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Wild Bird Watching

A diary of birds I've observed, with occasional commentary on wildlife conservation issues, spiced up with photos of varying quality. Captions identifying the birds in these photo montages are found on the Wild Birds intro page.

Wild bird montage shadow
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Bird photos

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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.

Black Scoter, female

Black Scoter (female), at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant, at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

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!


Dolphin, about 75 yards from the shore at Virginia Beach.

[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.]

Royal Tern

Royal Tern, at Virginia Beach.

Forster's Tern

Forster's Tern, at Virginia Beach.

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.

November 14, 2014 [LINK / comment]

Winter birds are arriving

I was supposed to lead a field trip for the Augusta Bird Club on November 1, a Saturday morning, but the weather forecast was bleak, and nobody else showed up. But it really wasn't that bad, so I went ahead anyway, and it proved to be a fairly successful outing. I went to Chimney Hollow, one of my favorite locations, about ten miles west of Staunton, and saw two first-of-season birds: a Brown Creeper, which vanished after just a few seconds, and a Winter Wren, which graciously "posed" for a photo. Their miniature, erect tails are always amusing to behold. Also present were many Golden-crowned Kinglets, some of which came very close. Those tiny things just don't stay put long enough to get a good photo, unfortunately! Later on I went to nearby Braley's Pond, but it was too cold and windy over there, so I went home after a few minutes.

Winter Wren

Winter Wren, at Chimney Hollow, on November 1.

Then on November 4, a Tuesday afternoon between classes at CVCC, I went up to Candler's Mountain in Lynchburg. It was the first time I had been there in several months, and I heard a Golden-crowned Kinglet as soon as I stopped my car. I saw it a few times, but as usual didn't get any good photos. But I got lucky with a Brown Creeper, which responded eagerly to the songs of its species in my iPod birding app from Audubon. Bingo!

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper, on Candler's Mountain in Lynchburg, on November 4.

Jacqueline and I have been to Bell's Lane and Betsy Bell Hill during the past week, seeing a few good birds such as a Pileated Woodpecker at the latter location, but nothing really spectacular. At Bell's Lane, I saw some Hooded Mergansers at a distance, as well as a probable Green-winged Teal or two, along with all the Canada Geese. White-crowned Sparrows are becoming more numerous there.

Finally, on November 4, another Tuesday afternoon (cue the Moody Blues!), I went to yet another Lynchburg location that I had not seen in many months, and probably more than a year: the Percival Island Nature Area, along the James River near downtown. I saw several Goldfinches, Robins, various woodpeckers, sparrows, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and best of all -- a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!! It was a first-year male, to be more specific. I had been waiting for a long, long time to get a good closeup photo of that species, and I finally hit pay dirt. I had to digitally edit some of the photos (see the Wild Birds yearly page) because of the difficult lighting conditions (too much or too little), but the results seem to be worth it.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, in the Percival Island Nature Area, Lynchburg, on November 11.

October 20, 2014 [LINK / comment]

Life Bird: Red Phalarope

Thanks to an e-mail alert from William Leigh, I saw my 454th life bird last Tuesday: a Red Phalarope, in a pond near the town of Bridgewater, about 20 miles north of here. The weather was terrible, as a massive front dumped several inches of rain along the eastern seaboard, but I didn't care. I missed a chance to see a Red-necked Phalarope in this area last spring (during a similar period of rainy weather), and I was determined not to let that happen again. I arrived at the location in question in the early afternoon, and I had to retreat to my car to wipe off my binoculars more than once. Finally, the skies started to clear a little bit, and I spotted the little bird almost right away. As you can see in this photo, it has no red feathers in its winter plumage. Very few people ever get to see their brilliant colors during the breeding season, as they nest above the Arctic Circle in northern Canada. I learned that Phalaropes are strange in that they are shorebirds but often catch their food while swimming rather than wading. Red Phalaropes spend the winter months in the Atlantic Ocean, and only one has ever been seen in Augusta County. I'm not sure about Rockingham County records.

The photos I took weren't very good, as the bird was almost 100 yards away, but they are good enough for positive identification. I was lucky to meet three local ladies who know the people who own the farm on which that pond is situated.

Red Phalarope

Red Phalarope, east of Bridgewater, on October 14.

I have also seen a few Palm Warblers over the past week, but not much else. I was going to lead an Augusta Bird Club field trip to Chimney Hollow on October 11, but that was rained out. (I have rescheduled that to November 1.) My two significant birding ventures this month were October 4 at Augusta Springs, and October 8 at Montgomery Hall Park. I took a closeup photo of a Box Turtle at the former location, and I'll post that soon. Plus, I have been to the Rockfish Gap hawk watch a few times, and the most notable sighting was an immature Golden Eagle on October 16. It was a great view, but I didn't have my camera! frown

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler, in Swoope, October 4.

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue-headed Vireo, in Montgomery Hall Park, October 8.

I also have seen a number of Monarch (endangered!) and Buckeye butterflies lately, and got a nice photo of the latter, but not the former. So I updated the Butterflies page, and will add a few more photos to it soon.

Buckeye butterfly

Buckeye butterfly, at the Frontier Culture Museum, October 17.

tiny tanager

Favorite warblers
(already seen):

  1. Chestnut-sided warbler
  2. Magnolia warbler
  3. Prothonotary warbler
  4. Blackburnian warbler
  5. Yellow warbler
  6. Northern parula
  7. Black-throated green warbler
  8. Canada warbler
  9. Common yellowthroat
  10. American redstart

Yet-unseen warblers:
(eastern species)

  • Blue-winged warbler
  • Kirtland's warbler
  • Swainson's warbler
  • Bachman's warbler (extinct?)

Yet-unseen warblers:
(western & semitropical)

  • Virginia's warbler
  • Lucy's warbler
  • Colima warbler
  • Crescent-chested warbler
  • Tropical parula
  • Black-throated gray warbler
  • Golden-cheeked warbler
  • Townsend's warbler
  • Hermit warbler
  • Grace's warbler
  • MacGillivray's warbler
  • Bahama yellowthroat
  • Belding's yellowthroat
  • Gray-crowned yellowthroat
  • Bahama yellowthroat
  • Red-faced warbler
  • Painted redstart
  • Slate-throated redstart
  • Fan-tailed warbler
  • Golden-crowned warbler

"Abundant" birds
(ones I normally don't bother counting):

  • European starlings
  • House sparrows
  • Cardinals
  • Tufted timice
  • Carolina chickadees
  • Carolina wrens *
  • Song sparrows
  • House finches *
  • Gray catbirds *
  • Mockingbirds
  • American robins *
  • Blue jays
  • Common grackles *
  • American crows
  • Fish crows *
  • Turkey vultures
  • Canada geese
  • Mallards

  • * Sometimes less common