The Last Days of the Year

Thursday Evening:

After several days of celebrating Christmas with family in Arlington, I decided to make a quick detour off of the route to Charlottesville.

We arrived at the bustling Dulles Airport, and entered a parking garage, ascending to the roof of the garage.

I exited the car into the cold, brisk, 18 degree air, with winds upwards of 20 mph. I set up my scope, and began to scan for Rough-legged Hawks.

Short-eared Owls were abundant, with around eight invidividuals working the expansive runways. Northern Harriers were common as well, with several females and immatures and two beautiful Gray Ghosts.

I scanned thoroughly for about an hour, only finding an abieticola Red-tailed Hawk.

The sun was just about to set, and I gave up on the Rough-legs. I started to scan the airport gates, lightposts, trucks, and terminals for a Snowy Owl that hadn’t been for ten days.

Immediately, a large white blob came into my scope view: it was the Snowy Owl perched on a lightpost!


Snowy Owl, Virginia Yearbird #295

Friday Evening:

I was dropped off at Greenbrier Park, a park in Charlottesville with a creek, woods, and tallgrass fields. I continued down a trail that came out to an open field behind the Pepsi Bottling Plant.

I was on the search for an American Tree Sparrow: one of my favorite birds.

Flocks of White-throated Sparrows and Song Sparrows were scanned, and a Winter Wren called from the creekside.

I heard the distinctive call of the tree sparrow from the opposite side of the creek. The bird popped up to the top of the brush, offering me my best views of the species.


American Tree Sparrow


The caravan of birders arrived at Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve in Northern Virginia with Wawa breakfast sandwiches in hand. Logan was already busy scanning the masses of ducks and gulls on the ice and snow laden Potomac River.

Common Mergansers flocked overhead, and Mallards, American Black Ducks, and Ring-billed Gulls sat on the ice.

We continued up the walking trail, passing countless joggers: most of them enthusiastically pointed at a Bald Eagle nest saying “George and Martha are back!”

A car pulled off of the parkway, and out came Adit, a young birder from Fairfax that would be birding with us for the day. I had talked with him over text before, but never met him in person.

We decided to turn around and head back towards Dyke Marsh. As we walked, I heard a chip note. I immediately knew it was an Orange-crowned Warbler, a bird I had seen and heard constantly while in Texas. The bird was uncooperative, but with persistent pishing, he revealed himself for a fleeting moment.


Orange-crowned Warbler

We returned to the parking lot, grabbed some hand warmers, and headed over to the Dyke Marsh boardwalk.

A large flock of sparrows foraged along the snowy path, consisting of great numbers of White-throated, Song, and Fox Sparrows. Swamp Sparrows were more furtive, calling from the safety of the reeds. Several Fox Sparrows sang their gorgeous song from the brush.


Fox Sparrow

We came to the end of the boardwalk, where two Long-tailed Ducks swam.


Long-tailed Ducks

We watched their behavior and even successfully pished the ducks a bit closer.


Long-tailed Duck

A very excited Winter Wren came extremely close, calling and hopping around frantically.


Winter Wren

Back in the car, we drove to Laurel Hill Equestrian Center, in hopes of finding a continuing Clay-colored Sparrow.

After some searching, we came across a flock of White-crowned Sparrows, and quickly found the Clay-colored foraging in the grasses.

I got some better photos once the sparrow perched in a bush.


Clay-colored Sparrow

We departed and stopped at McDonald’s, where I ate my first Big Mac.

Filled with fries and burgers, we grabbed the scopes and set up on the dock of Pohick Bay Regional Park. A Redhead came quite close.



We scanned a flock of several hundred Gadwall and wigeons, looking for a continuing Eurasian Wigeon. Baxter spotted the wigeon, and we quickly got everyone on the beautiful adult male bird, worried by a hunting boat slowly working approaching the flock.


Eurasian Wigeon (center bird, sleeping in back)

A Ring-billed Gull flew by, offering good flight shots.


Ring-billed Gull

Due to the short winter days, the sun was already approaching the horizon, and we were running low on time.

We headed south to Occoquan Bay NWR, and walked the trails to the riverfront. It was rather quiet, aside from a couple thousand aythya ducks on the other side of the river. A Common Loon flew overhead.

We started the fifty minute drive to Dulles Airport, where we hoped to see the Snowy Owl I refound several days before, as well as Rough-legged Hawk and Short-eared Owl.

After the stress of getting to the correct location, we arrived at the top of the parking garage. We whipped out the scopes and started to scan the fields and terminals. I spotted the Snowy Owl perched above the Five Guys in the airport. The bird was a lifer for several.


Snowy Owl

After brief viewing, we directed our attention back to finding Rough-legged Hawks. Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers were flying through the fields and chasing each other around.

The intense scanning resumed for about an hour until the sun had set, and we realized that the owl had departed without us noticing.

We said goodbye to Adit and began the drive south, ending the day at Chipotle, as all good days of birding end.


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