Saturday, February 9, 2013

Not So Lousy Bird Walk

 I always try to teach the importance of nature to my kids but it’s tough at times competing with today’s distractions. I’m not sure who, or how it came about, but my kids recently asked me to take them birdwatching. With all the distractions of computers and video games they’re normally into, I jump at the opportunity to take them to the woods when given the chance.

I believe it was my son Jonathan who asked first, and my daughter Morgan followed his lead like younger siblings often do. My only concern, as with most kids, was getting them up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday and out of the house by 7. Once that was accomplished, the rest of the morning seemed like a piece of cake.

It just so happened that the Great Dismal Swamp NWR was having one of their so called “Lousy Bird Walks” on Saturday. It’s not really “lousy,” but on a winter walk sightings can be a bit unpredictable. The turnout was small, consisting of  me, my two kids and two refuge guides. It seemed as if we had the whole woods to ourselves.

The morning started off great, especially after spotting one of my favorite birds – the red-headed woodpecker. Don, the refuge’s wildlife biologist, said that the red-headed woodpeckers have really made a comeback in the swamp over the last couple years and being seen in areas of the swamp that they weren’t typically established before.

RHWP Photo from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Red-headed woodpeckers don’t act quite like most other woodpeckers – they’re adept at catching insects in the air, and they eat lots of acorns and beech nuts, often hiding away extra food in tree crevices for later. Unfortunately they’re numbers have been in declined over the past half-century because of habitat loss and changes to its food supply. (Ref: Cornell – All About Birds, Red-headed Woodpecker).

One woodpecker that’s not in decline is the red-bellied woodpecker. We saw several of these during our morning walk. Morgan was excited when she spotted one all by herself.


At times throughout our 2-hour hike things got a little slow, but the kids managed to keep themselves entertained.


Other cool birds we spotted were yellow-crowned kinglets, fox sparrow, red-breasted nuthatch, winter wren, hermit thrush and a few other more common birds. The morning ended just as it began, with another sighting of a red-headed woodpecker.

Unfortunately, most young children today do not have as many direct experiences with nature. If you get an opportunity, experience and explore the great outdoors with your child — you’ll be glad you did!


Check out “Why Kids Need Nature” –

Monday, February 4, 2013

Winter Wildlife Festival–Trip to the Bay (Part 1)

 Despite the cold and snow, this year’s Virginia Beach Winter Wildlife Festival was a successful event. This was the fourth year of the event and my first time attending. The festival, put on by the Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation Department, takes place each year in late January, which coincides with the migration of winter ducks and geese into the area, as well as other sea and shore birds that winter along the coast of Virginia. It’s also a great time to spot humpback whales and/or harbor seals just off the coast. However, wildlife is unpredictable and there’s no guarantee what you may see; but if you can tolerate the weather, chances are pretty good that you won’t be disappointed.

The event kicked off on Friday (2/25) with a trip to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT). The CBBT, located where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, is considered the world's largest bridge-tunnel complex. From shore to shore, the Bridge-Tunnel measures approximately 18 miles and consist of more than 12 miles of low-level trestle, two 1-mile tunnels, two bridges, 2 miles of causeway, and four manmade islands. These manmade islands are great look-out spots for viewing wildlife and its where our day began.

Even with temps in the mid-30s, the wind was mild, making it bearable for most of the day. Our first stop along the bridge was the 2nd island. That’s where we got good looks (with binoculars) at various sea ducks.
Here’s a mix of surf, black and white-winged scoters.

Surf, Black, White-winged scoters, sea ducks
A few long-tailed ducks were also present in the distance. These are some of my favorite ducks.

Long-tailed ducks, sea ducks, Chesapeake Bay
Here’s a purple sandpiper feeding along the rocky edges of the island.

purple sandpiper
I was excited to get a new life bird at this stop – the red-necked grebe. Unfortunately, because of its distant out from the bridge, I didn't get any photos of the bird.

From here, we rode a few miles further up the bridge to the 3rd island. This is where we all got to see what many of us came for – the harbor seals!

Harbor Seal, Chesapeake Bay 
Harbor Seals, Chesapeake Bay
A few years ago this was a rare sight, but now it’s not uncommon to spot harbor seals along the bay between the months of October and April. They like to hang out on the rock jetties of the manmade islands, and sometimes venture further inland looking for food.

Harbor Seal, Chesapeake Bay
Harbor seals grow to about 6 feet in length and reach up to 250 pounds. Most have a blue-gray back with light and dark speckling over their bodies. Those native to the Atlantic are generally smaller than those in Alaska and the Pacific Ocean.

Other sightings were a little more common along the bridge island, like these double-breasted cormorants mixed in among the various gulls – ring-bill, herring, great black-back and least black-back. We also spotted a few northern gannets flying over-head as well.

double-breasted cormorants, gulls, Chesapeake Bay
gulls, Chesapeake Bay
More seals where spotted along the edges of the 4th island and a few red-breasted mergansers were diving in and out of the water as well.

Red-breasted merganser, Chesapeake Bay
From here we traveled to Virginia's Eastern Shore for a lunch-break at Sting Rays, a local favorite, and to re-grouped for our next venture to Fisherman’s Island. More about that in my next post!