Monday, May 12, 2014

The Wonders of Occoquan

For my 11th straight day of birding, I arrived at Occoquan early this morning in hopes of hearing or seeing something unusual. I sat at the closed gate for about 40 minutes, just listening to the Prairie Warblers and Yellow-billed Cuckoos marking their territories. Once through the gates, it became clear that the yellow-hued warblers--Prairies, Yellow Warblers, Prothonotary Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and even a Yellow-breasted Chat--were in the majority.

By far, the highlight for me was finally capturing a King Rail crossing the path! Since first reading about other folks fortunate enough to witness this event (or Sora at Huntley Meadows, or Virginia Rails at CBEC), I've been desperate to have a glimpse of my own. Persistence finally paid off.

The wonders of Occoquan really were on full display this morning: Wild Turkeys strolling through the meadow; a just-cooperative-enough Marsh Wren (a lifer!); Eagles, Osprey, and Eastern Kingbirds in their nests; Cuckoos, Thrashers, and Orioles (Orchard and Baltimore) seemingly everywhere; a Beaver carrying supplies across the pond; and a stealthy Raccoon clearly looking to stir up some trouble. It's mornings like this that keep me sane.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

First Cape May @ Monticello Park

Arrived at Huntley Meadows at 6:30 AM and found myself completely alone in
the park--just me and the birds. There was a hazy drizzle all about, so the birds weren't moving much, but boy were they singing. Aside from the many warblers and vireos, I picked up the sounds of Yellow-billed Cuckoos, a Virginia Rail, and a Northern Bobwhite. Those latter two birds were lifers and very exciting to hear, but I enjoyed watching the Hooded Merganser mamas and chicks just as much. As of 8 AM, I counted 3 female adults and 8 chicks in tow. This count for the chicks is slightly fewer than last Saturday when we counted two separate families, and it appears that the two families have merged. Here's hoping there's safety in numbers!

But the plan today was simply to whet my whistle with a stroll at Huntley before immersing myself in the warbler warmth at Monticello Park. For many months, countless birders have been urging me to visit Monticello, but I kept putting it off because I thought folks were telling me to drive to Charlottesville for that Monticello. No one ever explained that it was just a few miles from home. Anyway. To say Monticello Park didn't disappoint would be gross understatement. The very first bird I saw was a Blackburnian splashed in orange, and within 10 minutes I'd picked up Cape May, Canada, Wilson's, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, and Nashville (all 100% confirmed, some with the help of local birders). By the end of the 75 minutes of my visit, I'd added Blue-winged and Bay-breasted, as well as many other "common" warblers of Northern Virginia.

In fact, the Bay-breasted came right at the end of my walk. I was talking with another birder who apparently is one of the locals, and he was explaining that even for Monticello's high standards, this was an exceptional morning. I'd just asked him about what would really be the icing, and he said Bay-breasted, and literally within 10 seconds, I exclaimed "Rufous cap!" Sure enough, a Bay-breasted plopped right down next to a Chestnut-sided bathing in the creek. The two spent a few non-combative moments together in the bath before the Bay-breasted flew away. (The Chestnut-sided can be seen below post-bath.)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Prothonotary Warblers @ Occoquan (+ a mystery)

Prothonotary in flight.
After scanning the wires carefully for early warbler arrivals--and after asking for
directions from other birders--I headed over to Occoquan today in hopes of finding some Prothonotary Warblers. The Prothonotary song was easily heard after only a few minutes, and with only a little bit of trouble, I soon had ample views of multiple Prothonotary Warblers. I managed an inordinate number of crappy photos, but I did get a really cool pic of one Prothonotary flying down a tree.

There were also numerous other warblers, including songs from and views of both Prairie Warblers and Northern Parulas, as well as brief views of Yellow-throated Warblers and Common Yellowthroats. Half way between the Prothonotary boxes and the parking lot, I found 2 unidentifiable warblers. They resembled Pine Warblers, but two things were fishy: the song in no way resembled Pines, and they weren't feeding in pine trees. I've listened to countless songs online and in apps, and I've looked in three different field guides (including the new Warbler Guide)... to no avail. Birds were of the same species, mostly yellow coloring, no streaking, clear wing bars, faint eye ring, and flat, black beak. Song did not match any of the Prairie, Palm, Pine, Prothonotary, etc. variations.

I'm hoping someone (Dave Boltz, Phil Silas, Elton Morel, Larry Meade, Dixie?) will stop by tomorrow and figure out this mystery.

Prothonotary at rest.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

White Ibis, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and Virginia Beach

Finally made my first trip to Virginia Beach this past week. The weather was
mostly brutally windy and cold, but at least the rain held off until the last day. I was in town for a conference, so I had to fit in quick side trips for birding whenever I could. The sporadic searching certainly resulted in fewer discoveries, but I still managed to add 5 lifers to my list.

The first lifer was a Brown Pelican perched on a pole just outside of the tunnel between Norfolk and Virginia Beach. It was just the warm welcome I was hoping for! Little did I know, I was in for sightings of at least 100 more Brown Pelicans before my visit was over.

(But, really, nothing rivaled the sheer numbers and spectacle of the Northern Gannets. Every morning and evening, from my hotel room, I could sit and watch literally thousands of Gannets hunting for their meals over the ocean. I'd seen some Gannets before, no doubt, but I left Virginia Beach with a profound respect and awe of that stunning, powerful, ferocious, graceful bird.)

My next lifer was a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (why Cornell has this peculiar arrangement of hyphens and odd capitalization is anyone's guess). Considering how secretive and mostly-nocturnal this bird is, I definitely did not expect to add it to my list. I lucked out, though, when I arrived at Pleasure House Point and within 5 minutes bumped into a local birder, Rexanne Bruno. Rexanne and I exchanged pleasantries, and I somehow convinced her that I was harmless and clueless enough to let me tag along for the remainder of her walk. Rexanne has been birding that territory for 15 or so years, so she knew exactly where we might find a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Within minutes, we found two Black-crowned Night-Herons perched in the trees, and I was content enough with that discovery, but not 10 yards away on the opposite side of the path was a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in broad daylight. Donning his full regalia, he was magnificent! We studied him while he hunted for many minutes, and when we came back 45 minutes later, he was still out in the open looking for some food, wholly undeterred by our presence. Awesome find and life bird 220!

I picked up a lone Piping Plover (lifer 221) during my visit to Back Bay the next day, but considering much of that area is closed for the offseason, I left feeling a little deflated. I'd read so many good things about the quantity and diversity of birds at Back Bay that I probably had unrealistic expectations. But... as a direct result of feeling let down, I exited Back Bay at an unusually slow pace, just hoping to pick up a Seaside Sparrow or something. Virtually no one was out that day, so I could drive as leisurely as I wanted, stopping the car in the middle of the road if something required closer viewing. And then it happened. With just a few hundred yards left before entering the neighborhoods outside of Back Bay park, I spotted an American Bittern tucked into the reeds near a small stream. Lifer 222! If I'd seen a bunch of other birds before leaving, I would've left the park in higher spirits and at a faster speed. I almost certainly would've missed that amazing little prehistoric throwback.

But my greatest find of all happened just a few miles from the Bittern. After leaving Back Bay, I decided to explore some back roads and farms, hoping beyond hope to find some rarities brave enough to weather the brewing storms. Out of nowhere, I saw a flock of bright-white, long-beaked birds. I made a quick u-turn and pulled up along side these bizarre little creatures. You probably already know what they were, but I sure didn't. Studying the field guides enough will leave traces of knowledge--names, habitats, migration probability--but as a beginning birder, I often just stare wide-mouthed at new discoveries. (By the way, I don't think that's a bad thing, and I don't ever want to lose that feeling of being nearly clueless about a bird, just lost in how odd/beautiful/stupefying/frightening the thing is.) Of course, it turns out the birds were White Ibis, a rarity for the area (at least this time of the year) and lifer number 223 for me. If the Bittern is straight out of prehistory, the White Ibis is straight out of Edward Gorey's sketchbook. This is one far out bird!

Other wildlife were actually pretty scarce, but Rexanne and I did manage to find a Harbor Seal at Pleasure House Point (not that he was hard to spot, what with his impressive girth and dopey face!). Can I has hug?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Woodcocks in Loudoun County

Well, I struck out with the Woodcocks at Huntley Meadows (not because they didn't show--though they didn't--but because I couldn't find the place), but I wasn't discouraged because I'd arranged to spend a different evening with Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy and the Woodcocks at the Institute Farm in Aldie, VA. And, boy, did these Loudoun Co. Woodcocks put on a show!

As most birders know, it's not easy to get a good photo of a Woodcock because of their fondness for dimly-lit locales, but poor photo ops in no way diminished the experience. This night was all about being near the birds (and some frogs, to be sure). And though some were calling me the Woodcock Whisperer (a badge I wear with pride, entendres be damned), it was no doubt sheer luck that the Woodcocks kept landing within 20 feet of my position. One time I even had to duck out of the way when a Woodcock buzzed by my head, landing a mere 6 feet from me! What an amazing night, what an amazing bird.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Brown-headed Nuthatch (+ a rant)

Took advantage of the Spring-ish weather yesterday and went exploring some
VA and MD hotspots. Though the early morning was overcast and chilly, the Great Falls walk still produced nearly 40 species. The highlight, by far, was my sighting of a female Long-tailed Duck swimming near 4 male Common Mergansers. The bird was noticeably larger than nearby Buffleheads and nearly as large as the Common Mergs, and she had a distinct spot/smudge on her cheek.

No one else on the walk saw the bird, and I'm guessing few would believe a Long-tailed could be there. As far as I can tell, there has never been a reported sighting of a Long-tailed Duck at Great Falls, so this is indeed a significant find. (To be clear, I'm not looking for accolades. I'd feel much better if someone more experienced finds the bird later this week to "legitimize" the finding.)

I then made my way over to the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center (CBEC) for a much-overdo first visit. I'd read that this is the most consistent site for Brown-headed Nuthatches, and sure enough, within 10 minutes of arrival, there they were! These nuthatches were a life bird for me, and I can't imagine having a better look than on this day. The two birds were positively unfazed by my presence and allowed me to watch for a full 20 minutes while they made some "renovations."

The CBEC is also known for the occasional Virginia Rail (a bird I'm just desperate to see) appearance, but no luck on this visit. It's a beautiful place, though, and I'll definitely be going back. Highly recommend you all make a trek there if you haven't already. If nothing else, you can see Tundra Swans, Northern Pintails, American Wigeon, and of course, Brown-headed Nuthatches!

Now on to the rant... after CBEC, I headed over to Dyke Marsh in hopes of finding the Easter Screech Owl(s). When I arrived at 4 pm, there weren't any other birders present, so I set up shop about 75 yards from the appropriate tree cavity. Within 30 minutes or so, a couple of birders arrived, positioning themselves and all their gear on the path as close to the cavity as possible. Then a rather boisterous (I'm being kind here) photographer joined the group, making grand gestures and talking quite loudly. By 5 pm, the group had become large enough that they covered the entire path. There were people with barking dogs, people talking on cell phones, people grandly gesticulating (I'm still being nice here), people rustling through their gear, people eating... you get the point. And I'm not exaggerating the scene.

I finally had enough by 5:30 and went over to request that they kindly relocate farther down the path so that the owl(s) might be more inclined to show up. The grand gesticulator looked at me with disgust and said nothing; others said "good idea" and "thanks" and "will do." I left disappointed in not seeing the owl(s), but I had hope that these folks would at least be moving far enough away that the owl(s) wouldn't feel threatened anymore.

Once back at my car, considering my options for the evening, I figured nothing was more important than trying to catch a glimpse of a possible life bird. So, I pounded a handful of granola and walked back up the trail. What did I find? Not a single member of that group had budged. Sure, some folks had given up and moved on, but most of the "core" remained. In other words, they'd decided not to heed my advice, they'd decided that they "knew better." Now I'm all for independent thought and action, and I get that folks are excited by this bird, but this... this was just gross. They wouldn't (couldn't?) consider the possibility that these birds might want to feel safe before appearing in the cavity. There was simply no respect for the owl(s), not to mention the lack of respect they had for all the Dyke Marsh walkers who were forced to push around/through the group to keep on the path.

Of course, it's possible I'm overreacting. It's possible I'm totally wrong about the birds wanting to feel less threatened. But the fact that these people simply weren't interested in considering an alternative is troubling, at the very least.

For the first time, I was embarrassed to be a birder.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Few More Lifers

Carol and Jay Hadlock put together a trip to Ocean City and Assateague this past weekend, so I jumped at the chance to spend some time with great birders and great birds. I had extended "life looks" at Common and Red-throated Loons; Black, White-winged, and Surf Scoters; and Purple Sandpipers. We also saw more Brant together (roughly 150) than most of us had ever seen.

Best of all, I got to add three new life birds! I had horrible but legitimate looks at a Common Eider in flight in Ocean City, and I had a slightly less horrible look at a Clay-colored Sparrow at Assateague. My best viewing by far (through the scope, of course; photo above for reference only) was the American Oystercatchers in Ocean City. I had a few birds on my wish list for the weekend, and Oystercatchers were near the top. Truly a bizarre and awesome little bird!