Birding Coastal Virginia: Fleeing from the Snowstorm

Four homeschooling birder friends, my brother and I woke up at the crack of dawn on January third in Virginia Beach, having driven in late the day before.  Over our hotel breakfast we learned that up to eight inches of snow was forecasted to start around 7 PM, centering around the Cape Charles area, with only about two inches in Virginia Beach and Chincoteague.  Our plan had been to bird Virginia Beach that day and then head over the bridge into Northampton County the next day, but now the snow might make it impossible to get there.  We decided to skip VA Beach and bird Northampton County immediately instead, and spend the night in Chincoteague, so if we got stuck, at least we could walk into the National Wildlife Refuge there.

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Map of coastal VA.   The marker is Cape Charles.

It was just getting light as we drove across the 23 mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT).  We spotted large rafts of surf and black scoters from our car, as well as two year birds, great cormorant and peregrine falcon.  Soon after crossing the CBBT, we came to Magothy Bay Natural Area Preserve, our first stop.  The leaves of the wax myrtles and grasses were frozen, with tiny ice shards coating them, creating a silvery glitter wherever I looked.  Yellow-rumped warblers flitted about everywhere, no doubt trying desperately to eat enough myrtle berries to keep them alive in the frigid weather.  As we turned a sharp corner in the path, an American woodcock exploded out of the brush by our feet, its wings whistling.  The trail continued into an old pine woodland, where we heard brown-headed nuthatches, before opening into expansive salt marshes lining Jones Cove.  We worked our way along the edge of the water, listening for salt marsh or Nelson’s sparrows and scanning all the waterfowl we could find.  I got on a flying female common goldeneye, but I couldn’t get anyone else on it before it disappeared.  A flock of fifteen common mergansers flew over us, more than double the previous county high-count for the species.  As we continued our search for sparrows other than swamp or song, a cacophony of geese honking filled the air, and nearly five-hundred Canada geese descended from the sky.  Mixed in with the geese were a few duck flocks, with northern pintail and American black duck.  Despite continued searching, the only marsh birds we could find were a sedge wren and an orange-crowned warbler.

Our next location was Cheriton Landfill, the site of Virginia’s first state record of Lucy’s warbler, which we saw last year.  Fifteen hundred Canada geese swam in the little pond next to the landfill, but there wasn’t one single rare goose among them.  Mixed in with the geese, however, were twelve species of ducks, including redhead, green-winged teal, American wigeon, and northern shoveler.  We walked down the road behind the landfill, seeing song and savannah sparrows, but not much else.  As we walked back toward the car, over fifty black vultures circled above our heads, catching the morning thermals.

As we were driving to the Cape Charles harbor, we got an update on the weather.  They were now calling for over a foot of snow, and up to eight inches in Chincoteague.  We also learned that our hotel in Chincoteague did not have a generator.  With much regret we decided it would be better to abandon the coast at the end of the day, and spend the rest of our trip in Northern Virginia.

As we walked through the dunes to the harbor, two pale white sparrows flew up onto a sign.  We quickly saw they were “Ipswitch” savannah sparrows, a range restricted coastal subspecies that was new for most of us.  Forty American oystercatchers rested on a long rock jetty projecting in to Cape Charles harbor, and purple sandpipers, ruddy turnstones, and sanderling fed around their feet.


American oystercatchers and purple sandpiper.  Photo credit: Theo Staengl

We watched bufflehead, surf scoters, greater scaup, and ruddy ducks fly around, and practiced getting flight shots of them.


Bufflehead flight shot

As we were leaving, two flocks totaling 13 common mergansers flew over us, leaving us to wonder why there were so many of them in Northampton that day when they are usually fairly rare.

Our final coastal location before we had to head inland was the Kiptopeke State Park Fishing Pier, where two snow buntings had been hanging out.  The fishing pier is a rather dreary place, a large artificial projection into the bay with an inch of dead yellow grass on top.  From it, you can see a chain of ancient naval vessels out on the water, stripped of any useful material and left to rot.  Finding the white snow buntings in a flock of savannah sparrows and yellow-rumped warblers was not hard, and we observed these cute birds for a long time.


Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) Photo by: Theo Staengl

Snow buntings breed in the high arctic tundra, and according to wikipedia have the farthest north distribution of any passerine.  In the winter they migrate down into boreal Canada and New England, and a few overshoot and end up in places like Virginia.

We were disappointed that we wouldn’t be going to Chincoteague, but our coastal birding had still been productive, and with any luck birding Northern Virginia would be too.

Loudoun County Piedmont Diabase Barren: A Rare Ecosystem Faces Threats from Development

I have been fascinated by plants and the natural world for as long as I can remember. Since I was a toddler, my mom would take my little brother and me to a nearby park almost every day to play in the woods, fields, and creeks.  These days, a fellow plant-loving friend and I meticulously research and plan trips all around the state to look for new plants and plant communities.  More than a year in advance, we planned a trip to the amphibolite outcrops of Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve to see hundreds of blazing star plants in bloom.  That trip was soon followed by an exciting late May trip to Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve to see the diverse southern piedmont prairie and search for rare tall Barbara’s buttons (which we found!)  Piney Grove Preserve, Chub Sandhill Natural Area Preserve, Shenandoah National Park, George Washington National Forest, and Grayson Highlands State Park are some of the other preserves and natural areas that I have visited this year looking for plants.  

One reason I like plants so much is because they form the basic, tangible foundation for nature.  Native plants create and define different ecological communities, which host all the other life forms, which have co-evolved with the plant species in the community.  Witnessing the seemingly never-ending diversity of plants and the rich multi-species relationships of native plant communities is a source of great joy and mystery for me.  There are few things I find more rewarding than researching and planning a trip to find a rare plant and then successfully discovering it growing where I thought it would.  I also love the challenge of learning and identifying the huge number of plants native to our state.  

I recently learned that Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors is voting on January 18th on a proposal to raze a Piedmont Mafic Barren growing on a diabase formation on the banks of Goose Creek, in order to build a 750,000 square-foot data center.  These barrens consist of two small separated outcroppings of diabase bedrock.  Around the two barrens grows a stunted forest of eastern redcedar, white ash, eastern redbud, and fragrant sumac.  The outcrops themselves are covered in dense patches of mosses and lichens, and sparse herbaceous plants such as Appalachian phacelia, awned flatsedge, and the state rare Central Appalachian endemic, Kate’s mountain clover.  


Kates Mountain Clover (Trifolium virginicum) © Lonnie Murray

I was greatly disturbed by this news, as there are only 10 documented occurrences of Piedmont Mafic Barrens in the world, all of them in the Piedmont of Virginia.  The Goose Creek site has the additional distinction of being the most northern example of this plant community, defining its range.  The Piedmont Mafic Barren plant community is ranked by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation as G1/S1, which means that it is critically imperiled globally.

Virginia is broadly divided into five physiographic provinces.  From east to west, these are the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley, and Allegheny Plateau provinces.  The landform, geology, and plant community types define the character of each of these regions in much the same way that historic buildings and architectural districts define the distinct character of cities and towns.  Loudoun County, of course, is in the Piedmont province.  Destroying the plant communities that make the Piedmont unique, such as the Piedmont Mafic Barren in Loudoun, degrades the essence and character of the Piedmont province.


The Loudoun County Piedmont Mafic Barren, © DCR-DNH, Gary P. Fleming.

I hope the Loudoun Board of Supervisors will deny the rezoning application and do all they can to protect the Piedmont Mafic Barren area.  Whether I ever have the opportunity to visit it or not, its existence enriches my sense of place and offers an open invitation for exploration and discovery.  While I’m interested in all plants, the ones that grow where I live are the most important to me.  Knowing the plant communities of the piedmont makes me feel at home and helps give me a sense of belonging to the natural world.  It heightens my appreciation of my surroundings every time I go outside.

I think if more people had the chance to experience the natural beauty of the Piedmont they would appreciate it more, and work harder to protect it.  While we don’t know all the contributions any particular species or community makes to the ecosystem services we all depend on, we do know that each piece of the puzzle is valuable to the functioning of the whole.  I hope that the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors won’t take away the opportunity to experience and learn from the Piedmont Mafic Barren from present and future generations.

Blue Ridge Young Birders Winter Field Trip to Northern Virginia

We stood shivering in the 22 degree early morning air, looking out on the partly frozen Potomac River.  To our left, we could see the smokestacks and apartment buildings of the District of Columbia, while across the river to our right the thick forests of Maryland loomed.  A thin coating of snow lay on the ground, extending out onto the ice of the Potomac.  Far out on the unfrozen parts of the river, a few-hundred ducks huddled, periodically diving or dabbling.  Occasionally, a group of common mergansers flew overhead, their green or brown heads contrasting sharply with their white necks and bodies.  A sleek, camouflage covered boat drifted out onto the river, carrying two duck hunters towards the distant rafts of ducks.  Stirred to action despite the cold by the fear that the hunters would scare the ducks out of sight, we resumed scanning through our scopes.  Two lesser scaup and a few ruddy ducks dove up and down near the sides of a large group of over fifty canvasbacks.  Mallards made up most of the second, larger raft, with other dabbling ducks like American black duck and gadwall mixed in.  Behind these ducks, on the very horizon of what we could see clearly, more diving ducks drifted and dove.  Logan said that he had a long-tailed duck, one of the rare species we were looking for here, in his scope.  I looked in his scope and saw it, but before anyone else in our group had the chance, a gunshot sounded out on the river and all the diving ducks lifted off and flew far across the river into Maryland.

We walked down the road to the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, where we hoped to see more ducks and other birds.  To our left stretched acres of the last freshwater tidal marshes next to the Potomac, and to our right grew a beautiful mature swamp forest.  As we walked in, the thickets and clumps of vegetation along the path were hopping with song, white-throated, and fox sparrows.  Swamp sparrows flitted and chipped in the marshes.  The path eventually emerged out of the woods and onto a little peninsula that stuck out into the river.  We saw many more ducks from here, mostly diving ducks such as lesser scaup, ring-necked duck, canvasback, redhead, and common mergansers, and of course, the ever present mallard.  Baxter, Shea, and my brother Theo decided to walk across the peninsula on a boardwalk to check the other part of the river.  They soon called that they had a long-tailed duck.  The rest of us rushed over the boardwalk, heedless of the slippery snow that coated it.  There turned out to be two female long-tailed ducks, quietly swimming about on the other side of a small cove, barely ten yards away.


Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis) are typically a coastal species during the winter, so seeing one inland on the Potomac River is certainly note-worthy.

The diffuse winter morning sun lit the ducks from behind us, creating a gorgeous medley of rich colors.  One of the ducks seemed to have a belly itch, because it kept turning upside down in the water and preening its belly in a rather comical fashion.  It would sit upright in the water, and use its feet to keep it from falling over, making it swim backwards in a vertical position.  Here is a video Theo got of this preening behavior.



On our walk out of Dyke Marsh, we counted 10 fox sparrows, which is the most I have ever seen at once.

Our next stop was the Laurel Hill Equestrian Area, to look for a clay-colored sparrow.  We followed the directions we had been given from the parking lot back down the road, past huge clumps and tangles of blackberry vines and grasses.  Soon we came to one such tangle, which happened to be the one the clay-colored sparrow favored.  As we walked around it, we saw a flock of white-crowned sparrows foraging next to the road.  The clay-colored sparrow was immediately apparent, as it was about half the size of the white-crowned sparrows.  Whenever the clay-colored sparrow got too close to a larger white-crowned sparrow, there would be a brief scuffle, followed by a flurry of snow, and the clay-colored sparrow would have to move further off.  Despite its low status in the flock, it behaved fairly well for us, and we all got great looks and photos.


Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida), Photo by Theo Staengl

After a quick lunch, we headed over to Pohick Bay Regional Park, another place on the Potomac, where a Eurasian wigeon had recently been seen.  We walked out onto the river on a snow coated boat dock, set down our scopes, and began to scan.  Hundreds of gadwall formed the majority of the duck flock, with good numbers of American wigeon mixed in.  A humongous American coot flock swam a little bit further out.  Two horned grebes hunted behind the ducks.  We soon identified the Eurasian wigeon by its red head, and we all had descent scope views.

After a brief and uneventful stop at Occoquan Bay NWR, we drove to the Dulles International Airports parking garages, where we wanted to look for a continuing snowy owl and two rough-legged hawks.  From the top of the parking garage, we had an uninterrupted 360 degree view of the airport’s runways, but unfortunately this meant that there was no where to hide from the relentless wind.  Northern harriers and many short-eared owls hunted over the fields in the waning light.  Max soon found the snowy owl in his scope, perched on top of a distant airport terminal.  The 2017-2018 winter is shaping up to be a large snowy owl irruption, with birds already found in Franklin, Rockingham, Isle of Wight, Suffolk, King William, Accomack, and Loudon Counties this year.  It is very exciting to see these majestic northern owls so far from their home, using large farm fields and even airports as hunting grounds.  We stayed until the increasing darkness and the cold wind finally pushed us out, but despite seeing many red-tailed hawks, we could not find the rough-leggeds.  We got in the cars and started the long drive back to Charlottesville.