November 24, 2014 [LINK / comment]
Tern, Tern, Tern: Birding around Virginia Beach
Jacqueline and I went for a weekend trip to Virginia Beach, and did some birding at various places in the vicinity. We knew we were off to a good start when we took a wrong turn in Newport News, looking for a place to eat lunch, and saw a Bald Eagle being chased by some crows. That was amusing, and a great photo op!
We stopped at the Norfolk visitor's center soon after crossing the Hampton-Norfolk Tunnel, and I saw at least a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers flying all around, along with some Field Sparrows and Juncos, I believe. There is an adjacent wetland, but the trail passing through it has been closed for security reasons. Our first major stop was the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT), which I had not visited for several years. As expected, there were gulls on top of many of the light poles along the way, many of which were Great Black-backed Gulls. At the first island, where the fishing pier, restaurant, and gift shop are located, we saw at least 30 Dunlins feeding on the algae-covered rocks. Then I saw three birds that I thought were Ruddy Ducks, but it turns out I was wrong. A woman on the pier who belongs to the local bird club there told me she thought they were Black Scoters, and after I compared my photos to the field guide later on, I realized she was right. She also pointed out a Gannet flying in the distance, and I took a couple mediocre photos that just barely serve to confirm the species identification. Life bird! There was also a Double-crested Cormorant right next to the pier, basking in the bright sunlight.
The next day we got up before dawn to watch the sun rise (beautiful colors), and then walked out to the beach to see all the birds. There were various kinds of Gulls, Cormorants in the distance, Brown Pelicans, and even some Dolphins! What I initially thought were Great Black-backed Gulls turned out to be Lesser Black-backed Gulls, based on the size and leg color: yellow, not pink. Yet another life bird for me!
[But the best part on the beach came just as I was about to head back to the hotel. I took a look through the binoculars at some of the birds that had just landed among all the gulls, and noticed several with bright orange beaks. Terns! I didn't know which species they were until I looked at my field guide. I determined that most of them (a dozen or so) were Royal Terns, and a few others were Forster's Terns -- a third life bird for me! Unfortunately, I couldn't persuade Jacqueline to come back and see for herself, but she did get a look at the Terns later on from inside the hotel, using the binoculars. I also saw a few Brown Pelicans flying along the shore, and one flew directly overhead for a nice photo op.]
After breakfast, we went to First Landing State Park, which has miles of trails leading through a varied habitat. I was amazed to see all the Spanish Moss hanging from the trees as we hiked along. On the bay, I saw a few Buffleheads, and in the trees I saw many Yellow-rumped Warblers. None of the hoped-for Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows, unfortunately. I was thrilled when I first heard a Brown-headed Nuthatch, but I had a hard time getting any good looks, much less a photo. Finally, just before we left, I zoomed in on one that was up in a tree about 30 yards away. The photos I took were rather blurry, but good enough.
Next we went to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where we had visited in August 2008. (Six years ago? Gracious.) There were at least a hundred ducks on the water, but the only ones close enough to identify were a few Gadwalls. In the trees were many Yellow-rumped Warblers, in the grasses were various sparrows, and in the marshes there was a -- Marsh Wren!!! I could hear its scratchy call, and caught glimpses as it moved around in the reeds just a few feet away, but never did get a good look. I also had a glimpse of a very small olive-colored bird that I thought was a Kinglet, but the photo I took clearly indicates otherwise. Based on the habitat (leafy bushes), location, and time of year, I'm pretty sure that it was a Orange-crowned Warbler. That's a very uncommon species, and I have only seen them -- probably -- once or twice before.
Sadly, time was short, and we had to hurry home to beat the forecast rain showers. After a lightning-quick tour of downtown Norfolk, seeing the ships in dry dock across the Elizabeth River, as well as the battleship Wisconsin, we headed home. The photographs I took of Brown Pelicans, the Gannet, and the Brown-headed Nuthatch weren't that great, but the Tern and Gull photos were very good. You can see all the new photos on my Wild birds yearly photo gallery page.
I have added Gannet, Lesser Black-backed Gull, and Forster's Tern to my Life bird list, which now totals 455. With 47 new birds so far this year, I have already tied my second-best year ever, 1997.