Week Ending October 25, 2015

The days continue to get shorter, but despite this, the birding continued to produce good results in Virginia Beach this week, though markedly less than the absurdity of two weeks ago. The weather took a nose dive last weekend, but it rose back into the 70s by mid-week, continuing to be warm through the end of the week. Some late fall migrants, like Palm Warblers, continue to trickle through the area on their southward journeys. Some will try to stay the winter, but most will end up far south of us. Wintering species continue to arrive, and this week saw the first Hermit Thrush (me & my mother at Pleasure House Point on Friday) and Great Cormorant (Ellison Orcutt on Saturday at the first island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel). Waterfowl species are being increasingly reported and this will only continue in the coming weeks as the changeover from small songbirds, to the larger, more durable ducks and geese completes. Nelson’s Sparrows are continuing to be found at Pleasure House Point, just like last year this time, for those interested in pursuing the birds. Bob Ake had some neat birds on one of his Back Bay NWR surveys, noting a White-winged Dove (only one this year here so far), a late Green Heron, late Bobolinks & Prairie Warblers, and even a Winter Wren (which I believe is only the second of the season reported). Marsh Wrens continue to be observed at both Back Bay NWR and at Pleasure House Point Natural Area. Up on the CBBT, another Lincoln’s Sparrow, though possibly the same one that was there a few weeks ago, was sighted by Ellison Orcutt. American Bitterns have been reported at both Back Bay NWR and Pleasure House Point, and a Tricolored Heron was even reported from Back Bay NWR, though it seems very late to still be seeing them & I haven’t seen a documented photo of the bird. Jim Marcum spotted a Nashville Warbler at Princess Anne WMA’s Whitehurst Tract, making it one of only 4 or 5 such sightings this fall season in Virginia Beach. The Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory’s (CVWO) seawatch program at Rudee Inlet continues to turn up both waterfowl and shorebirds. Tracy Tate performs this survey at 1 hour intervals from 7-10 AM on Thursdays. Last year, Frank Fogarty ran this seawatch and I believe Tracy assisted throughout the season. Scoters (Black & Surf), and Loons (Common & Red-throated) were all observed in low numbers. Gulls and Terns also continue in good numbers, with Bonaparte’s Gull being logged as well. Those should rise in number in the coming weeks, while the Laughing Gulls should drop back to zero as they disappear from the region for the winter months.

One of three Marsh Wrens that my mother & I got to view at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge!

As for my own outings around the area this week, I first got out on Wednesday evening after work, when I headed up to Pleasure House Point Natural Area. With a fairly low tide level, I was excited to see what the sandbars and mudflats might be holding. As is customary on my evening outings at the park, I started on Marlin Bay Drive, walking the shoreline trail eastwards so the setting sun was at my back. This time of year, the angle of light in the mornings and evenings makes for very tough wildlife photography though. On the eastward journey, I spotted four Northern Shovelers out on the creek, the first wintering waterfowl I’ve seen so far this season at the park! Also, I found one Nelson’s Sparrow near the drain outlet that I’ve been seeing them near, but I wasn’t able to pull off a photograph, and sadly couldn’t get the bird to come back up into view. A very quiet walk, almost nothing was in motion though I found Swamp Sparrows and a few Yellow-rumped Warblers inland of the creek. On the main point, just east of the new pier, I heard a Marsh Wren then sighted it bumbling along the ground. It didn’t behave quite as hyperactive as the ones I’ve seen at Back Bay, but I’m hoping perhaps it was just a hatch year bird and this might be why. I’d hate to think it might have been injured. It did hop out of sight eventually, so hopefully it was alright, but I grabbed some close shots while it was in view just a few feet away to document the observation, this being my first Marsh Wren at the park. Plenty of gulls, terns, cormorants and even pelicans were seen out on the sandbars, with Black Skimmers mixed in for good measure. The pond at Dinwiddie Drive still has yet to have any waterfowl on it, and I’m anxiously awaiting the return of the Gadwalls that will winter here in good numbers, providing plenty of photo opportunities soon enough. On my walk westward, I spooked another Marsh Wren near the deer carcass pond’s marshy edges, but that was essentially it, and I headed home as the sun went down, now around 6:15 PM sadly.

One of many, many Yellow-rumped Warblers seen at Back Bay!

On Thursday morning, my mother flew into town for a visit (she lives southeast of Chicago), and because of this I had taken a vacation day from work for Friday. With the day off, I took her down to Back Bay to see the sunrise over the ocean, something that is a bit tough to do in the Midwest. We arrived at the park around 7:25 AM after getting several nice looks at the sun coming up through the dunes between the Little Island Park pier lot and the entry to Back Bay. When we arrived at the parking area, I grabbed “my” spot next to the base of the Bay Trail, and we set off down it. With the sharp drop in temperatures last week, it seems all the biting bugs have really dissipated. I haven’t even been wearing bug spray these past few outings, and haven’t gotten any bites, or any ticks either; a wonderful time to be outdoors. Walking the trail westward, we had tons of Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting through the shrubbery next to the trail, and they made for a tough morning of trying to separate any other species out. Before we could reach the connector boardwalk to the Bayside Trail, my mom spotted a pair of White-tailed Deer that moved out onto the trail a hundred or so feet further west. We watched them for a few minutes, moving up to the first ‘bridge’ to get a better view. She loves seeing deer, and though I’ve seen hundreds, if not thousands of them in my lifetime, I still relish every single sighting. When we lived in Ely, Minnesota when I was just a youngster, we used to have them in the yard all winter long. So perhaps every time I see them, it helps to remind me of my youth. While we stood watching the pair, I heard some Marsh Wrens making a raucous nearby, so we moved over to try and spot them. In the same spot that Steve Coari & I had seen them the previous week, we got good views of at least 3 different wrens as they hopped around through the thick reeds and cattails adjacent to the connector boardwalk.

A very vocal Gray Catbird seen along the entry road at Back Bay!

Having just added these to my Virginia life list last week, I was very excited to get to see them again so soon, they’re quickly becoming a favorite of mine since they just seem to have so much personality in their movements and sounds. Nearby, we also saw some Common Yellowthroats, and a few Swamp Sparrows moving through the reeds as well. Song Sparrows were found in increasing numbers too, many of which were seen feeding on the trail edges. Red-winged Blackbirds in drab plumage were moving through the reeds also, making for nice viewing and a good backdrop for photographs. Surprisingly, the remainder of the Bay Trail westward proved to be very quiet. No herons, kingfishers, or waterfowl could be found. Soon enough though, the large expanses of the bay should be covered in ducks and geese. We walked back to the parking area, then headed behind the visitor contact station, picking up a single House Wren in the process. I always say this is one of those species that I have a tough time finding, since most people who observe them do so on backyard feeders, of which I have none. We didn’t find any Eastern Phoebes this time, which put an end to my streak of at least 3 outings in a row yielding these tail-bobbers. From this area we walked west on the connector trail behind the small pond. Here we spotted a Merlin up in the largest tree behind the visitor center, but it didn’t allow me to get into a better spot with the sunlight for a photograph before it flew off. I was able to get “ID worthy” photographs, to verify the species, but nothing to write home about. Heading back again toward the visitor center we checked out the Bayside Trail, keeping the sun behind us on the first pass, then walked along the bay towards the Kuralt Trail.

First of season Hermit Thrush observed at Pleasure House Point!

Just after passing the pier, an American Bittern flew by over the bay a couple hundred feet out. We watched it descend slowly, and it appeared to have landed in the bay that the Kuralt Trail overlooks, so we quietly walked the trail in the hopes of getting a better view of the bird. Perhaps it was just hidden, but we could not find the bird when we arrived at the northern trail end. Several Raccoons had laid out trails of footprints on the morning dew of the trail, so at least that was amusing to see, and my mom spotted deer tracks heading south as well. The area around parking lot for the kayak launch proved to be quiet this outing, with only the Marsh Rabbit being present, and a couple Northern Cardinals. Definitely no Worm-eating Warblers or Larks Sparrows like I was treated too back in September one Saturday morning. Over near the kayak launch, we ran into Jim Marcum who had just arrived to the park. I mentioned the Marsh Wrens and pointed him in their direction since he said they were a bird he was still looking for this year, and from his later eBird report, he was able to re-locate them. We opted not to head down to the beach this time and instead headed out of the park, finding some Gray Catbirds, Brown Thrasher, and Northern Mockingbirds along the entry road’s shrubbery. The ditches were all at max capacity, so no shorebirds were lingering here, and no rails could be seen either. A few Tree Swallows were seen as we exited the park, but no massive blobs of them were around, which is a bit atypical this time of year, though perhaps they were present further out in the marsh and I just missed them with my binocular scans.

A striking adult Blue Jay sits high up in the bare trees at Pleasure House Point!

After leaving Sandbridge, I took my mom on a driving tour of southern Virginia Beach. We went down New Bridge, Charity Neck, Morris Neck, and Princess Anne Roads before arriving at Pungo Ferry Road. We spotted a couple of Northern Harriers cruising low above the farmfields on Morris Neck Road, and it was good to see many of the fields have now been harvested and can make for better viewing of wildlife. We drove across the Pungo Ferry Bridge, and took in the expansive views to the north and south, one of my favorite views in all of Virginia Beach in fact. At Blackwater Road we went south, past Milldam Creek’s boardwalk, and then down West Gibbs Road towards North Carolina, though turning onto Crag’s Causeway before reaching the state line. On Crag’s Causeway, we spotted several large gatherings of starlings/grackles/blackbirds, and we also found a Red-tailed Hawk in the area I’d seen the Wild Turkeys a few weeks back. Crossing over the tributary of Milldam Creek that goes under Crag’s Causeway we had thousands of murmids fly over us. We stopped on the bridge and put the windows down; the sound was almost deafening as the whole flock moved upstream over the course of a minute or more. I scanned the flock as best I could hoping to spot a Yellow-headed Blackbird, but every bird I saw was a Common Grackle. Thinking we might be able to catch them further upstream on a farmfield where I could better scan them with binoculars, we turned west onto Indian Creek Road, but before we could go far, I spotted a hawk clearing the tree line. I stopped immediately and got the binoculars on it from the driver’s seat, and the red streaking on the under body showed immediately that it was a Red-shouldered Hawk! I have spent the last 9.75 months looking for one of these magnificent raptors in Virginia Beach, always being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But this time, there it was, a new county lifer for me, #201 for my yearly county list, and a great bird all around to get to see with my mom. She reads my blog every week, so I know she knew just how excited I was to finally get eyes on one, and I did manage a couple poor quality photographs through the trees, again from the driver’s seat of my car. The photos clearly show the tail patterning and coloring across the body that make it an adult Red-shouldered as opposed to any other species of buteo. Like with the murmid flock, I thought perhaps if I continued driving, that we might be able to re-locate the bird on the other side of the forested area, but in both cases we couldn’t find either species again. So, we headed up north past the pond on Blackwater Road near Fentress, noting that no Anhinga could be seen from the road, then crossed over the North Landing River, drove down Indian River Road to Independence, and shot up to Shore Drive to visit Pleasure House Point.

The majestic Black Bear we saw in Shenandoah National Park on Saturday morning!

Arriving there about 11 AM, we parked near Loch Haven Park on Dinwiddie Drive and went towards the sandbars. Fortunately this time there was no injured Herring Gull anywhere to be found, so I was spared that sadness this time. The flats were coated in gulls and terns, with American Oystercatchers and Black Skimmers being present in the groups, and Laughing Gulls numbering in the hundreds. A single Osprey and Great Blue Heron were also out there, two birds not seen in that spot very often, though common around the rest of the park. A student field trip must have been planned, as lots of kids were out near the beach on the main point making quite the noise. Also further west, a second group was out in the marshes walking around, not sure what they were doing exactly, other than irritating the resident wildlife at least. With all the commotion, I didn’t see any Nelson’s Sparrows, and they were likely hiding down low in the reeds near the low tide line. It is always easiest to spot these birds during high tide when their available hiding places decrease drastically. Walking west across the park, we didn’t note any Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, so I believe the cold snap of last weekend may have been the final straw for them. They haven’t been reported at the park since 18 Oct, a bit earlier departure than last year’s 30 Oct date. We’ll see if anyone else reports them moving forward though. On the smaller of the two main ponds, a single Sea Nettle jellyfish was found, and I feel like this has to be quite late for this species to be seen. It must have been pushed into the pond during a high tide event, and just hasn’t been able to get back out to the creek since. On the larger pond, one American Black Duck was seen swimming around the northern water’s, this being the first waterfowl I’ve seen using the pond for the fall. Soon enough though, Hooded Mergansers and Buffleheads should become common here. Some of the vegetation at the park has now started to change color, and I did get some nice shots of the yellow/orange/reds mixing with the greens. Walking back east along the western edge of the main pond we spooked a pair of thrushes from the ground, and they turned out to be Hermits, though I was hoping for Gray-cheeked or Swainson’s to add to my yearly list. I was excited though to find these as they were first of season (FOS) birds for me, and the county in general according to eBird. The remainder of the eastward walk was pretty quiet, though I got a nice shot of a Blue Jay. We walked the new bike path, or Marlin Bay ‘extended’ as it is known, back to Loch Haven Park. From Pleasure House Point, we went over to Taste Unlimited for lunch, which has become my mom’s favorite stop on her visits to the area. Amazingly, it was warm enough to still be sitting outside to eat, even at the end of October. It can be hard to beat the weather here when it cooperates!

Fall foliage was quite breathtaking at Twenty Minute Cliff in Nelson County!

The remainder of the afternoon was spent packing up for the weekend, and then in the evening we picked up Ruth from downtown Norfolk and headed straight out to Staunton, Virginia! The primary purpose for going out to Staunton was to give us a staging point to be able to drive the Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway, depending on which direction afforded the best of the fall foliage in the mountains. Every year I try to get out at least one weekend to the higher elevations in Virginia & North Carolina, though I wish I had the time to go every week; it never disappoints. Before sunrise, we had all made it to the car and were up at Afton Mountain. I figured that it would make sense to head up into Shenandoah, and if it wasn’t good in terms of the colors there, we could always go south on the Blue Ridge Parkway. At the gatehouse, the park ranger told us the southern part of the park was the best, and that Wednesday was the peak in the middle of the park. The central portion is where Big Meadows and Stony Man Peak area, and that was the prime area I wanted to reach, but as we drove north it seemed the colors died down quickly, so we didn’t get but halfway to those areas before turning around. Yellows were the most vivid, with some areas of orange and red, but the further north, and higher elevation you went, the more trees were completely empty of leaves. We did at least get to see two sets of White-tailed Deer on the roadsides, three in one group and two additional thereafter. The sun wasn’t up quite high enough to give me good lighting for a photo, though we got great looks from the car as we slowly passed by them.

Water is still flowing quite well over Crabtree Falls near Montebello, VA!

Driving back south towards the gatehouse we drive past a pair of people standing on the shoulder. Ruth & I both realized quickly that they were staring at a Black Bear! We quickly pulled off the road and hopped out, hoping to get a good look at it. All three of us spotted it before it moved out of view along the ridge. We walked a nearby trail, hoping to cut it off, but couldn’t see it. On our way back to the car though I tried one more time to walk out into the woods, this time, spotting the bear, not too far off. I waved Ruth over, and my mom came up a couple minutes later. The Black Bear, a rather large one, was laying down near a tree and appeared to be either licking up ants, or hunting for grubs in the bark. We watched it for at least 15 minutes, and I took many photos through the thick vegetation of the hillside before it wandered off slowly downhill and out of view. I have seen a few bears in the wild before, all in Minnesota, so seeing one here in Virginia was a first for me, though they are not uncommon in the mountains, or even the Dismal Swamp for that matter. It was still an incredible thing to witness though, and I’m really glad that my mom & Ruth were there to see this one with me. It always makes it more exciting when someone that’s never been around them gets to be there, this being the first one in the wild Ruth has encountered (aside from our highway viewing of a yearling in Wisconsin this summer). So with the bear sighting behind us, I couldn’t imagine what could ever top that, though I was still intently watching the roadsides for Wild Turkeys and Ruffed Grouse, the latter being a species I’ve never seen in Virginia, though I did find one a couple years ago on the Blue Ridge further south in North Carolina. Exiting the park and continuing southward towards Montebello, we were treated to much better colors since we were both further south, and in lower elevation forests, that hit peak color a bit later than those in Shenandoah. Twenty Minute Cliff was beautiful as always, and the Humpback Rocks area was also very colorful. We stopped for lunch in Montebello at the trading post, enjoying what may have been the most flavorful barbecue that I’ve ever eaten.

This particular tree stood out to me as the most vibrant orange foliage along the Blue Ridge!

We watched families fishing in the trout pond across the street, and then continued down along the Crabtree Falls Highway eastward. I wanted to stop in at the trout hatchery nearby to show my mom, but upon doing so, it appeared the area was now off limits to the public so we had to skip this. We stopped next at Crabtree Falls, thinking we could at least see the lower falls area. Parking was a mess, as this is the most popular place to hike in the mountains. My mom & I hopped out and were going to see the falls while Ruth waited in the car since no spots were available, but moments after we jumped out, a space opened up right at the top of the lot and Ruth grabbed it quickly. Because of this, we were all able to get out for the walk. The hike up the mountainside is 1.7 miles to the top of the falls, but the cascade continues along the entire route and my mom made it about to the 0.7 mile mark up, where the creeks starts the lower falls area. Ruth & I hiked up to the very top, along with what seemed like a thousand other people. The forest was beautiful in this area, with lots of yellows, and one particular tree that held the most vivid orange I’d seen all day. Upon return to the car, we drove the rest of the way to Roseland, grabbing a couple pumpkins from a farm that looked back on the mountains. Driving north through the Rockfish Valley we also grabbed some apples from a roadside farm, then drove in to Charlottesville to see the downtown mall area, and one of the projects (McIntire Road interchange) that I had worked on the design of at my job. On our way back towards Staunton, I swung by the cold-water, Loth Springs in Waynesboro where the Purple Gallinule was found in the early summer of 2014 just to show Ruth & my mom what the springs look like. Some sparrows were seen, but the birds were not the focus for the day, and I actually didn’t photograph a single one in the mountains. Arriving back in Staunton around 6 PM, we grabbed dinner at a Chili’s and were all asleep pretty early. Sunday morning we grabbed breakfast downstairs, and amusingly, Lisa Rose walked into the room and said hello. I ran into Lisa the previous week down at Back Bay, a more predictable place to see her since she’s a birder from Virginia Beach, but seeing each other all the way out in Staunton was quite a surprise! After breakfast, we headed back to the beach and relaxed the remainder of the day to close out the week. One new bird made the list this week though, which was more than I expected as we head into the time of year where it is increasingly difficult to find new birds since most of the winter birds were already seen back in January, February and March. Perhaps some rarities will find their way here soon though, as there is a couple species I missed on earlier in the year. 

The lower portion of Crabtree Falls set against the fall foliage of the Blue Ridge!