Trip report 

USA: Virginia stopover birding 

January 2006.

 

January 5th -7th and 26th -28th 2006

Tico Tours™ in association with Schiffornis Bird Tours

 Written by ANDREW WALKER

 Guided by MIKE BOATWRIGHT 

I spent most of January guiding a customized Costa Rica birding trip for Tico Tours™.  On the way to Costa Rica from the UK, and vice versa I spent a couple of days birding in the United States and the state of Virginia to be precise.  Tico Tours™ owner Mike Boatwright met me at the airport and we spent the daylight hours birding and the evenings thinking about the possibilities of the Costa Rica trip (before) and then the success of the Costa Rica trip (after)!

Mike and I both feel that this is a great option to break up a journey and offers a chance at some great birds, as I will demonstrate below!

We focused our attention on seeing many resident species that are specifically found through the Eastern States and also pay due attention to the many migratory species that over-winter in the area.  The major highlight was easily a Snowy Owl seen at the airport on the return journey!

For further information on Costa Rica or Virginia tours, or any other tour contact Mike Boatwright via http://www.tico-tours.net or Andrew Walker via http://www.schiffornisbirdtours.com (many other tours are available throughout the world, see the websites for details).

Following is a daily summary of the locations visited and some of the interesting species recorded during the tour; thereafter a list of species recorded is included.

Daily Report:

Day 1: 5th January 2006

My flight arrived at Washington DC, Dulles airport early afternoon, on time, and Mike was sat at the airport waiting for me.  We wasted no time and got on the road, after getting looks at Red-tailed Hawks, Fish Crows, Ring-billed Gull and Northern Mockingbird in the parking lot!

Our destination was the Virginia Beach area, but en-route the aim was to maximise our daylight birding time.  We headed along Route 3, to some quarry ponds in King George County where we found many target waterbirds, including Canvasback, American Wigeon, the stunning Hooded Merganser, Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Ruddy Duck and Greater Canada Goose with a singing Eastern Meadowlark proving interesting.  Other birds in the area included Cedar Waxwing, Red-shouldered Hawk and an adult Bald Eagle that glided over, giving incredible views of this giant bird.

A little further on we made a stop-off at George Washington’s Birthplace National Monument, Westmoreland County.  The area consisted of a large creek, with the Potomac River passing by.  There was also woodland, agricultural fields and scrub present.  Getting out of the car it was immediately evident how peaceful it was, except for birdsong, and especially that of the Tundra Swan whose calls echoed all around.  It didn’t take us long to find some interesting species, a couple of Great-Horned Owls called from the forest but we couldn’t see them.  Carolina Chickadee and Carolina Wrens both responded to ‘pishing’ and showed well and Red-bellied Woodpecker (my first of five Melanerpes Woodpeckers that I was to see in January!) called and then showed well. 

As we looked across Pope’s Creek at calling Tundra and Mute Swans we also found several Lesser Scaup, Long-tailed Duck and Ring-billed Gull.  As I looked across the creek at the reedbeds on the far side I thought of Norfolk back in the United Kingdom and I thought that if I were there I would be looking at Hen Harriers.  At that time a ring-tailed Northern Harrier (recently split from Hen Harrier) came up, out of the reeds and spent several minutes gracefully gliding around showing incredible well.

We moved to the next parking lot where en-route we came across our first fast-moving feeding flock.  There were a lot of birds moving through the scrub on the edge of the agricultural fields and it was here we got our first look at the ‘State Bird of Virginia’, the mouth-watering Northern Cardinal.  We had at least two pairs of these stunning birds moving with the flock, generally staying low but occasionally perching at eye level.  The majority of the flock was made up of American Robins (flashbacks to Grimsby, UK!) and there was also Northern Mockingbirds, ‘Slate-coloured’ Dark-eyed Junco, White-throated Sparrow (another UK flashback!), and a single Fox Sparrow that sat up for a moment allowing for careful study.  A Brown Thrasher was a fleeting glimpse as it moved through the base of the scrub; Yellow-rumped ‘Myrtle’ Warblers were everywhere, in a variety of guises.  A large herd of White-tailed Deer, including some giant bucks passing by made for interesting viewing.

We reached the final parking lot late afternoon, where we scoped the river and found over 50 Surf Scoter, and many Lesser Scaup, Long-tailed Duck and Bufflehead, a distant flock of Lesser Scaup seemed to include a couple of Redheads but by this time the light was fading and clinching their id had to wait for another day!

Our drive back to the highway produced an impressive aerial battle between several Bald Eagles, two of whom came crashing through the woodland canopy, providing ample entertainment!

As by now it was getting dark, we continued the main section of our journey southwards to the Virginia Beach area, where we found a hotel and got some sleep, full of excitement for the coming days.

Day 2: 6th January 2006

We woke before it was light, had a traditional US breakfast and were disappointed as the rain from an approaching front started to arrive.  We got our rain gear on and headed the short distance to First Landing State Park, Virginia Beach, where we met up with one of Mike's birding friends, Adam D'Onofrio.  This location has turned up Clark’s Grebe in past winters, our hope was that it was going to be present during our visit but unfortunately it wasn’t to be.  Whilst we were scanning for the Grebe we did however have Brown Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, Common Loon and a couple of Surf Scoter.

We walked around the scrub and dunes along the beach but the weather meant everything was keeping very low, the only species breaking cover was a couple of White-throated Sparrows.  We walked back to the vehicles to drive over to the more forested section of the park, as we were doing so a Cooper’s Hawk broke cover and flew low past in front of us.  Back at the parking lot we found Carolina Chickadee, Northern Cardinal and American Crow.  A brief walk in the forested section produced nothing, by now it was raining quite heavily.  We decided to try our luck further along the coast but as we were driving through the forest to get to the highway we came across some activity on the roadside.  The main makeup of the flock was American Robins, of which there must have been around 30.  A tiny Hermit Thrush kicked off the road before we could all get a look at it; it then disappeared in the undergrowth.  As we were looking for this Adam found a stunning Blue-headed Vireo (my bird of the trip… until the 27th!), a little further still down the road a brief pause in the weather resulted in some more activity, namely Yellow-rumped ‘Myrtle’ Warblers, Carolina Chickadee and Brown Creeper.  As we were searching through the Yellow-rumped ‘Myrtle’ Warblers Adam found the subtle Orange-crowned Warbler, a good wintering record.  This bird perched at eye-level, in similar fashion to the Blue-headed Vireo just minutes previous and showed fantastically.  We worked hard for our birds here, due in no small part to the weather, but the final couple of birds made us leave very happy!

A brief stop at Lynnhaven Inlet produced Boat-tailed Grackle, Great Blue Heron, Red-tailed Hawk, Turkey and Black Vulture, Red-winged Blackbird, Ring-billed Gull, Common Starling, another adult Bald Eagle, a group of Bufflehead and a Belted Kingfisher.

We decided to venture to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, which meant a crossing along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT).  This is a toll road so for economic (and environmental) reasons we piled into one car and headed to CBBT Island 1 (the only place you can now stop without booking in advance and paying a ridiculous sum of money, this is a major US Navy shipping lane so security is paramount!).  It was incredibly windy here, and cold, similar to Spurn Point, UK in some respects!  We found birds immediately, for me the highlight was a flock of over 100 Bufflehead fighting against the tidal currents.  A single Purple Sandpiper sat on the tunnel support boulders showed well, and was later joined by a small flock of Ruddy Turnstone.  Out at sea we watched Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Greater and Lesser Scaup and a single Pale-bellied Brent Goose.  Large numbers of Bonaparte’s Gulls were noted out to sea, with Greater Black-backed, Ring-billed and American Herring Gull being a little closer in.

By now we needed to get out of the wind, so we moved on to the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, Northampton County where the rain eased a little.  This beautiful area produced an interesting mix of species, both water based and land based.  Our first loop of the reserve produced a couple of showy Song Sparrow, more Northern Cardinals and a large flock of Snow Geese.  We made our way to a viewpoint that overlooked a large reedbed, on the way here we came across another Hermit Thrush, again on the path in front of us, but this time it landed where we could all see it well.  As we looked across the reedbed at another Northern Harrier a Grey Catbird called right below us, it then jumped up into view and continued to show for several minutes, a great bird and fantastic looks.  As we continued round to our car a very fast moving flock produced the dainty Tufted Titmouse, Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-rumped ‘Myrtle’ Warbler and Downy Woodpecker.

As we progressed around the reserve we came across a small pool that held Little Blue Heron, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, White Ibis, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Willet along the waters edge.  On the water several American Black Duck, American Wigeon, Gawall, Mallard and Northern Shoveler were present.  Brief glimpses of a Sedge Wren proved frustrating, as the bird would not come out for long before jumping back into safety.  A dashing Cooper’s Hawk flew through putting many small birds up before it went out of view.

We left the reserve satisfied with the good birds that we had seen and headed off to our next stop, Magotha Road Marsh, Northampton County.  Along the way we found several Northern ‘Yellow-shafted’ Flickers, the immaculate Eastern Bluebird sat on wires along the roadside, along with a few adult Pine Warblers and a large flock of Mourning Doves.  As we progressed, a number of Snow Geese flocks flew over, some of the flocks contained ‘Blue’ Snow Goose.

Once at the Marsh we found Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow, Marsh Wren, Belted Kingfisher, Savannah Sparrow and a brief Swamp Sparrow that flew away without looking back!  A brief glimpse skywards resulted in great views of a Peregrine Falcon mobbing a Bald Eagle, an awesome sight.  The Peregrine chased the Bald Eagle for a couple of hundred metres before it did an about turn and flew out towards the sea, getting lower and lower and then, out of sight, for the time being…

We decided to try another area as we still had plenty of light left in the afternoon.  We climbed back into the cars, drove about 100 metres before we spotted the Peregrine Flacon again, this time it was sitting in a roadside tree ripping apart what appeared to be a female Bufflehead!  We sat and watched it disgorge its prey for about 10 minutes at close range before it flew off low with most of the Bufflehead going along for the ride!

A roadside stop at Townsend Post Office, Northampton County produced a great bird for the United States, one that I had no trouble in confidently identifying, Eurasian Collared Dove!  Several more Eastern Bluebirds were sat along the wires and they were joined by a couple of dainty American Kestrels.  A brief stop at a small pond at Cape Charles, Northampton County produced an adult Forster’s Tern, Pale-bellied Brent and Greater Canada Goose and a couple of American Coot.

Our final stop of the day was Kiptopeke State Park, Northampton County.  Out in the bay here we found several Red-necked and Slavonian Grebes, Common Goldeneye, Surf Scoter, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Double-crested Cormorant and a couple of Common Loon.

As dark approached we headed for some food at the renowned Stingrays, en-route we called in briefly at the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge where we walked through some fields and threw up about a dozen of the delightful American Woodcock, the last bird of the day!  We made it to Stingrays, had a wonderful fish supper then dropped Adam off at the CBBT before heading north for a couple of hours towards Washington DC.  We stayed near the airport, in a town called Manasas, Prince William County where we went through our lists and had a good nights sleep.

Day 3: 7th January 2006

We awoke early, to make the most of the couple of hours we had before my flight to San Jose Costa Rica. The previous days weather front had passed by and the clear skies overnight had sent the temperatures plummeting below freezing.  A small scrub area around the Days Inn Hotel, Manasas, Prince William County produced Fish Crow, American Robin, White-throated, Song and House Sparrow, American Goldfinch, Northern Mockingbird and Mourning Dove.

Our final stop was actually at Dulles Airport, Loudon County Virginia where a very small area of ‘cat-tails’ produced Song and Swamp Sparrows.  A small pond near the terminal produced Greater Canada Goose, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Hooded Merganser, Ruddy Duck and Ring-billed Gull, while a Killdeer flew overhead calling before landing in the roadside verge with several Fish Crows and a Red-shouldered Hawk in attendance.

A small patch of woodland on the edge of a runway produced Downy Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Field Sparrow, Northern ‘Yellow-shafted’ Flicker, Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Yellow-rumped ‘Myrtle’ Warbler and ‘Slate-coloured’ Dark-eyed Junco.

We left the birding and headed into the terminal building where I thanked and said goodbye to Mike for a few weeks before I boarded my flight to San Jose to conduct the Costa Rica Big List Tour.  I left looking forward to returning to this great state.

 

Day 1a: 26th January 2006

My flight from San Jose arrived at Washington DC, Dulles airport mid-evening, again on time and again Mike was there waiting for me with some interesting news…  We made our way to a hotel very close to the airport.

Day 2a: 27th January 2006

Mike and I woke early, probably due to excitement, and were up and ready to go for first light.  My great friend Mark Larson, US Guide for Schiffornis Bird Tours joined us for a days birding and we wasted little time before making our way back to the airport.  It didn’t take long to find our target bird, sat up on a lamppost,a stonking 1st winter Snowy Owl.  Mike and I had previously discussed the possibility of travelling for up to six hours for a Snowy Owl if there was one in Virginia or any other nearby state!  We all stood on top of a multi-storey parking lot and scoped this giant bird, less than 100 meters away!  At first it was sat facing away from us, its head markings suggesting it was facing us with its eyes closed.  In a flash it had turned around to face us with its bold yellow eyes looking across at us on the roof! As the sun raised in the sky the colours on the owl changed slightly.  We were all mesmerised by this owl, watching its behaviour was a real treat and one that will stay with us all for a lifetime.  It didn’t seem too bothered by all of the aeroplane activity going on, it would occasionally turn its head all the way round behind itself which proved highly entertaining!  Easily bird of the trip for me!  The rest of the day was going to have to be very special to keep up this level of birding!

It proved very difficult to pull ourselves away from this bird, how can you walk away from a Snowy Owl?  We did however as there was potential today for some (more) great birds. 

We moved on to the Lucketts Area, Loudon County where almost immediately we came across Blue Jay, White-breasted Nuthatch, Belted Kingfisher, Downy, Hairy and Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Northern ‘Yellow-shafted’ Flicker, Carolina Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse.  A highlight here came in the form of 2 day-active Great Horned Owls that reside in the woodlands.

As we drove along the small lanes we found some good habitat and some interesting birds, such as Purple Finch, House Finch and American Goldfinch.  A little further we came across a field containing Song, White-throated, House and the crisp White-crowned Sparrows, the trees overhead were filled with hundreds of Common Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird and Common Starling, making for a great deal of noise!

Further still a small scrub patch produced Northern Mockingbird, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, more White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows and a huge crow-sized, calling then fly-over Pileated Woodpecker.

After seeing many great birds and spending most of the morning driving around here we decided to move on a little.  We made our way to Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, Fairfax County where a large area of water contained around 30 Common Mergansers, a fair few Greater Canada Goose, a medium sized flock of Tundra Swan, many Ruddy Duck, Bufflehead and thousands of backlit Lesser Scaup.

A feeding area here produced cracking looks at American Goldfinch, Mourning Dove, House Finch, Brown Creeper, around 20 ‘Slate-coloured’ Dark-eyed Junco and several White-breasted Nuthatches.  A large number, probably around 100 American Robins were actively feeding along the forest edge, careful observation of the flock also produced great views of Carolina Wren, Hermit Thrush, Tufted Titmouse and Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Bald Eagles were much in evidence here and we saw a couple of adult and sub-adult birds kicking around.

Our final stop of the day was the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Fairfax County, and a fantastic place to end the day.  We soon found a decent mixed feeding flock that contained American Tree Sparrow, Field Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow and Swamp Sparrow.  Also seen within the flock were ‘Slate-coloured’ Dark-eyed Junco, Carolina Chickadee and Northern Cardinal.  Savannah Sparrows were also recorded, one such bird sitting out on top of some grass allowing for prolonged views of this dapper bird.

As we left the refuge we came across a small pond and marsh that contained Great Blue Heron, Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, Mallard, American Black Duck and Ring-necked Duck. 

After another fantastic days birding in Virginia we said goodbye to Mark who made his way home as we headed back towards our hotel near the airport.  We reflected on what had been a truly remarkable and successful January and enjoyed a celebratory meal before getting ready to go back to the UK.

Day 3a: 28th January 2006

We were up early again, we both wanted to see if the Snowy Owl was still present.  As this was a Saturday morning some of Virginia’s twitchers were out and about looking for the owl.  It didn’t take us long to get back to our viewpoint where we immediately found the bird once again, on the same lamppost, just on the other side of it!  We again watched the Snowy Owl for about an hour before I had to go and check-in.  I very reluctantly pulled myself away from the owl and made my way inside (I could still actually see the bird from inside the terminal buildings!). 

I bid farewell to Mike and thanked him again for such an awesome few days.  After an hour or so I took one last look at the Snowy Owl before getting on my plane, as we taxied off I had a beautiful male ‘Grey Ghost’ Northern Harrier glide past my window, two incredible birds to end a month to remember!

Below is a list of bird species (114) recorded over the stopover birding period.

 

Species List 

Common Loon

Gavia immer

Horned Grebe

Podiceps auritus

Red-necked Grebe

Podiceps grisegena

Northern Gannet

Morus bassanus

Brown Pelican

Pelicanus occidentalis occidentalis

Double-crested Cormorant

Phalacrocorax auritus auritus

Great Blue Heron

Ardea herodias

Great Egret

Ardea alba

Snowy Egret

Egretta thula

Little Blue Heron

Egretta caerulea

White Ibis

Eudocimus albus

Snow Goose

Chen caerulescens

Greater Canada Goose

Branta canadensis

Pale-bellied Brent Goose

Branta bernicla hrota

Mute Swan

Cygnus olor

American 'Whistling' Tundra Swan

Cygnus columbianus columbianus

Gadwall

Anas strepera

American Wigeon

Anas americana

American Black Duck

Anas rubripes

Mallard

Anas platyrhynchos

Northern Shoveler

Anas clypeata

Green-winged Teal

Anas carolinensis

Canvasback

Aythya valisineria

Ring-necked Duck

Aythya collaris

Greater Scaup

Aythya marila

Lesser Scaup

Aythya affinis

Surf Scoter

Melanitta perspicillata

Black Scoter

Melanitta nigra

Long-tailed Duck

Clangula hyemalis

Bufflehead

Bucephala albeola

Common Goldeneye

Bucephala clangula

Hooded Merganser

Lophodytes cucullatus

Common Merganser

Mergus merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

Mergus serrator

Ruddy Duck

Oxyura jamaicensis

Black Vulture

Coragyps atratus

Turkey Vulture

Cathartes aura

Bald Eagle

Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Northern Harrier

Circus cyaneus

Cooper's Hawk

Accipiter cooperii

Eastern' Red-shouldered Hawk

Buteo lineatus lineatus

Red-tailed Hawk

Buteo jamaicensis

American Kestrel

Falco sparverius

Tundra' Peregrine Falcon

Falco peregrinus tundrius

Clapper Rail

Rallus longirostris

American Coot

Fulica americana

Killdeer

Charadrius vociferus

Greater Yellowlegs

Tringa melanoleuca

Lesser Yellowlegs

Tringa flavipes

Willet

Catoptrophorus semipalmatus

Ruddy Turnstone

Arenaria interpres

Sanderling

Calidris alba

Purple Sandpiper

Calidris maritima

American Woodcock

Scolopax minor

Bonaparte's Gull

Larus philadelphia

Ring-billed Gull

Larus delawarensis

American' Herring Gull

Larus argentatus smithsonianus

Great Black-backed Gull

Larus marinus

Forster's Tern

Sterna forsteri

Rock Dove

Columba livia

Mourning Dove

Zenaida macroura

Eurasian Collared Dove

Streptopelia decaocto

Eastern' Great Horned Owl

Bubo virginianus virginianus

Snowy Owl

Nyctea scandiaca

Belted Kingfisher

Ceryle alcyon

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Melanerpes carolinus

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Sphyrapicus varius

Eastern' Downy Woodpecker

Picoides pubescens pubescens

Eastern' Hairy Woodpecker

Picoides villosus villosus

Northern 'Yellow-shafted' Flicker

Colaptes auratus auratus

Pileated Woodpecker

Dryocopus pileatus

Blue-headed Vireo

Vireo solitarius

Blue Jay

Cyanocitta cristata

American Crow

Corvus brachyrhynchos

Fish Crow

Corvus ossifragus

North-east' Carolina Chickadee

Poecile carolinensis extimus

Tufted Titmouse

Baeolophus bicolor bicolor

Eastern' White-breasted Nuthatch

Sitta carolinensis carolinensis

Eastern' Brown Creeper

Certhia americana americana

Northern' Carolina Wren

Thryothorus ludovicianus ludovicianus

Sedge Wren

Cistothorus platensis

Eastern' Marsh Wren

Cistothorus palustris palustris

Eastern' Golden-crowned Kinglet

Regulus satrapa satrapa

Northern' Eastern Bluebird

Sialia sialis sialis

Eastern/Taiga' Hermit Thrush

Catharus guttatus faxoni

Eastern' American Robin

Turdus migratorius migratorius

Grey Catbird

Dumetella carolinensis

Northern Mockingbird

Mimus polyglottos

Brown Thrasher

Toxostoma rufum

European Starling

Sturnus vulgaris

Cedar Waxwing

Bombycilla cedrorum

Orange-crowned Warbler

Vermivora celata

Yellow-rumped 'Myrtle' Warbler

Dendroica coronata

Pine Warbler

Dendroica pinus

American Tree Sparrow

Spizella arborea

Field Sparrow

Spizella pusilla

Savannah Sparrow

Passerculus sandwichensis

Atlantic' Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow

Ammodramus nelsoni subvirgatus

Red (Taiga)' Fox Sparrow

Passerella iliaca iliaca

Eastern' Song Sparrow

Melospiza melodia melodia

Swamp Sparrow

Melospiza georgiana

White-throated Sparrow

Zonotrichia albicollis

Eastern Taiga' White-crowned Sparrow

Zonotrichia leucophrys leucophrys

Slate-coloured' Dark-eyed Junco

Junco hyemalis hyemalis

Eastern' Northern Cardinal

Cardinalis cardinalis cardinalis

Red-winged Blackbird

Agelaius phoeniceus

Eastern Meadowlark

Sturnella magna

Common Grackle

Quiscalus quiscula

Atlantic' Boat-tailed Grackle

Quiscalus major torreyi

Eastern' Brown-headed Cowbird

Molothrus ater ater

Eastern' Purple Finch

Carpodacus purpureus purpureus

House Finch

Carpodacus mexicanus

American Goldfinch

Carduelis tristis

House Sparrow

Passer domesticus

 

Schiffornis Bird Tours are proud to announce their partnership with Tico Tours promoting Costa Rican Birding.  Tico Tours™ offer scheduled and private tours in conjunction with Schiffornis Bird Tours.  Andrew works as a partner and guide for Tico Tours™