I’m not a big Facebook user and I visit it very irregularly. I did, however, join a FB group recently called the Hampton Roads Wildlife Enthusiasts (HRWE). Bird and nature lovers in this group, experienced and inexperienced alike, post their photos of wildlife they have seen in the Tidewater area and share information about when and where they saw it. I thought I knew most of the “good” places to go birdwatching in Hampton Roads, but this group has taught me about some places I had never heard about, and my recent birding has been all the richer for it.
The Princess Anne Athletic Complex off of Dam Neck Road in Virginia Beach has been a real hotspot lately for raptors, and many members of HRWE have been posting photos of hawks, falcons, eagles and harriers in recent weeks. Mary Reid Barrow recently reported in her Virginian Pilot blog that the complex is attracting more raptors than usual because many of the fields there have recently been cut, forcing rodents and other “raptor food” out into the open, making for easy hunting.
I had never been there, but I went last weekend with two birding friends who knew the best places to look for raptors within the large complex. We did not see large numbers of birds, but we all got great photos of the ones we did see because it was such a beautiful day. At the top of this posting is my favorite photo of the day, an American Kestrel. I have never encountered a Kestrel that allowed such a close approach. These little falcons, which are sometimes known colloquially as “Sparrow Hawks,” are notorious for flying away as soon as a birdwatcher (or photographer) looks its way. In all my years of birding, I had never been able to get close enough to take a good photograph of one, so this was a very special experience! Another photo of the same bird is below:
At least one pair of Red-tailed Hawks is very active at the complex. It’s almost nest-building time for hawks and other raptors, so most of the birds are already paired up with their mates and are quite active. Below is a photo of one of the hawks; I wish it was on a nice, natural tree stump instead of a metal pole, but this was its perch of choice, up high where it could scan the fields for a meal. This bird is obviously a full adult, as it has the vivid brick-red tail for which it is named. Younger birds do not have red tails until they reach maturity.
The bird’s mate flew overhead, giving us this view:
The other common buteo hawk in our area is the Red-shouldered Hawk, which is smaller than the Red-tailed and has completely different markings. The full adult bird is colorful, sporting a beautiful barred reddish-orange breast and belly. They are more likely to be found in wooded and swampy areas than soaring over large, open fields like Red-taileds. I photographed this one along Seaside Road on the Eastern Shore.
Another popular birding spot is right in a Virginia Beach neighborhood along Kings Grant Road. The lakes and ponds there attract good numbers of waterfowl in the winter, including American Wigeons, Hooded Mergansers, Mallards, Northern Shovelers, and Ring-necked Ducks among others. Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Canada Geese, and Cormorants are common. Wood Ducks are frequently seen there too, although I’ve only seen them at a distance so far. Below are a male Ring-necked Duck, a female Hooded Merganser, and a Great Blue Heron that I photographed there last month:
I’ve birded a few times at the boat ramp parking area at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center on General Booth Blvd. in Virginia Beach, but I didn’t know the place had a name. Owl Creek, as it is called, is a popular birding spot that offers a few different habitats in a small area; it overlooks Owl Creek, a wide body of water that hosts nesting Bald Eagles as well as various waterfowl, and piney woods where I’ve seen Bluebirds, Brown Creepers, Woodpeckers, Kinglets and other small songbirds. Occasionally a rarity shows up there, like a Lark Sparrow that was found in October, and White Pelicans that flew over a couple of weeks ago. Below is a Brown Pelican that I photographed there last week (Brown Pelicans are very common there, moreso in the summer), another female Hooded Merganser, and a female Red-breasted Merganser, both wintering ducks here.
I cannot write a blog about winter birding without mentioning the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel; it is always the first place I think of when I decide to go birding in the winter. Birdwatchers used to be able to bird from all four of the manmade “islands” where the bridges descend into the underwater tunnels, and some of the best birding in the state — even in the country — can be had scoping the waters of the Chesapeake Bay from these islands. Since 9/11, however, the three northernmost islands have been closed to birders, and we can only stop at the south island (where the restaurant is). It does cost $13 one-way to get onto the Bridge-Tunnel, but if you’re a birder it’s well worth the cost. One of my favorite thing to watch there in the winter is Northern Gannets. On some days, you can see hundreds or even thousands of them soaring over the water and plunge-diving into the water bill first for food; on other days, you might see none at all. I’ll finish this blog post with a couple of my favorite Gannet photos, taken in December. Good birding, everyone!