More Spring Birding in Hampton Roads

Common Yellowthroat

Spring bird migration in Virginia is now over, so it’s likely that any birds you see for the next couple of months are breeding birds that will be here all summer. Right now is the best time to go out and look for these birds; the weather is still cooler on most days, insects are not as numerous or voracious as they will be soon, and many birds are still singing to attract mates or claim breeding territories, making them easier to find.  Additionally, most birds are still in fresh breeding plumage and are at their most stunning; as the summer wears on their feathers will wear down and their colors become duller.

I went on two particularly productive birding field trips in the latter half of May, to Mackay Island N.W.R. near Knott’s Island, N.C., and to Paradise Creek Nature Park in Portsmouth. The photo at the top of this posting is of an adult male Common Yellowthroat I saw at Mackay Island. Yellowthroats are a type of warbler that is common in Virginia, and you will hear them at almost any wet or marshy area. They are usually hidden away in the reeds or grasses, but if you’re lucky one might pop out into the open to check you out.

Most of the habitat at Mackay Island is wetlands and freshwater marshes, which are actively managed for waterfowl, shorebirds, rails, and wading birds like herons, egrets, ibis and the like. Below are photos of some of these birds that I took when I went to Mackay on May 15:

Glossy Ibis

This Glossy Ibis is coming in for a landing at the wetlands near the Visitors Center. The photo below is of the same bird, feeding.

Glossy Ibis 2

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron

Mackay also has fields and eastern pine hardwoods forests, which attract songbirds like Orchard Orioles, Great-crested Flycatchers, Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Summer Tanagers and many other species. Below is my photo of one of the common summer residents, the magnificent Eastern Kingbird:

Eastern Kingbird

The visitor center at Mackay has wetlands and ponds that attract several species of swallows including Purple Martins and Tree Swallows (below). It’s hard to tell whether these swallows are fighting or flirting:

Tree Swallows

Paradise Creek Nature Park in Portsmouth is a very new park that provides a sliver of good bird habitat in the middle of an older suburban neighborhood and an industrial area near the Jordan Bridge. A sliver is enough, though, to attract some beautiful birds. Here are some that I saw there last Saturday:

Blue Grosbeak

The Blue Grosbeak is a common summer resident in Virginia. It likes open, weedy fields. 

Common Yellowthroat

This is the same species as the bird pictured at the top of this posting, a Common Yellowthroat. This first-spring male is not yet in its full adult plumage.

Indigo Bunting

One of everyone’s favorite birds is the stunning Indigo Bunting

As bird activity starts to wane after spring migration, insect activity increases. I realize that more people are interested in birds and bird photos than they are in dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies, but I get very excited about finding and photographing them. Many of my field trips for the next few months will be centered on finding dragonflies and damselflies in particular. My next blog post will go into some detail about some of our local species, but in the meantime, let me give you a taste of the diversity in the patterns and colors of some of our damselflies; they are truly one of the jewels of the insect world!

Citrine Forktail

Immature female Citrine Forktail 

Southern Spreadwing

Southern Spreadwing

Blue-tipped Dancer (male)

 Male Blue-tipped Dancer. The female, below, looks nothing like the male.

Blue-tipped Dancer (female)Orange Bluets

Two pair of Orange Bluets in tandem. The male clasps onto the back of the female’s head prior to mating.

Some Spring Birding in Hampton Roads

Barn SwallowSpringtime is a very active time of year for birds and bird watchers. Most of the winter birds and waterfowl have left Hampton Roads to head north to their breeding grounds, but there are new arrivals every day of birds that spent their winter south of us and are returning north to their breeding grounds. Some stay in Virginia to breed, like the industrious little Barn Swallow, above, that is collecting mud and sticks for its nest, and some species are just passing through our area as they continue to their breeding grounds further north of us. For bird watchers, every day is an adventure, and no two days are the same. Here are some of the bird photos I’ve taken this April and so far in May.

Great Egret

A few Great Egrets (photo above) do winter here in Hampton Roads, but in early spring they are supplemented by more birds that have arrived from the south. Great Egrets are communal breeders, and gather in “rookeries” where they nest literally side by side. It surprises some people to learn that they do nest in trees and not on the ground. They are very loyal to their historic rookeries and return to them year after year.

Great Egret 2

There is a small rookery in a neighborhood on Indian River Road, and despite “people noise” and heavy traffic, a few egrets cling to the few trees that remain from their larger, historic rookery and they continue to breed there. Neighbors have cut down most of the trees because they don’t like the noise and the mess that the egrets make.

Great Egret 3

But if you get to the rookery early in the morning, ignore the cars and the McDonalds restaurant close by and just watch the egrets, it’s a beautiful experience. They are in their full breeding finery with long, elegant plumes that they show to their best effect as they try to attract mates. Their lores (the area in front of the eye) turn a beautiful shade of green during this time, which only lasts for a few weeks. Above and below are a few photos of some of these spectacular birds. Special thanks to Nancy Neal for alerting me to the location of this rookery.

Great Egret 4

Yellow-crowned Night-Herons return to Hampton Roads in late March and early April, and are on their nests by mid-April. Below is a photo of one on its nest, high in a tree near The Hague in Norfolk. I worried for this bird; the winds were so strong, the tree was blowing crazily from side to side, and the nest these birds build look so poorly constructed. But I guess they know what they’re doing; the nest remained intact. The Hague is a good place to find Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. At lower tides, you can see them on the stone wall down at the water for food, and at very low tides, they will hunt on the mudflats for crabs.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

I went to Fort Monroe in Hampton with a friend on April 26 to see what birds were there. Surprisingly, one of the first birds we saw in the marina was a late Horned Grebe in full breeding plumage! Most of the wintering grebes have already flown north out of Hampton Roads by late April, but this one was hanging on for a few more days:

Horned Grebe

A few Brown Pelicans spend the winter in Hampton Roads, but far more join them here in the spring and breed on the islands nearby. Brown pelicans are large and impressive, especially in flight, but their plain brown colors are really rather drab – that is, until it’s breeding season! Look at all the beautiful and subtle colors that this pelican, perched on the pilings at Fort Monroe, has acquired in order to attract a mate!

Brown Pelican

It was a wet spring, and the flooded grassy fields at Fort Monroe hosted a variety of shorebirds that are usually seen along the mudflats at ponds and wetlands. It was a good opportunity to see various sandpipers, both Yellowlegs, and the spectacular American Oystercatcher, below.

American Oystercatcher

Ospreys, also known as “Fish Hawks,”  are abundant at this time of year, and there were several active nests at Fort Monroe at relatively close range. Here are a couple of photographs I was able to take of these beautiful birds.

Osprey Osprey 2

One of my favorite places to bird in the spring is the Great Dismal Swamp.  During spring migration, there is no other place I know of that has the amount and variety of bird song that I hear there in the early morning (7-8:00); it’s a veritable symphony! You will not see most of the birds because of the dense woods and foliage along the dike trails, so you must learn to “bird by ear” if you want to identify the species that are singing. I actually find this very rewarding, even though it means not getting many bird photos! I did manage to photograph a pair of Summer Tanagers (below) when I was there earlier this week; the first is an “Orange” female, and the second is a 1st spring male that is molting into his all-red adult plumage.

Summer Tanager (female) Summer Tanager (male)

I tried to go to Mackay Island N.W.R. last weekend, but the refuge was completely closed to traffic due to high water. So I drove around the nearby fields and residential lawns along Muddy Creek Road in Virginia Beach. They were also flooded, which attracted large numbers of Snowy Egrets, Glossy Ibis, and Cattle Egrets, which were nice to see because they have become more scarce in Virginia in recent years. Here’s a photo of one of the strutting, breeding-plumaged Cattle Egrets:

Cattle Egret

This is just a taste of the bird activity that is going on around us right now. If you go to any park, pond or woods in the next couple of weeks and just keep your eyes and ears open, I guarantee that you will find something fabulous!