Winter birding along Virginia’s Delmarva Peninsula can be excellent and with some great birds starting to appear in the area, this upcoming week looked to be very good.
Most of us met in Greensboro our first morning to see some of the rarities that were being reported this winter. Our first stop was the local Black-chinned Hummingbird, quickly followed by the Varied Thrush in Cary and onto the Vermilion Flycatcher in Martin County, NC (complete with a wonderful wooden sign directing us to the bird!). Despite the cold wind we had a quick picnic lunch along the roadside (and several of Chris’s cheesy cookies) before continuing our trek eastwards. We made several birding stops in Chowan and Perquimans Counties in NC before crossing the state line into Virginia and up to our hotel on the Virginia Beach waterfront, where we met David and Chris.
Our first walk along the beach didn’t produce a lot aside from the expected Lesser Black-backed Gulls, but we scored big at Little Island Park with the 2 Dovekies that had been reported yesterday. There were also several Common and Red-throated Loons on the nearby ocean. A stop at the often excellent Rudee Inlet produced wonderful looks at Black and Surf Scoter, several beautiful (and very close) Long-tailed Ducks that again allowed for some great photo ops. Our next stop was to First Landing State Park for some previously-reported Snow Buntings, which again showed extremely well as they fed on the Sea Oat seeds, alongside an “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrow. Unfortunately we were not permitted to stop and bird on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, so we had to identify birds from a moving car- well, aside from the driver of course! The Eastern Shore NWR is well-known for its population of American Woodcock, although like many crepuscular birds they can be very difficult to see. A chance encounter by Kevin enabled us to see several as they flew off through the woods and as the sun went down we were able to watch many more birds coming out of the forest to feed and maybe display in the short grass along the roadside. The coastal marshes can be good for Short-eared Owl in the winter, but even standing there in the cold as the sun went down, we did not manage to find one. A good consolation was an American Bittern that flew over us only to disappear in the coastal marsh grass – always a good bird to see.
Dinner was take-out from Sting Rays, a well-known and excellent seafood restaurant along the roadside- a great day all around.
We started MLK Day at a great viewing platform at Willis’s Wharf overlooking an inlet in Hog Island Bay. We were looking for overwintering shorebirds and found a single Marbled Godwit, as well as Willet, Ruddy Turnstone and Semipalmated Plover. Thousands of Snow Geese were streaming over from their safe roosting sites in the bay to feed in the agricultural fields and several Bald Eagle were hunting over the coastal marshes. Kiptopeke State Park is always worth a visit, although this year the bay was fairly quiet with just Bufflehead and many Brown Pelicans and Great Black-backed Gulls. Red Crossbills are having an irruption year and have been recorded from the Kiptopeke woodlands. However our walk did not find any, but a few Red-breasted Nuthatches were a nice consolation. A stop by the Cape Charles Harbor was very profitable with a female Common Eider swimming around the breakwater and a real surprise was an immature Glaucous Gull we watched for a while flying over the distant rock jetties and several Surf Scoters were very photogenic – always great to see these striking ducks at close range. There were also multiple Bald Eagles at Gargatha Landing, where we stopped on our way north; the infrastructure at NASA’s Wallop’s Island facility rising distantly above the coastal marshes. We had time for one last stop today for our only stop in Worcester County, Maryland where we spent the night in Pocomoke City.
Our last day in Virginia was going to be spent at the wonderful Chincoteague NWR. A Snowy Owl had been reported there along the beach towards the coastguard’s cottage. The walk was beautiful, with Long-tailed Ducks, Horned Grebes and more along the way. Unfortunately the owl was nowhere to be seen, so we said goodbye to Iris and Diana, who had joined us for the morning, and went to the Woodland Walk to find some more sheltered birding. The paved walk, despite only being around 1.5 miles, took it out of us a little – maybe, after a walk of almost 3 miles along the beach had something to do with it. In the past the forest had been damaged by a Southern Pine Beetle infestation and a subsequent Noreaster that took down many of the diseased trees. The walk was very productive with Hermit Thrush, Gray Catbird and White-eyed Vireo being added to the triplist. A nice surprise was the small flock of Red Crossbills that we watched feeding high in the Ponderosa Pines and several Delmarva Fox Squirrels, a formerly endangered subspecies of the widespread Fox Squirrel which was de-listed in 2015. The rest of the day was a lot more relaxing with a visit to the sound-side salt marshes where we got our American Oystercatchers (at last!) and a very pleasant drive around the Wildlife Loop. Large flocks of Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal and American Black Duck fed quietly in the roadside lagoons, allowing us to take our time looking at their crisp breeding plumages and feeding methods. A Northern Harrier made several passes across the marshes, scattering ducks, a small flock of White Ibis and several Wilson’s Snipe. We stayed around hoping for the appearance of a Short-eared Owl, but alas, one did not appear. Dinner tonight was at one of the good local seafood restaurants where once again, many of us got to enjoy some freshly caught seafood before our homeward trek tomorrow.
It’s always a little sad when a trip is over and some of us want to continue exploring and birding, plus there were a few 5 star rarities almost on our way home. It didn’t take too long before several of us drove south from Virginia Bach towards the NC Outer Banks. We unfortunately dipped on the MacGillivray’s Warbler after our diversion up to Duck, but quickly found the Black-throated Gray Warbler on Roanoke Island and also the Rough-legged Hawk at Alligator River NWR. Reality then set in so we drove west to Durham, NC and the end of our road trip.
We had pretty good weather overall and some great birds. What were the best? Gosh, we had plenty to choose from. There was the snappy Vermilion Flycatcher hawking insects around a farmyard; multiple American Woodcocks buzzing out of the woods, some beautiful Snow Buntings feeding directly in front of us; some super-close views of Long-tailed Ducks and maybe best of all, the very close Dovekie that fed and swam right next to the pier.
Thanks to everyone for a great trip.