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.