On February 16th I went on a 4-hour boat trip organized by Geoff Giles and the Williamsburg Bird Club. During that four hours, our boat went to all four of the manmade islands along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT), and ventured into some deeper waters a little to the east of the bridge looking for seabirds, waterfowl, and whatever other wildlife was present. Our trip had originally been scheduled for January, but severe weather prevented the boat from going out as planned. That turned out to be a blessing, because although it was a bit cold on February 16, it was sunny, the wind was not a problem, and we had a wonderful time!
The CBBT is known nationally for its great birding; I knew about it years ago when I lived on the west coast. During spring and fall bird migrations, songbirds that are flying across the Bay and become tired frequently land on the islands to rest, especially during rough weather. Seabirds that usually remain far offshore will often be blown closer to the coast during storms, and the CBBT islands are an excellent place to scan for them. And during the winter months, the islands are an outstanding place to scope for wintering waterfowl, gannets, loons, grebes, gulls and other types of birds. The photo at the top of this blog post is of a male Red-breasted Merganser that I photographed during the boat trip. This species is a common winter visitor to the Bay. The female's plumage is quite different from the male's; the photo below is of a female that I photographed earlier this winter at Fort Monroe.
When I moved to Chesapeake in 2000, anyone could bird from all four of the islands as long as they registered and obtained a letter of consent to do so for that calendar year. Unfortunately, after 9/11 the authorities decided this was a security issue, and now they only allow people to stop at the southernmost island, unless you pay them $50 per hour for a security guard to accompany you to the other three islands. That’s a big loss for birders and bird study. So the Williamsburg Bird Club boat trip was a great way to explore waters around the islands that are not normally accessible. Here are some of the things that we saw:
Scoters are one of our most common wintering sea ducks. There are three kinds, and we saw all three (all occur regularly along our coast and in the Bay in the winter). In the photo above, the one on the left with the big orange knobby thing on his bill is a male Black Scoter, and the one on the right is a male Surf Scoter. Below is a better picture of a Surf Scoter, called the "clown" of the duck family, and a photo of the less common White-winged Scoter; this one is a female.
Harlequin Ducks are fairly rare winter visitors to Virginia; some years we see none. When they do get this far south, the most reliable place to spot one is usually along the CBBT islands near the rocks. Harlequins are spectacular little ducks with very colorful plumage and, yes, a harlequin-like pattern. The male duck below was some distance from our boat and my photo isn't great, but you can still make out his beautiful markings.
Birds are not the only life along the CBBT islands! Most winters there are a few Harbor Seals to be seen, and during our boat trip we found a dozen or more near island #3 (below). They are a joy to observe, because they are active, gregarious, cute, and curious about the people who are watching them!
Long-tailed Ducks, formerly called "Oldsquaws," are another sea duck that we only see during the winter months. In my opinion, they are one of our most beautiful ducks. The males and females look quite different, and as is usually the case in the bird world, the male is the more spectacular. Below is a photo of a male that I took on the boat trip; following that is a photo of a female I took earlier this winter.
The bird below might not look all that impressive to you, but it was the highlight of our trip. It's name is "Razorbill" for pretty obvious reasons, and it is a seabird of the alcid family that is rarely seen in Virginia. A few usually winter far offshore and can only be found, with luck, on pelagic boat trips far from the mainland. This winter has been a banner year for them because of all the winter storms that we have had, and large numbers have been seen south of their normal winter range. And on several days in January and February, large numbers were seen from shore in Virginia. This was the hoped-for "target bird" of the trip for most birders, and we were rewarded with about a half dozen of them in the waters north of Ft. Story.
Most non-birders think that "a seagull is a seagull is a seagull." There is actually no such thing as a "seagull," rather, there are many different species of gull worldwide. It takes a lot of practice to tell one species from the next; gulls are different sizes, have different shades of gray in their mantles, different wingtip patterns, different leg and bill colors, and many more field marks that distinguish the various species. And that's just for the adults birds! It takes anywhere from two to four years for a gull to reach its adult plumage, and until they do, they go through various juvenile and subadult plumages that can be very confusing.
The common gulls along Virginia's coast in all seasons are the Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, and Great Black-backed Gull. Laughing Gulls, which have a black head, usually migrate south of Hampton Roads for the winter and start returning in mid-March to breed (look for them in Food Lion parking lots soon!). Far less common on Virginia's coast, although increasing in numbers, is the Lesser Black-backed Gull. We found several of them in the gull flocks that followed our boat. Two of the photos I took of them are below:
Our boat returned to the Dockside Marina in Lynnhaven Inlet in the early afternoon. The marina itself was a good place to look for birds from the docks. We saw American Oystercatchers out on the sandy islands, geese, Brown Pelicans and cormorants (both Double-crested and Great) in addition to the wintering waterfowl:
Male Hooded Merganser at Dockside Marina
Male Bufflehead, one of our most common wintering ducks
A group of Buffleheads along the CBBT
This was a wonderful trip, and I intend to join the Williamsburg Bird Club again next year. Several other boat trips operate out of Virginia Beach, including the popular winter wildlife boat trips operated by the Virginia Aquarium. The Virginia Beach Audubon Society often arranges trips, and some are usually planned during Virginia Beach's annual Winter Wildlife Festival. In some years, whales are seen on these trips, but this year the waters were too cold for them (on the day of our trip, the water temperature was 36 degrees!). I highly recommend any one these trips to anyone who is interested in exploring our local winter wildlife!