On Sunday, May 21, 2017 a team of 7 birders (Nick & Elisa Flanders, Bob Ake, David Clark, David Hughes, Ken Markley, and Tony Wood) tirelessly birded across southeastern Virginia from before dawn until after dusk to fundraise for CHAS during the annual Birdathon event. We took a similar route to 2016, starting in Virginia Beach and then heading west. For the second straight year we were successful in hearing Eastern Screech-Owl from just outside the gate at the 64th St. entrance to First Landing State Park, with 2 individuals responding this year just after 5:00 AM. A short time spent scoping the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay off the State Park campground at dawn was productive for a variety of waterbirds, highlighted by lingering Black Scoters and Red-breasted Merganser. As we were leaving the campground parking lot a fly-over flock of White Ibis provided our only ibis observation of the day. Our next stop was Pleasure House Point, where the high tide limited our opportunities for viewing terns and shorebirds. We still managed to find some target species like Least Tern, American Oystercatcher, and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and a few migrant shorebird species like Black-bellied Plover, Least Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Greater Yellowlegs were tallied. A pair of Cooper’s Hawks here represented our only observation of that species for the day, and we were happy to hear singing House Wren and Song Sparrows, a couple of songbirds that get much harder to find in the Coastal Plain during the breeding season away from urban areas. Our last stop in Virginia Beach was Rudee Inlet, where a thick fog bank offshore limited visibility for scoping the Atlantic Ocean. Fortunately, a Northern Gannet flew close enough to shore to be spotted, and the jetties produced a couple additional shorebird species: Ruddy Turnstone, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Sanderling.
From Rudee Inlet we headed west to Chesapeake, where we first stopped at the north entrance of the Dismal Swamp Canal Trail off Bus. US-17 hoping for singing songbirds before the expected mid-day lull in bird activity. Here we quickly added about 20 species of songbirds and woodpeckers expected in the Great Dismal Swamp in the summer, including our only Black-and-white Warbler and Belted Kingfisher of the day. In search of Worm-eating Warbler we tried driving nearby Douglas Rd. and were surprised to hear a Black-throated Green Warbler, a scarce denizen of Dismal Swamp in the breeding season, at our first stop. At the west end of the road we were able to tally a distant Worm-eating Warbler singing on the other side of the Dismal Swamp Canal, and after a short stop at a wet field off Lake Drummond Causeway where we saw another Greater Yellowlegs and our only Northern Flicker of the day we were on our way to the western side of the Great Dismal Swamp. Jericho Ditch Lane was productive with cooperative Red-shouldered Hawks and Barred Owls and our first Swainson’s Warbler of the day singing loud and clear. Heading south on White Marsh Rd. we were lucky to spot an American Kestrel, a rare bird in our area in summer. We were unable to locate a couple of hoped-for species like Brown-headed Nuthatch and Red-headed Woodpecker along the Railroad Ditch entrance to Great Dismal Swamp NWR, but the 6-mile drive to Lake Drummond produced a few new species like Wild Turkey, Tree Swallow, and Louisiana Waterthrush. The group was surprised by an impressively loud King Rail sounding off from the marsh just off Interior Ditch.
From Railroad Ditch we headed west towards Southampton Co., adding a Yellow-breasted Chat along a back-road while still in Suffolk. Once in Southampton Co. we checked a road that had recently held Grasshopper Sparrows near Newsoms, VA. It was mid-afternoon at this point and we failed to hear our target sparrow but did add Field Sparrow, Orchard Oriole, Horned Lark, Red-headed Woodpecker, and Northern Bobwhite here. An area just west of Boykins, VA that produced Grasshopper Sparrow for our group last year on the Birdathon is now being developed into a solar energy production site and a quick check predictably turned up little other than more singing Horned Larks. A few wooded areas near Boykins produced our first Northern Parula and Yellow-throated Vireo of the day, and amazingly it was not until after 6 PM when we tallied our first Wood Ducks and Wood Thrush, both along Steel Bridge Rd. in Greensville Co. A highlight for the day for the group was a beautiful and cooperative Mississippi Kite perched on the top of a tree here for scope views.
Our group waited for dusk to fall while watching the activity at the ponded tributary of Bellyache Swamp off Rt. 661 listed on the VA Birding and Wildlife Trail. We did not add any new species here but made our second detections of a few species like Wood Duck, Eastern Phoebe, and Tree Swallow. By 8:15 PM we were poised at a location along Rt. 661 near US-58 that has proved fruitful for singing nightjars for our Birdathon group in both 2015 and 2016. Even before the nightjars started calling we were treated to a visual observation of our first Great Horned Owl of the day as it flew from perch to perch in the top of a couple of trees. By 8:40 PM we heard single Eastern Whip-poor-will and Chuck-wills-widow singing in quick succession at this reliable location despite background noise from a nearby farm operation. By 9 PM our group was headed east towards home, and while we missed Brown-headed Nuthatch, Kentucky Warbler, Grasshopper Sparrow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and some expected terns and shorebirds, we were happy with our effort and to have detected a number of species of interest during our trip across the region.