Sunday, May 31, 2020

Acadian Flycatcher

Powhatan Creek Trail is a favorite of mine, and of Brian Taber's.  Yesterday Brian gave me precise directions to this Acadian Flycatcher nest, which I visited today.  Not long after arriving I was able to get this shot.  I look forward to seeing little ones before too long.
~Jim Easton

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Rare Garganey in Virginia

This striking bird, found at Chincoteague NWR on May 4, was a long way from home...Europe and central Asia, wintering in Africa and southern Asia. This photo was taken May 5th. There were other spring records of this migratory species this year from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
Brian Taber

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Predation on Powhatan Creek Trail, as observed by Jim Easton

A drama in three acts, as viewed last Thursday on Powhatan Creek Trail:

Act One: Cooper’s Hawk preys on wood duck

Act Two: One Barred Owl watches while the other flies toward the action

Act Three: Flying owl lands, replaces hawk, picks up wood duck & takes it away

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Tufted Titmouse Gathering Nesting Material

As reported by Jim Easton:

Brian and I watched a Tufted Titmouse in James City County this morning,  gathering fur from a sleeping raccoon's back...titmice typically put fur as the top layer of their moss nests.

Photo by Jim Easton

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Intriguing Red-tailed Hawk

This adult bird was seen on Jan 2 in Portsmouth during the Nansemond River Christmas Count. It's strikingly white below and was even at a distance...the photos are cropped, but not otherwise really did appear that way...contrasting vividly as it flapped, with the quite dark upperside. There was some rather faint dark barring on the flight feathers that doesn't show up well in the photo. I think field guides are rather inconsistent in describing the varieties of Red-taileds across the continent, but to be fair, the variation is wide, posing challenging identifications.

At first appearing like the western Krider's to me, the dark, though thin patagials, not bleeding more into the wing, look better for the western Fuerte's. The dark on the head, I initially thought was more toward the collar, as can be shown in Krider's, but in the photo it actually appears to be more widespread on the head as in Fuerte's. The throat showed some white.

The underparts are nearly immaculate white and that small smudge on the breast is, I think, either a shadow on the rounded breast or perhaps some fine streaks or...maybe both. The tail appears reddish at the trailing end and whiter near the base.

The dark-ish upperside, however, shows a redder tail throughout, a better mark for Fuerte's and the light scapular spotting is quite restricted....usually more obvious in Krider's.

There don't appear to be weird-looking albino-type white markings to me. I'm not sure if anything rules out Fuerte's...the belly, patagials and head look pretty good, but I would appreciate any comments sent to me directly at

Brian Taber

Friday, December 20, 2019

Interesting Thrasher

I've posted a series of photos of an interesting thrasher here in Williamsburg today and yesterday. Looking quite like a Brown Thrasher at first glance, the bird also exhibits several features which field guides and other resources point out as field marks for Long-billed: undertail steaking, whitish underparts coloration, very short primary projection, orange eye, grayish face, grayish in upper back and darker brownish coloration throughout upperparts. The photos highlight all of these features.

Particularly intriguing to me is the undertail streaking, pointed out in Pyle's Identification Guide for banders as a difference between Brown and Long-billed. Pyle also illustrates primary projection for both species, with Long-billed being much shorter. The bird here has very short projection, but is molting on the tail and primaries still growing as well.

The underparts coloration is white rather than buffy, the streaking very dark, the upper back shows grayish feathering mixed in, the face is quite grayish and the eye looks orange-ish instead of clear yellow.

The bill is slightly curved and hooked above and rather straight and pale-colored below, though resources indicate much variation.

Of course, there are individual and regional differences among birds, though I've not noticed a bird with this suite of features previously. I assume this is a hatch-year bird.

Comments by banders and other thrasher folks are welcome

Brian Taber

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Wrap Up and Season Highlights

There were plenty of interesting sightings during the last couple of weeks of the hawkwatch season at Kiptopeke. On multiple mornings, thousands of American Robins were seen migrating past the platform. Large numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and Brown-headed Cowbirds were also seen. These spectacular movements are always fun to witness, usually beginning at around sunrise and lasting for several hours. Other recent passerine highlights have included a Snow Bunting on November 23, a few Rusty Blackbirds here and there, and a recent increase in American Goldfinches (with a high count of 156 birds on November 29). Still, there were almost no Purple Finches this season, and no Red-breasted Nuthatches. Perhaps next year will be better for these species at Kiptopeke.

American Robin (Steve Thornhill)
Many Turkey Vultures and some Black Vultures were also seen migrating in large numbers during the latter half of November. We do not keep official counts of vulture numbers here at Kiptopeke, since the birds have a strong tendency to move up and down the peninsula before finally crossing the bay. However, my highest informal tally of the season was a total of 764 Turkey Vultures on November 29 (only southbound birds were counted). On November 23, I enjoyed watching four Turkey Vultures land on the t-pole together. There was some shuffling around that occurred as the vultures each worked to claim their favorite sunning spot. It is thought that Turkey Vultures sun themselves with wings outstretched in order to warm up in the morning and to kill parasites. 

Turkey Vultures playing "musical t-pole" (Anna Stunkel)
 We continued to observe Bald Eagles towards the end of the season, with an amazing grand total record of 710 birds. There was a strong flight of 22 Bald Eagles on November 29. These birds are an incredible conservation success story, and populations have recovered very well since the ban of DDT. One adult was seen carrying nesting material during the last few days of the season. 

Bald Eagle with nesting material (Anna Stunkel)
We continued to observe some decent flights of Red-tailed Hawks towards the end of the season. However, red-tail numbers have been going down in recent years at many hawkwatch sites in eastern North America. The 2019 grand total of 498 red-tails is much lower than counts from decades ago, when season totals of over 2,000 birds sometimes occurred. Research suggests that this is due to birds staying up north for the winter rather than migrating southwards. While many hawkwatch sites have reported declining red-tail numbers, winter bird surveys have reported increased numbers of red-tails. This is just one example of climate change affecting migration patterns, which could result in negative impacts on northern prey populations during the winter months. We had a number of completely overcast days during the last two weeks of the season, which surely affected late season buteo numbers. Buteos are soaring hawks with a preference for conditions with at least some blue sky, so that they can rise up on thermals and save energy during migration. Some red-tails and Red-shouldered Hawks may have been skirting around Kiptopeke and favoring sunnier areas this year.

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (Anna Stunkel)

A few accipiters were still trickling through towards the end of the season. About half as many Cooper's Hawks as Sharp-shinned Hawks passed by the platform this fall, which is a quite high ratio compared to decades ago. While Sharp-shinned Hawk numbers were still low this year, at least the total of 4,451 birds was much higher than each of the past two seasons (2,273 in 2017 and 2,708 in 2018). Similarly to red-tails, data suggest that many of these birds are staying up north during the winter.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk (Anna Stunkel)

Eastern Phoebes were a common, spritely visitor to the hawkwatch this fall. Occasionally a phoebe would land on one of the platform roofs, and some bluebird visitors also dropped in to visit the platform. Chipping Sparrows were abundant migrants, sometimes with over 100 of them hanging around on and surrounding the platform. However, White-crowned Sparrows were noticeably absent, and only one Fox Sparrow was noted this fall on November 29.

Eastern Phoebe visiting the platform (Anna Stunkel)
As is typical, falcon numbers were low during the latter half of November. However, we had some very nice views of falcons. On Thanksgiving Day, a Merlin stopped by and repeatedly landed on the nearby t-pole. On the same day, we also had a beautiful view of a juvenile Peregrine Falcon. Overall, falcon numbers were decent for peregrines and kestrels and excellent in the case of Merlins. With a total of 2,189 birds, we had the fourth highest Merlin total in Kiptopeke history. Osprey numbers were also very high this year, with 3,961 birds (again, the fourth highest total recorded at Kiptopeke).

Merlin visiting the t-pole (Anna Stunkel)
Immature Peregrine Falcon (Anna Stunkel)
There were some nice flights of Tundra Swans this year, and a grand finale occurred on the last day of the season (November 30) when we observed a high count of 136 birds including one large flock that passed over in full cry. Also on the final day, a flock of 35 American Wigeons flew by.

Tundra Swans (Anna Stunkel)

Tundra Swans calling (Anna Stunkel)

It is always nice to reflect on some season highlights as the fall draws to a close. Here are a few of this year's good memories:

  • 347 Ospreys on September 13 and 3,961 Ospreys in total (the fourth highest season total at Kiptopeke)
  •  39 Bald Eagles on November 1 (a new day count record at Kiptopeke) and 710 Bald Eagles in total (breaking last year's record of 617 birds)
  • 22 Northern Harriers on September 8 and September 29
  • 519 Sharp-shinned Hawks on October 13
  • 205 Cooper's Hawks on October 10
  • 12 Red-shouldered Hawks on November 9
  • 71 Broad-winged Hawks on September 19
  • 44 Red-tailed Hawks on November 9
  • Golden Eagles on each of the following days: October 23 (2), October 24 (1), November 4 (1), November 7 (1)
  • 303 American Kestrels on September 17
  • 289 Merlins on September 17, 203 Merlins on September 18, and 2,189 Merlins in total (the fourth highest season total at Kiptopeke)
  • 125 Peregrine Falcons on September 29
  • 1 Mississippi Kite on September 3, 8, and 13
  • 1 Swainson's Hawk on November 2
  • A high total count for the season of 1,073 raptors on September 29
  • 43 White Ibises on September 1 and 38 White Ibises on October 5
  • 1,011 Northern Flickers on September 25
  • 1 American Bittern on September 26 and October 5
  • 5 Northern Pintails on September 30
  • 100 Great Blue Herons on October 4
  • 10 Marbled Godwits on October 8
  • 29 Great Egrets and 7 Snowy Egrets in one flock together on October 10
  • 1 Painted Bunting and 1 Black-crowned Night-Heron on October 14
  • ~830 scoter sp. on October 21
  • 95 Eastern Meadowlarks on October 25
  • 79 Tundra Swans on November 3 and 136 Tundra Swans on November 30
  • 7 American White Pelicans and 1 Black-chinned Hummingbird on November 6
  • 1 Black-chinned Hummingbird on November 10
  • 76 Snow Geese on November 17 and 75 Snow Geese on November 25
  • 1 Snow Bunting on November 23
  • 764 southbound Turkey Vultures on November 29
  • 35 American Wigeons on November 30

Thank you to all who helped to make this another wonderful season at the Kiptopeke hawkwatch. Thank you to the volunteers for your dedication, sharp eyes, and friendship. And thank you to the many visitors of all ages who have joined us to share the incredible spectacle of migration. We appreciate your support of the hawkwatch and other Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory research.

Although the official season ended on November 30, we encourage you to visit the hawkwatch platform this month. Perhaps you will see some straggling Red-tailed Hawks, Bald or Golden Eagles, or even a Northern Goshawk! Keep an eye out for flights of American Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds, Snow Geese, and more as well. 

I will sign off with a classic poem:

-->Hope is the thing with feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

~Emily Dickinson

Juvenile Bald Eagle (Anna Stunkel)
Happy birding to all,


Sunday, December 1, 2019

Another Vireo at Kiptopeke

Following last month's intriguing vireo shown below, another was seen yesterday, on the last day of the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch by Anna Stunkel and Brian Taber. This bird was uniformly gray above, and showed no greenish tones. Anna said she thought she saw faint yellowish on the sides. The only photo, by Taber, shows some of the overall coloration, white spectacles, white outer tail feathers, white wingbar. You can just barely see some of the line marking the cheek/throat border, just above that twig. We are in the process of evaluating it, but it's field marks appear consistent with Plumbeous Vireo. The Solitary Vireo complex, split into 3 species in 1997, presents quite a challenging identification.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Vireo at Kiptopeke

This bird, injured or ill, was at the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch on Oct 18th. Photos are posted here, back, side, front and head close-up, so that others may send opinions to

The features of Cassin's Vireo and Blue-headed Vireo make this identification challenging. Key features include the head and back color, throat/malar contrast, lores and supraloral coloration and definition. Yellow on the sides is variable in both species. One researcher so far, with access to museum study skins, has done an evaluation and thinks the features point to Cassin's.
Brian Taber

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Monarch Migration 2019 Recap

Hello, I’m Michael Ferrara, CVWO’s Monarch Biologist for this year’s fall migration. Some of you may remember me from last year and from seeing me throughout the past two months. Since the end of last season I spent 6 months leading a crew in southern Texas conducting small mammal trapping and bird surveys. I was happy to be back this season to conduct the Monarch surveys and to assist Megan and Anna at the platform. This year there were a few changes to the Monarch protocol, since the Hawk Migration Association of North America added a Monarch tally on our hawkwatch page and I conducted a point count at the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. 

Monarch Nectaring on Mist Flower
Tagged Monarch from another site nectaring on Mist Flower

This season was quite a bit different than last year. The peak of the migration moved through during early October and unfortunately there were only a couple of days with a ton of Monarchs. The largest number of Monarchs I tagged in one day was 150, but there were only 2 or 3 days in which I tagged over 50 Monarchs. There were a few days in which a lot of Monarchs were seen from the platform but unfortunately they did not land. In total, I tagged 761 Monarchs this season. The majority of them were seen around the Hawkwatch platform.

Monarch in flight

This year the Monarchs were observed roosting at the roost site by Wise Point. They weren’t seen in historically large numbers, but there were more observed roosting than last year. 

Monarchs roosting at Wise Point

In the Kiptopeke Butterfly Garden, we recently had Monarch caterpillars chowing down on the milkweed growing in the garden. Our milkweed has grown over the past year and now we have enough to support a bunch of caterpillars. Along with Monarch caterpillars, Common Buckeyes, Cloudless Sulphurs, Red Admirals, Sleepy Oranges and Clouded Sulphurs have been some of the frequent visitors to the butterfly garden. 

Monarch chrysalis in the Butterfly Garden at Kiptopeke State Park

Monarch caterpillar chowing down on some Milkweed
Red Admiral
Common Buckeye 

I believe that the dry summer has hampered the blooming goldenrod and mistflower, reducing the nectar availability for the Monarchs. The Monarch migration for the eastern flyway was forecasted and ended up being a weaker year this year. Fortunately, this year has been a great year for Monarchs across most of the country. Now that the weather has dropped and there have been a few frosts the migration has stopped through the Eastern Shore, but it is still possible to catch the occasional late Monarch.


Monarch nectaring on Mist Flower

Monday, November 18, 2019

November Surprises and Rarity Roundup

November is always an interesting month at the hawkwatch platform, and it can be hard to predict what kinds of interesting species may make appearances. Diurnal non-raptor migration has been picking up, and we've been noticing flights of Tundra Swans, Snow Geese, Common Loons, Great Blue Herons, Red-winged Blackbirds, American Robins, and more. So far, the season high day count for Tundra Swans was 79 on November 3, and the high day count for Snow Geese was 76 on November 17. We are often alerted to the presence of geese and swans as they call while migrating overhead. This beautiful sound can also be heard at night sometimes.

Tundra Swans (Anna Stunkel)
Common Loon (Anna Stunkel)
Snow Geese; mostly blue morphs with one white goose (Anna Stunkel)

Great Blue Heron (Anna Stunkel)

On October 29, a Merlin zoomed by the platform carrying a Yellow-rumped Warbler. While we often see Merlins carrying dragonflies, it's a less common sight to see one carrying a songbird. Steve managed to get some amazing shots.
Merlin with a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Steve Thornhill)
On November 1, we set a new season record for Bald Eagles, breaking last year's previous record! It will be interesting to see if record-breaking flights continue for several seasons since this species is doing so well. Five Golden Eagles have also been seen this season so far, and we hope to find more soon!

Subadult Bald Eagle (Anna Stunkel)
Subadult Bald Eagle (Anna Stunkel)
Juvenile Golden Eagle (Anna Stunkel)
It was interesting to see a nearly tail-less Turkey Vulture on November 2. On the following day, it was seen again (assuming that this was the same bird, based on photographic examination of the tattered tail). Turkey Vultures with partially or fully missing tails are a fairly regular occurrence at hawkwatch sites. Perhaps this has to do with molt, or maybe it results from squabbles with other scavengers while feeding.

Nearly tail-less Turkey Vulture (Anna Stunkel)
Similarly, we have seen a young Bald Eagle with partially missing tail feathers. Maybe the feathers were chomped by an angry fish!

Juvenile Bald Eagle (Anna Stunkel)
Also on November 2, an intermediate or dark morph Swainson's Hawk was seen far out on the east side. This normally western-ranging species occasionally strays to the east, and Kiptopeke often records one or several passing through each season. Due to the bird's distance we were not able to obtain photos.

That same afternoon, Don Metzger spotted a rather late Black-throated Green Warbler. This beautiful bird was flitting around and feeding in the Dog Fennel right behind the platform, which allowed for stunning views.

Black-throated Green Warbler (Anna Stunkel)

Black-throated Green Warbler (Anna Stunkel)

To add to the excitement of 11/2, we had the unique opportunity to watch a rocket launch from the platform! The Antares NG-12 took off from the NASA Wallops Island facility at 9:59 am, leaving a brilliant red streak across the sky to our northeast.

Antares NG-12 rocket launch (Steve Thornhill)
 As is typical in November, the Red-tailed Hawk migration has been picking up. So far, our highest day count for the species was 44 birds on November 9. It is always interesting to see the beautiful variation in this species. Some have almost no belly band, while others are heavily marked in different shades. Some are pale, while others have rufous tones on their bellies.

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (Paul Shanahan)
We have been seeing some likely "Northern" Red-tailed Hawks as the season progresses. It is difficult to identify these birds for certain, but they often have very darkly marked, blobby belly bands and dark throats. There is much variation in the subspecies, and intergrades are also possible.

Possible Buteo jamaicensis abieticola ("Northern" Red-tailed Hawk; Steve Thornhill)
We have been enjoying some beautiful views of Northern Harriers. Harrier migration is fascinating in that these birds may fly in any conditions (including rain, fog, and snow) and at any time of day or even night. Their migration is more extended than many of the other raptor species that we see here, and the peak is somewhat unpredictable.

Juvenile Northern Harrier (Anna Stunkel)

Along with the spectacle of these movements, we have also had some rare visitors to the platform. On November 6, a Black-chinned Hummingbird visited the hummingbird feeders and was photographed. We noted a glint of purple on the bird's throat and rounded outer primary feathers. For photos, take a look at Shiloh Schulte and Benjamin Clock's eBird checklist.

On that same day, seven American White Pelicans soared right over the platform, in beautiful formation.


American White Pelicans (Anna Stunkel)
Resident Pileated Woodpeckers have been putting on a good show, sometimes flying low over the platform singly or as a pair.

Pileated Woodpecker (Anna Stunkel)

Red-shouldered Hawks have been moving through in good numbers, and we have also had the chance to see a few perched birds in the area. Red-shoulders are often sit-and-wait predators, meaning that they like to sit on exposed perches while waiting for prey to pass by. This can provide some great photo opportunities, such as this beautiful adult that posed on a wire near the park entrance.

Red-shouldered Hawk (Anna Stunkel)

Red-shouldered Hawk fluffing up (Anna Stunkel)
Both American Crows and Fish Crows have been particularly active this season, which has resulted in quite a bit of mobbing activity. Red-tailed Hawks are a frequent target, such as this unlucky bird.
Red-tailed Hawk being mobbed by crows (Steve Thornhill)
We have been noticing a very large number of Brown Pelicans hanging around the concrete ships this season. On November 8, Harry Armistead (who has been birding on the Eastern Shore for decades) even had a personal high count of 630 pelicans! It is nice to see that these birds are doing so well.

Brown Pelican (Paul Shanahan)
Almost every day lately, we have been delighted to see a Red Fox trotting past the platform. Foxes are common in the park, and there is a den visible from the Peregrine Boardwalk close to the beach. Keep an eye out for their tracks as you walk along the park's trails. Red Foxes travel in a direct register trot, which means that each hind foot lands precisely in the same spot as the front foot on the same side. As a result, fox tracks are often in a neat line (unlike the haphazard tracks of a domestic dog).
Red Fox (Anna Stunkel)
Red Fox (Paul Shanahan)
Held on November 9, this year's Rarity Roundup was a great success. During the annual event, birders from all over Virginia come to the Eastern Shore in search of rare and unusual bird species. A total of 57 people attended, with birders splitting up and covering different territories throughout Northampton County. A total of 155 species were seen, including several interesting rarities. A Brewer's Sparrow (only the second state record) was a huge highlight, spotted by Wes Teets at the Mockhorn WMA--GATR Tract. The bird hung around feeding with other sparrows for quite some time, allowing for great looks and photographing opportunities. Other sightings included Cave Swallows, Brewer's Blackbirds, an adult Northern Goshawk, and more.

Brewer's Sparrow (Paul Shanahan)
The day after the Roundup, another hummingbird was spotted visiting the platform feeders. This bird was either a Black-chinned or Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and photos/video footage suggest that Black-chinned is a strong possibility. The primaries appeared to be rounded, and the bird was pumping its tail very often in flight; these are both typical characteristics of Black-chinned Hummingbirds.

It's been a wonderfully diverse November overall, and we hope to have plenty more interesting sightings during the next couple of weeks!