Date: 1/3/18 8:12 am
From: Harry Armistead via va-bird <va-bird...>
Subject: [Va-bird] Cape Hatteras to Cape Charles, December 26-31, 2017, the Redeye Circuit.
CAPE HATTERAS TO CAPE CHARLES, December 26-31, 2017, the REDEYE CIRCUIT. WARNING: contains reminiscences, and, even worse, digressions.

ABBREVIATIONS: CBBT, Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. CBC, Christmas Bird Count. ESVNWR, Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. NWR, national wildlife refuge.

My companions and traveling confreres for the 1st 3 CBCs below are Wes & Sue Earp, Grazina & Michael McClure, largely compensating for the absence of my close friend, the late Jared Sparks. I thank them for their good company.

DECEMBER 26, TUESDAY. 411 miles from Philadelphia to Buxton. Milepost 118, Route 13, a bald eagle (N of Accomac, VA). 3 sanderlings at the CBBT overlook S of N Toll Plaza. A peregrine and a brown pelican seen while crossing the CBBT. Dinner at The Point in Buxton with Pat & Neal Moore, John Wright, Lee Adams, Brian Patteson, and 5 or 6 others. The Point, the only restaurant open, is freezing cold. There’s only 1 waitress, who does a great job considering. Pleased to hear from Brian that there are Gray Squirrels in Frisco. I’d wondered.

DECEMBER 27, WEDNESDAY. CAPE HATTERAS, NC, CBC. Ugh! Rain all day, and some wind, too. Temperature in the 40s. Grazina McClure walks the beach W of the ferry. Wes & Sue Earp walk most of the rest of there (Hatteras I., extreme west end). Michael McClure and I are snug and dry in the 4WD vehicle Michael rented at Frisco. Our most interesting beach birds: an immature Black Skimmer and 3 Harlequin Ducks, the latter under the remnants of Frisco pier, very actively diving.

Our combined totals include: 2 immature male and 1 female Common Eider resting on a little beach on the far side of the small inlet into Hatteras harbor, seen by all 5 of us. Sue gets a good shot of the males. These 3 bold-faced species are unique to this most recent count. Also: 774 double-crested cormorants, 341 brown pelicans, only 60 gannets, 5 great egrets, 1 clapper & 1 Virginia rail, 2 royal terns, 46 Eurasian collared-doves, 377 starlings, and 100 boat-tailed grackles plus 1 eastern cottontail, 5 dolphins, and 4 nutria (the latter at Isaac Pond). We find 44 species in our sector. The ocean: largely bereft of loons and gannets, but we do see 187 unIDd scoters plus a male Black Scoter on the beach, not a good sign, perhaps sick or injured.

The weather: ain’t conducive to a good count, no how, no ways, no wheres, esp. of landbirds. (The following information is preliminary, subject to review). Count grand totals and results: close to 500 lesser black-backed gulls, 459 gadwall at the Salt Pond, 7 razorbills, a sora, 5 common gallinules, a probable yellow-legged gull, an Iceland gull, 4 blue-headed vireos, only 1 ruby-throated hummingbird, 8 ovenbirds (there is a small, disjunct wintering population here; they’ve been found even when there’s snow cover), and 1 Ipswich sparrow, but the poorest species total in years.

Missed species, in spite of good participation turnout: Bonaparte’s gull, the 3 marsh sparrows, common grackle, fish crow, merlin, peregrine, sedge wren, wigeon, wood duck, scaup, red-shouldered hawk, and turnstone. Nice compilation as usual at the Catholic church, emphasis on chili and cornbread … and pies. Also as usual, Pat Moore does a great job organizing the count, Brian Patteson the compilation, Kate Sutherland recording the results. The species total is, I think, 108 or 109, real low for here thanks to the weather. We’re disappointed the Burrus store in Hatteras village isn’t open but Connors in Buxton is. Small towns, but these stores got everything.

DECEMBER 28, THURSDAY. BODIE-PEA ISLAND, NC, CBC. No rain but temperatures of 28-31, mostly overcast, and sustained winds of 30-35 m.p.h. “And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind/ How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.” - Dylan Thomas, from his ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.’

This is an area that has long attracted the interest of Paul Sykes. His master’s thesis: The fall migration of land birds along the Bodie Island - Pea Island region of the Outer Banks of northeastern North Carolina (North Carolina State University at Raleigh, 1967, 150 pages). My copy is kept safely in a glass-paneled book case along with some of my most valuable and/or rare natural history monographs.

But … to return to the issue at hand, very low water at Oregon Inlet. On the way up here our cars get sand-blasted but good. As we do each year, in the classic fashion, we split into 3 sections in the Bodie Island lighthouse area: the McClures walk the length of the overgrown trail from S of the lighthouse area all the way out to Route 12; the Earps do a sea watch; I cover the lighthouse pond plus the woods road going N from the road in to the lighthouse. Nice to see Paul Bedell, a surprise, and he joins me.

Of most interest: wood duck 2 (only ones on the count), gadwall 432, black duck 200, blue-winged teal 6 (our area often gets the only ones), pintail 175, green-winged teal 250, hooded merganser 38, pied-billed grebe 9, northern gannet only 54, American bittern 1, merlin 1, clapper rail 1, Virginia rail 1, woodcock 1, tree swallow 60, brown-headed nuthatch 4, house wren 2 (a good CBC season for them regionally), marsh wren 1, myrtle warbler 245, catbird 4, yellowthroat 1, and swamp sparrow 21 plus 1 deer and 1 river otter. 53 species for us.

Elsewhere on this count (preliminary information subject to confirmation; with my poor hearing combined with exhaustion I may have gotten some of this wrong, in the fog of compilation): 3 additional blue-winged teal, 15,000 redheads, 150 or so pied-billed grebes, c. 60 brown pelicans (low), about 50 great egrets, 14 bald eagles, 1,100 coots, only 1 each of greater & lesser yellowlegs, 2 ruby-throated hummingbirds, and a blue-headed vireo. Missed species: sharp-shinned hawk, winter wren, common grackle, and laughing gull. Very poor species total … I think it was c. 116.

Didn’t get above freezing all day. Thanks to Michael for giving me some chemical bag inserts for warming the gloves. Compilation at Pamlico Jack’s, back in a room where we are the only ones. Nice. Calamari and filet mignon for me.

The lighthouse pond is an old friend. In my prime, such as it was, I’d walk its entire marshy circumference. Once did this in knee boots and got away with it, not getting wet, or falling over backwards in areas where the mud is soft, though I teetered that way alarmingly. Walked around it once on ice when it was frozen solid; even then the long-billed dowitchers were there; often the only ones seen on the count are here. Didn’t see them today, nor did we see a single heron or ibis other than 2 great blues and bittern.

Once saw a king snake here in June, and others have seen, in season, canebrake rattlers and water moccasins. We’ve missed snow geese the last couple of years, but there still are usually over a thousand waterfowl, sometimes a Eurasian wigeon, and once a fulvous whistling-duck, and a Ross’s goose. Most unusual was a black-legged kittiwake one time, hovering over the pond as if it was a kingfisher or kestrel. Mondo bizarro. One year a small group of redpolls foraged on the grass lawn surrounding the light. Viva Bodie Island Lighthouse Pond!

DECEMBER 29, FRIDAY. BACK BAY CBC. It’s up at 4:15 for the 94.6-mile drive to Back Bay from Nag’s Head. Paul Sykes turns 80 today. Recently he carefully orchestrated his CBC participation so that his respective 400th and 500th CBCs would be at Back Bay on his birthday date, exploits celebrated by articles in North American Birds and Birding. He’s participated in more CBCs than anyone.

I first met Paul in 1962 after a great nor’easter with winds up to 45 knots on March 2. He took Will Russell and me to Craney Island and Back Bay. We saw a Lapland Longspur, a Glaucous Gull, and found on March 3, 1962, an in extremis Northern Fulmar under a wax myrtle bush on our walk down to BBNWR.

One of us said: “Was that a rabbit?” Another: “No, it was a newspaper.” We did an about face and captured the fulmar. Paul wrote it up in the Auk, “Fulmar taken in Virginia,” vol. 81, no. 3, 1964, page 437. Back then my scope was a 25X Bushnell taped onto the stock of a Model 69A Winchester .22 rifle, a Christmas gift from my brother, Gordon. There’s a photograph of this rig in Time, June 2, 1967, page 47 along with Charlie Wurster, the late Jim Meritt, and me.

But to return to the present, today the 5 of us ride the extensive dikes at Back Bay thanks to refuge Biologist Lauren Mowbray, who not only squires us around, but also keeps track of the bird numbers. Virtuoso performance. We hit False Cape State Park, too. Many thanks to her. 57 species. Of most note:

tundra swan 588 (very vocal; one of the most beautiful sounds in nature: tundra swans in full cry), mute swan 1, wood duck 2, black duck 221, mallard 365, blue-winged teal 3, ring-necked duck 8, lesser scaup 1 male, common goldeneye 1, hooded merganser 18, pied-billed grebe 14, bald eagle 10 (never used to see any here), king rail 4, eastern screech-owl 1, kingfisher 5, pileated woodpecker 1, merlin 1, tree swallow 68, house wren 1, orange-crowned warbler 1, and eastern meadowlark 12 plus 2 yellow-bellied sliders, coyote sign (if you know what I mean), and 1 deer. Lauren says the numbers of feral hogs here are down and that there is a family of Bobcats near the refuge office. 27-36, clear, winds a mere 5 m.p.h. A beauty.

After Back Bay I drive north to Cape Charles. Sitting in Sting-Ray’s, feeling a little blue about being alone for the first time in days, I am absorbed by a hamburger steak (well-done, gravy, no onions) and an issue of Eastern Shore First, when Napier Shelton appears and sits in my booth for a while. Nice to catch up a little. He is author of Where to watch birds in Azerbaijan (2001, 112 pages). His jocular inscription in my copy reads: “To Armistead, Cape Charles’ answer to James Watt. from Napier Shelton, January 2005.” He has written many books for the National Park Service, including titles on Saguaro National Monument, Isle Royale, Lake Huron, Shenandoah, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He and his wife are on their way to Chincoteague.

DECEMBER 30, SATURDAY. 53rd CAPE CHARLES CBC. Kim Voss, Steve Grimes, and I work the Bull’s Drive-Bull’s Landing-Magothy Bay Natural Area Preserve sector plus Magotha Road (which, confusingly, goes out to Magothy Bay), spending most of the day on foot, walkin’. 26-42, SW 5-15-5, overcast, high tide becoming low, very low. 73 species, with help from Arun Bose and Ned Brinkley for special, elitist marsh birds late in the day up at Magotha Road. They are out there, stompin’ the ‘phrags, Juncus, Spartina, and Scirpus.

Many thanks to Steve for securing a surfeit of pizzas for the compilation (at Lodge 7 in Kiptopeke State Park; I favored slices with extra cheese and anchovies) and giving me one of his and Kim’s ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch. Out on the long dike through the saltmarsh to Bull’s Landing are some pretty extensive growths of sea oxeye, plus a few Opuntia (prickly pear cactus, occurs sparingly, coastally, all the way up to NJ).

Notable: brant 330, tundra swan 19, northern pintail 6, green-winged teal 36, bufflehead 187, hooded merganser 20, horned grebe only 1, common loon 2, great egret 2, black-crowned night heron 3 immatures, bald eagle 7, clapper rail 1, Virginia rail 1, short-billed dowitcher 1, oystercatcher 2, Wilson’s snipe 1, woodcock 2, lesser yellowlegs 1, greater yellowlegs 14, Eurasian collared-dove 1, kestrel 3, tree swallow 53, brown-headed nuthatch 2, house wren 1, marsh wren 1, sedge wren 2, hermit thrush 2, starling 400, myrtle warbler 275, Nelson’s sparrow 2, seaside sparrow 2, Savannah sparrow 14, and house finch 14 plus 1 deer, 2 red foxes, and a gray squirrel.

Unofficial, preliminary results of the count at large (subject to review): species total 155 with a western tanager, Nashville warbler (another seen Dec. 31), ruby-throated hummingbird, Swainson’s thrush, and piping plover plus over 100 bald eagles, a Eurasian wigeon, 2 harlequin ducks (photographed), brown pelicans, an imm. little blue heron, 1 white ibis, merlin (2 parties), blue-headed vireo, c. 70 woodcock, 2 snow buntings (photographed), and a good count of vesper sparrows (15?) plus, thanks to the boat party, 8 harbor seals and a large but very dead loggerhead turtle.

As usual the boat party (Dan Cristol, Ellison Orcutt, Frank Renshaw, Jack Carroll, Capt. Tray Jones) distinguish themselves, are hereby mentioned in “despatches”, finding marbled godwit, whimbrel, red knot, least sandpiper, and purple sandpiper (the latter foraging on a peaty sod tump for want of rocks out on the islands). Bob Anderson got a great photograph of a piping plover, an unbanded individual on Fisherman Island. Unofficial grand totals include 29 waterfowl and 19 shorebird species. During the compilation Dan Cristol makes a neat list of the species found, annotating some, esp. if just 1 party found them.

Jarring missed species: bobwhite, bittern, Bonaparte’s gull (scarce or missing on all 4 of these counts), Forster’s tern, laughing gull, short-eared owl, red-headed woodpecker, red & white-breasted nuthatches, saltmarsh sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, rusty blackbird, and pine siskin. After 48 years of compiling I was ready to “retire”: in 2016 George Armistead and Ned Brinkley took over as co-compilers. Bless them. Many thanks to Sting-Ray’s for opening up half an hour early for breakfast.

DECEMBER 31, SUNDAY. 263.7 miles to home, but first: ESVNWR early on: 8 or so of us look for the WESTERN TANAGER frequenting the feeders on the E side of the Visitor Center. It is found, seen by most. George gets some photographs. I miss it but see house sparrows, house finches, titmice, and myrtle warblers at the feed plus a yellowish feral cat lurking nearby.

MILE POST 78, Route 13, S of Cheriton, a field to the W has 66 killdeer and 22 mourning doves. BOX TREE-MACHIPONGO, 10:15-10:35, clear, 26, NW15, low tide, black duck 12, red-winged blackbird 35, sharp-shinned hawk 1, herring gull 25 hunting over the guts. Visibility excellent. HUNKERED DOWN, 1 mi. N of Box Tree, turkey vulture 12, and, 1.7 mi. N of Box Tree, turkey vulture 29, these buzzards just sitting in the early morning sun, out of the wind. SAND PIT W of 600 (Marionville), 3.6 mi. N of Box Tree: hooded merganser 14, ruddy duck 1, black duck 2, but the pit 0.25 mi. S of these has no birds.

WILLIS WHARF: 11-noon, 24 degrees F. very low tide and still lettin’ out. Run into Curtis Badger. There’s a nice, well-deserved, tribute to Curtis and his writings in Eastern Shore First, January 2018, vol. 1, no. 9, page 6.

Now see here: willet 22, semipalmated plover 6, black-bellied plover 5, killdeer 1, dunlin 44, kingfisher 1, black vulture 4, bald eagle 3, Canada goose 390, great blue heron 18 (hunkered down in one group in the sun & out of the wind), hooded merganser 30, common loon 2, greater yellowlegs 3, rock pigeon 3, bufflehead 10, and gray squirrel 1. No marbled godwits, [I like commas], but Curtis saw the big flock here a few days ago.

GARGATHA LANDING, 12:53-1:45, very low tide, 26 degrees. Most of the time I’m here a big female peregrine is perched on top of some drift wood

<200 feet away, shotgun range. hooded merganser 8, Forster’s tern 7, northern harrier 2 (1 an adult male), mockingbird 1, bald eagle only 1, boat-tailed grackle 20, great blue heron 1, cedar waxwing 30, eastern bluebird 11, red-breasted merganser 4, dunlin 110, black duck 40, black-bellied plover 3, red-winged blackbird 35. When the water’s higher, from here one can see the distant surf c. 1 mi. to the NE. Also in view: the towers of NASA on Wallops Island, and the tall tower on the N end of Cedar Island.

TYSON chicken plant at Temperanceville: Canada goose 380, turkey vulture 12, at 2 P.M., 25 degrees. 11 miles South of DOVER, DE, milepost 38.5, Route 13, c. 2,500 snow geese off to the west in a field. N of SMYRNA near Blackbird Creek tens of thousands of blackbirds flying to roost over by the Delaware River. A bit further N around sunset thousands of Snow Geese headed, I’d guess, for Bombay Hook NWR. Near the DELAWARE-CHESAPEAKE CANAL many hundreds of Canada Geese probably headed the same way. CHURCHMAN’S MARSH, Route I-95 S of Wilmington, another massive flock of blackbirds going to roost somewhere against a backdrop of the super moon one day shy of bring full, an impressive spectacle, 15 minutes after sunset.

GENERAL COMMENTARY. From Dec. 29 onwards most of the smaller fresh water areas near ‘bout froze up. According to Coastal Angler (tidewater, VA/Outer Banks, NC edition), December 2017, p. 6 “ … new materials from the demolition of the Herbert Bonner bridge [crosses Oregon Inlet] after the new bridge is completed … will be used to make more artificial reefs offshore.” The start of the new bridge is ugly and higher than the old one. This whole trip the tidal waters are way below normal. Lots of mud.

A few of the Baccharis halimifolia on this trip still have remnants of the white seeds that blow in the wind like minor snow flurries in late October. In the saltmarsh along the narrow tidal guts this time a lot of the frozen waters, when they subside, leave what look like panes of glass, big flakes, ice, depending down from the edges lined with Spartina alterniflora. It shore is purty.

Another Redeye in the books. Phew! Perhaps I AM getting a bit old for this. This Redeye was challenging, but as always very rewarding and gratifying, too, and, Oh, Lordy!, with any luck I’ll be back for more punishment next December. So nice every year to hobnob with the accomplished Carolina and Virginia naturalists. 10 degrees F. when I arrive home at 6 P.M. Best to all. - Harry Armistead, Philadelphia.
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