Alice was playing in a bridge tournament in Norfolk, and I went along to do some birding in the coastal the areas of Virginia. I had researched list servers about recent birds seen in the area, and compiled a target list of 8 exceptionally difficult to find avian species that I wanted to try to find and photograph. I was lucky enough to see 87 avian species on this trip, including 6 of my 8 target species, as well as few unexpected surprises. The advance weather forecast for this trip seemed to change several times per day for the two weeks prior to the trip, but settled down the day we left home, with this first trip day as the only one with a poor forecast. We arrived in Norfolk around noon, and after getting settled, I opted to try Rudee Inlet in Virginia Beach. There were dark clouds in the sky, but no rain at the hotel, and I didn't want to drive a long distance and then get rained out. As soon as I arrived at Rudee Inlet, it started to rain. I parked my car, and walked over to the inlet to see what might be there, with the intention of waiting for a break in the rain before getting out my camera gear. But there was a dredging operation going on in the inlet, and no birds to be seen. So I drove back to the hotel, took a few photos of gulls and cormorants under dark skies there, and hoped that the rest of the week's forecast for sunny skies and fairly mild temperatures would be correct.
November 15 morning; Pleasure House Point, Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel Island #1 (CBBT#1)
Walt Childs was to meet me in Norfolk this afternoon, but I wanted to get out and do some birding in the morning. I had been to Pleasure House Point several times on previous trips, and it was a good place to see Nelson's Sparrows when there was high tide. Three salt marsh sparrows were target birds for me. One was Seaside Sparrow, and the other two were Nelson's and Saltmarsh Sparrows. The latter two species used to be combined in one species (Sharp-tailed Sparrow), but were now considered separate species. I had seen Nelson's Sparrows there two years ago. These salt marsh sparrows like to stay close to wet ground in tall salt marsh grasses, and usually can only be found near high tide when they are forced to higher levels in the grasses. High tide was at 9:35 this morning, and I arrived at Pleasure House Point right on schedule.
All three of these sparrow species had been reported there in the past two weeks, although distinguishing them from each other can be a challenge. Nelson's Sparrows tend to have more diffuse facial markings and breast streaking than Saltmarsh Sparrows. Nelson's Sparrows have a buffy orange breast, and Saltmarsh Sparrows can have either a clean white or buffy breast, and Seaside Sparrows are darker with a yellow supercillium (eyebrow) from the eye to the bill. However, Nelson's and Saltmarsh Sparrows can interbreed to create hybrid species, and a Saltmarsh x Seaside Sparrow hybrid has been recorded elsewhere.
When I started hiking on the beach trail, I was surprised to see that some of the trail was under shallow water, and then remembered that there had been a supermoon the night before that would have resulted in significantly higher tides. I saw some good species and only a few ducks on the water, but didn't see any of my target sparrows. I had to turn back at one point when the trail was under 4+ inches of water.
As I was re-tracing my path, I encountered another birder who told me that he had been birding there for 20+ years, and had seen some Seaside Sparrows and a Saltmarsh Sparrow past where I had stopped. He had waterproof boots and didn't mind the flooded path. It was now about an hour past high tide, so I decided to try again as the tide had been going out. This time I only had to navigate about 1 to 2 inches of water to continue to where he had seen the salt marsh sparrows, but when I got there, a bus load of kids where getting ready to launch canoes from that spot, and with all the commotion, there was no chance of finding the sparrows. I decided to head over to CBBT#1 to try my luck there. On the way back along the trail, I was surprised when an American Bittern flew from the tall grasses where I was walking. I got a good, but very quick look at it, but no time to get a photo before it flew behind a tree and was out of sight.
CBBT#1 had its usual high number of gulls hanging around, but not very many shorebirds. I saw a Common Loon and a Black Scoter in the water, as well as a few Double-crested Cormorants. A pair of American Oystercatchers flew by and landed on the rocks at the point, where I saw more Oystercatchers, a flock of Sanderlings, some Brown Pelicans, and a few Ruddy Turnstones.
Great Black-backed Gull
American Oystercatchers and Sanderlings
The flock of Sanderlings flew back and forth a few times, and I was able to find a Dunlin and two Purple Sandpipers flying with them.
Dunlin and Sanderlings
Ruddy Turnstone, two Purple Sandpipers, and Sanderlings
I then headed back to the hotel to meet up with Walt.Click here to continue on the afternoon of November 15