Reflection on Birding – 2018

As we wind up 2018, I have been thinking back to what made birding special this year. I spent hundreds of hours birding in Virginia. I also birded West Virginia, Delaware and Maryland. Much of the year, I was consumed with gathering data for the third year of a five-year project to map breeding birds in Virginia. So much so that when I crossed the state-line, I went into breeding bird withdrawal when I realized that the nesting bird in West Virginia didn’t count toward the project!

Beginning January 2018, I kicked off the year with intense birding trying to see as many species as possible on the first day. I wound up observing 55 species in Northern Virginia – starting with a Blue Jay and ending the day with Cedar Waxwings. The rarest bird that day was a Cackling Goose. The new year was off to a good start.

On January 3, I spotted Greater White-fronted Geese at C.M. Crockett Park in Fauquier County (another rarity in Virginia). Then on January 6, I chased (birding lingo for seeking to find a bird other people have reported to be in an area) a rare Clay-colored Sparrow. Luck was on my side as I was successful in locating the sparrow foraging with White-Crowned Sparrows on my first attempt.

On January 8, I relocated a Brown-headed Nuthatch, I previously discovered in Culpeper County (in what I am confident was a county first record). I also relocated a Pine Warbler (rare for Culpeper in January). I snagged recordings and/or photos to prove my observations least other birders not believe me.

My first Winter Wren came along on the 24th at Yowell Meadow Park in Culpeper. I would not see another at this park until November 2018! I wondered if it could possibly be the same individual returning to the same spot, as birds often do.

Curious Winter Wren at Occoquan National Wildlife Refuge

Starting in January and throughout the winter, I kept my eye out for Bald Eagles and a few other species that breed in winter, in order to start making lists for the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas II. I also sought out White-throated Sparrows to make recordings for a citizen science project based in Canada. Volunteers make recordings on the sparrow’s wintering grounds for them to study song variation. I can usually coax a quiet White-throated Sparrow into singing by whistling their song.

In late February, I listened to Woodcocks as they began their breeding flights and calls. I spotted the male silhouettes as they flew around over the fields hoping to impress the females.

Although most people look forward to the end of winter, I think birders are more excited about the change in seasons than everyone else! We salivate with anticipation of the arrival of the migratory birds we have missed.
Beginning in late March I began to spot swallows swooping over lake surface despite the cold temperatures. I also saw my first Osprey of the year. Then on March 30, I spotted my first of the year Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and a Louisiana Waterthrush.

Blue-grey Gnatcatcher

Wondering when I would spot the first warblers, I headed out each day to look for them. On April 3, I spotted my first of the year, when I was surprised by a Yellow-throated Warbler singing vigorously in a tree along Stumpy Lake; a Virginia hotspot near Virginia Beach.

That same day, I was positioned perfectly to gather a rare recording of an early arrival. I happened to be out at False Cape State Park (Virginia’s most southern state park just up from the North Carolina border…in fact you could walk to North Carolina along a strip of beach) for a mandatory onboarding for my volunteer service with AmeriCorps. In my spare time, I of course went birding!

That evening I went for a hike at dusk. I was with a non-birder. We were chatting away when I heard a Chuck-will’s-widow singing. I interrupted our chat and begged my companion to be quiet while I made a recording with my smartphone to upload to eBird to prove my rare observation.

Evening Hike at False Cape State Park

There were numerous King Rails calling in the reeds near where I stayed in False Cape State Park. I also saw a few cottonmouth snakes sunning on the trails along-side the wetlands. I sidestepped carefully around them as they tried to scare me off by opening their jaws. I knew they were “all bark and no bite” if you left them alone.

Cottonmouth

The first time I saw a cottonmouth was a few years ago at the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge that you must pass through to get to False Cape State Park. I was so worried about the snake that was parked right on the boardwalk trail from the beach that I had a stand off with it for about 20 minutes. I didn’t dare get near it. I was relieved when it finally retreated into the marsh. Now, a few years later and with more knowledge about snakes, I knew better and merely sidestepped around them carefully respecting their space.

Serving as a Bird Guide at Kiptopeke

May and June were filled with tons of birding along the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I signed up to cover the priority geographic block that encompassed most of Kiptopeke State park for the breeding bird project. I quickly completed the block by surpassing the breeding bird data that was gathered by others during the first atlas conducted over 25 years ago. I then began travel to other blocks on the shore to gather data for the atlas. Doing the surveys throughout Northampton County was great, as the county has the most observed species of birds in the state.

Domestic Geese Roaming Free

I really have been into participating in the Virginia Breeding Atlas. My efforts led to an article being published on eBird.com about my efforts as a “super volunteer.” In fact, checking the atlas stats, I found that I have covered more territory for the project than any other person (presently I have surveyed in 576 geographic blocks throughout the state). With about 1,000 participants in the project, I feel proud to have contributed this level of effort!

Gray Catbird Enjoying a Treat

As breeding season wound down, I looked forward to fall migration and the change in seasons which would again bring the White-throated Sparrows my way. What I didn’t know would happen was that we would experience an irruptive season with rare birders heading our way from Canada in search of food (one reason for irruptive migrations is when birds cannot find their enough food in their normal wintering habitats). Red-breasted Nuthatches and Purple Finches soon were being observed in Virginia and I was happy to find more of these two species than ever before. 2018 was ending on a great note!

October 6 was the official Big Day via eBird. I participated from the Delaware shore. I expected to find more birders out and about and was surprised to see none! I spent hours at Cape Henlopen State Park and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Cape Henlopen is right across from Cape May, NJ where there were certainly a lot of birders out doing the Big Day. So, it was interesting to see what they saw versus what I saw. I wrote about my Big Day on my blog.

On my way to Delaware I saw this Wild Turkey and Sitka Deer:

In October, I also found a mega rarity for Culpeper County while on my way with a non-birder to lunch. Driving down the road, I saw an egret swoop down and land in an apartment complex lot. It turned out to be a Cattle Egret! I later learned that the last time one was reported in the county was around 15 years ago. The sighting was monumental for me in that it was a new bird for me for my Virginia bird list and quite rare to be seen at all in these parts.

I carry my camera and binoculars every where and almost every day. But of course, on the day the Cattle Egret appeared, I left them behind so that I could be a “normal person” for a while. The egret put me back into “birder” frame of mind quickly, as I worked to convince my companion of the importance that we swing back around to observe it!

Once we relocated the egret, I tried my best to get some photos and video with my smartphone while kicking myself for not having my real equipment with me. I did get to watch the egret wander around and land on top of a car. It finally flew off, not knowing that it had made my day very special. Meanwhile, I hoped it would get to wherever it was going safely.

On another occasion, I stopped at Yowell Meadow Park to have lunch when I was surprised by an Osprey that landed in the tree above my car in the parking lot. It was taking a break from fishing the flooded field in the park. We have had so much rain this year that it is altering habitats. I blogged about the Osprey. I also blogged about another birding outing where I discovered stranded baby fish that had moved out of the streams into the flooded fields.

Osprey

As winter continues, I am hoping the irruptive season brings me a few other firsts. I sure would like to see Evening Grosbeaks in Virginia. I also keep my fingers crossed that I may be lucky enough to see a Snowy Owl or Snow Buntings!

Turkey Vultures at the Great Dismal Swamp
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