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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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