Norfolk, Virginia, 11/13-15/14

All photos are Marshall Faintich

Alice and I headed to Norfolk for a few days so she could play in a bridge tournament and I could do some birding. My target birds were three potential life birds: Nelson's and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows, and LeConte's Sparrow. There have been reports of the two Sharp-tailed Sparrows at Pleasure House Point and at the Ragged Island WMA. The Virginia DGIF wildlife guide state that the Back Bay Wildlife Refuge is the only reliable site here for LeConte's Sparrows in the winter.

Pleasure House Point, 11/13/14

We left Nellysford early in the morning with a forecast for afternoon rain in the Norfolk area. We encountered some brief rain showers on the way, but the rain stopped and there was complete cloud cover by the time I arrived at Pleasure House Point shortly before noon. Hide tide was expected a little before 2 p.m., and Rob Bielawski's reports of the Nelson's and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows at this location stated that high tide was the best time to see these secretive species because they are forced to seek higher ground.

For the first two hours, all I saw were a few Buffleheads, a Hooded Merganser, Ring-billed Gulls, Double-crested Cormorants, Fish Crows, a Belted Kingfisher, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Great Blue Heron. At 1:47 p.m., the first of a few Sharp-tailed Sparrows popped up onto the marsh grasses, and I started taking photos. By 2:29 p.m., I had had taken about 400 photos of these sparrows. I'm not sure how many different birds I saw, as they would drop down out of sight after just a few moments each time. The most I saw at one time were two sparrows.

These two species used to be considered as one species, but were later split into two with sub-species. After looking at my photos of the sparrows, and consulting multiple references, I am sure that some of them were Nelson's, and one or more of them may be Saltmarsh. However, the references are not completely in agreement, and none of the birds looked exactly like the reference drawings and photos.

Click here to see 52 photos of the Sharp-tailed Sparrows with some detailed discussion as to which species they may be.

[11/18/14 UPDATE: Per Fletcher Smith, Research Biologist, Center for Conservation Biology, College of William and Mary & the Virginia Commonwealth University, all of the Sharp-tailed Sparrows I photographed are Nelson's.]


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow

Back Bay, 11/14/14

It was still cloudy in the morning, but with sunshine forecasted by noon. My first stop was at the visitor center, and I asked the biologist there where I might try to find LeConte's Sparrows, I was told that they are in nesting areas that are closed off to the public during the winter, and the only time they see this species is when they catch one in a mist net. So I decided to explore the areas that were open to the public.

There were Buffledheads, Gadwalls, Ring-billed, and Ruddy Ducks, Pied-billed Grebes, and a few Tundra Swans. Along the trails I saw lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers, a single Palm Warbler, Carolina Chickadees, Northern Mockingbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and a Carolina Wren. A flock of Great Black-backed Gulls was on the beach. I saw a few other species while I was there, and got a few good photos of a Great Blue Heron.


Great Black-backed Gulls


Great Black-backed Gull


Great Black-backed Gull


Herring(?) Gull


Double-crested Cormorant


Tundra Swans


Ruddy Ducks


Yellow-rumped Warbler


Palm Warbler


Carolina Chickadee


Great Blue Heron

Ragged Island WMA, 11/15/14

I made the drive to Ragged Island, wondering if it would be productive for birding. Visits to other WMAs in Virginia have not been very good as hunting scares the birds away. Sure enough, there were duck hunters there, and I only saw a few birds: Yellow-rumped Warblers, Carolina Chickadees, and a few gulls. As I was getting ready to leave, I saw the back side of a perched hawk, but it flew before I could photograph or identify it. It's long and thin body shape suggested an accipiter, probably a Cooper's Hawk, but its tawny brown back looked unusual; perhaps a lighting effect from the sun. I decided to go back to Pleasure House Point to try to find more Sharp-tailed Sparrows. On the way there, I saw Red-tailed Hawks at two locations along the highway - one of them had an almost completely white breast.

Pleasure House Point, 11/15/14

I arrived around 11:30 a.m., but high tide was not until 3:45 p.m. I saw more Buffleheads, Hooded Mergansers, gulls, crows, another Belted Kingfisher and a Great Blue Heron, a few Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. I also saw several Snowy Egrets and an Osprey.


Golden-crowned Kinglet


Belted Kingfisher


Belted Kingfisher


Snowy Egret


Osprey


Ring-billed Gull


Herring Gull

I thought I saw a Clapper Rail fly from the shore in front of me to the grasses on a shoal across the water. Sure enough, a photo confirmed this. A short time later, I saw a Clapper Rail preening in a small, muddy rut between some tall grasses.


Clapper Rail


Clapper Rail


Clapper Rail


Clapper Rail


Clapper Rail


Clapper Rail


Clapper Rail


Clapper Rail


Clapper Rail


Clapper Rail

I saw a couple of sparrows pop up and immediately back down in the tall grasses, but the only sparrow I could identify was a Song Sparrow. I left a little before 3 p.m. without positively seeing Sharp-tailed Sparrows this time - just too tired and achy after all the hiking and carrying my camera equipment during this trip.



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