Week Ending February 14, 2016

The second week of February continued the hot streak for rarities across Virginia Beach and southeastern Virginia. On Monday (8 Feb), the adult Iceland Gull seen a week prior was picked up again by Andrew Baldelli up at 40th Street Beach. Also that same day, Eric Alton & Jonathon Snyder posted up a nice photograph into the HRWE Facebook Group that they had taken of the Western Tanager previous observed at Pleasure House Point Natural Area. The bird hadn’t been seen for over a week so it was nice to see that it had indeed stuck around. Karen & Tom Beatty also picked up a Black-legged Kittiwake at Little Island, though this one appears to still be under review by eBird. While neither of these three birds were seen again throughout the remainder of the week, Tuesday (9 Feb) brought another great surprise. While doing a seawatch off the Little Island Park Pier, Andrew Badelli picked up another noteworthy sighting, this time a Pacific Loon which he was able to photograph for documentation. This was unfortunately a one-and-done observation, and it flew off shortly after he sighted it, never to be seen again locally. Somehow, Wednesday kept up the streak, when a Black-headed Gull was reported to eBird by Bob Swiader at Pleasure House Point and shortly after Chip Allen posted up a long-range photograph of the bird that Bob had pointed out to him just after observing it feeding among a group of Bonaparte’s Gulls over the creek. On Friday, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), a worldwide activity in which birders & non-birders alike tally the counts of each species they observe, and enter them into eBird. The GBBC can be a bit trying from an eBird standpoint, as a lot of unusual records will show up due to influx of a massive number of newer, less experienced birders. Fortunately for me, I was in a position to help change the acceptance of records in Virginia Beach since I joined the eBird team in November. During the Friday to Monday period, some extra checks were put in place to ensure some common misidentifications didn’t end up getting into the database without review. I think it worked quite well, and really, the reports from Virginia Beach seemed better to me than in year’s past, but of course I am a bit biased. On Saturday morning, a Lark Sparrow that was first observed late last week (7 Feb) was re-found by Matt Anthony & James Fox while at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The bird had stayed in the same place as it had been reported 6 days prior, something not all rarities are willing to do. As such, several other individuals (myself included) were able to get on the bird. Given the major successes of the week in finding rarities across the city, it was no surprise that Sunday closed out the week with yet another major surprise. While at Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area’s Whitehurst Tract, Andrew Baldelli & Tracy Tate were able to observe and photograph a first winter Dickcissel, a species for which eBird only had one prior Virginia Beach record. So, if that wasn’t a successful week (especially for Andrew), I don’t know what is!

The interior dunes of Back Bay NWR were blanketed by snow from Friday evening through Saturday afternoon!

As I was furiously working to update filters in eBird ahead of the GBBC timeframe, I didn’t make it out birding at all until Saturday morning. Sometimes it is just nice to revel in the observations of others, and relax at home in the evening, though our daylight is sticking around later each day, and it is only a few more weeks before I’ll again be able to get out for after-work hikes. On Saturday morning, I set my sights on Little Island Park, hoping to spot something flying past like a Razorbill or White-winged Scoters that have so far eluded me in 2016. On Friday, we had gotten about 1-2” of snow across Virginia Beach, with higher amounts in the southeast and lesser amounts in the northwest. So I woke up a bit earlier than usual, at 5:40 AM and headed out, expecting the road conditions to force some extra time in getting to Little Island. When I arrived around 7 AM, I was amazed to find another vehicle already in the parking lot. I hopped out, and put on my warmer gear for what I expected to be incredibly cold weather for Virginia Beach. It was only in the 20s, with a northwesterly wind whipping at 25 mph. The nice thing about the northwest wind is that it wouldn’t be hitting me face on while on the pier, but, it also tends to blow birds farther offshore given our coastal alignment. When I got all my gear on, I saw two people walking back from the pier, and I should have guessed when I saw the car that it was another pair of crazy birders, probably even crazier than me: Matt Anthony from Williamsburg, and James Fox from Front Royal. Immediately they said it wasn’t worth going out to the pier since all the birds were blown so far out, my binoculars would be no use. Since James always carries a scope, it was fair to take that statement as truth. The three of us checked the area across the street near the kayak launch, hoping for a Bittern or something else unusual. We spooked a Wilson’s Snipe from the ditch that flows to Back Bay’s Little Cove to the west, and we got good looks at a Fox Sparrow in a short tree. There was only a few ducks, mainly Gadwalls but also some American Black Ducks out on Little Cove, and so we didn’t stick around long. An overhead flyover of a Killdeer, and the sounds of a Gray Catbird was about it, no bittern sadly, even though this has been a pretty reliable spot to see them for me over the last couple of years, at or above the reliability of Back Bay NWR in fact.

My first rarity of the year, a Lark Sparrow that was seen at Back Bay NWR on Saturday morning!

Matt & James were both heading down to Back Bay as well, since it would be crazy to come this far southeast and not continue into the best birding park in the city. I drove on ahead, figuring we’d run into each other again and I didn’t want to get in their way. But, when I arrived and realized I was the first one at the park, I didn’t want to spook off birds that they would then miss, so I waited til they arrived and walked with them. Three Northern Harriers were the first sightings, with a pair of them doing a reversal attack in mid-air, pretty neat to watch. There was a good group of Tundra Swans in close to the kayak launch near the parking area, sticking right up against the northern shore to block the wild winds. Among the swans were some Mallards, Gadwalls, American Black Ducks, and a few American Wigeons. Surprisingly this has been about the best diversity I have seen this winter at the park, which is a bit upsetting given how it has been in past winters as far as large, variety-filled rafts of waterfowl go. We checked the Kuralt Trail and around the parking lot, but with snow on the ground, the typical birds like sparrows and wrens were not seen here. A single Northern Flicker was observed on a power line, and we had some Northern Cardinals, Song Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers moving through the thick vegetation around the parking lot. No Orange-crowned Warblers here though. We all walked over the small pond, and I opted to continue going down the Bay Trail while they splintered off and headed down the East Dike in hopes of finding the Lark Sparrow that had been reported by Sue Garvin and report to Listserv last Sunday. While walking the Bay Trail, I was enjoying myself knowing full well no one else had been down it as no footprints were visible in the snow. Birds were pretty quiet with the high winds whipping the low trees around, and again with snow on the ground there was no surface to stand on for the smaller species. Red-winged Blackbirds and Yellow-rumped Warbler was basically it as I walked out and back on the trail. So I tried the beach next, walking out on the Seaside Trail but spending very little time on the beach. The winds were pushing snow all along the beach, which while beautiful, was not the environment to see birds among. A pretty good sized group of Northern Gannets was viewable offshore, but just a few gulls and no shorebirds were observed, so I headed back over to the parking area. I ran into Erica, one of the rangers at the park, and she mentioned there was a winter waterfowl walk coming up at 9 AM, but so far no one had showed up for it. Matt & James both arrived back a minute or so later from the East Dike and reported that they had found the Lark Sparrow just northwest of the East Dike gate on the field near the waterfowl blind. With that information, I headed southward towards it, not looking forward to the walk back knowing the wind would be right in my face; something that Matt & James had just endured.

Sparrows were easiest seen during the snow since they needed to find exposed ground to feed on, helping to concentrate species like this White-throated Sparrow near roadways!

Since I had a mission in mind, I took the east side of the Loop Road south, heading directly towards the spot where the sparrow had been observed. If it had stayed 6 days afterall, hopefully another few minutes wouldn’t matter. There was an all around lack of birds en route to that spot, but a Bald Eagle did fly over, and shortly after a crow flew out and dropped a fish carcass right on the road. My thought was that it likely had picked up the eagle’s remnant meal. When I arrived at the spot, it wasn’t long before a couple of Song Sparrows flew out of the vegetation and landed on spot on the gravel road where they dug through the snow already. Moments later, the Lark Sparrow appeared, with its beautiful chestnut colored face patches, and very clean chest. I spent about 15-20 minutes taking photographs and watching the sparrow group as they repeatedly fled to the vegetation, then came back out to sift around the exposed ground for food. It is actually pretty amazing that this individual stuck around all week, even through the snowstorm that arrived on Friday afternoon/evening. I walked back north, not noticing the cold winds so much given I was excited to have gotten such a great observation of only my second Lark Sparrow. The winter waterfowl walk did have a few people show up, so I passed on the information that the sparrow was still there, and from eBird reports, at least two of the individuals went south and also photographed the bird. As I was leaving the park, I got a call from Jason Strickland, who was, amusingly, also on his way to see the bird since Matt & James had sent out a text message in the VA Rare Bird Alert text group after they’d re-found the bird. Jason probably drove right past me while I was entering my eBird list on the side of the road, but I never noticed him or I’d have back to walk with him to see the bird. He did eventually get the bird though it took a while before it came out. It was also observed by one other individual Saturday, and one more (Jason Schatti) on Sunday, so who knows if it ended up staying into the weekdays. With the success of adding a new bird to my year (#124 in VA, #121 in Virginia Beach), I excitedly headed off towards Pungo, with the hope of seeing some field birds and more sparrows that might be pushed to the roadway shoulders in search of exposed ground to feed on.

One of a pair of Horned Larks seen off Back Bay Landing Road, once again, the snows makes them much more visible!

In driving down New Bridge Road, the detour was finally closed down, and so Muddy Creek Road was passable all the way to Charity Neck Road. Driving Charity Neck Road I got a call from Andrew Baldelli asking for some information on the Lark Sparrow, but saying he was also driving around in southern Virginia Beach looking for birds just as I was. I found patches of Killdeer active in fields along Charity Neck, and as I got to Nanney’s Creek Road to the south, spotted a huge flock of Snow Geese out in the farmfield on the northwest quadrant of the intersection. I pulled over into a neighborhood street nearby hoping to pick something different out of the flock like a Ross’s Goose or a Greater White-fronted Goose, but without success due to the distance even in binoculars. A few darker birds mixed in all proved to be Blue morph Snow Geese, so not a different species, but with a different plumage, sort of how Ruffed Grouse or Screech-Owl have a red & a gray morph. Further south I drove down MorrisNeck Road, and then down Fitztown Road to Princess Anne Road. The amount of snow on the fields here was higher than what I’d encountered further north so I didn’t see a whole lot on the ground. When I turned east on Back Bay Landing Road though, a pair of birds were sitting right up on the shoulder of the road, and with binoculars turned out to be a pair of Horned Larks! I had seen one earlier this year on Munden Road, but at an extreme distance, so seeing this pair closer was great. I did get some photographs before they took to flight and headed off south on the wind. Further down the road, I encountered a group of birds that all landed on the snowy field, and immediately knew they had to be American Pipits. A quick scan into the sun with binoculars proved my hope correct, and I got a photograph to document before the flock of a dozen or so took off eastward. I texted Andrew & Jason both to let them know the birds were around, and they’d eventually get on them, though Jason missed the Pipits. A pair of American Kestrels was busily hunting this area as well. I left Back Bay Landing Road and went back north down Morris Neck & Charity Neck, eventually running into Jason on his way southbound. We had at least 3 Palm Warblers on the road between our cars when we met up, which is the most I have seen at one time in the winter here. He headed south towards the lark & pipits, and I headed back home for the day. So even though Saturday was the only day I got out during the week to go birding, it was a fruitful outing for sure, the Pipits were #125 in VA on the year (#122 in Virginia Beach), a number I didn’t achieve last year until March 30, so I still have high hopes for the year in terms of numbers with migration still a few weeks away. I am just trying to see all the winter species I can while they’re here, and though the Lark Sparrow is my first official rarity on the season, there is still time to find some of the others, hopefully next weekend!

The intense sunlight on south facing areas melted first on Saturday, and attracted sparrows like this Song Sparrow on Back Bay Landing Road!