Week Ending November 29, 2015

This week, the headliner was Thanksgiving. With the holiday on Thursday, and most birders (including myself) spending time with family, there was a drop off in sightings from previous weeks. Starting off where last week ended, the Gray Kingbird was seen again on Monday at Magotha Road in Northampton County, Virginia Beach’s neighbor to the north. Several folks included Rexanne Bruno, Giles, Jason Strickland, and Jim Marcum all added their names to the list of observers who managed to see this rarity while it was in town. Monday proved to be the final day for sightings though, and it hasn’t been observed since. As far as Virginia Beach observations go, things were really quiet while I was out of town, which is a swing from this same week last year when the Crested Caracara off Hungarian Road was causing a considerable amount of chaos in the birding community. On Wednesday, both Bob Ake & Rebecca Walawender observed a Razorbill flying along the beach at Back Bay NWR, being the first of the season sighted in the county. This one was mixed in a flock of Black Scoters according to Bob’s post on the Virginia Birding Listserver, so I’ll have to scan these flock as I encounter them moving forward. I’ve yet to see one in Virginia Beach, though they’re sighted commonly in winter offshore, and from the beaches by those with powerful scopes. The CVWO Seawatch at Rudee Inlet turned up the season’s first Common Eider on Thursday morning when Tracy Tate had one inside the inlet during the first hour of the 3-hour watch. Royal Terns continue to be sighted, and 25 Nov is their late date according to the Gold Book. They seem to be staying longer each year, though they definitely still depart the area before the new year begins, arriving back again in mid-March typically. A few Peregrine Falcons were seen, and Nelson’s Sparrows are still being found at Pleasure House Point. I’ve noticed a number of eBirders that seem to be annoyed by Black Skimmers flagging as rarities, and this should be fixed very soon, so hopefully it’ll quiet some folks down since the birds can be found year-round at Pleasure House Point. Interestingly, a few Palm Warblers were seen this week, and though they are said to winter here, I don’t think I’ve seen one this time of year. I primarily spot them during the transient months when their numbers are inflated by passers-by.  

A very beautiful Palm Warbler, one of the more common warblers of the southeastern US in wintertime!

Since it was a holiday week, on Wednesday evening, Ruth & I drove down to visit her sister & nephew in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, arriving just after midnight following a long post-work drive down the I-95 corridor. On Thanksgiving morning, as I’ve done the past few years, I headed out for a long hike so I could feast without feeling too guilty. The past two years we have visited South Carolina, and each visit, I’ve knocked a bit more off of the Swamp Fox Trail that winds its way through the nearby Francis Marion National Forest. Interesting, Francis Marion is the fellow who Mel Gibson’s character in The Patriot was based off of, and he was commonly referred to as The Swamp Fox, hence the trail’s name. I don’t typically see a huge volume of birds along the trail, but I do enjoy the workout, so I headed out for what would become about an 8.5 mile walk around 7 AM. Throughout the walk, I kept my eyes up and used my binoculars as much as I could, using my camera only as a backup, something I’m working more and more towards since the best birders tend to be the ones who take the least miscellaneous photographs, and only use the camera when something documentation-worthy pops up. Heading up Route 17 towards Awendaw, then northwest on Steed Creek Road, I made it to the starting point on Halfway Creek Road. The forest here looks primed for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, as it is inundated with Jackpine stands and is managed by the US Forest Service. While I did see some Northern Flickers, Red-bellied & Pileated Woodpeckers, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, I never did come across the more endangered Red-cockadeds, so they remain a bird I’ve yet to see in my life. The forest was actually very quiet in the morning, and the air was still. While it was very peaceful, I did miss the thrill of seeing lots of birds like I do in areas I know well back home in Virginia Beach. However, I did find a few neat species along the way. The highlight for me was probably the pair of Blue-headed Vireos seen in the treetops. Surprising a group of 15 or so Wood Ducks on a small rainwater pond along the trail was also a great sighting! Of course, these birds all took off before I could even raise my camera, but I did see them clearly. Nearby, what I believe was a Red-shouldered Hawk could be seen in the trees as well. On the way back to my sister-in-law’s house, I stopped by the Pitt Street Causeway, a birding hotspot in the area, but the high tide was in and birds were scarce.

A close-in shot of a Horned Grebe, showing off their almost devil-like eyes!

On Friday morning, I went out early to a little park in the area called Shem Creek Park. Elevated boardwalks here travel through the tidal saltmarsh and often times afford good wildlife viewing. As with the past couple of years, this site didn’t disappoint, and I quickly started racking up some good species. A Seaside Sparrow and Saltmarsh Sparrow were seen in close to one another in the higher portions of the marsh. The high tide was in here, so many species like Clapper Rail weren’t seen since they tend to be seen out in the open more when the mudflats are exposed and they come out of the reeds to hunt. Common Loons and Horned Grebes were seen on the creek itself, as were Hooded Mergansers. A good size flock of Scaup flew by overhead, but the real highlights were a group of Palm Warblers that came out into the open when I rigorously pished them out. Among them were a number of Yellow-rumped Warblers, the classic winter warbler of the southeastern United States. Other species like Ring-billed, Laughing, and Herring Gulls were also observed, and Double-crested Comorants were seen in the main river offshore in healthy numbers. Brown Pelicans could be seen further out as well. The park provides a really nice view out over the main bay looking towards the city of Charleston and Ft. Sumpter. Two years ago, Ruth & I had a heck of a surprise when a Bottlenose Dolphin put on a show just a few feet off where we were standing. No such luck this time, perhaps they prefer the low tide situation when the fish are funneled into a smaller volume of water. The Horned Grebes were enjoyable finds, diving and popping up pretty close to the boardwalk, much closer than I see them up on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel at least. After walking out and back, I headed home and we spent the rest of the day in the city.

One of the most unique among birds, this is the only bird that can break into a live Oyster shell, the American Oystercatcher!

On Saturday, my nephew got dropped off by his father and spent the day with the three of us. I had done some research on other potential wildlife outings in the area before I arrived, finding one that sounded to be a neat excursion. The Bull’s Island ferry. Leaving from Awendaw, this private ferry takes passengers out to Bull’s island, one of the barrier islands just off the coast a few miles. In between it and the mainland lies the saltmarsh, and the ferry ought to provide some great views of birds there. So the four of us took the 12:30 PM ferry to the island, hiked around for a few hours, and then headed back on the last ferry of the day at 4 PM. En route to the island, we saw a good number of American Oystercatchers, a personal favorite of mine. Horned Grebes, Buffleheads, and Hooded Mergansers were also seen. Surprisingly the Buffleheads flagged as a rarity on eBird, which had me scratching my head a bit since I saw about 40 of them throughout the afternoon. Several Bottlenose Dolphins were seen in the labyrinth of tidal creeks that flowed through the salt marsh, and the boat slowed each time we encountered them. Among the low tide mudflats, Willets, Dunlins, Dowitchers, and Black-bellied Plovers were seen. When we arrived at the island, it had taken about 45 minutes in total to navigate the shallow waters of the saltmarsh. Before we were able to step off the ferry, I noticed a large bird soaring over the island through my binoculars. With a massive bill, and outstretched white and black wings, the bird was recognizable even in shadows as a Wood Stork, a bird I’d never officially seen before, though I wonder if I had seen some in Florida when I was 17 years old when my family visited. Similar to an ibis, but much stronger looking, Wood Storks can be common along the coastline in the southeast though they don’t go much further north up the coast than this area, so I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. As it turned out, this was the only one I’d see on the day, so I’m glad I was the one that spotted it.

One of the rather large American Alligators that was pulled up on the banks of the freshwater marshes on Bull's Island in South Carolina!

After stepping off the boat and onto the island, we walked a little ways down a gravel roadway toward an open field that had a few buildings, including a bathroom. On the way, I pished a few times to get some warblers to come screaming in so Christopher could see them. Palm Warblers, Yellow-rumps, and even some Ruby-crowned Kinglets were the main species that came towards us when I’d make the pishing sounds, they seemed aggravated by it. Given the limited time on the island, we took the Turkey Walk Trail counter-clockwise, wandering through some pretty thick palmetto forest. Along the way, we saw some Eastern Phoebes, but it wasn’t until we crossed the Summerhouse Road and split between two large freshwater impoundments that the wildlife really began to show up. As we got to the first pond, birds scattered off the water and I wasn’t able to see them clearly enough, but figuring them to be Coots or Gallinules. While I was looking around for the birds, Ruth spotted a 7-8 foot long American Alligator on a mudflat out in the pond not far away. We figured we were lucky to see this one, and thought perhaps no one else from the ferry had seen any yet. From there, we walked down a side trail towards an observation platform, but the high water had overtopped the trail and we couldn’t make it to the end. There was no way I was walking through any water here after seeing the gator. When we got back to the Turkey Walk Trail, we continued on, and suddenly American Alligators started running off the trail into the waterways on both sides. There was at least 15-20 of them along the banks, and several more already swimming out in the water. One large gator held firm up on the bank, facing us, so we didn’t want to continue in our direction. Fortunately, some other people were approaching along the trail from the opposite side, and so we backed off, knowing that as they neared, the gator would run forward to escape. Once they’d cleared us a path, we kept walking, though while waiting, I did get some photographs of my very first Common Gallinules, of which there was probably 20-30 moving through the thick marsh vegetation!

My second new life bird of the trip, this is a female Common Gallinule, not showing quite as vibrant coloring as the males, but still a beautiful species!

Along the walk between the ponds, I took a lot of photographs of the gators, and it was amazing to see how well some of them could blend in with the freshwater marsh. Even some of the ones that had pulled themselves onto the bank were tough to see. From this trail, we ended up meeting back up with the Beach Road, after a half mile walk through more palmetto forest, where the mosquitoes were actually pretty bad, keeping us walking at a good pace to avoid them. At the Beach Road, we headed south and met the ocean, where we looked for shells, and Sand Dollars for a little while. Ruth found one that was still alive so we put it back in the water, and Heather finally found one that was almost complete, though Christopher accidentally broke it later in the walk, so it didn’t make it home in one piece. From the beach, it was roughly 1.5 miles back to the ferry, so we started off the walk, finding more alligators on this side of the pond, and many more Common Gallinules as well, bringing the number up to at least 30 of them seen on the day, not bad for a life bird. I tried pishing a few more times, bringing in some White-throated Sparrows, but almost exclusively Yellow-rumped Warblers. One Northern Mockingbird was added near the meadow with the bathrooms. A group of 17 White Ibis was seen out over the tidal marsh just before we reached the ferry, and while awaiting its arrival, I got some nice photographs of a brilliantly colored Savannah Sparrow in the grass while everyone else was oblivious. When we hopped back on the ferry, we had flybys of Buffleheads, and several Snowy & Great Egrets. Even on the trip back, we did good with the birds though the angle of the sun was making it hard to capture most in photos unless they were in the perfect spot. American Oystercatchers were again the highlight, but Willets, Dowitchers, and Plovers were seen as well. Only one dolphin was encountered on the return trip, and it was a brief sighting, though dolphins are tough to photograph, and most shots end up just being of the water’s surface. When we reached the dock, there was some Short-billed Dowitchers feeding alongside in the exposed mudflats, and a Great Blue Heron was also seen, adding to the wading bird count for the day. Next year, I might do the earlier ferry at 9 AM, and explore more of the island, as it seemed like quite a place for wildlife, and the further out I can get away from the casual visitors, the more I’m likely to see.

One of the birds many folks refer to as "little brown jobs". Clearly, when one gets a good look or photo, there is much more than just brown to these sparrows!