Week Ending November 8, 2015

With November comes early darkness, with the end of Daylight Savings Time having occurred on November 1st, and also comes unstable weather. Throughout our first full week of the month, Virginia Beach saw temperatures ranging from highs in the low 80s on Thursday, to lows in the 40s on Saturday night/Sunday morning. The up and down temperatures didn’t stop birders from getting out and seeing some neat birds though. Waterfowl and Shorebirds continue to yield First-of-Season (FOS) sightings. At the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory’s Seawatch from Rudee Inlet, Tracy Tate recorded the first Purple Sandpipers of the season to be found in Virginia Beach. She also had views of Peregrine Falcons and Parasitic Jaegers, both of which have been found increasingly the past couple of weeks in that area. The falcons have been perching on one of the hotels at 11th Street just to the north as well, and quite a few reports have showed up this week with Peregrines noted. On Bob Ake’s impoundment survey at Back Bay NWR this week, a pair of Long-billed Dowitchers turned up, which are the first recorded in Virginia Beach this year. Additionally, a pair of late Caspian Terns was found, and both Sedge & Marsh Wrens were encountered. Waterfowl variety appeared to have increased, with the impoundments being perfect habitat for dabbling species, Gadwall, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Mallard, Blue & Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Ring-necked Duck were all noted. Some other FOS sightings this week were a Ruddy Duck, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Tundra Swan and Greater Scaup. James Marcum had a Great Horned Owl calling in his neighborhood early Saturday morning, a bird that isn’t reported often due to its nocturnal nature, though is supposedly present in good numbers across the region. Nelson’s Sparrows continue to be seen at Pleasure House Point by most parties who have attempted to find them, though never staying up too long for photographs. Wrens and Sparrows have certainly taken over the region as well, with plenty of Swamp, Song, Savannah, and White-throated Sparrow sightings. Sedge, Marsh and Winter Wrens have all popped up in reports recently as well. American Bitterns are being found primarily at Back Bay NWR, though there is likely some in the Pleasure House Point area that have just gone unnoticed. Lastly, a late entry from the previous week, the first Brants of the season were sighted up at Pleasure House Point on 1 Nov.

An American Black Duck provides a good example on how to differentiate the Mallard females with orange bills, from its yellow bill & darker body.

This week began with the tough-to-swallow realization that darkness would now occur too early to allow for any birding after work. Monday through Thursday I had to live vicariously through the reports that popped up on eBird and the photographs posted to the HRWE Facebook group. Fortunately, the ease of technology has made getting through these ‘dark’ times a bit easier, and plenty of folks were actively posting images & observations from around the region. I didn’t make it out at all until Friday afternoon when I left work at 3 PM. Ruth & I were heading up north to Fairfax County to visit her mother for the weekend, but she isn’t off work until 5 PM. So I brought my camera and binoculars to the office and on the way home I made the rounds at Kings Grant Lake, hoping to see some interesting waterfowl present. Earlier in the week someone had posted a photograph of an all black Mallard at the lake. From online searches, it turns out that this is a mixed Domestic/Mallard breed called a “Cayuga” Duck, and some can be remarkably pretty. Apparently it was released at the lake sometime prior, as it is not a wild duck, rather a feral one. Or course, Kings Grant Lake is no stranger to feral waterfowl though. The lake is home to a group of Domestic Geese that currently numbers 28 birds. These geese can often be seen holding up traffic on Kings Grant Road near the park, and don’t seem to care what goes on around them. Each year, their numbers seem to increase, and I believe there was 10 or 11 goslings out of this batch this year. Feral waterfowl are always a problem when it comes to entering birds into eBird lists, but that’s a whole other blog. I first stopped at Kings Grant Lake Park, then circled the lake clockwise, hitting the outfall area on Watergate Drive, and returning on Edinburgh Drive to Kings Grant Lake Road. Most of the waterfowl was Mallards, about 140 of them, with good numbers of Canada Geese as well. Also mixed in though was a pair of American Black Ducks, three American Wigeons, and a single Wood Duck. I always check out the Wigeons now in the hopes that one might be a Eurasian species, but so far it’s all been Americans. I was excited to get some nice photographs of the American Black Ducks though, some of which make for good comparison shots between them and the similar, but still very different, female Mallards.

One of many male Northern Cardinals seen in Fairfax County!

Having arrived up in Fairfax County about 8:30 PM after the usual, long drive on I-64 on Friday evening, Ruth & I got to bed around 10 PM. In the morning, she & her mother went shopping, which of course meant I was free to go birding. In addition to my general lack of interest in shopping, I always think the her & her mother need their time together without me around since they don’t see each other all the time anyway. So, that’s how I rationalize, and don’t feel bad about running out at 6 AM to go birding. I’m very lucky though, I have a great relationship with my mother-in-law, so it is never an issue. Thanks to the Virginia Birding Listserver, I always keep up to date on what birds are being sighted in the area, so when I visit, I have some options as to where to go. This trip, I wanted to spend some time early in the morning at Huntley Meadows Park (a map of the park can be found Here) , which is about a 15-20 minute drive from Lorton. The park is primarily forested, with a large estuary / marsh / meadow in the center. Depending on the activity level of the local American Beaver populations, this area can be dry, standing water, or anything in between. In fact, being only the second visit I’ve made to the park, I was quite surprised when I reached the Heron Trail boardwalks and found that a new Beaver lodge was built right up onto the boardwalk. Additionally, dams made primarily of mud, but with a few sticks tossed in for strength, weaved their way in and around the first portion of the boardwalk, causing a small pond to form on the upstream section of Barnyard Run. In this inundated area, a group of about 50 Canada Geese was feeding along the shorelines, providing my first photographs of the day. Unfortunately, the weather appeared to be against me this weekend, with the temperatures feeling good around 60 degrees F, but with a drizzle persisting my entire drive to the park, and continuing as I entered the trails. In fact, at several times during the drive I questioned why I was continuing towards the park. However, I’m glad I did make it.

One of the several hundred Red-winged Blackbirds seen at Huntley Meadows on Saturday!

Being my first visit to the park during the month of November, it was interesting to see just what the park looked like. The majority of leaves have now fallen to the ground, though the ones remaining on the trees had quite the color to them. Yellows were the most vibrant of the colors, but there was still some oranges and reds to be seen. Unfortunately, I have no expertise in identifying trees, though this is one area I’d like to improve since I do feel that all wildlife and nature are connected in some fashion, and understanding of one area can only help in another. Entering the park and finding a spot around 6:50 AM was nice, there was no one else around, aside from a single car that was leaving the park for whatever reason. As mentioned above, I reached the Heron Trail boardwalk relatively quickly, passing through the quarter mile or so of forested path on the way past the visitor center. After photographing the Canada Geese on the new beaver pond, I worked my way around the circular component of the boardwalk counter-clockwise. Most notably in this area, were the couple hundred Red-winged Blackbirds that had embedded themselves within the dense cattail surroundings. As I walked around the boardwalk, pausing many times to attempt to photograph the birds, they always managed to slip past me. At times I was reminded of a “Simpson’s” episode in which Homer attempts to step off a trail, only to be assaulted by a Raccoon, which jumped out of a square inch of space he hadn’t checked. While comical, this is exactly how Red-winged Blackbirds tend to behave. It is amazing just how well these birds can conceal themselves down deep in the marsh cattails & reeds, only to spring forth with no warning. With the drizzle that was ongoing, the light proved extremely tough for trying to get these birds into the camera frame, but after a good half hour of trying, I was able to get some worthwhile shots. In addition to the Red-winged Blackbirds, Sparrows were also plentiful. This time of year, there are a few species that can be expected across the Coastal Plain of Virginia (of which Fairfax County & Virginia Beach both belong too). Song Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows were all seen in high numbers. Most of these managed to provide quick looks, while being mainly concealed though in the cattails.

A male Downy Woodpecker seen along the Huntley Meadows boardwalks!

Continuing on southward towards the observation tower, I arrived just in time. Within a couple minutes of reaching the first floor (of two), the rain started to build and visibility dropped to about 10 feet. During this time, it wasn’t just me who was seeking out the shelter, but many birds around me, primarily the White-throated Sparrows, Blue Jays, and Northern Cardinals. All three species moved in closer, providing some good photographs, and even better observations. As the rain starting to slow down, I remained in this spot, just because it did seem to be a hotspot of sorts. The best bird here was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, my only one of the trip that flew in close to a tree south of the platform, and posed ever so briefly before disappearing into the underbrush. When the rain had completely halted, I continued south across the downstream end of the park, seeing a couple of Great Blue Herons out on beaver lodges in the process, and then meeting up with the Deer Trail. The Deer Trail travels through the woods heading mostly northward. Along the stretch of this trail heading north, I did find a Brown Creeper, which is a bird I consider to be uncommon throughout the Coastal Plain, and the Gold Book seems to back this opinion up. They aren’t a rarity, but they’re a bird one can be excited about when they find it. I rounded the corner and headed back to the Observation Tower area, then moved northward back onto the Heron boardwalks. Here, I was met by the same flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds again, and tried my best to photograph them as they weaved in and out of the cattail forest. Another group of birders had set up north of me, working their way slowly counter-clockwise around the boardwalks. I wondered if these might be some of the folks that have put out information on the Listserver, Harry Glasgow is one name that comes to mind. As they worked their way around the boardwalks, I moved off south again towards the Observation Tower. This time, though, I wasn’t mobbed by sparrows and other common winter species. I ended up walking the Cedar Trail north, though checking out the north end of the boardwalks one more times. I’m glad I made one more effort, as I got some fantastic photographs of some White-throated Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, Swamp Sparrows, and the Canada Geese that continued to patrol the freshly made beaver pond. Also, a Downy Woodpecker made for some nice shooting, but afterwards I headed north towards the car and headed out from the park.

One of my best shots of a White-throated Sparrow, seen at Lake Mercer, Fairfax County on Saturday morning!

Still very early in the morning, I opted to check out a spot closer to my mother-in-law’s Lorton home. In similar fashion to Williamsburg, Fairfax County seems to be big on adding multi-use paths through every available section of forest. All of the stream valleys throughout the county have become part of the “Cross County Trail”. Each time I visit Fairfax, I try to do a bit more of the trail, which is probably hundreds of miles at this point. One of my favorite sections is the loop around Lake Mercer along the South Run Stream Valley, just off Hooes Road. I stopped in here and head around the lake counter-clockwise on the loop, which I believe is close to 4 miles in length. After a few years of construction, this trail is now fully-asphalt, which makes for an easy walk, but definitely provides the feeling of not being quite so rustic. The trail initially travels up the stream towards a manmade dam that creates Lake Mercer, then continues around the north side of the lake heading westward. Carolina Wrens, Tufted Titmice, and several sparrow species were encountered in the more suburban areas of the trail. A favorite of mine, Eastern Chipmunk, was also seen. Why is this a favorite? Because, while these mammals are common up north in Virginia, they are unheard of here in Virginia Beach, and seeing them takes me back to my youth in Minnesota & Indiana, where these cute little critters were quite common. The further west I traveled, the more it began to rain unfortunately, and I had to throw my camera into my backpack to ensure it didn’t get damaged by the rainfall. As I worked my way around the lake, getting poured on at times, I did find a single Hermit Thrush, which was probably the bird of the weekend. Over the last couple miles, I walked essentially the whole way, arriving back at the car and heading home for a shower to warm up from the cold rains. On Sunday morning, we headed back to Virginia Beach, and I did get a good walk in around the neighborhood, but didn’t spot any new birds along the way, though I half expected to see a Great Horned Owl after Jim Marcum found one on Saturday calling outside his home. Next week could prove interesting, as the vagrant seasons continues in Virginia Beach, and Saturday is the Rarity Roundup, the first of its kind in Virginia Beach. Hopefully, I have a bit more to report this time around!

This beautiful Great Blue Heron shows off its reflection on the upstream waters of Lake Mercer on Saturday!