Week Ending January 24, 2016

The third week of January will be remembered for the massive Nor’easter that impacted the East Coast from Friday through Sunday. During the earlier portions of the week, as weather forecasts came more in line with a major blizzard event occurring, we began to develop lower and lower temperatures. On Tuesday, the first ice of the year began to form around the edges of freshwater ponds and at the extreme upper reaches of tidal creeks. This process continued through the weekend as temperatures stayed below freezing for most of the time, reaching lows in the upper teens (F). By Friday, the weather began to degrade, and snow fell across the region in the morning hours, only to melt in the afternoon at least on the south-side of Hampton Roads. Saturday it was the reverse, bitter cold and rain/sleet early, turning to snow in the afternoon, though accumulating much more through the evening and nighttime hours. Sunday morning revealed the full extent of accumulation, which was probably only 1-2” in Virginia Beach, but in places along the East Coast between Virginia and Connecticut, that total rose to 40”. Despite the poor weather leading up to Sunday, there was a lot of interesting finds around Virginia Beach this week. A major highlight came on Thursday when Karen & Tom Beatty informed me of a first-year male Common Eider that was sighted in the outlet of Rudee Inlet, just inside the jetty. This bird was last seen at this site two weeks prior, after having first been found by Ned Brinkley while on a break from the Little Creek Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on 31 Dec 2015. Little Blue Herons continue to be a target bird for most birders as there is at least a pair of immature birds still present at Pleasure House Point Natural Area. There was one report in eBird noting 3 individuals, but no photograph was provided showing all three in the same frame, and the report lacked any mention of Snowy Egrets, which look very similar to the immature Little Blues. So the confirmed total remains at 2 birds here, with the first having been sighted 12 Dec 2015. If these birds start to make a habit of spending the winters here, it’ll be a species I may move to “permanent resident” status in Virginia Beach, rather than just an expected “summer resident” as they are noted thus far. With the inclement weather, most folks around the city were on feederwatch duties, given they couldn’t really get out for longer birding stints. Because of all the hours logged at bird feeders, there was of course, some interesting finds. MC Miguez had a Pine Siskin visit her feeder, of which there haven’t been too many reports this month. A Rose-breasted Grosbeak has been visiting the residence of Tommy Maloney for a couple weeks now, which is highly unusual at this point in the year here. But, probably the weirdest sighting came from the Lake Smith area where Tracy Tate photographed a beautiful Yellow-throated Warbler perched on the side of her house, a species that should certainly be nowhere near Virginia right now. The Gold Book notes that an individual overwintered in this area back in the winter of 2005-6.

A pair of Hooded Merganser drakes rides out the storm on Kings Grant Lakes!

Over the last month while I’ve taken a break from writing this blog, I realized that it is probably the most enjoyable aspect for me to work on for my website. I love to write, and I love birds, so I decided to take a stab at keeping up with this information again. This blog is of course written from my point of view, so some items and opinions should obviously be taken with a grain of salt, but, as far as the information on the weather, and the bird sightings in the area, I think it is important that someone is taking note of these things. It will come in handy down the road as climate change and other factors continue to affect the world around us, and the birds that inhabit that world. I did get a few weeks to further develop the “Distribution” portion of the website, and I would invite all readers of this blog to go check that section out, it has some great information, and very useful links coded in to assist in navigation around eBird. It can be found on the top of the page, where the main ribbon displays the site sections, just click “Distribution” and go to “Overview”, or one of the other pages listed below it. Most of this came about as a result of the work I’ve been doing since early November with managing the eBird filters for Virginia Beach, so just know that hundreds of hours went into researching and creating these color-coded tables. Anyone can now see which species are considered to be permanent residents, summer residents, winter residents, transients, rarities, and even species that have been accepted in Virginia by the Virginia Avian Records Committee (VARCOM) but have no confirmed reports within Virginia Beach (yet!). These tables should be of great help to anyone who attempts to maximize the number of species that can find within the county in a given year, as the Filter Code numbers range from the birds that are here the longest (Code 1) which means you have all year to find them, to the rarities (Code 4) that may only show up one time during the year, and you must attempt to see the bird if someone reports it. Of course, winter & summer residents are a bit tougher than permanent residents, but still easier to target than the transients that move through in spring & fall. I put a lot of thought into this, and I’m using an excel version of the tables to cross off species in 2016. Thus far I have knocked off 70 of the 90 Code 1 permanent residents, 34 of the 66 winter residents, and 1 summer resident (the previously mentioned Little Blue Heron). If anyone is interested in getting the excel file so they can do the same, just let me know & I will gladly send it out, in fact, I might post it for download in the coming week. Having said that, I’d like to continue on with the sightings I had over the last week, and I’ll be keeping in this format of discussing the weather & area observations up top, then delving more into my personal ventures into birding over the last week (Monday-Sunday time periods as before).

Tundra Swans were seen in huge numbers at Back Bay NWR when the weather cleared Sunday!

Having observed the ice beginning to form on my morning commute through Kings Grant on Tuesday, I was hopeful that someone might be in for a great surprise in the coming week as far as waterfowl went. Last year following a heavy snowfall & ice-up of the lakes, a Eurasian Wigeon was found among a group of other dabbling ducks that had taken up residence on the only available open water they could find. I figured with the ice beginning to form, this same thing might occur again somewhere in Virginia Beach. With that in mind, I took my binoculars to work each day so I could do a quick scan of my own neighborhood’s ponds as I passed by on the evening commute home. Heading into this week, I had observed 93 species of birds in Virginia Beach, which is a pretty darn good start especially given that my wife & I had spent the first 8 days of the year in much warmer weather far south of here. A trip helping guide the HRWE out to the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel (CBBT) islands helped a bit, as did 3 more hefty weekend days of birding. Of course, there was several glaring holes in my burgeoning yearly county list, which I’d hoped to fill this week, and in some cases succeeded. Waterfowl were my primary target, since the birds are present for the most part, only in winter, with a few species (Canada Goose, Mallard, American Black Duck, Wood Duck, Black Scoter, and Red-breasted Merganser) currently listed as permanent residents, though the merganser is on the line, and a bit of debate topic in this regard. On Tuesday evening, when I scanned the main lake at Kings Grant from the park, I caught sight of a male Northern Pintail (#94), and then picked out a gorgeous male Redhead (#95) as well! I hadn’t brought my camera, but for a Redhead, I made the quick trip home to get it and came back to the same spot to find it was no longer there. I drove around Watergate to the outlet of the lake, and sure enough, it was sitting in shallow water with a few Mallards around it. By this point (about 4:30 PM), the sun had dipped below the tree line, so the lighting was awful, but I got photographs that proved the identity at least. So far, Redheads have been tough to find this year. In continuing around the lake, I also picked up a group of Green-winged Teal on the pond south of Edinburgh Drive (#96), so it was a great success to knock off 3 winter residents in an after-work outing.

Our most common winter warbler, the Yellow-rumped Warbler positions itself nicely for a photograph!

I tried to repeat this success on Wednesday, and Thursday as well, but nothing new showed up at the lake, though there was at least 12 different waterfowl species observed in the evenings, with a single female Greater Scaup, and a single Gadwall joining the Redhead for toughest to spot in the groupings of ducks. I did get to add another duck to my list on Thursday though, at lunchtime when I got a message from Karen Beatty stating that the Common Eider (#97) had returned to Rudee Inlet. This bird had been present early in the year, but was gone by the time I came back to Virginia, so I had been hoping it would return, or that more would show up around the islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel like they often do in winter. Thankfully, I had my camera at work that day since I was expecting to swing by Kings Grant Lakes after work, and I was able to make a quick trip over my lunchbreak down to the inlet, photograph and observe the bird, and then head back to the office. On Friday, the snow was coming down really fast and heavy in the morning hours, and much of the businesses in the city closed early; mine did not. But, fortunately, it actually stopped around lunchtime, and then began to melt anyway, so in leaving work at my normal time, I avoided the barrage of accidents that occurred as everyone attempted to drive home from work during the worst of the snow. On Saturday morning, there was a bit of a break in the weather system early, so I went up to South Thimble Island (Island #1) on the CBBT in the hopes that groups of waterfowl might be seeking refuge on the leeward side of the island. When I arrived it was just after 7 AM, and it was 33 degrees and misting rain, with 25-30 mph winds driving in from the northwest. Basically, it was as miserable as it can get. I’d much prefer it was colder, and snowing rather than spraying rain all around. Being wet in cold weather is the worst, you never get a chance to dry out, and no matter what you’re wearing, your body is going to get cold, quickly. Having only spotted a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers, and a few Scoters, I thought it was going to be a bust, but, Double-crested Comorants began to funnel out of the bay in groups of hundreds, which made for a pretty amazing view. Clearly, the birds were leading a mass exodus from the bay in search of calmer waters, though I’m not sure they’d find those on the ocean given wave heights were in the teens of feet. Actually, I was supposed to be on my second pelagic birding trip out on the ocean Saturday, but the storm obviously made that get cancelled well in advance. Sadly, it was the last scheduled outing of the season, so I’ll have to wait another year at least to go out from Virginia Beach, but I did have a great time on the 5 Dec 2015 trip, and we had the best luck of all the trips then anyway.

The only cooperative Carolina Chickadee I could find this week, but glad to get this single shot off!

Around 7:30 AM, Andrew Baldelli pulled up next to me on the island, so it appeared I wasn’t the only crazy person hoping the bad weather might drive some interesting birds in to the refuge of the man-made islands. He showed me a spot on the island where we could watch without being right in the wind and rain, though it was still cold, but at least we could scan the seas for birds fairly well. Surf and Black Scoters eventually came in good numbers to the point, and a few Long-tailed Ducks landed and flew past. A group of Lesser Scaup (#98) was observed as well, with their pointier heads than the Greaters I have been seeing up to this point. Shortly after we’d been there, Andrew shouted ‘Alcid!’ and I immediately put the binoculars up, but had trouble getting on the target bird since it was so far out. He identified it as a Razorbill, and as a native New Yorker, he no doubt has a ton of experience with these birds which are rare down here, but common further up the east coast in winter. I couldn’t pick out the identifying marks I was looking for, mostly because my binoculars were clogged up with water droplets, and it was a quick look, so I opted to leave it off my list until I can get a better look at one. Sadly, that would have been not just a first of year (FOY) bird, but a county lifer, and had I not seen a pair on the pelagic trip in December, it would have been a state lifer. Though, when I have even a small doubt in my mind about what I saw, I don’t list it, and I think that is important so that folks know if I report something, it is always something I am sure of. There is no doubt in my mind that he had it right, and that is why he reported it as such, so by me not reporting it, it doesn’t hurt the eBird data either since it does show up, just not by me. I hung out for a half hour more or so, with him kind enough to give me a pair of gloves since holding binoculars and a camera makes it impossible to keep naked hands warm. We saw some Red-throated Loons, and he must have had some Horned Grebes after I left since they were included in his eBird report, but I unfortunately wasn’t there for that. I took off at about 8:20 with the rain picking up again, and headed home for the day. Interestingly, Ruth & I went to see a movie in the afternoon, and when we came out of the theatre, the ground was completely covered in snow again.

One of many Sanderlings seeking refuge on the beach at Back Bay in the wake of the massive nor'easter!

Overnight on Saturday (into Sunday), the full force of the nor’easter crippled much of the east coast, but southeastern Virginia was relatively un-impacted. The northerly winds of course caused tidal levels on the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean coastlines to rise dramatically, so tidal flooding form storm surge was present, but that wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The highest reading at the CBBT tide gauge in Virginia Beach was 5.723 feet above mean lower-low water (MLLW, the average of all the lower of the two low tides each day calculated over the full tidal epoch, 1983 to 2001 per NOAA). This is a significant event, but we’ve certainly seen for worse here. For example, the nor’easter of November 2009 cause a water level rise here of 7.609 feet, almost 2 feet higher. Given the high waters in the morning hours, I decided to stay away from northern Virginia Beach, where the impacts would be much worse given the orientation of the Chesapeake Bay’s wave setup. Back Bay was the ideal selection, and it is my favorite Sunday morning spot anyway since it allows me to then visit Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area’s Whitehurst Tract afterwards, which is only open on Sundays for birding this time of year. Fortunately, the storm had moved up the coast, and though we were still catching the driving winds, the sun was shining bright, and not a cloud was in the sky. Temperatures remained in the upper 20s (F), and as a result, plenty of snow & ice remained. It took a bit longer to get down to Back Bay as a result, with the worst part just trying to get out of my neighborhood since Virginia Beach puts all the available resources into clearing the interstates, then the secondaries, and typically the residential streets will just melt before they are ever cleared by machinery. Given that I left for Back Bay around 6:30 AM, it wasn’t surprising that I arrived at the park nearing 7:30. I did make a quick stop off at the Lotus Gardens on Sandbridge Road to scan for Wilson’s Snipe (I’d seen two after a snowfall last year here), but none were present. On the drive in through the gate, it was evident that there wasn’t going to be a crowd of birders present at the park, with just a single tire tread showing in the snow ahead of me. I rolled the windows down to listen for birds, but all I could hear was the thunderous sounds of the waves crashing on the opposite side of the sand dunes that prevent the water from reaching inland. It was this wave action that formed this spit of land in the first place though, as sand was dredged up along with the waves forming a spit of land.

A little bit of snow remained at Whitehurst Tract to help frame in this Swamp Sparrow!

Arriving at my usual parking spot at the base of the Bay Trail, it was confirmed that no one else was around. I walked the trail westward then took the cross-boardwalk to the Bayside Trail to see if any waterfowl were present. Before I could get close to the water, it was obvious there was plenty out there, as Tundra Swans were heard calling loudly. When I reached the water, there was a couple hundred of them in view, with mostly Gadwall and American Wigeon filling the voids. So far this year the variety of waterfowl has been abysmal, with just a few species typically present. I found some Mallards mixed in, but nothing like I’ve seen some winters. As mentioned above, I still had some holes in my list as far as ducks go, but clearly this wasn’t going to be the trip that plugged them. In this area I’d also hoped to get my first Marsh Wrens of the year, and though I had some movement in the reeds nearby, I couldn’t confirm any as such. The remainder of the Bay Trail proved very quiet, except for the typical winter population of Yellow-rumped Warblers. I scanned each carefully though, hoping to come across one that might be an Orange-crowned Warbler, Palm Warbler, or Common Yellowthroat, the three toughest of the five wintering warbler species in the area. I checked around the parking area with hopes of finding another American Woodcock like Ron Furnish & Marie Mullins had seen last year under similar weather conditions, though none were sighted. At the end of the Kuralt Trail, I picked up some American Black Ducks, and as I watched from here, I had a pair of Northern Harriers to the north, a Sharp-shinned Hawk right overhead that nearly hit me, and a Cooper’s Hawk (#99) that appeared to be moving south over the entry road, scaring up lots of birds in the process including Blue Jays, and Northern Flickers. In walking back around the parking lot, I picked up my first Savannah Sparrow of the year finally which rounded out #100! With the winds whipping overhead, I decided to walk the Seaside Trail down to the ocean, then walk the beach southward with the wind at my back. Carolina Chickadees, a Towhee, Cardinals, and Yellow-rumps were seen on the boardwalk, but again no Snipe were present like I’d hoped. The ocean was a complete mess of waves writhing up and down as far as the eye could see. As such, there was hardly any remaining beach to walk on, maybe a twenty foot swath before the dunes began, making this likely the highest I’ve ever seen the waters here. Fortunately, the sand was actually easy to walk on since it was frozen from the cold. A few Northern Gannets and various gulls were flying out over the water, including Bonaparte’s, but only a few ducks (Scoters) were seen. Some Sanderlings were working the shoreline, and among them was one Dunlin (#101) that took to flight before I could document it with a photograph.

My favorite shot of the weekend, this immature White Ibis was seen in a group of 21 feeding in farmfields adjacent to Back Bay Landing Road!

I headed back up on the Dune Trail to the Loop Road, and took it counter-clockwise around. Brian, the game warden at the park stopped by me, probably since I was the only one present, and we talked for a few minutes before he drove off down the East Dike. When I worked around to the east side of the loop, a pair of Killdeer were observed in a puddle of meltwater next to the gravel roadway. No snipe present though, and the birds didn’t stick around to let me get very close. Arriving back towards the vehicle, I did one last little loop around the visitor center, but didn’t note anything additional so I tossed my stuff into the passenger front seat in preparation for departure. Why the front seat? Because when I’d tried to open my back door on the driver’s side the door handle (frozen) ripped right off. That actually occurred at the house first thing in the morning, so a great start to the day. Well, as I closed the door a Snipe (#102) flew in right over top of me and by the time I got my camera out, it had disappeared into the trees. I drove exceedingly slow along the entry road leaving the park, but it wasn’t present on any of the ditch shorelines here, so I never got a second look, but the bill, skinny body, and flight was distinctive. After Back Bay, I made a quick stop at Little Island Park to see if I could land my first American Bittern of the year. The answer, was no unfortunately, and no birds were present on the water of the small, hidden cove near the kayak launch area. As I moved onward, the temperature continued to rise, so I figured I should hit all the open areas I could before the snow fully melted. The snow helps to push some forest species, like Fox Sparrows, out into the open along roadsides. Given that, I drove along some roads in Pungo like Princess Anne Road and Morris Neck Road, but didn’t turn up anything new, while on the way to Whitehurst Tract. There was a fair number of Chipping Sparrows, Eastern Bluebirds, and American Kestrels out and about though. Heading down Munden Road to the Whitehurst parking area I looked hard for Horned Larks and Meadowlarks, but neither appeared to be present. I did have some small birds pop up and disappear quickly, but they could have been Savannah Sparrow, or American Pipits even, another bird I’ve been targeting pretty heavily in these fields but so far unable to track down. Karen & Tom Beatty had some this week on Back Bay Landing Road so they are at least present somewhere in Virginia Beach, just a matter of time and effort and a lot of luck in locating a flock that is close enough to a roadway to be seen from the car.

Clapper Rails are mostly secretive birds that are tough to find, but this particular one went for a swim before disappearing in the reeds on the other shore!

At Whitehurst Tract, the trails were a slop-filled mess of muck and melting snow which made for some tough walking, but there was birds to be seen as always. No White Ibis showed up this outing, but I did get a pair of Common Yellowthroats (#103) which were unexpected finds given how few actually winter around Virginia Beach. To see two of them was great. Of course, these are a permanent resident, and I would have seen them plenty more times this year, but always nice to knock them out early and focus efforts on other tougher to locate species. The impoundments were more filled with water now after the rains and snows, but only a single flock of Mallards presented themselves (30 of them). Finishing my loop up, I ran into Jason Schatti & Tommy Maloney who were out doing the same thing I was. They’d found a Hermit Thrush near the parking area, but I couldn’t re-locate the bird, and from their eBird report, they also had an American Bittern which I must have either walked past and never saw, or it flew in after I’d left, either way, a bummer to miss both species which are winter residents here but can be tougher to find than many others. I left the park and drove Campbell’s Landing, Fitztown and Back Bay Landing Roads hoping for some new birds, but it was pretty quiet. A group of 21 White Ibis along Back Bay Landing provided some good shots and entertainment though. After exploring the roadways and realizing most of the snow had melted now in the open, I decided to go towards northern Virginia Beach, with the tide levels having dropped down considerably. I stopped in first at Pleasure House Point and walked from Dinwiddie Drive west to the end of the park and back. The sandbars in the Lynnhaven River, now visible for the first time all weekend, were filled with Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls. Red-breasted Mergansers and Buffelheads were present in big numbers, taking refuge from the bay’s waves on the river’s protected waters. At the main point, I attempted to find some Nelson’s Sparrows, but instead was treated to the explosion of a pair of Clapper Rails as they flew out of the marsh grasses (#104). As an added bonus, I got the Little Blue Heron I’d originally spotted back in December finally (#105) as it flew into the deer carcass pond, where a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers were also sitting. Last year about this time, everyone was flocking to this site to see the Western Tanager, and the Eurasian Wigeon, but neither species has been detected in Virginia Beach so far in 2016. After Pleasure House Point, I drove up to the CBBT’s first island, and enjoyed a quick walk around the perimeter. No new ducks had showed up but I did get to view a Brant on the rocks which doesn’t happen often. These “sea geese” show up here in the winter, though the first I ever observed were actually in Lewes, Delaware, the day before my 30th birthday. Black & Surf Scoters, Buffleheads, Lesser Scaup and Long-tailed Ducks were all seen off the point, and a huge stream of Red-breasted Mergansers were returning to the bay, a mirror of the cormorants I’d see to kick off the weekend on Saturday. The last bird of the outing was a Peregrine Falcon that flew up and over the bridge just as I was driving off south toward the mainland. Thus wrapped up a solid week where 12 new year birds got added.

A pair of gorgeous (or handsome?) Bufflehead Drakes at Pleasure House Point!

Hopefully next week I start to nail down a few more winter specialties, but we’ll see what happens. So far this winter, it just hasn’t been cold enough, long enough. We need more of the arctic freeze to help push some species down into our area that winter to the north of us. Birds like Red-necked Grebe and White-winged Scoter seem to be linked in with the percentage of the Great Lakes that have iced over. In years where the lakes freeze almost entirely, we see massive spikes of these birds here on the coast. In addition to these, I haven’t yet observed a Ruddy Duck, Horned Grebe, Canvasback, or a Common Goldeneye yet, all should show up at some point in the next month. A good walk through the forests at First Landing State Park should also help me out, as I’m still missing Hermit Thrush, Fox Sparrow, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Ruby-crowned & Golden Kinglet, as well as White-breasted Nuthatch and Brown Creeper. This park is the likely spot to be able to see all of these, and eventually I should get them, but the sooner the better so when March arrives, I can focus solely on transient species (Code 3 as I call them). Interestingly, I finished January of last year with 103 species, so I have already surpassed that this time, even with not being in Virginia for the first 8 days of this year. I attribute this to all the things I learned last year, and all the planning that I’ve done leading up to now. Something that should be mentioned also is that I have yet to observe any birds I’d classify as a rarity (Code 4) this year in Virginia Beach. Those species tend to make or break yearly lists, since most folks have good chances to mop up the Code 1 & 2 birds, with the Code 3 transients also coming in to play. In January thus far, the only Code 4 birds that others have found have been Glaucous Gull, American White Pelican, White-winged Dove, Cave Swallow & Common Merganser. These noteworthy rarity finds are all listed out in the “Noteworthy Observations” section under the Distribution heading of the website, found at the top of the page. I’m trying to update these as the year progresses as a log of the really neat finds that other birders have observed. As I mentioned, I spent a great deal of time upgrading the Distribution portion of the site, but more work is to be done; it never ends!

A single Brant was seen on South Thimble Island of the CBBT complex on Sunday, always a nice sight!