Over the past month, I’ve gone everywhere from Virginia Beach to Chincoteague to Pea Island to my own back yard chasing both common and uncommon birds, and testing out my new camera and lens (hooray!) on just about everything that moves. It’s been a lot of fun, despite some cold and nasty weather.
The photo above is of a male Eastern Bluebird. During the first week of January I went to the Owl Creek area by the Virginia Aquarium and found several pairs of these beautiful birds right by the parking lot. They were all “puffed up” because of the cold temperatures, and were very actively feeding.
I also found a Brown Creeper there (below), which has been a nemesis bird of mine to photograph. These inconspicuous little guys creep up trees looking for food in the crevices of the tree bark. Once they get to the top, they dive back down to the bottom of another tree and start the process again. They’re hard to see because they blend right into the bark (and, like woodpeckers, they usually stay on the side of the tree opposite of where you are), so your best bet of finding one is catching it in motion. These birds only visit our area in the winter.
Rudee Inlet in Virginia Beach has hosted an extremely rare sea duck this winter, a King Eider. It has been there for over a month and is still in the area. The normal winter range of this arctic duck is well north of us, so this bird has caused quite a stir in the local birding community. The Rudee Inlet bird (below) is an immature male bird that you might not find terribly impressive, but I’ve also posted a photo of an adult male, courtesy of www.allaboutbirds.org, which is what our bird will look like in another year:
Adult King Eider photographed by Kevin T. Karlson and posted on www.allaboutbirds.org
I’ve visited Chincoteague a couple times this winter. Like everyone else, I was hoping to see one of the Snowy Owls that have been sited there; I tanked on the Snowies this time, but Chincoteague always has something interesting to offer birders. This time it was the Snow Geese, thousands of them near Tom’s Cove. The sheer numbers of these noisy geese were breathtaking, and small groups continued to fly in to join them, gleaming bright white against a blue sky:
Kingfishers are notoriously hard to photograph. If you see one perched and try to approach it or slow down your car to see it, it will always fly away. That’s why it was so fun and rewarding to find this very cooperative female Belted Kingfisher (below) on the Chincoteague trip. She stayed in the bushes along the ditch that borders the road leading to Tom’s Cove, periodically diving for fish and then returning to the same little patch and posing for her portrait:
Whenever I go to Chincoteague or the Eastern Shore, I stop at the southernmost island of the Bay Bridge-Tunnel to scan the bay for winter waterfowl. The island is a reliable place to look for Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, Scoters, Cormorants, Gannets, Loons and other water birds in season. Here is a photo of a Double-crested Cormorant sunning itself on the rocks along the island; it’s a very common bird and often overlooked, but is beautiful nonetheless (in its own way):
The most common duck in the Bay is usually the Bufflehead, a beautiful, iridescent little duck that can be found on practically any body of water in the winter:
The female Bufflehead is on the left, the more spectacular male is on the right.
A couple of weeks ago I went to North Carolina’s Outer Banks and Pea Island to bird for a day. The weather was terrible – dark and very windy– but there are always good birds to see there, and I managed to get a few photos that I like:
It was so dark and colorless on the day I was there that these American Avocets in winter plumage look like they were photographed in black-and-white! One friend told me that they look like they’re sword-fighting with their long bills.
The Outer Banks are only a hundred miles or so to the south of us, but they host substantially larger numbers of many wintering birds than we see in Virginia, including these White Ibis and the Avocets, above.
The gorgeous Northern Pintail is a common wintering duck in this region. Bodie Lighthouse can be a good place to see them and study their intricate plumage up close.
The Long-tailed Duck, formerly name the Oldsquaw, winters along the Atlantic coast, becoming far less common south of North Carolina. This female was at Oregon Inlet.
Who can resist taking pictures of the American Oystercatcher? No matter how many I’ve taken, I always have to try for more.
I’ve made a couple of visits lately to a new park in Portsmouth on Victory Blvd. called Paradise Creek Natural Area. A fellow birder was posting reports on the Virginia Birds listserv about the different kinds of birds he was seeing there, sparrows in particular, and I gave chase. The park is a nice little mitigation area in the middle of Portsmouth and South Norfolk industrial areas, and I think it will attract more birds over the years as they discover where it is. On one of our snowy days last month I went there and found a “feeding frenzy” of birds eating berries, particularly Cedar Waxwings, Hermit Thrushes and Robins. Here are photos of a Cedar Waxwing (first) and a Hermit Thrush enjoying the bounty:
On the home front, I’ve enjoyed testing out my new camera on some of my regular “yard birds.” My favorites, of course, are the Baltimore Orioles that are wintering for the third year in a row in my humble yard. I’m pretty sure that it’s the same birds returning here each year; they remember where the grape jelly is! (During our snow days, I was putting out a large jar of Smuckers every day because the Starlings also discovered it).
One of the adult male Baltimore Orioles wintering in my yard.
I do enjoy winter birding far more than summer birding; there are so many more opportunities for bird photography and for finding unusual and out-or-range birds. This winter in particular has been spectacular, with record-breaking invasions of northern birds that we do not usually see, including Snowy Owls, White-winged Scoters, Razorbills, the King Eider and others. It has been one for the books, one that birders will be talking about for years to come, and I plan to continue go out birding every chance I get.
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