping to catch a glimpse of the Connecticut Warbler that was reported by both Tracy Tate and Dixie Sommers earlier in the morning and on Thursday afternoon. Also, Ron & Marie hadn’t yet seen any White-crowned Sparrows this year, so they were hoping to find that one as well. Sadly, the wind was really whipping the trees around, moving about 15-20 mph out of the south. This wind kept all the small songbirds at bay, and through the walk, the only warbler species we found was a group of about 20 Yellow-rumped Warblers that had bedded down in a thicket, and only come out in the open after we spooked them. Chickadees were mixed in a few places, but no other songbirds to speak of. Ron & Marie walked just to where I’d seen the White-crowned Sparrow on Thursday evening, but realizing how dead the park was and how futile the effort had become, headed out from there to grab a late lunch/early dinner at Bubba’s across the water. I kept walking in the hopes of spotting something, but it just remained very quiet, a bit of a let down after anxiously awaiting the end of the work week for the past 5 days. It seemed the excitement of fall migration was dieing down quickly after the eruption earlier in the week. To add to my frustration, while stepping over one of the wooden railings near the entrance to the Brock Environmental Center, my right foot got hung up and I slowly tripped forward, skinning about a 6” section of my shin across the wooded corner as I fell, though preventing my camera from hitting the ground hard by instead landing solely on my right hand. On the positive side, I don’t think anyone saw it, though it was probably funny to see since it really was happening in slow motion, I just couldn’t stop the forward fall once my foot got stuck, and luckily the scrape was all the bad that occurred; at least my camera was safe. After dusting off, and yelling a few obscenities at the railing, I kept on walking down the new asphalt path to escape some of the wind along the shoreline trail. I did find a pair of Bald Eagles, one a juvenile, and got some nice photographs there, but the rest of my walk outside that was uneventful. Bald Eagles have superstitiously been good luck for me in the past, so seeing them gave me some hope for the weekend. Amusingly, though not to me at the time, Kathy Spencer posted a nice photograph of a Red-shouldered Hawk seen at the park about the time I was there, the one raptor that has managed to elude me all through 2015 thus far!

The dominant winter warbler in Virginia Beach, the Yellow-rumped, has now arrived back to the area!

On Saturday morning, I was like a kid on Christmas. Waking up at 5:50 AM to get my gear together, and to load up Ruth’s bike into the car, we headed to Back Bay and arrived just as the sun was rising, though unseen by us since it was completely overcast. I had waited all week to get out for some morning birding, when the warblers are usually most active, and the part of the day I just couldn’t get out for all week with my work day starting at 7-7:30. The evenings were OK, but the mornings were when everyone was really getting their best birds. So Saturday was my chance. Or, so I thought. High winds continued from the day before, and Back Bay was at a very elevated level of water because of it. Southerly winds will push the waters of Currituck Sound northward, funneling them into the north end of the bay, which caused the surrounding marshes to fill up as well. On the Bay Trail, several spots had water high enough that it had washed over the trail, making it a bit more interesting trying to walk and bird along. Ruth had headed out on her bike south towards the East Dike, and I did a quick out-and-back on the Bay Trail, finding only a pair of Northern Cardinals in the process. On my back east towards the car, I ran into Marie & Ron again, who had to give up their initial plan of going to Mackay Island NWR for its ‘open roads’ day which was cancelled due to the high water there as well. They hadn’t seen much either, and didn’t stick around too much longer after I’d seen them. In fact, the birds were so quiet, Ron didn’t even submit a checklist of his sightings to eBird, which is something that I don’t think I’ve seen happen before at Back Bay. Ruth had come back up to the parking area after doing doing just two quick loops on the Loop Road, since the wind was just too much an annoyance, and the sky was drizzling a bit. She tossed her bike back into the car and we walked the trails around the visitor center, though seeing not much in the process. We walked down onto the beach, where we ran into Jason Strickland, who I’d done the Kiptopeke Challenge with a few weeks ago, though he had the same things to say about the weather that we were thinking. We headed out from Back Bay disappointed, and went up to Pleasure House Point to try to turn things around.

One of two Bald Eagles sighted on Friday evening, this one a juvenile, are typically signals of good luck for me in the outdoors!

Once up at Pleasure House Point, we parked at the end of Dinwiddie Drive and walked in along the sandy trail. Very sadly, our first sighting was an injured Herring Gull that was laying on the ground, bedded down next to the edge of the marsh grasses coming up from the tidal finger that leads to the boat launch. There was dry blood on the birds left side, and it barely moved, just its head as I approached it to see what had happened. Realizing it was still alive, we called the Virginia Beach SPCA and reported it to a woman named Jennifer who was going to come retrieve it. We walked from there around the main point, but the wind, drizzle, and just miserable weather made it a frustrating endeavor. Also, the high water made it even more tough to get around certain flood prone spots on the trail, so we did half a loop of the park and came back to wait for the SPCA to come get the injured gull. I called again just to let them know that we were standing nearby so they could find us & the bird easier, since Jennifer didn’t sound as if she knew the area very well. The second time I called, I got Karen Roberts who I know from the HRWE group on Facebook. She was about 45 minutes away, and because of this, called Julie & Steve Coari to see if they could come get the bird since they were probably more familiar with the site than the Jennifer I’d spoke too was. Apparently it was a busy morning with the high winds causing many birds to hit obstructions like power lines, injuring themselves in the process. Ruth & I watched the bird from a distance for the next hour or so just to make sure it didn’t wander off into the water where no one could help it. Julie and Steve arrived and walked right up to the bird, which didn’t so much as flinch, even when they used a net to pick it up and place it in a carrying cage; not a good sign sadly. The left wing had been taken off entirely, and given the proximity (about 50-60 yards) to the eastern of the two wind turbines that power the Brock Environmental Center, it seemed a fair assumption that the bird might have gotten knocked into it during the high winds overnight. Ruth & I were extremely saddened to hear that the bird was going to have to be put down due to the extent of the injuries it sustained. We had obviously hoped that calling it in might save the bird’s life, though at least it didn’t have to suffer any longer, I just hate to see any animal in that state. It reminded me of the Opossum that I had called the SPCA about last year, which also sadly had to be put down in the end. Karen was the rehabber that picked that one up and took care of it for the next week or so, it had suffered a broken jaw from a car impact. I sincerely hope it is a long time before I see another injured bird, it is a truly sad & helpless feeling, and I felt all the worse knowing that Ruth had to be there for it. So this week began with such promise and excitement as the fall migrants made their massive push, but quickly faded to a sad time. I did walk the park one more time while Ruth drove over to the other entrance to wait for me, since Jason had also driven up to the park and had found a Nelson’s Sparrow.

Another species that has now returned to Virginia Beach for the coming winter, the Swamp Sparrow, seen here at Kings Grant Lakes!

I didn’t get that bird though as luck just seemed to be against me, and didn’t see much else before heading out. I don’t know if it was the weather, or just being really disappointed, but I fell asleep on the couch after arriving home. When I woke up though, I had just received a text from Ron saying that a Wilson’s Warbler was in his backyard; an incredible occurrence. I threw my shoes on and ran out the door with my camera, driving over to his house a few blocks away as quick as I could. When I got there, we all watched in the backyard for the bird. During the first 20 minutes or so, we caught a Carolina Wren, a Carolina Chickadee, a Flicker, and Blue Jay, but the warbler had not appeared. Amazingly, after about 25 minutes, we caught some movement straight ahead at the line of trees/shrubs delineating the back of the yard, and the bird hopped out onto a branch of a low lying shrub, looked around for about 2 seconds, and then zoomed back off into the darkness! I was very fortunate that even on manual focus, I happened to be pretty well focused on the spot it came out, and got several quick photographs off to at least prove what we saw. That bird makes 198 species in Virginia Beach for the year, and now I’m just 2 birds shy of the goal I have been chasing for the past 9.5 months! Perhaps this was the good luck I had been waiting all week for, as it was also a life bird for me, and one I had never expected to get this year in Virginia Beach. So at least, after the sadness and frustration of the morning’s hikes, this was a remarkable event to be a part of, and I could at least be excited about it, though still a bit heart-broken from the gull incident.

This Great Blue Heron was seen foraging on the tidal creek beneath the outlet of Kings Grant Lake on Sunday evening!

On Sunday, dreary, windy, and just not nice weather kept me indoors in the morning, but when the clouds broke in the afternoon and the sun came out, Ruth & I did a little birding around the neighborhood. We made a quick stop off at Kings Grant Lake Park, though I was amazed to not find a single songbird in the trees there. It seems even the Redstarts and Parulas have now moved south, hard to believe when just last week the park was full of them at all times of day. We drove next to the outlet of the lake, where we actually stayed for at least 40 minutes. Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets were foraging in the tidal creek to the north, and a group of smaller birds was moving through the marsh grasses. I thought perhaps they could be sharp-tailed sparrows or Marsh Wrens, but when I did get some shots of them, they turned out to be Swamp Sparrows. These are a relatively common species here, but in wintertime, and this was the first set so far seen in Virginia Beach since they departed the area in springtime to travel further north to their breeding grounds, so though not new birds for me, they were a welcome sight. While watching the sparrows, Ruth & I were also treated to the appearance of a single Clapper Rail that worked his way through the marshy edges of the creek over about 10 minutes, giving us some great looks as he weaved in and out of the dense vegetation. He also was kind enough to swim across the most upstream portion of the creek, at a range of less than 20 feet from us, something that you don’t see everyday! I was most excited that Ruth was getting to see it for the first time, and she loved watching his movements, especially of his stubby little tail which he kept popping up and down as he slowly worked around the marsh edge looking for food. So despite no new adds on Sunday, I was really excited to be out enjoying the beautiful evening, and getting the chance to still see some neat birds, right in my home neighborhood at that. It was a great end to a very up-and-down week. With migration having really showed up full force this week, I suspect that most of the songbirds have now moved on, and that noteworthy sightings will begin to slow down dramatically moving forward. Though, on the plus side, the waterfowl should be showing up more and more, and that always makes for excitement around here, soon enough, the skies should fill with Snow Geese and Tundra Swans, but that’s still a few weeks away. Also, the leaves should start to change as we get further into fall, which is a lovely time of year!

Normally very secretive, Ruth & I spotted this Clapper Rail working the edge of the tidal creek in our neighborhood!