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!

Winter Birds At My Chesapeake Yard

No question, I see a lot more birds at my Chesapeake bird feeders in the winter than I do in the other seasons. In the warm seasons, many of the birds we see are insect-eaters and do not use bird feeders that offer seeds. And the seed-eaters can find all the food they want naturally, and are less dependent on our feeders. In the winter, food is harder to find; the insect-eaters have migrated south to warmer climates that still have insects, and the seed-eaters rely more on the easy pickin’s at the local bird feeder. Winter can be the most interesting time to “feeder watch.”

I had an interesting winter in my own yard this year, and I hosted some species that don’t come to my yard every year. Winter birds are far less predictable than breeding birds which remain pretty much the same year-to-year. Weather patterns and food sources to the north of us affect bird movements greatly in the fall and winter, and many of the birds we see during those seasons are migrants that do not necessarily return to the same locations each year like the summer breeding birds do. Each day can bring something new and unexpected.

My first real surprise of the winter was the female Painted Bunting that visited my yard for a week or so (below). The male Painted Bunting is well known for its bright and showy colors; bright blue, red, green and yellow; the female’s colors are subtle shades of green. Painted Buntings are very uncommon in Virginia, but a few seem to stray here from the southern states each year. I have seen three or four in my yard over the years, including one gorgeous male.

       (Here is the male bird for comparison, courtesy of  floridabirdingtrail.com)
This winter was an “irruption” year for many northern species of songbird. When cone crops and other food sources are poor in the northern states, birds that usually winter in those regions move south in search of food. An “irruption” year is one in which large numbers of these birds occur in more southern states; a few of these birds might be seen most years, but in irruption years they are conspicuous and can be quite common. The three birds below were much more common this year than in non-irruption years:

Pine Siskins are little finches about the same size as American Goldfinches, a species that they often associate with in “feeding flocks.” Pine Siskins are a streaky little brown bird with variable amounts of yellow coloring in the wings. I’ve had anywhere from two to two dozen at my feeders all winter.

Red-breasted Nuthatches move through eastern Virginia each fall in varying numbers; the Eastern Shore is a reliable place to find a few. They do not usually stay here or visit our bird feeders, but during irruption years like this one they have been common. They are daily visitors to my feeders.

If you keep a feeder, or even if you are just a casual bird watcher, you are familiar with our resident House Finches; the males have red markings, and the females and juveniles are plain birds with blurry brown streaking. The bird in the photos above is similar to the female House Finch, but is its “cousin,” a female Purple Finch, which is a separate species (note the distinct whitish stripes above and below the bird’s eye; this is a reliable field mark for distinguishing the two female finches). Purple Finches do not breed in southeast Virginia, but a few do pass through during the southbound fall migration (mostly to the west of us), and some visit bird feeders. This is only the second Purple Finch I’ve ever seen at my feeder.

Remember this guy? Last year I wrote in this blog about the six Baltimore Orioles that spent the winter in my yard. I had kept a hummingbird feeder filled with sugar water outside during the late fall, hoping to attract a rare winter hummingbird, but instead I noticed one day that a Baltimore Oriole was drinking from the feeder. I knew that Baltimore Orioles love to eat grape jelly, so I immediately went out and bought some jelly and a feeder to put it in. Within a few weeks, I had a total of six orioles, and they spent the entire winter with me, which is very uncommon here. They must have remembered my yard and my grape jelly, because this winter  they returned; in fact they added a member to their group. All seven Orioles are still with me as of today.

All sparrows look alike to most people — “little brown jobs,” as they’re called. But this one, a Fox Sparrow (above),  is special to me. Although this species does winter in our region, it is usually not seen in suburban yards; they prefer woods and unpopulated places. But this one spent two months in my yard this winter.

The bird above is also a species of sparrow, although it does not look like most sparrows at all. It is a member of the Towhee family, and this species is an Eastern Towhee. Eastern Towhees are quite common in our area, but for some reason they do not often frequent my yard even when there is free food. This year was the exception, as at least two visit me daily.

Pine Warblers (above) are a relatively plain member of the Warbler family of birds, but in the winter they bring a much appreciated splash of color to a dreary day. They frequently come to my yard for the suet and nuts that I put out. Pine Warblers are year-round residents in southeast Virginia, and one of only two warblers that commonly winter here; the winter-plumage Yellow-rumped Warbler, below, is the other.

If you have busy bird feeders as I do, you will eventually attract one or several of the Accipiters, known commonly as “bird hawks.” Accipiters do prey on small birds, and they are often much maligned for this, but they need to eat too and it’s all part of the natural cycle and survival of the fittest. There are two species of Accipiter that you are likely to see in this area, the Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Cooper’s Hawk. They are extremely similar in appearance, and even though there is an “average” size difference between them, there is much overlap; the average Cooper’s Hawk is larger than the average Sharp-shinned Hawk, but since female hawks are larger than males, a male Cooper’s Hawk might in fact be smaller than a female Sharp-shinned. Confused? Even the most experienced birder can have an extremely difficult time identifying those birds in the overlap range. It takes a lot of experience and familiarity with the more subtle field marks to be able to distinguish these two species.

This bird is a first-year, or juvenile, Sharp-shinned Hawk. It is just starting to acquire some of its adult feathers on its breast. Compared to the Cooper’s Hawk, it has a smaller-looking head, a shorter and squared-off tail, and it has a “puffed chest” appearance, seeming to carry the bulk of its weight in the chest.

This is a Cooper’s Hawk that is almost in its adult plumage. The Sharp-shinned Hawk will have the same plumage in its adult stage, so don’t try to ID these two birds based on their color; one is juvenile and one is adult. But if you look at the overall “feel” of this Cooper’s Hawk, you can see that its tail is longer than the Sharp-shinned’s and is rounded at the bottom rather than squared. The white tipping on the tail is also more in evidence than it is with the Sharp-shinned. The Cooper’s head is larger in proportion to its body, and the entire posture of the body is just longer. Rather than looking “puffy-chested” like the Sharp-shinned, the Cooper’s seems to carry more of its weight lower in the belly.

There are other things to look for when identifying these two hawks; a good website with concise, helpful  information is http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/AboutBirdsandFeeding/accipiterIDtable.htm.

Next month we will have another Nature Photo Night at the Chesapeake Central Library, so pencil in the date if you’d like to join us: Monday, April 29 starting at 6:00 p.m.  Bring about 20 of your nature or wildlife photos on a USB device or a CD, and we will project them onto the library’s movie screen for everyone to view and discuss. All levels of expertise are welcome to come, and if you’d rather just look at the photos than show your own, that is fine too. Give me a call at 757-410-7141 if you have any questions or would like more information — ask for Karen.

Fall Bird Migration Is Underway! A Day at Bethel Beach

Migrant birds fly north in the spring and south for the winter, right? You might be surprised to learn that the southbound fall migration for some birds actually begins in July, in the heart of what we in North America call “summer.” Most of these July migrants are of the shorebird family of birds. These earliest migrants are actually the adult shorebirds that migrated north in the spring to Canada or the Arctic to breed. Almost immediately after their young fledge, these same adults abandon them and begin their southward migrations. The young birds are left behind to fend for themselves for a few weeks and figure out for themselves how to survive and how and where to migrate! Most of the shorebirds we see after mid-August are these hatch-year birds, riding the second “wave” of migration after their parents. How they know where to go and how to get there is one of those profound miracles of nature.
The shorebird family is a very diverse one that includes species that range from the 4-5” sandpipers (also known affectionately by birders as “peeps”) to the 26” Long-billed Curlew. The Long-billed Curlew is a western species that we do not see here on the east coast; the largest shorebird that we’re likely to see here is the 19″ Marbled Godwit. The photograph at the beginning of this blog entry is a Marbled Godwit; contrast this bird with the tiny Semipalmated Sandpipers, below.

Also conspicuous on the Virginia beaches in August is the tern migration. Terns are in the same family of birds as gulls, but are generally more sleek and streamlined than gulls are. Many species sport a black cap or crest in breeding plumage that fades away as fall approaches; they are much less striking in their winter plumage. Terns are the white birds that you see flying over bodies of water with their heads down looking for small fish, then diving straight down, bill first, to catch that meal. Terns come in all sizes too, from the 9” Least Tern to the 21” Caspian Tern.

From left to right: Sandwich tern (with the yellow bill tip), Forster’s Tern, and the orange-billed Royal Tern, which is almost as big as the Caspian.

I went to Bethel Beach on August 18 in hopes of finding some of these early fall migrants, and I was not disappointed. Bethel Beach is near the town of Matthews, on the Middle Neck of Virginia, on the west side of the Chesapeake Bay. Once you get to Bethel Beach you can walk southbound along the beach until you reach a sandy “hook” where the beach ends. At the end of this hook I found five different species of terns, and several species of shorebirds. I took all the photos in this blog entry on that day; here are some more:

The shorebirds above and below are Short-billed Dowitchers, migrants along our waterways. There is a Long-billed Dowitcher too, very similar in appearance to the Short-billed and it’s often impossible to tell the two apart; contrary to the implication in their names, the bill sizes overlap and cannot usually be relied upon as the only identifier. You’ll find dowitchers probing the mudflats and shallow waters with their long bills, looking for food. 

One of the subfamilies of shorebirds is the Plovers. They are usually easy to tell apart from other shorebirds by their smallish size, very rounded appearance and very short bills among other things. They hunt by sight, rather than by feel, as longer-billed shorebirds like dowitchers do. Below is a common migrant along our coast, the Semipalmated Plover. A plover that you might be more familiar with is its “cousin” the Killdeer, which is a permanent resident throughout North America. Killdeers are larger than semipalmated Plovers and have two dark chest stripes instead of one; they are also famous for their “broken wing” display, which they perform as a distraction if they believe their chicks are threatened.

 

Semipalmated Plover at Bethel Beach
Killdeer for comparison with the Semipalmated Plover.

Here are two Least Terns; as mentioned above, they are our smallest Tern, measuring about 9″ from tail tip to bill tip. They are a threatened species, mostly due to loss of habitat. They nest on open beaches and sandy places, where they have to compete with humans in a mostly losing battle for habitat. Fortunately there are some nature preserves that block human access during their breeding season, which allows the terns to successfully reproduce.

The medium-sized Sandwich Terns, below, also migrate down the Atlantic coast in August. These two at Bethel Beach are mostly in their winter plumage. Note their yellow bill tips; if you can get close enough to them to see this field mark, you can make a positive identification of this species.

The Seaside Dragonlet (below) is our only saltwater species of dragonfly, and at this time of year they are abundant along the beaches. The individual below is a female; note the numerous tiny stripes on her thorax. The adult male is entirely dark blue, almost blackish in appearance.

Bethel Beach was also a fantastic spot to see Ospreys and Bald Eagles, roosting in the nearby scrub and trees or soaring as they hunted for prey.

Osprey

This bird is not yet a fully-grown adult Bald Eagle; it takes eagles four years to acquire the all-white head and tail for which they are well known.

As we move into September, the numbers of shorebirds and terns will decrease as they continue south to their wintering grounds, but numbers of other kinds of birds will increase. One of the most anticipated times of year on the Virginia birder’s calendar is September, when the bulk of songbirds migrate along our Atlantic Flyway. We will soon see orioles, tanagers, flycatchers, warblers, vireos and many others moving through, and one of the best places to witness this migration is along the southern tip of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Places like the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge and Kiptopeke State Park are traditional hotspots where birders gather in the morning and hope for a “fallout” of these birds. By mid-September and well into October and even November, the hawk and eagle migrations will be at their peak. I will be out there for the next couple of months as often as my work schedule and my pocketbook allow, and I hope I will find a lot of good things to share with you. Until next time, take a little time to enjoy the bountiful nature and wildlife that we are so fortunate to have here, in and near Chesapeake.

Summertime in Virginia

Mid-summer in far southeastern Virginia is not my favorite time to go birding or butterflying, or to take nature walks. Oppressive temperatures and humidity become unbearable and biting insects, snakes and ticks become more troublesome. I’m willing to put up with these annoyances when there is a lot of bird activity to witness, but not so much when things are slower, as they generally are in the summer (compared to spring and fall). Last weekend I went on a butterfly walk at Back Bay, a place I love in the right season, but on a hot, stagnant day in mid-July there were lots of people but very few birds or butterflies, and all I came home with was a bad sunburn and a mediocre photo of a Cottonmouth (above)! Don’t get me wrong, there is wildlife to see, and the occasional summer rarity passes through, but at this time of year, I tend to do more critter-watching in my own yard than I do out in the wild places.

Over the last few years I have planted native plants in my yard that attract native wildlife, and honestly, I’m seeing more butterflies now visiting my yard than I see anywhere else. There are actually several species of Skippers that I have never seen anywhere except in my own yard. When you plant the right native plants in a concentrated area, you become an oasis in an otherwise biologically bare monoculture of lawns and non-native, exotic plants that do not sustain our native wildlife, and the critters will find you. And once they find you, they continue to return.

I like to raise and release butterflies. I find the caterpillars in my yard, house them in screen cages, and feed them until they go into chrysalis. They stay in the chrysalis stage in the cage until they emerge as adult butterflies; then I release them into my yard. In order to get caterpillars in your yard in the first place, you have to know which native plants the caterpillars eat; caterpillars of each species eat only certain kinds of plants. So if you learn what these plants are and plant them in your yard, you’re likely to attract egg-laying adults. Butterflies cannot reproduce in the absence of the host plant that they are biologically bound to; that’s why non-native plant species cannot support reproduction of our native butterflies.

So far I have raised and released well over 3000 individual butterflies. I have also had the pleasure in recent years of raising a few moths, which has been a real treat because the night-flying adults of most moth species are seldom seen by most of us and are therefore more “mysterious.” Some of them are also very striking, very large, and very fascinating to look at. Moths have the same requirement that butterflies do; they each have specific native host plants that they must seek out for egg-laying and caterpillar food. Planting native plants has brought moths to my yard that I wasn’t even aware of before.

The first moth I ever raised was a Pawpaw Sphinx Moth, a species obviously tied to the native Pawpaw tree. I planted one of these trees in my yard 7 or 8 years ago because it is the sole host plant for the gorgeous Zebra Swallowtail and I wanted Zebras to lay eggs in my yard. One day I was searching the tree for Zebra caterpillars, and was surprised to find this guy instead:

I searched through my library of field guides and was able to ID it as a Pawpaw Sphinx Moth caterpillar. I collected it, fed it Pawpaw leaves, watched it go into its cocoon, and a few weeks later successfully emerge as an adult moth with a beautiful, complicated brown, black and white pattern. Here it is on my own finger:

Last fall I was cleaning up my yard and stumbled upon two Io Moth caterpillars, the first I had ever seen. I did a little research and learned that they eat Wild Cherry, so I collected them and fed them from my Wild Cherry tree. (By the way, Io caterpillars are famous for their sting, so if you see one, do not touch it directly).

I also learned that this moth species burrows underground when it is ready to go into the pupae stage, so I put my caterpillars in an aquarium filled with several inches of dirt and dried leaves. Sure enough, when they were done feeding they burrowed into the dirt, went into the pupae phase and spent the winter there, in the aquarium on my front porch. And in June, they both emerged, on consecutive days, in their beautiful adult stage! Io Moths are known for the “eyes” on their upper hindwing; you can see why in the photo below. This one is a female (the male is even brighter!):

The incredible creature below is the caterpillar or larva stage of the Cecropia Moth, which is the largest North American moth, one of the Giant Silk Moths:

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I did not find this caterpillar in my own yard — but I could have, because one of their host plants is Wild Cherry, which I have. A fellow raise-and-release enthusiast had several Cecropia cocoons in a cage, and she was not at home when they emerged into adults. By the time she came home and found them, they had already mated and laid “hundreds” of eggs. I obtained one of the tiny caterpillars when it was no more than a quarter of an inch long, and started to feed it the Wild Cherry. Here’s its picture a few weeks later, when it was fatter and juicier; these guys get to be up to five inches long!


Caterpillars go through several “instars between molts; in other words, they shed their skin when they outgrow it several times as they mature. In this photo, you can actually see the caterpillar’s shed skin in the upper right corner. What I found fascinating is that the shed skin includes the old spikes and colored balls that you see on the fresh caterpillar!

I have been feeding this caterpillar for almost two months now, and finally this week it stopped eating and started to spin its silk cocoon on the side of its screen cage. In a few weeks or maybe even next year, the moth should emerge, and will look like this (photo courtesy of Great Hill Horticultural Foundation):

Cecropias occur throughout eastern North America, west to the Rocky Mountains, but are seldom seen by most of us because they are active at night. I hope to find their caterpillars one day on my own Wild Cherry tree; I’ll be looking.

I have raised and released around 150 butterflies so far this summer, but the peak months have not yet even begun. Moth and butterfly numbers will increase over the next two months or so, and I will be much busier finding and feeding voracious caterpillars, then experiencing the joy of releasing them as butterflies. Some will emerge this summer or fall, and some will actually overwinter as chrysalis in my cages and emerge next year. If you’re interested in knowing which native plants are hosts to which species, or would like any more details about the raise-and-release process, please don’t hesitate to contact me; I love sharing the knowledge!