Week Ending November 22, 2015

Last week, the excitement that ran amuck throughout Virginia Beach was centered on the fallout of Franklin’s Gulls that made their way to the coastline in front of a massive Midwestern storm event. This week continued that excitement, as on Monday afternoon, the trio of Todd Day, Matt Anthony and Jason Strickland managed to pick out a Franklin’s on one of the offshore jetties at East Beach in Norfolk! During the Rarity Roundup last Saturday, the teams in the field made use of a texting group (via: GroupMe) to get information relayed back and forth between members. Due to the success of this during the Roundup, the group was continued through Monday, when it was changed to be a “VaRareBirdAlert” text. Prior to the switchup though, Matt Anthony texted out that the Franklin’s was there, and I was able to put a 4th set of eyes on the bird. Only one more sighting occurred during the week, being the next evening up at the first island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel complex by Dave Matson (posted via listserv). As with the previous week, this one held some up and down temperatures, with lows reaching into the upper 30s at night, but high still staying up to 70 degrees F. The Thursday morning Seawatch at Rudee Inlet, sponsored by the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory, continues to show good movements of typical winter arrivals like Red-throated Loon, Horned Grebe, all three species of Scoters, and a highlight Parasitic Jaeger. On Saturday afternnon, around 3 PM, Ellison Orcutt & Fenton Day discovered a Gray Kingbird (first of year along the East Coast north of North Carolina) along Magotha Road in Northampton County to our north, and thanks to their quick “texting-out” of the bird, several other individuals were able to get on it before the sunset, which is sadly around 4:45-4:50 PM this time of year. Though this wasn’t a Virginia Beach bird, it is most certainly worth noting here due to its close proximity to us birders here. Those that reported it on Saturday (Eli Gross, Ned Brinkley, Katie Rittenhouse, Zach Poulton and Mary & Avery Coker) were joined on Sunday when the bird decided to stick around by Matt Anthony, Nicholas Newberry, Isabel Eaton, Claire Murphy, myself, and Andrew Baldelli. Despite the 40s F temperatures and continuous rainfall, we all got great looks and many photographs of the bird before it went un-found the remainder of the day. To wrap up the local birding, some other neat finds were a single American Woodcock that Ron Furnish found outside his office in Town Center, likely a window-impact though it managed to fly off and out of sight on its own accord. American Bitterns, Nelson’s Sparrows, and Redheads all continue to be nice finds in Virginia Beach, and the Oceantfront’s Peregrine Falcons continue to impress.

A Cooper's Hawk fly in tandem with a Red-tailed Hawk at right!

Unlike the past few weeks, my own birding excursions started abruptly on Monday after Matt Anthony had texted out the location of the Franklin’s Gull at East Beach in Norfolk. Just after 4 PM, I ran out of the office, hopped in the car and was on the way towards East Beach. Of course, traffic on the interstates and secondary roads during rush hour are tough to make good time on, and one never knows how long a bird is going to stay in one place. Fortunately, as I arrived around 4:45 PM, the bird was still visible. I had to run a bit down the beach to get to where Jason, Todd & Matt were, but they let me have looks through their scopes and binoculars since I didn’t have time to even run home to get my own gear before the sun would have set. This bird had the distinctive black half-hood behind the the eye mainly, and it was nicely placed among a larger flock of Laughing Gulls. Seeing the birds side-by-side afforded good comparisons of the bills, of which the Franklin’s has a much shorter one, though I’d have a hard time picking that out on a single bird. We watched for about a half hour even after the sun had set though most of the time the bird had its head down and was facing us, making it tough to see well. Todd showed me how to digiscope a photograph by using my smartphone camera held up to his viewing scope. I clearly need practice at it though, and steadier hands it seems as my shots didn’t come out good enough to even ID properly. In addition to the Franklin’s and Laughing Gulls, there was some Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls around as well, and a group of ducks that were likely Bufflehead just out of binocular range. We had a few Mourning Doves up in the East Beach community before we all headed off in our own directions, with Todd traveling back to Culpepper, and likely sitting through some HRBT traffic on the way.

A juvenile Great Blue Heron seen at Back Bay NWR on Saturday morning!

On Tuesday, I turned 32 years old, and though I didn’t go birding at all, I found it ironic that I got a call from Ron Furnish early in the morning about an American Woodcock that was sitting on the sidewalk outside his office. As mentioned above, it likely was a window-hit incident, but fortunately as he tried to box the bird for a rehabber, it flew off and out of sight so hopefully it was just stunned and had recovered. On Wednesday, I went out the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel hoping to spot a Franklin’s Gull in Virginia Beach since David Matson had reported one from there on Tuesday via listserv. A really windy day, I checked all around the island for birds, but couldn’t see hardly anything until I reached the southwestern corner where the birds were sheltered. Tons of Ring-billed Gulls, some Herring Gulls, and a few Laughing Gulls were seen, but nothing I could pick out as a Franklin’s Gull candidate. I had a couple that looked possible, but they were likely just Laughing Gulls. Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings were present in good numbers as well. I couldn’t find any Purple Sandpiper, though I wasn’t looking too hard for them, focusing more on the gulls that were more visible. Double-crested Cormorants were around, but the surprise of the outing was finding an Eastern Meadowlark on the tiny patch of grass next to the maintenance building at the northeast side of the island. This bird has been reported by quite a few folks over the last few weeks, but it must be an injured bird since there can’t be much in the way of feed for it here on the island. It didn’t get reported any more after I saw, so I sort of wonder if a Peregrine Falcon didn’t find it for an easy meal given that there is almost nothing to hide in on the island from a swift falcon.

Hiding just off the Kuralt Trail at Back Bay NWR, this White-tailed Deer almost went unnoticed!

On Friday afternoon, I left work at 3 PM like usual, and made a stop off at Kings Grant Lake to assess the waterfowl situation there. Usually in winter, there can be up to about a dozen different species of ducks & geese here, and it makes for a convenient stop on my way home from work when the sun sets as early as it does this time of year. Mallards and Canada Geese were again the most abundant, which is almost always true. There was a few American Wigeons, and some Ring-necked Ducks as well this time. No Wood Ducks were in sight, though there are always some on the lakes year-round. I’ve yet to see any Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers or Hooded Mergansers, all of which are common in winter. Driving around the lake on Watergate Drive to the outlet area I got my nicest surprise. High up above me, a Red-tailed Hawk was soaring in circles around the tidal marsh downstream (north) of the lake. As it circled, a Cooper’s Hawk flew in to harass it, and I got to watch as it made dives several times, causing the Red-tailed to flip over and show its talons in flight. They duo continued this for a few minutes and I was able to get a nice shot of the two without a ton of shadow on them as they tilted slightly upwards into the sun. What I found most interesting was the opportunity to view the two species side by side to see just how much of a size difference there is. Also, the body shapes of the Red-tailed (a buteo), and the Cooper’s (an accipiter) are much different, with the buteos being larger bodied and not as aerodynamic as their speedier accipiter counterparts. Buteos feed off mammals mainly, while the faster accipiters go primarily for smaller birds, though they’ll eat mammals too. They’re the typical hawk that scopes out bird feeders, and can make a whole yard of songbirds disperse quickly into hiding when one moves through the area. I actually got to see another Cooper’s in action, but more on that later in the blog. In addition to the hawks, there were also Double-crested Cormorants, Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets visible around the lake. Above me, Black & Turkey Vultures were also seen, and some American Crows could be heard, but that was really about it for the bird species present. After Kings Grant, I made a quick trip down to Rudee Inlet as a last ditch effort to find a Franklin’s Gull, but none were around. Pretty quiet there, I didn’t see anything unusual so I headed home after just a few mintues. Ruth & I had dinner up in Hampton at a bonfire, and we heard at least two flocks of Tundra Swans pass overhead. Also, she spotted an Opossum in our neighborhood on the drive home which is an awesome find near home!

One of my favorite winter residents to the area, the beautifully camouflaged American Bittern!

On Saturday morning, I got up early and headed down to Back Bay NWR with hopes of seeing some more Pine Siskins since I wasn’t able to photograph them last Satuday when Todd Day had pointed out a flock to me in the air. Now that the dikes are closed, I had to do my walks around the visitor contact station trails only. Yellow-rumped Warblers were again the most numerous birds along the Bay Trail, and I couldn’t pick anything else out, not even a kinglet or wren this time. A large grouping of waterfowl was present on the near waters though so I scanned the whole group, picking out Tundra Swans, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup and a single male Redhead. Pied-billed Grebes & Ruddy Ducks were also associating with the group, and a flyover flock of Northern Pintails added to the diversity. There was a much larger flock off to the north, but far too distant for me to be able to see even with binoculars. As I left the fishing pier and headed towards the Kuralt Trail, I was greatly excited to find an American Bittern sitting in close to the kayak launch, all puffed up to stay warm. The bird was very aware of my presence, looking right at me, but didn’t seem too scared. It just froze and waited until I took a few photographs and moved on. The Kuralt Trail yielded a nice look at White-tailed Deer that concealed itself just off the trail in the thick vegetation. I did end up walking the beach as well, but not finding anything there particularly interesting, at least seeing some Northern Gannets and Sanderlings to add to the day’s variety. After Back Bay, I made a quick stop at Little Island but a number of people were there making a racket so no birds were around. Next up was Pleasure House Point, which I walked east to west, being that it was still morning & I wanted the sun at my back for my first pass like normal. Lots of gulls were present on the sandbars, and I did get a Nelson’s Sparrow, as most folks who’ve been there the last month or so have. Tree Swallows were quite numerous, flying in a tight flock around the dogleg ditch area and showing off their beautiful teal upperparts when the sun hit them. A pair of Greater Yellowlegs was also seen, one of the few shorebirds that are seen at the park year-round. The neatest sighting though was an overhead flock of Tundra Swans, 59 of them to be exact, and one Canada Goose that was flying with them all the way at the end of the line!

One of a trio of Sanderlings that was running the beach at Back Bay NWR!

Late on Saturday afternoon, as mentioned in the introduction above, Ellison Orcutt & Fenton Day found a Gray Kingbird on the Eastern Shore. Since I didn’t have enough sunlight left to make it up there in time, I wanted to take a shot on Sunday morning for it. So, I left very early, getting onto the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel before sunrise, though it rained the whole way across and temperatures were only in the 40s F. Of course, I wasn’t the only person trying for this particular bird, since it is the only one that has been seen in Virginia since 2004, so actually it is the only of its kind to be here since I moved to the state. Andrew Baldelli (also of Virginia Beach) was driving around, as was a chunk of the William & Mary Bird Club. While searching it out, I also found a Ring-necked Pheasant that was a released bird from a private hunter, an all too-common practice on the Eastern Shore it seems. It was an incredibly beautiful bird, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it escape those hunting it. Other birds seen included Eastern Bluebirds, Mourning Doves, Swamp & Savannah Sparrows. In fact, I was looking at sparrows when Matt Anthony sent a text message out that he’d re-sighted the kingbird. So I immediately stopped and dashed over to Magotha Road, where I was able to get in on the action with the other 5 folks looking at the bird in the rain. Photographs came out poor at best, but showed the identity positively at least. After observing the bird for a half hour in the rain, I headed over to Kiptopeke State Park to try and find some Cave Swallows that have been sighted near the Taylor Pond and the hawkwatch site. On the way, I had an incredible sight as a Cooper’s Hawk burst over top of the car in pursuit of a Mourning Dove. As it cleared the vehicle and crossed the road, the dove turned into a puff of feathers in midair, and the Hawk landed on the front yard of a farmhouse to finish off the bird! I have actually never seen this before, though I’ve seen plenty of remains of birds being eating, but it was an astonishing sight to see the speed and accuracy of the hawk as it closed in. At Kiptopeke, I walked the trails to the pond, which held a Ruddy Duck and a few Buffleheads, but nothing else. I walked around it and ran into Andrew Baldelli again. We walked back towards the car, and had a flyover group of swallows which he ID’d as Caves. With the overcast skies and rain though, I couldn’t see any coloration and am not familiar enough with their flight characteristics to call them as such. They didn’t appear as bright on the bottom side as Tree Swallows are, but for what would be a life bird, I like to be certain. Probability points to Cave though, but I’ll try them again hopefully soon. I actually walked back to the pond again hoping to get better looks if they dropped down over the water to feed, but they never did. I was hoping to get them in front of a colorful background where their own colors could stand out instead of being washed out by the clouds. After this I headed back to the southside, though on the CBBT I was lucky enough to have a Great Cormorant fly parallel with my car as I approached North Chesapeake Island (Island #4). The bird stayed just off the bridge, and spent 3-4 minutes traveling right with me at 55-60 mph, an incredible speed, though aided greatly by the strong northerly winds. At times it was so close to me that through my rolled down passenger window I was able to get distinctive looks at the white face and massive head. Thus finished off my week, a soaking wet day, but a new lifer in the Gray Kingbird, and I think I’m the only person in the state who was seen 3 species of Kingbirds this year, having found that Western Kingbird at Back Bay on 31 Oct!

One of our permanent residents, this is a Greater Yellowlegs seen at Pleasure House Point NA on Saturday!