Surprisingly for the end of October, the weather actually warmed up this week and we were treated to some gorgeous days in the 70s! Even with the rising temperatures, wintering waterfowl continued to trickle into the region. This past week saw the first Long-tailed Duck up at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (Rexanne Bruno, 29 Oct), as well as Virginia Beach’s first Hooded Merganser & Brant (Swiader, 1 Nov) at Pleasure House Point Natural Area. Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were reported again on 27 Oct at Pleasure House Point, however, this report could actually be of a Black-crowned Night-Heron since there are some juveniles of that species still hanging out so until I see a photograph, I can’t confirm that with certainty. Also at Pleasure House Point, a Green Heron was sighted on Friday (Chip Allen & myself), making for quite a late record of this species to still be in the area. In fact, to put into perspective this was the first one I’ve seen in the month of October, right at the end. Nelson’s Sparrows are continuing to be found in that same area as well, and Marsh Wrens have continued to be numerous at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Other winter specialties like American Bittern and Peregrine Falcons were reported as well. After the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory (CVWO) sponsored Seawatch on Thursday, Tracy Tate & Andrew Baldelli picked up a Parasitic Jaeger and a Vesper Sparrow up on the 85th Street beach at the Oceanfront. Some other interesting passerines were found as well, with Blue-headed Vireos showing up at First Landing State Park, and in a Kempsville backyard (Una Davenhill). Brown Creepers are continuing to be seen as well, which can at times be tough to find, but their numbers might still be bolstered by migrants working their way southwards still. The best bird though, was one that I never expected to come across, but was very fortunate to do so. A single Western Kingbird was found along the East Dike at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday morning, but more about this bird in my personal accounts below. With November having now arrived, it is vagrant season here in Virginia Beach, so the next several weeks could be interesting! It’ll just take some time to get used to the sun going down at 5:15 PM now that Daylight Savings Time has come to a close.
As mentioned above, the warm weather was quite welcomed this week, but I still only managed to get out on a Friday & Saturday walk this week unfortunately. With the sun setting so early, my only viable post-work outing can occur on Fridays when I leave at 3 PM. Doing just that this week, I headed up to Pleasure House Point as quick as I could, parking along Marlin Bay Drive and heading into the park. As was reported earlier in the day, I found a pair of American Black Ducks on the largest pond, and later came across two more on the extreme upstream end of Pleasure House Creek. American Black Ducks can be found year-round in Virginia Beach, but it is nice to be seeing them out in the open again since they’re tough to find in summertime during their molt. Ducks actually drop all their flight feathers at the same time, and are left flightless for a month or so in the summer. During that timeframe, they’ll spend most of their time hiding from predators, since they can’t take to the air. This is different than most other species of birds that will typically molt 1 flight feather at a time so they are never grounded. Heading eastward towards the sandbars I had a hard time finding any birds, until I reached the area where the marshy islands sit just offshore. Here, I spotted an American Bittern as it rose up from the grasses, and flew eastwards before diving back down into another island. These beautiful birds are very tough to find here, and are only found in the wintertime. They are masters of camouflage, and unless they’re moving, they can easily go unnoticed. The sandbars held a good plenty of Laughing Gulls again, numbering in the hundreds. Herring, Lesser & Great Black-backed Gulls were also present, and I’d imagine some Ring-billed were there as well, though I couldn’t pick any out at the distance. Black Skimmers were mixed in, as were Royal Terns.
It seems the Speckled Trout must be running up the Lynnhaven River right now, as the last couple of times I’ve been to the park, there have been quite a number of fisherman wading out in the shallow tidal waters. I’ve yet to see anyone catch anything, but it seems to me that it is usually in mid-November when Ruth & I have seen the fisherman hauling in tons of the trout down at Oregon Inlet in the Outer Banks. Having grown up a fisherman, I have really missed it since I moved out here, but, I luckily ended up an area that is full of wildlife to view. Perhaps one year though I’ll take it back up, but for now, I’m more than happy being an avid birder, and just seeing the fisherman out there. Walking around the primary point of the park, I did uncover a couple of Nelson’s Sparrows, but wasn’t able to photograph any since they tend to be quite evasive. During the fading light in the evenings, it is even tougher since most of the sites they can be found in the park are in a westerly direction from the trails, meaning you have to look right into the sun to photograph them, which means they won’t show up well in a photo since their shaded is side is closest to you. Interestingly, no Gadwall, or any birds for that matter have showed up on the stormwater detention pond at Loch Haven Park on the northeast border. I keep checking, so hopefully soon it’ll hold some Grebe at least. Walking back around the point, and upstream I found a nice Northern Mockingbird that allowed me some good photographs, as well as a couple of Belted Kingfishers which at this time of year become hard to miss. Their incessant cackling is always a welcome sound after not seeing them at all during the summers here. Along the largest cove I picked a Savannah Sparrow out of the brush, and then had a Sharp-shinned Hawk zoom across the water right over top of me.
I trekked inland hoping to get a better view of it, but it caught me early on and zoomed through the trees. This particular spot seems to be good for the Sharp-shinned/Cooper’s Hawk, so always worth a slow walk through (area located east of the muddy meadow). Further westward, I happened to catch a glimpse of something small along the ditch that lies between the two creek-like ditches extending to Marlin Bay Drive. Much to my surprise, this bird turned out to be a young Green Heron! Green Herons (according to the Gold Book) typically depart the area on 20 Oct, so seeing one on the 30th was very late. This was the first of its kind that I’ve actually seen all month, and quite ironic to add at the end, rather than the beginning of October. At least one other was reported fairly recently, being seen by Bob Ake on one of his impoundment surveys at Back Bay NWR a week or two ago. Still further west, I enjoyed seeing the American Black Ducks again, and also a single juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron (which I think many folks might misidentify as a Yellow-crown, which should be all gone for the winter by now). Throughout the remainder of my walk west upstream, I got glances at Northern Cardinal, and potential Song Sparrows, but it was very quiet. It is amazing to see just how quiet things get by even 5 PM at this point in the year, and the sun was already very low in the sky, dipping behind the large trees that dot the western edge of Pleasure House Creek in the vicinity of Thoroughgood’s country club off Shore Drive. I ended up finishing the walk up with a few minute trip around the largest pond hoping to get in a good position to photograph the Black-crowned Night-Heron, but ultimately unable to do so. Heading home just after 5 PM does afford me a chance to relax at home this time of year, something I don’t get to do in the summertime when I like to be out as long as the sun is up. So if anything, at least it gets easier to keep up with all my photographs, my blog, and the rest of the website during the winter time. And after the intense migration period in September, and the first half of October, a slowdown is much appreciated.
On Saturday, I got up at 6 AM like I typically have been doing, and made it down to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge by around 7:30 AM for the sunrise, which has been getting later & later. That however, will come to a screeching halt on Sunday, as Daylight Savings Time comes to a close, and we turn the clocks backwards one hour. Saturday was also significant in that it was Halloween, being the 31st of October, but moreso significant to me in the fact that it was the final day the dike system at Back Bay NWR is open for the year. The dikes, which comprise most of the walkable distances of the park, are closed during the wintertime to protect all the waterfowl that have moved south from the tundra & boreal forests to spend the winter. Each year, from 1 Nov through 31 Mar, the East & West Dikes are closed, while during the opposing timeframe, only one will be open at a time, depending on the distribution patterns of the wildlife being protected. Because of our location along the coast, places like Back Bay are incredibly important for migrating birds, and I think we are all very lucky that organizations like the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service exist to help keep these great resources functioning. With the dikes closing on Saturday, it was my plan to walk the East Dike in its entirety, something I do try to do each year, at least the weekend before it closes. This time, I started off as I have each walk over the past couple of months, heading down the Bay Trail first, and working my way around the other trails near the visitor contact station. Yellow-rumped Warblers were again the headliner, showing up in massive numbers all across this region of the park. The highlight of the Bay Trail though was finding three gorgeous Wood Ducks within photography distance from the western overlook. Also here was a pair of American Coots, and at least a dozen Pied-billed Grebes, which are probably the same ones that frequent the pier area near the parking lot. Another great surprise was the Marsh Wrens that I heard in a pair of sites along the Bay and Bayside Trails, though I couldn’t get any to come out into view, their calls are extremely distinctive and whimsical.
Behind the visitor contact station, several species of sparrows (Field, Song, Swamp, & White-throated) were all seen over a few minute span, some even affording excellent views and photographs. I didn’t spend too much time here though, as I wanted to get moving southward on the dike. With the sky completely sunny, and the temperatures in the 50s, I was really loving it. Normally by now, I’m at least wearing a long sleeve shirt over a short sleeve one, but Saturday I was able to get by on just short sleeves alone. Even with the temperature reaching just into the low 60s at Back Bay, the sun was so bright with the clear, cool air, that I managed to stay plenty warm. As I set off down the East Dike between 8-8:30 AM, I was treated to all three of our mimics (Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, and Gray Catbird), and each was singing from a perch in the sunlight. Swamp Sparrows proved to be the most numerous emberizids (the taxonomic family that sparrows belong too) of the day, and they were seen at essentially every area with cattail or phragmites in sight. While walking the gravel road I refer to as the “Loop Road”, I stayed on the bayside, eventually reaching the gate to the West Dike, which of course at this point in the season is closed. Along this stretch though, I did find another Pied-billed Grebe on the small freshwater pool that the Loop Road encircles. Also, I had flybys of Mallards, American Black Ducks, and several small Canada Geese flocks further out over the bay. A Great Blue Heron was also working the shoreline of the bay, providing a pretty view of the scenery behind it. Hooking around the south edge of the Loop Road, I worked around to where the gate to the East Dike sits. Of course, it was open, but it was a bit sad to know that soon this route will be closed. I fully support the reasons for the closure, but I do miss being able to walk this area of the park in winter. Fortunately, the beach does remain open year-round, so one can still walk all the way to False Cape State Park (or North Carolina even) if he/she feels inclined to do so. With the beautiful weather, I anticipated a lot of other folks to be out on the trails, but honestly didn’t come across a whole ton. A single tram tour did pass me up, and I believe those typically leave the visitor contact station at 9 AM, so it was likely 9:15 AM or so when it got to me, just south of the gate. A half mile or so further south, right in the vicinity of where Ron Furnish & Marie Mullins and I had spotted a half dozen Bobwhites a few weeks ago, I sadly came across an injured Dunlin. I don’t know what it is with me lately, but everywhere I go I seem to be encountering hurt animals, and I wish it wouldn’t happen. Migration season is always tough on birds, and a great number do perish; it is expected, but still sad to see firsthand.
This particular bird had a right wing injury, and given where it was found, very far inland from the beach, it likely showed up here during heavy winds, perhaps getting hooked on a power line or tree branch. Whatever the reasons though, it was injured, and wouldn’t let me anywhere near it as it flopped around. I would normally have called the Virginia Beach SPCA (757-263-4762, store that number in your phone!), however given the remoteness of the park, and the fact that the trail was going to close for the season soon, I opted to not call it in this time. Sometimes I feel that it is part of nature’s circle of life, no matter how hard it can be to swallow. Also, the past couple of animals I’ve called in for help with, both had to be put down after capture anyway, so there is never a guarantee that anyone can do anything to help them, very sadly, and it is an emotionally draining experience, I don’t know how the full-time rehabbers can handle it sometimes, but I have all the respect in the world for their love of nature. The solace I’ll take here is that perhaps another animal in the park will be helped in its own survival by the sustenance provided by the Dunlin. There are quite a number of predatory animals in the park, whether it be the Eastern Cottomouths, Raccoons, Opossums, or even Bobcats that can be found here. Moving south, it was pretty quiet until I reached the double-90-degree bend of the trail, about midway to False Cape State Park. Here I got a great view of a Great Blue Heron standing just off the trail, and I could see birds far out on the C Pool as well, likely Teal, though unable to tell for sure. Swamp Sparrows were again quite active in this area, providing some more photographs, though never of great quality since these birds act much like wrens do, hopping in and out of thick brush very quickly, never posing for long. South of the bends, a raptor was seen flying low over the marsh grasses, which frightened up a group of 10 Eastern Meadowlarks that had been hiding down in the reeds! Eastern Meadowlarks are common in numbers across Virginia Beach’s southern half, but they are tough to actually find, so I was very grateful for the assist, that came from what I’d find out soon to be a Merlin.
A bit further south on the east side of the dike there was a feeding flock of 16 White Ibis, including 4 juveniles, 1 first-year bird, and 11 beautifully white plumaged adults. I watched this group for a few minutes, though many of the photographs I took were just too washed out by the sunlight, which was directed right on the birds from a tough angle. This is one thing that makes the East Dike a tough one for the photographer in me, in that it goes directly north-south, and this time of year the sun doesn’t rise very high up even during midday. Having gotten my fill of the Ibis, I continued south to a point about 0.5 miles north of the limit of the East Dike. As I was walking, I spotted a number of birds moving through one isolate tree on the west side of the shoulder. As I neared, I realized they were all Eastern Bluebirds, about 15-20 of them! Bluebirds are another common bird in the southern half of the city, and at First Landing State Park for that matter, but much more so in the winter time throughout. As I watched these birds moving about in the tree, I happened to look to the other side of the trail, being the easterly side closest to the dunes. Here, in a shorter shrub/tree, a single bird was perched, and as I raised up my binoculars, my jaw dropped and my heart almost stopped! The bird had a strong black bill, a dark olive back, and very yellow underparts, distinctive features of one of the western Kingbird species! Just a week ago, I found out about the Rarity Roundup that will be taking place in Virginia Beach on November 14th, so I happened to have looked at these birds just the day before in my field guides, having recalled that Keith & Karen Roberts had spotted a western species Kingbird last year during the Caracara madness around Thanksgiving. As I frantically raised my camera, though it felt like slow-motion to me at the time, I tried to take in as many field marks as I could on the bird. I knew that it was either a Western, Tropical, or Couch’s Kingbird, but wasn’t sure of what could be used to distinguish. Thankfully, as it floated up into the air and flew westward, I furiously took a few in-flight shots, and these would prove the key to the identity when I got home.
Against my normal habits, I turned on my cell phone, and sent out a notice on the Virginia Listserver, as well as a photo to the HRWE group on Facebook after using the phone to photograph my camera’s LCD screen. The in-flight shots showed a diagnostic white edge to the sides of the tail feathers, so had I not gotten those shots, I’d likely have had to settle for it being just one of several rare species for the area. But thankfully, I was able to identify it properly to species, making this Western Kingbird my #202 on the year here in Virginia Beach! What makes this sighting such a neat one for me is that it was the first of its kind reported in 2015 in the entire state of Virginia! It likely won’t be the last, as November is ripe for western vagrants like this to show up, especially in the more agricultural areas of the Eastern Shore, but for now, it is the only sighting this year. And this is why I always love to walk to the East Dike to close out its season, one never knows what one will find! I waited around for a half hour or so nearby, hoping the bird would return but after its initial flight westward out into the A-Pool, I never did get another sighting. I did still want to walk the rest of the dike, and did so quickly, seeing a rather large Eastern Cottonmouth on the way, and my first Dark-eyed Juncos at the park this season before I touched the False Cape State Park sign and headed back north. The ibis flock was still at it, and the sun was a bit better on the way north so I took some more photographs, with some actually coming out pretty well. Walking north I had a few flocks of Common Grackles pass overhead, and I scanned them hoping for a Yellow-headed Blackbird but no luck there. The Yellow-heads are another western vagrant that shows up here in late fall, though I’m not sure of what the reasons are, there seems to be a number of species that come to be expected this time of year in very low numbers. That is what the Rarities Roundup on the 14th will be built around, so I’m looking very forward to that.
I again passed the injured Dunlin, which had been joined by a second Dunlin, the latter appearing quite healthy so I had no qualms about taking a few photographs of it. I did feel bad though knowing that the second bird was obviously there to try to assist the first, and perhaps it stayed with it throughout the rest of the day, though I had to keep onward north. I did head down the Dune Trail to the beach, and walked up to view the North Mile section before heading back over the Seaside Trail to the parking area. On the beach, a number of Royal Terns were seen, as well as the common winter gulls (Herring, Ring-billed, Lesser Black-backed & Great Black-backed). Brown Pelicans were also seen, though no Northern Gannets, Mergansers, or either species of Loons were found this outing. Soon enough though they’ll all be here in massive numbers. When I reached the parking area, a pair of Bald Eagles zoomed overhead, fighting in mid-air with talons towards one another as they sped past on several flybys! My photographs did absolutely no justice to this aerial maneuver, though it was an incredible sight to get to see in person. Walking behind the visitor contact station again yielded more sparrows, and as I walked around the small pond onto the boardwalks, I passed a pair of birders, before running right into a Yellow-billed Cuckoo sitting out in the open! I called to the birders to get them on the bird since they had walked right past it given their direction of travel didn’t afford them the same view mine did. We all photographed the bird, which is here notably late in the season, though the Gold Book lists only extreme dates for Cuckoos as opposed to average dates. Their extreme date is listed as 10 Nov, so still within that constraint, though probably one of very few individuals still this far north I suspect. After parting ways with the Cuckoo, I ran into another birder as I turned onto the Bay Trail (initially thinking it was Tim Fearington when I saw the 500mm lens approaching). As it were though, the man introduced himself as David Knopp, a peninsula birder, who miraculously was actually aware of who I was, and reads my blog! It is always good to hear from someone that the things I take time to note are actually looked at by others. David had seen some kinglets along the trail, and a Towhee as well, and on a regular day I’d probably have tried harder to locate the kinglets for a photograph, but after about 8 miles of walking, I opted to head back to the car and call it a day. Plus, I was anxious to get home and figure out what type of kingbird I had, and to get some photographs posted to eBird and my site of it since I knew it was a special bird! A great end, to a great season at Back Bay that afforded me 164 species of birds at the park this year alone! I will likely still spend plenty of time around the parking lots and the beach through November and December, but I’ll miss those long walks towards False Cape State Park on the dikes!