September 16, 2018
"It was a dark and stormy morning..." Such a description could apply to almost any day this month, as birding activities have been curtailed by persistent rainy weather. But on Saturday September 8, I managed to lead an Augusta Bird Club field trip to Dowell's Draft during a relative brief respite from the rains. I first "discovered" Dowell's Draft, located near Braley Pond in western Augusta County, on June 30 while working on the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas project; see my July 15 blog post. The skies were mostly cloudy except for a few interludes of sunlight, so it was hard to get good photos. We spent about ten minutes along the road by the trail head looking westward toward where the gas pipeline will be built, and saw a few birds at the tops of dead trees. Some people thought they were Eastern Wood Pewees, but I'm inclined to think they were Eastern Phoebes. To my surprise, a Red-eyed Vireo landed there briefly.
As we started hiking, I mentioned that I had previously seen a variety of birds just a short distance ahead, and very soon one popped into view. I'm certain that it was one of the "Empidomax" flycatchers, probably a Least Flycatcher, but it was too elusive for me to get a good photo. After that encouraging start, there wasn't much to see or hear for a while other than a Pileated Woodpecker flying overhead. The trail (actually a fire road) was in pretty good condition considering all the rainfall, except for a short section crossing a stream where we had to avoid big puddles. Shortly thereafter, we saw one or two small yellow birds in a tall tree about 75 yards away, uphill. At first I thought it might be a female oriole or Scarlet Tanager, but after looking at the photos, I think it was probably a Prairie Warbler, or perhaps a Pine Warbler. It was the same location that I saw some Prairie Warblers earlier this summer. Then we continued on, and turned left along an abandoned fire road which I had not explored before. After about 100 yards we turned back, and then did likewise along the main fire road, stopping as it approached a very wet stream crossing. We heard a few birds in that area and glimpsed some, but the only clear sighting was a pair of Eastern Wood Pewees. It was disappointing that this "hot spot" from my previous visits turned out so empty. We had better luck with mushrooms, however; see below.
Afterwards, we went over to Braley Pond, which is less than a half mile away from the trailhead. On the way, there were a dozen or so American Goldfinches along the road. The lake was unusually brown, fill of silt runoff from all the recent rain. We didn't see any birds around the lake, and the only notable sightings were a Ruby-throated Hummingbird flitting about the meadow flowers and a few Worm-eating Warblers in the trees above the parking area.
The following list is NOT complete, but merely shows the highlights of what we saw at the two locations:
Given the wet conditions, it was no surprise that we saw many mushrooms along the way. One of those in attendance, Diane Holsinger, identified some of the mushrooms, including this attractive one below. We also saw a wildflower which Diane identified as "Ladies' tresses."
On the way back to town, we stopped for a nice lunch at White's Wayside restaurant, which features locally-produced food. It was delicious! There is a nice, homey atmosphere inside and the owner is a big advocate of environamental causes. Their electricity runs on a big solar panel out back.
In the morning on August 28 I went to Bell's Lane, and noticed on the blackboard that Penny Warren had seen a Blue Grosbeak in that area. (I had spotted one there exactly one month earlier.) Sure enough, I heard the distinctive song at the Ford farm entrance, spotted the male at a distance, and lured him closer with my iPhone. I thought I saw a juvenile of that species on the driveway, but it was probably a young or female House Finch. I also saw some Warbling Vireos in that same big tree, but the photos were only so-so. Earlier I had seen many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher by the lowland stream crossing, as well as 6-7 Killdeers flying overhead.
My next visit to Bell's Lane was in the afternoon of September 6 (quite hot), and the highlights included two House Wrens (one being a juvenile), a Common Yellowthroat or two (mere glimpses), a Great Blue Heron, and two Green Herons (one being a juvenile). I also saw a flock of Canada Geese, an indication that fall migration is underway. I photographed a couple Common Nighthawks on the evening of September 2, but didn't seen any more after that.
On the morning of September 12, there was a Waterthrush out back, but I couldn't get a good photo, so I'm not sure whether it was a Louisiana or a Northern; we have had both species here before. Jo King thinks it was a Northern Waterthrush, based on the photo below. In the afternoon I went to Bell's Lane and saw the usuals plus a Killdeer and a probable Spotted Sandpiper or two at a distance.
A brief visit to Bell's Lane as it started to rain on Friday September 14 yield a nice surprise: a Great Egret in the beaver pond! I also saw Killdeer, a Wood Duck, two Green Herons, and an Eastern Meadowlark in the distance.
Finally, on Saturday September 15 Jacqueline and I went for a drive in the country, hoping to beat the impending rain, but we faced intermittent drizzle almost the whole way. The big find was a Northern Harrier swooping low over a field along Cattleman's Road in the Swoope area. That species breeds north of Virginia, so this was certainly an early migrant returning south. I backed up and tried to get a photo, but it got away. Perhaps it decided to leave after seeing the Red-tailed Hawk in the photo below. At the Smith pond* there was a lone Great Blue Heron, but nothing else. There were many swallows (Tree, N. Rough-winged, and Barn) and Mourning Doves in various locations, but little else until we returned to the Bell's Lane beaver pond, where there were several Killdeers and a Solitary Sandpiper plus many more swallows.
* That pond is near the recently-fallen tree where the resident pair Bald Eagles have nested for the past several years. Allen Larner shared the sad news with the local birding community a few days ago. Hopefully the Bald Eagles will find another suitable (and visible!) nesting location next year.