A lot of folks think that after fall songbird migration is finished in October, birdwatching is over for a while. True, many of our breeding birds have flown south out of our area for the winter, but then we get an influx of different birds that breed to the north of us then fly south to winter here. As the saying goes, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” So while we lose some species for a while, others fill those empty spaces. I’d like to share with you photos of some of the birds that have arrived here to winter in southeastern Virginia in the past month or two.
The top of this post is a photo I took last month of an adult male Baltimore Oriole in my yard. Three or four years ago, a male Oriole appeared in my Chesapeake yard, and I immediately put out some grape jelly for it (one of its favorite foods). To my delight, it stayed for the entire winter, eating my jelly. The next year the bird returned and brought three or four other Orioles with him.
In Virginia, Baltimore Orioles breed in the Piedmont and the western parts of the state, but not here in the Coastal Plain. They do migrate south out of their breeding grounds in autumn, and a few winter here in Tidewater. Birds are amazing; they remember locations and often return to exactly the same place year after year. Sure enough, in September my first wintering Oriole arrived in my yard, and has now been joined by others, either members of his family or other Orioles that have been attracted to my yard because of all the bird activity there. Last week, I counted ten Orioles!
Below are photos of an immature male Oriole that will be in bright adult plumage by next summer, and a young female. The females are less colorful and don’t get the attention that the males do, but I think that their muted colors and understated elegance are as beautiful as the males.
In late October and November, Tundra Swans arrive at their winter destinations here, having completed their migration from their breeding grounds in the Arctic and subarctic tundra. They do not usually go any farther south than North Carolina, so we are near the southern edge of their wintering range. If you are lucky, you have seen and heard them as they fly overhead on their way to places like Chincoteague, Back Bay N.W.R. and Mackay Island. They shine bright white against a blue autumn sky, calling joyously to each other as they near their winter homes.
Many different species of waterfall winter in Virginia, and, depending on the species, start to arrive in Hampton Roads in October. “Diving ducks” like Scoters, Canvasbacks, Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers like deep water places in the Bay, the ocean and deeper lakes and ponds. “Dabbling ducks” feed in the shallow waters along the shallower edges of lakes and ponds. The Hooded Merganser (one of our most beautiful ducks in most peoples’ opinions) is one of the first of the wintering waterfowl to arrive in Hampton Roads, and can be found now in almost any shallow pond anywhere, including suburban water features. The Mergansers below were in a small pond along the freeway in Portsmouth. The female is between two males that are trying to impress her; she looks quite pleased with herself, doesn’t she?
Northern Gannets (below) are the North Atlantic’s largest seabird; their wingspan can reach over six feet! Most of the Northern Gannets of the world breed in the British Isles, but the ones we see here in the winter breed in Canada on offshore cliffs and islands. At the right time, you can see Gannets flying or feeding anywhere along the oceanfront or from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Some days they are far from shore, feeding out in the open waters of the ocean or the Bay, and they can be hard to see, but sometimes they fly in closer, giving you good looks. I photographed the one below from the southernmost island along the Bay Bridge-Tunnel, an excellent place for viewing them.
Not all of our winter migrants are big, showy waterbirds. Birders are always on the lookout for little finches like Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, Red Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks and others that stage southern invasions every few years when food supplies are poor in the north. We hope to see them and maybe a few Red-breasted Nuthatches at our feeders. Out in the field, we are always checking plowed fields for small ground birds like Horned Larks and American Pipits, and the much more uncommon Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. You never know when or where one will pop up. I was with friends birding in Willis Wharf on the Eastern Shore of Virginia last month, and as we drove across a parking lot to a porta-potty, we got very lucky and spotted this beautiful little female Snow Bunting:
Another family of small winter visitors to our region are the tiny Kinglets. They are even smaller than Chickadees, and they often accompany Chickadees in feeding flocks. We get two kind of Kinglets, the Ruby-crowned and the Golden-crowned. You can easily guess which one is the subject of this photo I took at Back Bay:
Last, here are a couple of photos I took on a trip to Chincoteague in November. The first is of an American Bittern that we found right along the road on the way to Tom’s Cove. American Bitterns are large wading birds that breed in much of North America but visit southeastern Virginia only in the winter. They are very secretive and usually stay hidden in grasses and reeds along marshes and bodies of water, where they are well camoflaged. We were lucky to spot this one before he disappeared into the tall grasses.
The bird in this last photo is not a winterer in our area; it is here year round along roadside ditches and common anywhere where there is water and small fish. It is a Belted Kingfisher, and I’m including this photo because Kingfishers are notoriously hard to photograph and I waited a very long time to get a picture like this! They usually fly away as soon as you get within camera range, but we found a very cooperative female and I want to show her off!
As we get deeper into winter, more waterfowl of all kinds will be showing up in Hampton Roads, and more birds will be appearing at your bird feeders. Last year we had the Snowy Owl invasion in December and January; who knows what other surprises might be in store for us this year? Stay tuned…!