Week Ending December 20, 2015

As last week finished up, so too did this week begin with unseasonably warm temperatures across the region. We’ve also surpassed the earliest sunset of the year, which occurred somewhere around December 6, though the days continue to get shorter until December 22 (the Winter Solstice is 21-22 Dec.). How can that be? Well, the sunrises are continuing to be later, so the total daytime is still truncating. On the plus side, this means that each day we get a minute or so more of daylight in the ‘evenings’, though it of course won’t truly be noticeable until March when Daylight Savings Time begins again and we see the sunset occur after 7 PM. Mid-November through early March are always the most difficult time frame for me to get through, since I feel a bit trapped in darkness during the work week. At least this week, by the time Saturday arrived and I could get outside, the temperatures had fallen significantly, being only 36 degrees when I left in the morning. With this push of cooler air, and a strong north wind, I thought perhaps it was the ideal day to find some waterfowl that might have arrived along with on their migrations southward. I actually got a later start than usual, heading out after 8 AM, which is very atypical for me in wintertime, but when I did get out, I headed straight up to Pleasure House Point hoping to find some ducks on the creek. Unfortunately the waterfowl didn’t seem to have gotten the memo, and while I saw a good share of Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers, the only other species I could find was a pair of American Black Ducks; a very surprising day for lack of waterfowl. No Gadwall, Wigeons, Shovelers, or Pintails were seen, all of which can be found in large groups as we get deeper into winter on Pleasure House Creek. Early in 2015, a Eurasian Wigeon was also mixed in with the groups of dabblers that made the creek their winter home. But on Saturday, it wasn’t meant to be. I did see three Greater Yellowlegs, and I met Mike DeRousse & Chip Allen finally, also running into Eric Alton, three of whom are members of the HRWE group on Facebook, with Chip being one of the admins now. A Northern Harrier, and a pair of Bald Eagles provided some entertainment, and I did see a flock of 10 Brants, my first of the season, though they’ve been present on the Lynnhaven for some time already.

One of our most colorful wintering ducks, the drake Hooded Merganser!

After Pleasure House Point turned out to be not so great, I decided to head across the CBBT up to the Eastern Shore in the hopes that maybe waterfowl were moving south, but just didn’t want to cross the bay during the windy conditions. I stopped at the first island, finding the large flock of Ring-billed Gulls with some Herring & Great Black-backs mixed in, some Rock Pigeons, Sanderlings, and not much else. No ducks here either, not even the highly sought after Long-tailed Ducks that frequent the channel between the islands. Harlequins were another hope of mine since they and Common Mergansers are the only remaining species of ducks that have been observed in Virginia Beach this year that I haven’t seen. Crossing northward into Northampton County I did find some Common Loons on the water, but surprisingly no flocks of Scoters, which should be around in good numbers. Driving over Fisherman Island, Black Vultures were all over as usual, and some shorebirds and waders could be seen along the muddy shorelines, exposed by the tide. My first stop on the Eastern Shore was at Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR, but upon arrival, the area where the trails are was gated off, apparently due to hunting going on. So, I drove up the Seaside Road, and stopped at Magothy Bay Natural Area Preserve instead. Here, I walked the loop counter-clockwise, and found it difficult to see much with the strong winds. No flocks of anything were in the air, and I had just one flurry of songbird activity in a deep area of the forest where the winds couldn’t penetrate. When I arrived back into the songbird habitat west of the woods, I spooked some Northern Flickers, and had overhead passes of Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, and a Northern Harrier that lifted off from the trail ahead of me. But, the most excitement of the day didn’t occur until I reached the parking area, and walked back towards Bull’s Drive. On the drive in I had spooked some sparrows off the ground, thinking they were all Savannahs, so I wanted to give it a check before I left. In walking along the farm field edge, a few birds flushed and flew east with the wind into the nearest thicket. When I put binoculars on them, they looked different than anything I’d seen before, and I at first thought they might be longspurs. I snapped some quick photographs before they flew away, though I did find also a White-crowned Sparrow & and Orange-crowned Warbler in the same thicket. I sent the photographs out to Jason Strickland, Ron Furnish & Todd Day, and the consensus was that they were Vesper Sparrows, though my photographs were less than ideal but still distinctive. That was a new life bird, so a good way to end my weekly blogs! I headed back to the southside after driving a bit on the Seaside Road up to Oyster and back, but my second stop on the first island yielded nothing interesting, only a single Black Scoter & Red-breasted Merganser in terms of waterfowl.

A new life bird, a Vesper Sparrow, seen at Magothy Bay Natural Area Preserve on Saturday!

On Sunday, I was hell bent on getting an earlier start, so I headed out at 6:30 AM while the sun had yet to rise. I actually couldn’t sleep for some reason from about 3 to 4:30 AM, and was contemplating heading out super early to hunt for Great Horned Owls, but, I must have finally fallen asleep. I arrived to my destination, Back Bay NWR, at about 7:15 AM, just as the sun was shining above the horizon. In the low lights, I went out first to the beach to grab some sunrise photographs, and to let the light get a bit higher. On the way I spooked a pair of Mallards from the nearby pond, but it was otherwise quiet. After the trip back to the parking area from the beach, I walked the Bay Trail, Bayside Trail, and Kuralt Trails. There wasn’t much in the way of activity along the Bay Trail until I reached the west end, where Yellow-rumped Warblers were all over the place, and some Red-winged Blackbirds were pretty loud in the reeds. I did find a Swamp Sparrow and at least a couple Marsh Wrens along the trail as well, which are becoming an every outing find lately. On the bay west of the kayak launch, about 235 Tundra Swans could be seen at a distance, with a group of about 12 in fairly close. Near those, a nice surprise, of two Canvasbacks could be seen and photographed. This is one of the waterfowl I’ve yet to ever get close enough too for a nice photo, but this was a step in the right direction. Other waterfowl present were Canada Geese, Gadwall, Hooded Merganser, and American Wigeon. A single Northern Harrier was also perched out in the marsh reeds staring intently towards the ducks. One Bald Eagle, a youngster, was seen in flight as well, rounding out the raptors. I finished up the walk with a trip around the Loop Road, but birds were few and far between here, with the sounds of Eastern Towhee, American Crow and Blue Jays being about the only ones identifiable. I headed out of the park and then drove along Charity Neck Road, Horn Point Road, and Morris Neck Road in the hopes of finding some flocks of meadow birds (Pipits, Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, etc.), but to no avail.

Only present in the area during wintertime, this is an Orange-crowned Warbler, seen in a thorny thicket on the Eastern Shore!

I stopped at Princess Anne WMA’s Whitehurst Tract like I usually do on Sunday outings this time of year since it is the only day it is open to birders due to hunting Monday through Saturdays. When I got out of the car, I found a bit sign reading “This Management area is CLOSED except for Quota waterfowl hunts”. Incredibly bummed out, I tossed my stuff back in the car, and left the area. This spot is pretty much the only public area in southern Virginia Beach, but it appears that I can no longer bird there, which is incredibly unfortunate, and I’m a bit perturbed that I pay $20/year for an access pass to the WMAs in Virginia, so that only hunters can use them. After cursing a bit, I drove around Pungo on Morris Neck, Campbells Landing, Back Bay Landing, and Fitztown Roads seeking out more meadow birds. In the process I did see a lot, good numbers of Chipping Sparrows, a big group of Eastern Meadowlarks, Killdeer, but no Pipits. It seems this is one bird that is just going to continue to elude me while I’m birding by myself, but at least I did see my first with Todd Day on November 14th, the last day I’ve added any birds to my county list in fact. I crossed the Pungo Ferry Bridge and checked around Blackwater for birds, stopping at Milldam Creek Boardwalk for a quick walk, but not finding anything unusual. So, I headed to Stumpy Lake Natural Area thinking perhaps I’d find that Common Gallinule reported a couple weeks. No go on that either unfortunately, and though I think I saw a Blue-headed Vireo high up in the trees along the trail, I couldn’t get a good enough look to be certain, that would have been a nice find since they’re quite rare here in winter, restricted to primarily First Landing State Park. That pretty much rounded it out though and I headed home for the week.

Another of our winter inhabitants, this time a Savannah Sparrow seen at Back Bay NWR on Sunday morning!

This of course concludes my 100th weekly entry into this blog! This blog is surely something that became more and more expansive over time as my understanding of birds moved from a true beginner to somewhere in the intermediate realm. It unfortunately has just become an area of the website that I will be halting so I can put time towards other things. I will continue to write blog articles as rare birds pop up in the area, but they will not be weekly entries by any means (See Bruce Mactavish’s Newfoundland Birding Blog as an example). In discontinuing the weekly blog, it will allow me to build up other areas of my website, so keep checking in, and remember that there is two full years of blog entries that can be of great resource when trying to see what I was finding at any point in the year. Also, I will continue to post additional write-ups to the ‘Articles’ section of the website when I feel one is warranted, like the Kiptopeke Challenge write up was done previously. I will be posting a complete review of my 2015 Virginia Beach “County Big Year” there in the coming weeks, of which it appears 207 species is going to be my final count unless something changes in the next week, so an overwhelming success given my initial goal was to hit 200 species. Any persons who do read this blog, or use my website for any reason, should make sure to follow its public page counterpart on Facebook, RBNature.com, since I post updates there whenever something on the website is changed around or added too! At some point in time, my domain name will likely change since this has really become a birding page for Virginia Beach, so if at any point in time my site can’t be found, I’ll post the new information on the Facebook page, make sure to add it to your ‘likes’! Lastly, I’d like to thank all the folks that have been reading the weekly blog (most notably my mother, Peggy, and my wife, Ruth). It has been my pleasure over the last 2 years to present all this information to you, and while I look forward to having extra time for other things, I know I’ll undoubtedly miss writing it each week. Hopefully in doing so, it will afford me the ability to improve the rest of the site, with my end-goal of making this website into the go to source for all information related to birds in Virginia Beach for amateurs and experts alike!

The final photograph of my 100 weekly blog entries, an American Robin! This species was one of my grandmother's favorite birds, and though she'll never get the opportunity to read this blog, it felt like more than a coincidence that this was my last bird of the day! For those who've made it this far, thank you for following this weekly blog, it has been a wonderful experience, and may the same birding spark be ignited in you! -Rob