On Friday evening after work, I made a quick trip up to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in search of Harlequin Ducks. Earlier in the day, they had been spotted out on North Thimble Island, which is inaccessible to individuals, but as I’d find out later in the day, the Virginia Society of Ornithology held a trip out there that was escorted officially to the spots not typically open to the public. In arriving at South Thimble Island around 3:25 PM, I parked on the southeast corner, and walked the island counter-clockwise as I typically do. On my first pass around the island, birds seen were primarily the large flock of Ring-billed Gulls at the northeast and west sides, numbering about 350 individuals form a quick count by fives. Sanderling were on the rocks in a couple double-digit groups, and Ruddy Turnstones were also seen in a few spots, though they spend their entire year out on the rocky man-made islands of the CBBT. Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls were also numerous, with most Herrings sitting among the Ring-billeds, and most Great Black-backed in the air encircling the island. Several boats were positioned off the northern point of the island, which was unfortunate since this is where I’d hoped to see waterfowl. Harlequin Ducks like to stick close in to the rocks, or rest on them and it is tough to see the water-side of the rocks everywhere on the island except for along this rocky point. The fishing pier does provide an opportunity to view towards the island, rather than from it, but this didn’t yield any ducks either. I spent some time on the north side of the island though, just watching the horizon with binoculars, and eventually picked up a single Red-breasted Merganser, and a single Black Scoter. A couple of birders passed me with a scope, and I ran into a 3rd birder who identified himself as Rich Rieger, whose name was familiar to me since he posts on listserv. The other two eventually came back to where we were watching, and one of them turned out to be Jack Esworthy, another VA birder from the Richmond area and his visiting friend from Colorado, Todd. All three individuals were in town for the pelagic trip set to go out of Lynnhaven Inlet in the morning, and I was glad that Jack mentioned he got sick on his last trip out. Up until then I was on the fence about using my seasickness patches for my first trip, wondering if it’d be better to find out if I did fine without them, or to just rely on them. Well, after hearing that, I made the logical choice to use them on Saturday morning. While the 4 of us were watching, we had some distant flybys of Red-throated Loons, a good sized flock of Black Scoters, and a set of Surf Scoters as well. No Great Cormorants were seen this outing, and sadly, no Harlequins.
Saturday morning came all too quickly. I tried to get to sleep early on Friday night, but I think the combination of anxiety and excitement over my first offshore pelagic birding trip just got the better of me. I think I finally fell asleep around 10:30 or 11 PM, and then got up at 4:15 AM to ready myself for the boat, which was set to leave Lynnhaven Inlet at 6 AM sharp for a full day on the open ocean. After getting my pack & gear all ready, I applied the seasickness patch I had gotten from the pharmacy, and headed out the door into the darkness towards Dockside restaurant, our point of departure. When I arrived just after 5:30 AM, the Storm Petrel II was sitting at the dock behind the restaurant. I’ve eaten many a lunch & dinner at this one, and it is one of my favorites in Virginia Beach, but this was the first time I had been there before the sun even rose, and without any food to enjoy. A side exit to the restaurant allowed us to wait on the outdoor veranda area as the boat was being loaded up by the crew, first mate Kate Sutherland and captain Brian Patteson. As more and more folks showed up, the boat became readied, and we started to pile in, shoving our gear under the benches in the cabin of the boat wherever they would fit. One very nice thing about this trip being out of Virginia Beach was that while I was anxious, it was leaving from my own home area, which provided quite a bit of comfort. Just being familiar with surroundings can make all the difference when trying something new & exciting. Something else that added to the experience was that I knew quite a few of the folks who were going out, including Jason Strickland who I took part in the Kiptopeke Challenge with back in September, Jane Scott Norris, who runs the HRWE group on Facebook and worked with me as an admin while I was still involved last year, and several folks that I’ve had contact with through Facebook, listserve and eBird.
After a few quick minutes of direction from Brian, we got underway. Shortly after, I finally got to meet Ned Brinkley in person, after many online only interactions when discussing birds since he’s in the HRWE group and he’s also the eBird regional reviewer for Virginia Beach, the Eastern shore & surrounding counties. For those unfamiliar with Ned (you must not be a birder!), among many other items, he is the author of my favorite photo ID guide to North American Birds, and he also is the editor for the North American Birds journal put out by the American Birding Association. It was pretty incredible to see how he could pick out birds at a distance and identify them with accuracy throughout the trip. Also on board acting as a spotted alongside Ned was Todd Day. Todd is the one who got me involved in eBird not too long ago, and also took me out during the Rarity Roundup in November around Virginia Beach, helping me to find birds I didn’t even know I could get here. We were certainly in good hands with these guys running point on the boat. As we departed from Lynnhaven, I got to see a different side of the Lesner Bridge for once, and we pulled out to pretty calm water on the Chesapeake Bay while headed out towards Cape Henry and the open ocean. Nearshore, we saw plenty of Double-crested Cormorants and gulls through the darkness that enshrouded the boat as the sun was just starting to rise up over the eastern horizon. As we neared the cape, and moved out into more open waters, the chop increased on the waves, and I could certainly feel the movement of the boat as we trudged onward at an angle into the oncoming winds. At that point I felt very happy that I chose to wear the seasickness patch on my neck, as the movement was very noticeable, even though the more experienced birders said it was still calm. While heading out from the cape to the northeast, we picked up some Red-throated Loons, a Common Loon, and we even had a Jaeger chasing a Herring Gull quickly around at a distance. Initially, the loudspeakers had called it out as a Parasitic Jaeger, and I was really excited because it was to be a new bird on my Virginia Beach list since we were still close enough to shore that Northampton County’s waters hadn’t yet taken over. However, after the trip, it turned out that there wasn’t enough of a look to be certain it wasn’t a Pomarine Jaeger, so it remained uncountable for my purposes. But, I didn’t know that til much later, so I was very excited at the time, and with good reason, either way I’d never seen a Jaeger before, and I called it out before I heard it on the loudspeaker, so something for me to build some confidence off.
Up until this point in my birding ‘career’, I’ve only read about all these species, though I’ve done so quite intently as this date neared, I still had no idea what to expect when seeing these birds in person and not just on the pages of a colorful guide book. After the jaeger excitement, we continued offshore and eventually neared a large platform that apparently is called the Chesapeake Light, situated about 15 miles off the Virginia Beach coastline, but far enough out on this morning that land couldn’t be seen. That was a bit of a strange feeling that took some getting used to, being so far out that land was no longer a landmark. Near the platform we had some good groups of Bonaparte’s Gulls which the spotters intently scanned for Little Gulls. Little Gulls are the world’s smallest species of gull, slightly smaller than the Bonaparte’s, but with a dark underwing visible in flight. Of course, I didn’t know all this prior to the trip, and was piecing much of it together while underway. None of the Littles were sighted so we continued on, and over the next couple hours headed straight out to sea in the general direction of Norfolk Canyon, a deep cut in the continental shelf that drops off from just a couple hundred feet on the mouth, to a few thousand feet at its exit to the abyssal plain. Of course, none of this was evident from the surface from my perspective, but interestingly, almost all the waters we were in were less than 150 feet deep, even 55 miles offshore according to the spotters. For a couple of hours, no birds at all were seen, and things appeared quite bleak. At one point, a Great Black-backed Gull flew in, and I can honestly say I’ve never been so excited at seeing one of these absurdly common birds! As we reached an area where the water temperature increased, and apparently the color also changed on the surface, Brian announced that we had arrived to the area he had been looking for. It is my understanding that the color difference occurs when water masses of different temperature come into contact with one another and aren’t mixed immediately.
After a little while of cruising around this region far removed from any landmarks, I saw a white flash on the eastern horizon. As I got my binoculars on the horizon, others saw it as well, and Todd ran up to the front for a better look. Shortly after the loudspeakers called out a Northern Fulmar in the distance, so Kate started to toss pieces of dead fish out the back, creating a trail for the bird to home in on. Eventually, gulls showed up, and the Fulmar moved in, provided great looks as it did so, but cruising by incredibly quickly. Its long wings and very stocky body made for easy identification, even for seeing my first one, but I was amazed that it could be called out so distant, apparently due to its flight trajectory. Just after the first pass of the Fulmar, someone yelled Phalarope! A group of 5 Red Phalaropes quickly moved across the water in front of the ship a hundred yards or so. Unfortunately they took to higher air and disappeared pretty quickly but I did get a single shot off with the water as a background before the moved up and blended into the sky. Throughout the next few hours, we had continuing flybys of Fulmars, and we were treated to an amazing show by several Great Shearwaters as well! Another new bird for me was the Black-legged Kittiwake, of which we saw many including both adults with beautiful yellow bills and juveniles with black bills. I have no idea exactly how many of each of these pelagic species we saw, since I had no means of saying whether some were duplicates or not given that they would likely follow the boat as we trudged forward and continued to chum the waters behind us. Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls continuously followed us, picking up pieces of fish as they hit the water, and Northern Gannets also put on a good show. We even had several age classes of the gannets, from true juvenile birds that were almost exclusively brown to second year birds with much more white, all the way up to the full adults and their beautiful marked facial features.
All the excitement made riding the waves in the 52 foot boat all the more fun, it is amazing how good moral can make seemingly tough situations into perfectly enjoyable ones. Of course, this was my first trip, so any waves were going to seem huge to me, but it seemed that it was a perfect first outing for me since it wasn’t too rough. However, I will say that the waves made for the most challenging day of photography I’ve ever encountered. Throughout the day, I snapped almost 700 photographs, and I’d say 90% of them were out of focus to the point where they should be deleted, but I never delete photographs given how available and cheap electronic storage is nowadays. The only time I seemed to have trouble though on the boat was when I’d go into the cabin. As soon as I went in there, it felt like I was in a closed box that someone was shaking in all directions, and I immediately had the horrible sensation of not knowing which way as up. I learned through a few trips in and out to retrieve things from my pack that as long as I kept my eyes out the door and on the horizon, I did just fine. It seemed, as I was warned by Todd prior to the trip, that it is really only when your eyes don’t have a fixed viewpoint, and your ears are telling your brain that you’re moving that you begin to suffer issues. Needless to say, I spent as little time as I could inside the cabin, so next time I know to pack some snacks into my own pockets, and filter cloth as well to clean my lens & binoculars. That was an ordeal on its own, trying to keep everything clean and clear while ocean waters sprayed onto all of us; a near impossible task but incredibly important when trying to photograph fast moving seabirds. For several hours we remained out on the ‘high seas’ and enjoying continuous looks at birds. At one point, I got extremely comfortable with the surroundings and felt like I was actually able to call out some birds at far distance with binoculars. The sun was shining all day, and I was down to just a fleece top and my Carhartt baseball cap, rather than the full winter Carhartt coat and knit cap I started the day with. Temperatures must have come up to right around 60 degrees, and it felt great on the protected side of the boat.
Once we started heading back towards the coast, it definitely cooled off though and it wasn’t long before I had to don the heavier gear once again. The waves also seemed to pick up, with the swell greatly increased, and the choppiness going down a bit. I have no way to gauge it, but the wave swells had to have been about 8 or 10 feet or more from trough to crest, it was pretty awesome to see! On the way back, we still had some great birds following us, and we did get another group of Red Phalaropes fly across in front of us. Unfortunately none of them landed on the water this time either, so we never got closer looks at them. Our final new bird of the day came when we were about an hour from the sunset, as a pair of Razorbills flew up northward behind the boat at a pretty good distance. I grabbed a couple bad photographs just to document, but they were far too out for my 400mm lens. It was much more enjoyable to just watch these alcids as they flew through the frames of my binoculars. Further along we came upon some more massive flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls, and Brian put us in position to again scan for Little Gulls mixed in. I was all the way up front on the boat this time and noticed shapes moving underwater near the flock. I thought they were Mahi (Dolphinfish) because of the green shape, but apparently that was partly due to the water, and they were actually Little Tunny, which the internet informs me are the most abundant species of tuna found in the Atlantic. The fish were clearly feeding on a school of smaller fish, and this is likely what brought all the Bonaparte’s Gulls in. Several thousand birds were in one flock, and it was always shifting and cycling as the birds rode up on the waves the took to the air, incredible to watch, though no Little Gulls were found.
Over the remainder of the trip, with ever darkening skies as the sun set far over the horizon, it was tough to seek out any new birds, and I wasn’t able to spot anything else near shore that might be a new Virginia Beach species. I got the chance to talk more to Jason and Jane, and Ernie Miller & Jessica Ausura who live up on the peninsula as well. We even had a pair of dolphin breach just off the boat as the sun was going down over Cape Henry, which was awesome, but not a single person on the boat pulled a photograph of that off since it was a one and done leap. The sun eventually set with the Westin hotel visible directly in front of it, roughly 20 miles or more away from where we were on the water; it was pretty incredible how the timing worked out, though my photographs will do no justice to how pretty this was. After the sun went down, we had about one more hour before we arrived back at the docks, and this was a cold hour for me with the sun’s light no longer warming me up. Also, it had been about twelve hours since I’d used the bathroom, since I didn’t want to lose sight of the horizon by going into the tiny, enclosed bathrooms on the boat, so needless to say, I was excited to get home afterwards! I did find out that the bathroom had a plexi-glass window so the horizon was still visible, something I’ll remember for next time, but this trip out for surely a learning experience in many regards. We made it back in just before 6 PM, and I went home afterwards, cleaned up, cooked dinner, and passed out, fully exhausted from the day. The trip was a lot more physical than I’d expected, as just trying to keep your body in position with the all the movement made for a workout. Jamming legs and waist up against the rails in order to use both hands freely on the binoculars and camera made for a few bruises after the long amounts of exposure, but well worth it, and I would highly recommend the trips to any birder who is trying to make the leap from a casual watcher of birds to a more serious observer. The ocean is referred to as “The Last Birding Frontier” for good reason, and I was very fortunate to have taken part in exploring a tiny bit of it!
As with Saturday, Sunday morning came too quickly, but this time I allowed myself to sleep in for a little while, getting up around 7 AM instead of my usual 6 AM daily routine. Interestingly, I sort of felt weird all night after getting off the boat since nothing was moving around me like I’d been in for the prior 12 hours. I decided to head down to Back Bay NWR for a more typical day of birding, arriving just after 8 AM to find a huge number of birders there. Apparently the Virginia Society of Ornithology (VSO) was having their field trip there after doing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel & Eastern Shore on Friday and Saturday. I parked in my spot at the base of the Bay Trail and headed down it westward, noting plenty of Yellow-rumped Warblers, some Red-winged Blackbirds, and two chatty Marsh Wrens before reaching the small pond near the end. I could hear a Kingfisher nearby, and found a Pied-billed Grebe in close at the final observation area. At the secondary viewing point, looking north, there was about 150 Tundra Swans visible though way too far away for a good photograph. Ducks were among them, with some Canada Geese as well. In the bay nearer, adjacent to the fishing pier, there was a solid group of Gadwall, but I didn’t note any other species mixed in like I had in weeks past. A few Hooded Merganser were associating with each other, detached from the dabblers. A Horned Grebe flew past, and I could see a few Forster’s Terns far out across the bay through my binoculars. Upon reaching the pier after walking the Bayside Trail boardwalk, I ran into Donald Freeman & Dennis Tompkins, and then also bumped into Bob Ake, who was there to lead the VSO field trip. I walked north to the Kuralt Trail, and got a brief glimpse of an Orange-crowned Warbler before it dove into the brush, just as Bob and two other birds who I recognized from the pelagic trip on Saturday approached. The bird refused to pop back out unfortunately, and Bob had to go lead the trip southward to False Cape SP, but the three of us kept looking to no avail. It turned out the duo was John Pancake & Barrie Kinzie, two named I’ve seen pop up plenty on eBird and listserv, John has a top ten state total I believe this year. We scanned from the north end of the Kuralt Trail, finding a Bald Eagle in the process, but it was pretty quiet so I headed out after a little while.
With all the VSO members getting to ride the dikes to False Cape, I figured if anything neat was going to be seen at Back Bay, I wasn’t going to be the one to get on it, so it made sense to go elsewhere to see if a change in location might bring about some new birds. I went over to Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area’s Whitehurst Tract since it was Sunday, and this is the only day of the week the park is open to non-hunting activities during this point in the year, though eBird lists continually show up on days where no one should be out there, so it doesn’t seem to be enforced. I still wouldn’t want to be out birding in the brush when hunters are ready to spray the area thinking you’re a deer. In walking the outer perimeter, I was again disappointed by the fact that the impoundments were not flooded with water, thus not providing much habitat for waterfowl. I at least saw a pair of Green-winged Teal, 4 Mallards, and a pair of Double-crested Cormorants on the northern cell of the southern half (the Ruff impoundment), but that was it for waterbirds. Three White Ibis on flybys added to the total, and there was of course plenty of sparrows and wrens to keep me busy. The prettiest surprise was likely a Pine Warbler, and interestingly I did add a female Common Yellowthroat, making that four warblers on the day, something very difficult to do in Virginia Beach in December. Only Palm Warblers were missed of the five species that winter here, and I’m not even certain Palms truly winter in the city’s boundaries but they show up at times so they’re counted as winter residents. I spent the next couple of hours driving around Pungo, and Blackwater trying to turn up whatever I could find. In the process, I got some Eastern Meadowlarks on Munden Road, several Northern Harriers at various fields, lots of Chipping Sparrows while trying to seek out American Pipits off Fitztown Road, and I even added another Red-shouldered Hawk at Milldam Creek’s Boardwalk where Todd Day had got me on one back in November. All in all, it was a great way to wrap up another weekend of now-winter birding, but the highlight of the week was obviously the time spent on the pelagic trip!