Week Ending October 18, 2015

While last week will easily go down as the most exciting week of migration in 2015, this week still managed to hold some great birds, though noticeably less volume. As the week progressed, the temperatures dropped considerable, with highs only in the low-to-mid 50s (F) by Sunday. This was the first week where I actually had to put on some cold weather gear for my birding ventures, donning my green fleece long-sleeve shirt that I’ll now wear through the spring-time. So far, I can still get by with my Carhartt baseball cap instead of a knit one but I’m sure that transition will be made pretty soon as well. With the vast majority of warblers having moved through the previous week, I hadn’t expected a whole ton of interesting sightings, but, there was still reports this week of Magnolias, Blackpolls, Palms (many observers), a Hooded Warbler (Bob McAlpine), a Wilson’s Warbler (Lisa Rose), and even a Tennessee Warbler (Stephen Coari) down at Back Bay NWR. Prairie Warblers continue to linger around the park as well, though they are beyond their expected average date of departure by Gold Book standards. Orange-crowned Warblers were being sighted for the first time, as they’re one of our winter species, along with the Yellow-rumped Warblers that have now descended on Virginia Beach in huge masses, making it difficult to pick out the other species since you are forced to cycle through hundreds of points of movement in the trees. A Black-throated Green Warbler and a Gray-cheeked Thrush were also seen at Lake Tecumseh by Timothy Barry, both of which are likely the last ones that will be sighted this season. Many of our winter residents have now begun to show up, with Golden-crowned & Ruby-crowned Kinglets being two of the favorites. In addition, Swamp Sparrows (many sightings at many locations this week), White-throated Sparrows (Jim Marcum at Back Bay) and the Nelson’s Sparrows of Pleasure House Point have returned, and quite a few reports of Brown Creepers, mainly at Back Bay, were noted as well. The Yellow-crowned Night-Herons haven’t yet departed, and were seen through the weekend at Pleasure House Point. Waterfowl species have also started to show up more and more in the past week, with both Blue & Green-winged Teal being reported, as well as Ring-necked Duck, Gadwall, American Wigeon, and even some Red-breasted Mergansers. I haven’t yet seen any winter ducks at Kings Grant Lake, but it shouldn’t be too much longer, especially given the change in the temperatures.

A beautiful October sunset at Back Bay NWR on Tuesday evening!

One thing I wanted to start with my blog this week, was providing an area summary of what birds are being seen, and what the conditions have been like. This blog is of course a personal journal for my own outings, but I want there to be at least something in here that everyone local can relate too. The addition of the summary paragraph above should also provide me with a quick reference as to what went on each week when looking back at older blogs, noting what sightings occurred at similar weeks each year. Having said all that, my own outdoor adventures began on Tuesday evening, when I headed down to Back Bay NWR after my work day had come to a close. I had hoped to find some of the warbler species that were still being sighted but it appeared that most were early morning observations, and the warblers just aren’t as active in the evenings. When I arrived at the park around 4:40 PM, I headed right down the Bay Trail in the hopes of spotting some birds. I found that it was extremely quiet, and that all the birds I was finding were Yellow-rumped Warblers. I bumped into Mary Catherine Miguez, who was photographing a young Cottonmouth just down the trail, and after I’d walked the rest of the Bay Trail, ran into her again back in the parking area. We checked out the area east of the kayak launch but to no avail, aside from a few Field Sparrows. I checked out the Kuralt Trail and the shorter trails around the parking lots, finding a Palm Warbler and an Eastern Phoebe in the process, but those proved to be the highlights of the day as far as wildlife went. The sun is now setting at about 6:30 PM, which is proving too early to really get the most out of my after work trips. For once, the hour or so before sunset isn’t even that good because of the angle of the sunlight tending to wash out most animals even when they can be found. On the plus side though, the sunset at Back Bay was absolutely incredible, and for the rest of the month it should continue to be. Of course, once November starts, daylight savings time will come to a close, and the sunset will be around 5:15 PM, preventing me from getting out for any wildlife walks after work aside from a short jaunt on Friday evenings since I leave work about 3 PM.

Snowy Egrets are showing up more and more at Pleasure House Point NA!

Wednesday evening, I again hit the trails after work, this time opting to try out Pleasure House Point, which is usually a better evening spot this time of year than Back Bay NWR. Pleasure House Point is also a closer drive, and even when most songbirds aren’t active, there is typically plenty to see and photograph given the number & variety of wading birds, shorebirds, and larids (gulls/terns) that are present year-round. With the sun now setting so early, I started at the west end of the park, walking eastward first so as to keep the fading light behind me. My main focus was to find the Nelson’s Sparrows that are now returning to the area, as Jason Strickland had found one last Saturday here. Fortunately, it didn’t take me too long, and before I reached the main point I had found one, species #199 on the year in Virginia Beach! I got a few not-so-good shots of them, but I did find about 5 in total, and the photographs were good enough to glean an accurate identity from at least. Continuing to walk, I’d hoped to come across a Red-shouldered Hawk, or something else unexpected to finally hit that 200th species, and thereby fulfill the goal I have had all year. However, this just wasn’t the night for it, and though I was entertained by huge numbers of gulls, and a massive flying ball of Black Skimmers, I didn’t find anything that was new to my list. Songbirds proved impossible to find, as a pretty strong northerly wind made for tough conditions for any smaller birds. So I walked the park out and back, and then headed home for the evening, at least with the chance to celebrate a new species in the Nelson’s Sparrows! Since Wednesday proved to be a pretty good outing, or one that at least provided a new bird, I tried Pleasure House Point again on Thursday evening after work. The winds continued, as did fairly high water levels. Birds were even tougher to find unfortunately, and my best find of the day was a Savannah Sparrow along the shoreline that I thought for a moment could be a Seaside Sparrow. Yellow-crowned Night-Herons at least provided some nice shots, and I’m glad to see them still around, it shouldn’t be more than a week or so and they’ll be gone for the winter.

An Eastern Gray Squirrel that appears to have bit off more than it can chew! 

Friday evening we had an overcast and rainy night, so I gave up on the hopes of getting out into the woods. But, when Saturday morning arrived, I headed straight down to Back Bay NWR again for a second weekly outing. I arrived a bit later than I had been earlier this month, mainly because the sun is now coming up later as well, though still was on the trail at about 7:25 AM. I parked in what has now become my ‘usual spot’ nearest the base of the Bay Trail, and headed out, finding a few Carolina Chickadees almost instantly. The Chickadees tend to have other birds with them most of the time, but these did not, so I continued west. Movement was occurring all along the trail, but it was about 99% Yellow-rumped Warblers, and by the end of the morning I had to have seen a couple hundred of them. Of course, it is great to see them, but, it makes picking out that 1 bird that is different all the more difficult. At the west end of the trail I picked up a single Sharp-shinned Hawk that had perched on the large dead tree at the south side, where the Robins and Orioles were gathering earlier in the month and in September. Kingishers were heard, but no songbirds outside of the Yellow-rumps were found on the Bay Trail unfortunately. I walked it back towards the car, and then went north towards the Kuralt Trail, finding another Eastern Phoebe behind the visitor contact station. In the parking area, I spotted Lisa Rose & Steve Coari, so I stopped over to say hi and chat for a few minutes before we all went off in different directions. I checked out the foliage line next to the parking area, but to no avail, so decided to give the Bayside Trail a chance. The previous weekend, Ruth & I had spotted something that might have been a wren or a sparrow, but it disappeared too quickly into the thick marsh reeds. So on this trip out, I paid close attention as I neared that point, and to my utter disbelief, I could hear the sounds of a small birding moving around. I watched intently as the bird slowly popped out into the open, clinging to the reeds with both legs, a Marsh Wren!!

My out-of-focus shot of a Marsh Wren, a very important bird to my county Big Year, as you will read about momentarily.

If you’ve followed my blog throughout the year, you’ll know that I saw my very first Marsh Wrens a few months ago at Mackay Island NWR just across the border from Virginia Beach in Currituck County, North Carolina. That time I was with Karen & Tom Beatty, and we heard them calling before we eventually saw them flush. At the time, I recall being almost bummed out that they were south of the Virginia Beach line, as if boundaries really make any real difference when birding. However, my goal was to get 200 species within Virginia Beach this year….and this bird at Back Bay NWR brought that goal to fruition! Marsh Wren, #200! Or so I believe at this point, hopefully none of my earlier records can be debunked, but the nice thing is, I have photographs of 199 species, with only the Northern Bobwhites escaping my camera this year, even though I have seen them on 2 occasions now, and heard them on 3 other outings. So as I am extremely excited to have reached my goal, I’d still like to get a couple more birds, just to ensure that at year’s end when I have some more knowledgeable birders review my numbers, that I stay above the 200 mark. So, with guarded enthusiasm, I say, I did it! I saw my 200th species in Virginia Beach in a single year! Now, I’ll have to see what else I can find before the year’s end. The species remaining that I’m seeing as potentials are Red-shouldered Hawk (it is amazing that I haven’t found one yet!), Winter Wren, Sedge Wren, Saltmarsh & Seaside Sparrows, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Siskin, Purple Finch, Cackling Goose, Mute Swan, Eurasian Wigeon, King Eider, Harlequin Duck, and a few others that get increasingly less likely. Of course, anything can happen in the world of birds though, and that is why it is so exciting. Unlike other animals, birds have wings…they can show up anywhere at any time, though there are certainly times & places where they are expected, versus not expected.

Sightings of butterflies and moths should be coming to a close soon, so this Monarch was a true surprise! It can be easily identified from the similar Viceroys by the weblike, black patterning on the lower body.

After I pulled off a couple of poor photographs of the Marsh Wren, I continued around the boardwalks, where I again ran into Steve Coari. I told him about my sighting and I’m sure he could tell just how excited I was. While we were chatting, the same small bird sound appeared, and to my utter astonishment, another Marsh Wren came out into the open, just feet away from us. We both froze and then tried to photograph it, for the next 20 minutes as it weaved its way through the thick cattails and grasses of the marsh. Eventually I did get some nicer shots of this bird than the first one, but still out of focus. Even out of focus though, their markings are distinctive among wrens. What was most awesome about this second encounter, was being able to hear their little chatter (or rattle) calls as they moved about, hidden from view. Since this is a species I’ve never spent time with, the chance to really observe and hear them made for a fantastic opportunity! Additionally, I instantly felt the pressure of “having” to reach 200 species lifted off me, and I think not being a slave to the number anymore might also have enhanced the remainder of the outing. I’m not sure if Steve managed to get any shots of the Marsh Wrens, but after returning home, he posted a photograph of an Orange-crowned Warbler…which upon further investigation by Frank Fogarty turned out to actually be a Tennessee Warbler! A fantastic find for our region, and one that I’ve never seen before. So it seemed even with all the Yellow-rumps moving around, he was able to find the 1 bird that was different, and I surely was excited to see it. That meant that perhaps the fall migration is 100% done yet, and maybe there is a couple more surprises out there waiting to be seen before the window closes for good. Throughout the rest of my time at Back Bay, I checked out the beach, seeing some Sanderlings, a few gulls and terns, and Brown Pelicans, and then returned to the visitor center area where I found a Swamp Sparrow, Eastern Phoebe, and more Yellow-rumps. I headed off from the park around 9:30 AM, since I had to meet some folks in Norfolk at 11:30 AM at the Fall Wine Festival and to see Ruth since she was going to be working it all weekend, and had actually left before I did in the morning to start.

Somehow I snuck up on this Northern Flicker, and got arguably my best photographs of one ever!

Sunday, I followed up the successful Back Bay outing by heading up to Pleasure House Point for the 3rd time on the week. I was hoping for a Saltmarsh or Seaside Sparrow, and still that Red-shouldered Hawk that has evaded me thus far. Since I was up there in the morning hours, I parked off Dinwiddie Drive, walking the park east to west in order to keep the sunlight behind me on the first trip across the park. Why do I do this? Well, I feel that my first trip across the park is the one where my eyes pick up the most wildlife, and I want the conditions to be perfect for it so I don’t scare anything off with the favorable sunlight. Keeping the sunlight behind me is important also because it allows me to see clearly ahead, and it prevents forward birds from seeing me very well. So a double-edged sword, if you will. As I got out of the car, gulls had exploded into the air by the hundreds. I looked around quickly and spotted the culprit, a juvenile Bald Eagle that had flown across the sky, frightening all the other birds into the air. Black Skimmers were among the gulls, in numbers probably close to 100 or more. I walked around the main point of the park, and snuck up on a pair of birders who were intently watching marsh sparrows through their binoculars: Karen & Tom Beatty. It seemed that the Nelson’s Sparrows I had seen on Wednesday were again present, but in even better number this time, with at least 5 being seen at this single location, possibly as many as 7. I chatted with Karen & Tom for a while, and we walked together westward for a little bit, hearing & seeing a Killdeer in the process, and 3 other shorebirds in flight that were unidentifiable. Additionally, we caught a Northern Mockingbird in a nearby shrub across a ditch, and saw some Ospreys overhead.

I am unsure of the species seen here, but, it is nice to see some flowers blooming in Virginia Beach, knowing full well that the winter is now coming soon!

When I’d moved ahead of the birding pair, I cut inland and spotted a Cooper’s Hawk working a grassy meadow off the main trail. Continuing west, I passed the ‘deer carcass pond’ and spotted some movement in the nearby shrubbery that sat right up against the saltmarsh. After intently watching for a few minutes, a small wren came darting out of the thick foliage, but paused only long enough for me to catch some rudimentary details. I thought at the time that it was perhaps a Winter Wren, or a Sedge Wren, but after arriving home and going through field guides, I think it is more likely that it was a House Wren. Though, from a split second viewing, it is impossible to say for certain. Either of the first two species would be a new year bird for me, and so of course my mind would try to rationalize those sightings over the House Wren that I’ve already seen. This is a big reason why I like to photograph everything I see, so that it isn’t left up to personal impression, and I have a proven set of documentation when it comes to the species I encounter. The ears and eyes can play tricks, but a firm photographs, does not. Of course, photographs aren’t always possible, and poor shots can be as tricky to ID as a poor look, so this method is only truly verifiable with high quality shots. The remainder of the westward hike, I’d hoped to spot some flocks of waterfowl, but never came upon any. While still walking with Karen & Tom, we had run into a birder that had seen a flock of Green-winged Teal passing by, which got me excited for the idea, but it never panned out. He had also seen both Ruby & Golden-crowned Kinglets, neither of which I was able to see on the outing. Looking back at eBird reports I believe this fellow was the one who doesn’t use his full name on eBird, but instead goes under the simplified name of “Swiader” only. Heading west to east, I passed Karen & Tom again, on a couple occasions, noting that the Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were still around, which was a bird Karen wanted to see so she could add to her monthly list. In addition to the Yellow-crowns, they spotted a single juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron that I believe I missed altogether on the second largest pond. This species tends to show up more in winter here as the Yellow-crowns are moving southward, and I’ve seen a few over the past couple of weeks, so not a terrible miss.

One of several Eastern Phoebes seen on the week, posing nicely for me at Pleasure House Point on Sunday morning!

After passing the Beattys and walking through the pine forest around the ‘deer carcass pond’ one last time, I found a very polite Eastern Phoebe that allowed me to take a number of shots of it as it worked around the edges of the ‘pond’. I’m not certain, but it seems that more Phoebes are present right now than are typical, and I’m thinking it is because they’ve departed the areas further north where they also nest, and the combination of migrating birds passing through, and those who stay here for winter has magnified their population in Virginia Beach. Of the 50 or so photographs I snapped of this bird, I did get a couple I liked, and they reminded me a bit of the pair that was nesting last year on the house I grew up in, in northern Minnesota. They were a lot of fun to watch as they’d bring food back to their young, and also watch from perches on branches around the house, constantly flicking their tails up and down. With a satisfactory amount of Phoebe photographs, I continued east, and my next bird of interest was a pair of Nelson’s Sparrows that I found near the outfalling culvert near the 90 degree trail bend. This was actually the same spot as I first found them earlier in the week, and I grabbed a lot of photographs as they slowly worked through the marsh reeds. Anyone who has photographed these ‘sharp-tailed’ sparrows knows how frustrating it can be, since they like to hide most of the time, popping up just briefly as they see fit. I am still not certain that the birds are all Nelson’s, but I haven’t gotten a photograph that undeniably shows a Saltmarsh Sparrow. The two species are incredibly similar, and even my different field guides can’t agree on all the ways to differentiate them, so for now, I’m calling them all Nelson’s. Hopefully though, I can pick out a Saltmarsh in the future, and be able to add another species to the ones I can ID properly. The remainder of the hike, I spotted the same birds I’d seen on the way out westward, gulls, terns, and a big grouping of Black Skimmers. Associating with the perched skimmers were a grouping of 8 American Oystercatchers, always a nice sight, though so far out that binoculars were much more useful than the camera. On the way home from the park, I made a quick stop at Kings Grant Lakes to see if any interesting birds could be found. The top bird was a Pied-billed Grebe, the first one I’ve seen on the lakes this season, though it was pretty quiet otherwise. With the weather changing for the colder, it seems Fall migration has pretty much come to a halt, but I’ll get to embrace seeing the wintering birds more and more as they arrive. Hopefully next week the waterfowl will make their main arrival into the area, and perhaps I’ll get to add something new to the list, to truly solidify my number of 200! Also worth noting, since the sun is setting so early now, I will likely only have Friday evening, and Saturday/Sunday outings from now until March. This should make my blogs considerably shorter, but should also allow me more time to build up the other areas of my site, so keep checking around for updates, especially to the Guide!

One of the many 'sharp-tailed' sparrows seen at Pleasure House Point this week. I believe this is a Nelson's Sparrow, but a Saltmarsh Sparrow is not yet out of the question. These birds are TOUGH to tell apart!