Sunday, November 15, 2015

Rarity Round-up

This past weekend Sharon and I participated in a Rarity Round-up in Virginia Beach. Several groups get together and bird along the coastal edge of Virginia Beach in hopes of seeing some rare birds. This was the first time we had heard of such an event. There have been several in the past at various locations along the Mid-Atlantic coast with high rates of vagrants showing up. We were assigned to a team that focused on the northern edge of Virginia Beach where the Chesapeake Bay flows into the Ocean.
The day before the round-up there was a mass movement of Franklin's Gulls through the area and even a report of a few cave swallows from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. So everyone is excited and ready to go.
We start our day at the beach at First Landing State Park. The first bird seen was an immature Bald Eagle. Always going to be a good day when you start with an eagle. There was a lot of movement out over the water but the air was cool and the wind brisk making the bird watching uncomfortable. We spotted the regular suspects but nothing unusual. A few people had reported the Franklin's Gulls from Pleasure House Point, nearby and a planned stop later in the day, so we change plans and head over there next to see if any gulls are still hanging out from the night before. It was Saturday morning so maybe they were nursing a hangover. We have a nice walk about to where we can see some sandbars on the Lynnhaven Inlet. There were several hundred gulls out there but none that we could make into Franklin's Gulls. There were a large number of Black Skimmers who should have been further south by now. This spot has had a group stay for the past few years so not unexpected but always nice to find.

There is also an Osprey feeding in this area. It flew overhead with a fresh catch. Notice how it is in the middle of orientating the fish to reduce drag. Pretty cool thing these Ospreys do.

As we headed back to the cars we heard a couple little chip notes and two of the party saw a bird flit across the marsh grass. We all quickly stopped and set down the spotting scopes so our hands were free for binoculars. After a few more calls we see a nice, orange-faced sparrow pop up.
A quick look confirmed it was a Nelson's Sparrow. A few more joined in including these two who hung out close together. We also had a Marsh Wren come in for a view but never in a photographic place.  

Our next stop was back at First Landing State Park but this time on the inland side. We walk a trail through some bald cypresses and then up on a forested dune that overlooks the inlet. The first half of the walk was totally quiet in that we saw or heard no birds. Right before we turn around (the trail wasn't a loop so we had to backtrack at some point) we had a few birds. The one below threw us for a loop for a minute. When we first saw the bird it was backlit and looking away. We could see it was a sparrow but the mix of streaking on the breast and a breast spot didn't match anything expected. The bird finally turned towards us, and the camera, it showed itself as a White-throated Sparrow. First year birds can show the heavy streaking and the spot. I guess most of the ones that visit our yard must be older as neither Sharon nor I remember seeing.
On the way out we pasted a swampy area that slowly came alive with woodpeckers. We started out seeing a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It was followed by another sapsucker. Then a Pileated Woodpecker, and finally a flicker.

After a lunch in the resort part of town we drove down to Rudee Inlet which is a place frequented by unexpected birds. Again, not much unusual but we did see a pair of Purple Sandpipers and three female Red-breasted Mergansers. There were also several dolphins swimming and playing just beyond the jetty. At one point they were splashing their tails around and hopping out of the water. Quite a nice show.
Another stop at First Landing State Park found only this very cooperative Golden-crowned Kinglet. I particularly like the last one where it is trying to identify me.

We returned to Pleasure House Point at the end of t

he day near low tide. The exposed mudflats were much larger as were the numbers of gulls. Can you find the Franklin's Gull?
Yeah, neither could we. And this was only about a fifth of the birds on the flats.
As we were packing up to call it a night, six wedges of tundra swans flew over. About 500 in all heading to warming, more inviting climes.

And with that, we also headed home to the warmth of our house and a well-deserved dinner.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Eastern Shore of Virginia Birding

A couple of weeks ago Sharon and I decided to talk a short-week vacation and visit the Eastern Shore of Virginia for some birding. We started off Tuesday evening after work. Crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel we saw a long line of dolphins. They must have stretched out over a mile, at least a minute at highway speeds. Most were just frolicking in the water but one made a full jump out of the water as we drove by. What a great way to start the trip. We stayed in Cape Charles at the very nice and friendly Hotel Cape Charles.

As we checked out Wednesday morning, the guy working the desk noticed my birding shirt and told us about a farm field near by that had some black terns and an upland sandpiper reported the previous day. We had planned to start at Kiptopeke State Park and stuck with that plan, adding the farm field for our drive north to Chincoteague. At Kiptopeke we walked the trails past the former bird banding station. Things were rather quiet through here. Actually, things were quite loud here but not many birds. The cicadas were very noisy and all over the place. And then there were at least two small planes that seemed to be circling over the bay at the park. They filled in when the cicadas started falling down on the job. So birds were near impossible to hear. The one that made it through the background drone was a very beautiful male white-eyed vireo. It took us some time to track it down and also see its juvenile companion. While looking for the vireo we kept falling for the mass of blue-grey gnatcatchers that were flitting around the same area. We then walked through the camp grounds and heard a bobwhite. A really nice bird that is getting harder to see. But Kiptopeke has always been a good location for finding them. The insects were quite active. We saw many red-spotted skippers, tiger swallowtails and zobulon skippers. At one point when we were watching a yellow-billed cuckoo we saw a bubblebee-mimic hoverfly attach and eat a small bee. Amazing.

We then headed to lunch at the Machipongo Trading Company (a favorite stop on the Eastern Shore) before checking out the farm field recommendation. We didn't see anything at the target farm but did stop and see several killdeers in a nearby field. A stop at Willis Wharf wasn't too productive as the tide was high. There were a few shorebirds on a small bit of exposed mud near the observation deck and a singing common yellowthroat. It was around 3:00 when we reached Chincoteague so we headed directly to the wildlife refuge and drove the wildlife loop. Many of the fields were rather dry so what shorebirds we saw were generally at great distances. Sharon is getting good at separating the more common peeps. But as they get farther and farther away, the harder they get to id. At the overlook on the backside of the loop we had four indigo buntings among several songbirds and our first mob of mosquitoes.

Thursday started with a relaxing breakfast at the Main Street Coffeehouse and then most of the day birding the Beach Road on Chincoteague NWR. There was a large grouping of birds along the road in Swan Cove that we had the chance to really study. Highlights included piping plovers, marble godwits, around 300 willits and three shovlers flying over. There were also many birds gathered near the Tom's Cove visitor center. Here we found a red knot and some black-bellied plovers. After a snack break we tried walking the woodland trail but the mosquitoes drove us out after just a couple of minutes. They were so bad that I will now need to wait another 56 days before going back to a blood drive. So we made a second pass at the beach road. Mostly the same stuff but we got more chances to study the shorebirds.

Friday we started by walking the beach sound of the parking lots. We move to the coveside an had several pairs of oystercatchers, more piping plovers and godwits. We returned along the ocean side and had mostly gulls and sanderlings. There was one lesser black backed gull on the beach.

Saturday was another trip up and down beach road. Still a lot of birds but nothing new for the trip. On the drive home we stopped again for coffees at Machipongo and then drove down Seaside Road stopping on the side of the road occasionally. Here we picked up several horned larks in a field followed by a grasshopper sparrow singing from a power line. And then a bobwhite walked out across the road behind us. The trip ended with stops along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. There were a lot of rock doves on Island #1 and an immature yellow-crowned nightheron out on the rocks.

The trip ended with 93 species of birds, many insects and some good stories.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Wilson's Plover

It has been a long time since Sharon and I headed out to Grandview Nature Park. So with shorebird migration picking up, we decided to make a trip out there. There is by far the best place near us for shorebirds and well as other unexpected birds. eBird has nearly 200 species reported from the 3 mile long stretch of beach along the Chesapeake Bay and Back River. The best birding is usually at the far end, known as Factory Point for an old fish processing plant that washed away many decades ago. But there is usually enough going on along the way that we tire out before getting to the end. This time we committed to getting to Factory Point quickly and birding on our way back. We also timed our trip to arrive at low tide to have the best mudflats. We pretty much stayed to plan we only a few diversions to look for seaside sparrows and check out the rocks of the old lighthouse (the only rocky part here). We found ruddy turnstones on the rocks but no sparrows. As we approached the end we found a couple of peep sandpipers (a genus of small and rather similar birds that can be challenging to distinguish) that we eventually identified as semipalmated sandpipers. We then reached the first set of mudflats. There were several sandbars with a range of gulls and terns and many more shorebirds, semipalmated plovers, semipalmated sandpipers, sanderlings, turnstones, least sandpipers, and an american oystercatcher. There was also a killdeer flying over. Just as we had arrived, another birder caught up with us. We chatted for a few minutes and then he headed to the other side of the point where he had seen whimbrels several days previous.

As we finished up with our scan and were preparing to move further down the point, the other birder, Ernie, came rushing back. "I think I have a Wilson's plover, you've got to see it." We packed up and followed him back. A Wilson's plover would be quite a find. They are rare visitors along the part of the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. He led us to a large expanse of mud and water saying, "it was the only bird out here." We all set up and started scanning but found nothing. Ernie was in a frenzy to get confirmation, even though he has good photos to back-up his identification. We continued scanning and eventually found a semipalmated plover. "No, that's not it It couldn't have left. It was just walking around here and had been here feeding for several minutes." Still we scanned without luck. Finally Ernie saw movement just over a small ridge in the mud. We moved further along the beach were the ridge, probably all of 6 inches, wouldn't block our view. And then we saw it. The plover is masterfully camouflaged and was hard to pick out when it didn't move. But sure enough. There it was.

Ernie was already late for an appointment so he packed up and headed home.We watched for a few more minutes and then started our way back. We had planned to spend time birding on the trip back but it was starting to get late, we were tiring, and there hadn't been much action along the beach. We did get some more nice shorebirds, including a black-bellied plover that was still in breeding plumage.

In the short trees along the dune we found a pair of common yellowthroats and a prairie warbler. We also followed a small group of shorebirds most of the way down beach. As we would approach they would flush further down never realizing we were still coming and would have to get past them at some point. In the end, it was a great day out at a great location that we don't get to enough.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Our First BioBlitz

On Friday July 31, my wife and I joined the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance's pilot BioBlitz at Bennett's Creek Park in Suffolk, VA. For those not in the know, a BioBlitz is an intense survey of wildlife, usually to make a catalog of animals, plants, insects, etc. living in a region.  This particular event was aimed at starting a field guide to wildlife in Suffolk to promote tourism. NRPA plans several more in the coming years at other parks and locations around town.

Pair of Spotted Sandpipers
Approximately 20 people showed up to participate. This event was also being used as an outreach event so instead of splitting us into teams focused on different biological orders, we were scheduled to spend an hour on birds, plant life, insects, and aquatic life. The bird expert they had scheduled ended up stuck in traffic (not that uncommon in Hampton Roads) so we started off without them. Sharon and I stepped up and helped out the back-up leader. We had done a little background research using eBird and the park had not been actively birded in the past. There were only a few checklists submitted and most had just a handful of birds. And the start of the walk was exceedingly slow. The highlight was a lone Great Egret across the creek. A few heard birds added to the list but not the groups enjoyment. Finally we came out of the the wooded area to a large field and found the birds. In addition to the typical mowed-lawn birds, like mockingbird and grackles, we had a few eastern bluebirds, barn swallows and a great crested flycatcher. We ended the walk at the boat dock were we flushed a spotted sandpiper who flew across the creek, circled around a bit, picked up a buddy, and the both landed on a downed tree on the far side of the creek. The most unexpected bird of the day and pleasantly good views.

Searching for Marsh Grasses
We then turned our attention to plants and trees. We had a professor and doctoral student leading the walk. We started with a really old cypress tree and some of the other plants and trees that surrounded it. The student guide, Peter, walked out into the marsh and collected several plant species to show covering the range of grass, sedge, and rush. This walk brought many more questions than the bird walk; perhaps due to the tie to gardening. We also found a couple of fragrant plants and passed those around. As that hour wound down we received news that the insect leader would not be attending. So the leaders decided to continue on with the botany talk but also the group would try and point out any insects they could identify. This was a little disappointing to Sharon and myself as that was the second most interested walk to us. Sharon did start us off well with spotting this red-spotted purple butterfly. We saw a few other things but most everyone's attention was on the plants. We discovered later that a small group of knowledgeable people had splintered off and identified a few dozen insects. We wish we had known and would have joined them.

Red-spotted Purple Butterfly
The final walk was aquatic life. A couple of people had a sieve net that they put in the water at the boat dock and scooped up some fish, crabs, shrimp, and oyster shells. There was really a pretty limited diversity here. Perhaps due to the warm temperatures in the creek as well as the limited survey area. As the water temperature rises, the oxygen level falls so many fish move to deeper waters to stay cool and have access to more oxygen.

Amongst the participants were three newspaper reports. The organizers must have done an excellent job promoting the event. The large turnout is testament to that as well.  Here are the two articles in the Virginian-Pilot and the Suffolk News-Herald. Something to add to our scrapbooks. There's been talk of the master naturalist chapter that I am part of doing a BioBlitz. If so, I will return to the topic again.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Frogs, Frogs, Everywhere there's Frogs

Our group. Photo by S. Burton
It's Friday night, cool and rainy. So what to do? Go searching for salamanders, of course. And maybe a frog or two. Twelve of us from the Peninsula Master Naturalists gathered to search for salamanders, frogs, and whatever else the night rains might bring out. We drove to a different part of Grafton Ponds than our last outing where we knew there would be some active ponds much closer to parking. It was twilight as we walked down the abandoned road; a quartet of Wood Ducks flew high overhead calling as they went. We passed one vernal pool where we could hear a lot of spring peepers calling. But they are hard to see and our goal was salamanders so we plunged deeper into the park while keeping in mind that we would pass by here on the way out. We finally reached our target pool and dove into the woods. Daylight was failing and the tree cover was thick so on came our lights. As soon as we arrived at the pool, we found our first southern leopard frog. The first of many, many, many. We placed the frog in a small baggie so we could all get a look at it and it could stay moist. But the frog was a bit peeved and started extruding a toxic substance so we released it back. While humans are not particularly susceptible to this toxin, any other frog placed in that baggie would quickly succumb.
First Southern Leopard Frog of the Night

The group was large enough that we often ended up breaking into two or three smaller groups to explore along the pool's edge. One group had moved ahead and found a bunch more frogs calling. As the rest of us moved to catch up, someone spotted this small mass of eggs on a rotting log.

None of us were sure what they were. Most salamanders and frogs would lay their eggs in the near-by pool so they would stay moist. So who would leave them out on a rotting log? Later we discovered the likely source of these eggs. They would be frogs eggs that never made it to the water. (possibly disturbing image next, you are warned)
This frog had succumbed to a predator and showed the same type of eggs as we had seen earlier. A bit of a gruesome find but also fascinating to see the eggs still with the frog. The carcass was drying out so it had been there for a while. We aren't sure what the predator was or why it would leave such a meal behind. Surely the eggs must be a good source of fat and protein. And all of that meat. That will remain a mystery.
Now back to the less gruesome. The lead group had found a small cove [do vernal pools have coves?] that had several dozen calling southern leopard frogs and masses of frogs eggs.With all of the human commotion the frogs had moved away from the edge out of camera range. But as Sharon scanned the water's surface out to 30-50 ft, the surface was dotted with tens of pairs of eyes. And those were only the ones looking in our general direction. It was fascinating to see the eye-shine from the frogs on the dark water.
Southern Leopard From Egg Mass

Same Type of Eggs but Under Different Lighting
Photo aside:  These night-time hikes have been my first real experience with animal photography in the dark and I'm still feeling my way around. Between using other people's headlamps, the on-camera flash, and, tonight for the first time, my wife's LED macro light, the lighting and color is quite variable. I would like to find a time to go out on my own and just experiment to see what works. I've seldom used a flash in the past, preferring natural light. But in the dark, everything looks the same in natural light: black. Many of my photos last time were blurred because I had exposed for the light from headlamps and used flash. So long exposures allowed for camera shake and ghostly second images to appear. Tonight I tried to either use the steady light or flash and not both. It didn't always work out but that is why I took so many photos.

We were successful in finding a handful of salamanders. Most of what we found, and all I saw, were Mabee's again. Mabee's is a state threatened species only occurring in the tidewater region but not too close to the coast. Grafton Ponds is one of its strongholds. An interesting find was the variability in size. This first one was about half the size of the later ones. We would find most, or maybe all, of them under the edge of a rotting log (I wasn't actually there for any of the salamander finds). So like the curious herpetologist we are, we rolled over every good looking log we could find. And then returned the log to their original place if we found nothing. If we did find a salamander, we would get a good look and then return the log and make sure the salamander was right next to it (you don't want to put the log back on top of the salamander and squish it).

Mabee's Salamander

By the time we reached the far side of the pool we were once again separated into two group. Here's the other half on the other side of a finger of the pool. I think that must be Fred with his double-barreled light source at the far right side. He is the only one you could pick out by his headlamp.

Along the way I found this cool-looking feather floating in the water and a wonderfully posed frog. The frog showed much more green and distinctive markings than any of the previous ones. It was just sitting on the side of a fallen tree. You can see the rounded, irregular spots on the back, the strong lines along the sides, and a hump in the middle of the back. I'm not sure what that hump is; perhaps it is where the leg muscles attach?

In this wonderful night, we had a great climatic find. A group of calling frogs even larger than the first (or at least what I saw of that group). And eggs everywhere. Play the movie to hear the frogs calling. It was too dark to see anything except the flash from someone's camera.

There were several pairs caught in amplexus. The male will grab onto the female's back and stick with her. This helps stimulate her to release her eggs which he then fertilizes. The southern leopard frog leaves a gelatinous egg mass that is in the shape of a rough ball. We touched a few, gently, and they are firmer than they look.

On our way out we again heard the calling spring peepers. They had been joined by upland chorus frogs. Both frogs are much smaller than the southern leopard frog and tend to call from vegetation making them much harder to find. But Kory did find this pair in a small ditch along-side the road. A great find that was a perfect way to finish off the night.

Thanks to Elisabeth, for organizing, and everyone else for making a great adventure. Hopefully in a few weeks we will be out again and find new salamanders and frogs.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Salamander Hunt

Last night there was an impromptu walk to visit the Grafton Ponds vernal pools in search of salamanders. With warm temperatures and rain in the forecast on the night with a nearly full moon, it was the perfect time for the salamanders to be on the move. Unfortunately, they weren't checking their emails. So five of us wandered around the area in the dark with our flashlights looking for the creatures that were probably tucked up at home with a nice book in front of the fireplace.
But while it wasn't the salamander-paloosa that we hoped for, we did have a few great sightings. The best, by far, was this Mabee's Salamander. In fact, it was the only salamander seen.

We saw a lot of aquatic insects. That surprised us. I, at least, was expecting that most of the insects would be hibernating or otherwise inactive. Especially since most of the pools were still ice-covered. We also saw a handful of frogs. Like this Southern Leopard Frog.

For our next trip I think several of us will be getting much brighter lights.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Oh my Snow!

It has been an unusually snowy February for Southeastern Virginia this year. On President's Day we received several inches of snow and sleet that shut things down for several days. Between the snow and the holiday there was less than 2 days of work. And it was unusually cold that week so the snow and ice stuck around. We don't get much snow and ice here so the cities only clear the main roads, not the residential streets. That is not normally a problem since the temperature usually rebounds and it all melts in 2-3 days. A week and a half later we still have some of that snow left. And then two days ago we received more snow. That one was just a couple of inches but it was really wet and arrived just in time for the evening commute snarling up traffic.  But it blanketed everything and was very pretty. And last night we got the big one (for here). I measured 5.5" - 9" around the deck on the back of the house. This was a nice, light, wet snow. So we are off from work again. We've been enjoying the birds coming to the feeders and went out for a photo walk and snowball fight. Here are some photos from the BIG SNOW of 2015.

Stay Warm,