By Cynthia Donaldson
When I close my eyes, I can still see the owl. I made sure my mind took a “photo” of its face: two, black squinted eyes on a white, solemn face; a small, sharp black beak punctuating the center; the sleepy gaze at our group. When the Saturday, January 14, itinerary for the Forsyth Audubon 2017 Winter Trip included a long drive north from our headquarters in Virginia Beach to visit this beautiful refuge on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, we had little hope of seeing a Snowy Owl. It hadn’t been seen for two weeks. We stuck to our plan to visit, anyway, in hopes of seeing the visiting Black-headed Gull from across the Atlantic. We actually located two rare gulls: the Iceland Gull and the Black-headed Gull. Then, as we checked out a huge flock of Snow Goose napping at Tom’s Cove, a scan of the shore line produced a lone, white bird resting on a mound of sand. The Snowy Owl!
Our wonderful group of birders enjoyed an awesome trip. On Friday, we visited the Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area in Norfolk, Virginia. Our caravan of cars was escorted along the western edge of the three chambers of the island by Shannon Reinheimer, an Environmental Scientist employed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She monitors sea turtles and sturgeon habitat in the Chesapeake Bay waters as the dredging process keeps shipping channels open. In the western bay, we observed Canvasbacks and many Buffleheads. Twelve inches of snow had covered the area the weekend before making the perpendicular roads were impassable for cars, so we hiked up the ramps and scanned the ponds.
We saw hundreds of American Shovelers and other ducks. We found a small flock of Snow Buntings that were quite camouflaged in the sand and low grass clumps. For many in our group, it was a life bird.
Saturday morning broke on the cloudy, drippy side. What a sight to see Great Black-backed Gulls sailing along at eye level as we crossed the expanses of the awesome Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. The bay was gray and choppy, but with careful observation, little rafts of ducks could be seen, bobbing along in the waves. From our vantage point on the man-made islands, we saw Harlequin Ducks, Common Eiders, a lone Common Goldeneye, and all three scoters, as well as many Long-tailed Ducks, a Great Cormorant, and even seals.
After the two-hour tour, we headed back across the bridge to the north to one of the most visited refuges in the U.S.: Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. And it was here that we saw the Snowy Owl. Some others on the beach did not understand the Snowy Owl’s predicament – being far from home and very possibly stressed and hungry. When a woman approached the bird, it flew closer to us. Cameras clicked as the paparazzi in our group took photos of the owl in flight! We lingered as long as we could, basking in the joy of seeing this rare bird!
By Sunday morning at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, we thought we had reached our life bird quota for the trip, but were we in for a surprise! After our four-hour tour of the beautiful impoundments that provide a great wintering habitat for hundreds of migrating birds, we enjoyed our lunches, warmed up, and then got back to birding. Then word came from our “scouting team” that they had located a King Rail. We hurried to the locale and stared into a wall of reeds. A little stream trickled along the edge of the reeds. Here, we spent a long time searching for the rail that was long gone. Rob had a quick look at the “rail” but his description did not match. When all eyes finally found the bird hiding deep in the reeds, we were ecstatic to realize that we were looking at a Least Bittern!
The sightings of the Snowy Owl, Black-headed Gull, Iceland Gull and the Least Bittern – all birds that should not even be in Virginia at this time of year – made this an amazing trip! We each spent a long time etching the memory of these birds into our minds. These recollections will always bring smiles to our faces!