July 9, 2019
Apparently I was so busy birding in June that I didn't have time to blog about it! That was at least true for the first three weeks, as long as pleasant weather continued. Since then I've been getting caught up on other things. On the very first day of the month, I joined 30 or so other members of the Augusta Bird Club for our annual picnic brunch, held for the second year in a row at the Humpback Rocks picnic area along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Crista Cabe and I led separate bird walks along nearby wooded trails, but we didn't see as many birds as we had hoped. At one point there was an Ovenbird with agitated behavior, usually a sign that it is guarding a nest nearby. We looked briefly, but didn't find any. Later we had a nice view of a Black-and-white Warbler, but it was hard to get a good photo of the little speedster. The real highlight, however, came on the way home when I stopped at an "overlook" (where the trees have grown so tall that the view is gone), and got some pretty good photos of a Cerulean Warbler.
In preparation for a field trip (see below), I made a preliminary "scouting" visit to the north side of Hearthstone Lake on June 4, following up on my initial visit to the south side on May 18. (See May 31.) I took special care to map the limits of the block as accurately as possible. Most of the highlights were to be expected: Ovenbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, Yellow-billed Cuckoo (close!), Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Acadian Flycatcher, and Red-eyed Vireos. On the way back I stopped at nearby Hone Quarry, which was mistake because the road was so full of potholes (presumably due to the floods of last year) that I was afraid my car would get damaged. I saw an American Redstart for the first time that day, but otherwise the effort getting there did not pay off.
(On June 6 I went for a short walk around Betsy Bell Hill, and saw an Eastern Towhee, an Eastern Wood Pewee, and a Wood Thrush, but my photos weren't particularly good.)
As part of the 2nd Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas (VABBA-2) survey, on Saturday, June 8 I led an Augusta Bird Club field trip to the north side of the Hearthstone Lake area for the first time. The weather forecast was bleak, however, and only three other members showed up: Dan Perkuchin, Ann Cline, and Roz Holt. It was overcast but at least it didn't rain until almost the end of our trip. Our first major stop was at the intersection of Tillman Road and Sand Spring Mountain Trail, at the northern edge of the Reddish Knob SE block. (For VABBA, the entire state of Virginia is divided into rectangular "blocks," some of which are designated as "priority blocks.") A bit south of there we saw a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched at the top of the very same bare tree branch it had been four days earlier. We also heard a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (again), but didn't see it this time. The biggest surprise of the day was hearing and eventually seeing a Red-breasted Nuthatch. With poor lighting conditions, however, the photos were rather mediocre. We also saw a Pine Warbler that was carrying food (an indicator of probable breeding), and we heard others later on. At the nearby Narrowback trail head, we saw an Acadian Flycatcher. We heard several of them at various points further along Tillman Road, where we made two or three brief intermediate stops, and likewise there were Ovenbirds at multiple locations. One of the Hooded Warblers we saw was carrying food, and we also had brief views of Scarlet Tanagers (probable mated pair) and a Black-and-white Warbler. Other birds that we heard only included Worm-eating Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos (fewer than expected), Blue-headed Vireos, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Wood-Pewees, and Wood Thrushes.
At our terminal stopping point near the Hearthstone Lake dam construction site (road closed!), we saw two Bald Eagles, one an apparent mature adult and the other either a second- or third-year bird. I listened for the American Woodcocks which I had seen near there on May 18, to no avail. On our way out of the area, we paused to take a look at an Eastern Phoebe at a stream crossing, and noticed three Cedar Waxwings bathing. We ended our visit to the Hearthstone Lake area with 26 species total. Many thanks to Dan Perkuchin for keeping close track of our observations.
Afterwards we drove up to Reddish Knob, only about seven miles to the west-northwest as the crow flies, but more like 15 miles along the roads, as the human drives. Approaching the mountain crest we saw a Cedar Waxwing, Chestnut-sided Warblers, an Eastern Towhee, and a Common Yellowthroat at close range. To my great annoyance, my camera battery ran out, and I missed some great photo ops. Near the summit, we finally heard a Black-throated Green Warbler and saw some Dark-eyed Juncos. At the summit, we saw an Chestnut-sided Warbler and I managed to take a couple photos with limited battery power. At the ridgecrest crossroads on the way back down we saw an American Redstart (oddly absent from the Hearthstone Lake area), but we didn't get any of the hoped-for Black-throated Blue Warblers or Red Crossbills.
One final oddity to cap off a very successful outing was a flock of 20 or so mostly white doves in a grassy field along Rt. 257 on the way back to Briery Branch. Released from a wedding, perhaps?
On June 12 Ann Cline and I went hiking at two separate but nearby locations on the western edge of Augusta County. We are both trying to get better photos of various uncommon (and elusive) neotropical migrants, especially warblers, and accomplishing that task requires more patience and determination than most non-photographers have. The first Road Hollow Trail, going about 3/4 mile up from Ramsey's Draft. We saw a nice mix of warblers, vireos, and flycatchers, and got some good photos. At the kiosk in the picnic area, we saw a pair of Eastern Phoebes and a nest. Nearby was a Brown-headed Cowbird, a species that lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. Next we drove up to the summit of Shenandoah Mountain, spotted a couple Cedar Waxwings, and then hiked about a mile and a half south, to the. (I had led an Augusta Bird Club field trip to that location on May 24 last year.) Once again, we saw a nice variety of birds along the way. The weather was just perfect. Near the intersection with the Georgia Camp trail (where we turned back), we had some good looks at a Hooded Warbler and took some photos. On the way back I spotted a Dark-eyed Junco singing from a dead tree snag; they are very common in Virginia in the colder months, but we never hear them sing. They are only found at high elevations in Virginia during the summer. We met an interesting outdoorsman on the way back, and then saw a curious thing: a pair of Black-capped Chickadees clearing out wood chips from a broken tree trunk for a nest site, almost like what a woodpecker would do! While driving back on Route 250, we to stop and hike for a while on the Georgia Camp trail, which I had only visited once before. Not many birds were present, but toward the end we heard and then got a look at a Blackburnian Warbler: one of our main target birds!
On June 15 Ann Cline and I went on sort of "makeup" field trip to Highland County, trying to recruit other folks who weren't able to be at the "official" field trip there led by Allen Larner on June 2. As it turned out, nobody else could make it that day either. We first stopped at John and Nancy Spahr's house in the village of New Hampden, getting tips on where to see various birds. At Lisa Hamilton's new house nearby we saw a Red-headed Woodpecker and a Phoebe gathering material to make a nest. Driving north along Wimer Mountain Road, we saw the expected Eastern Meadowlarks and a Bobolink. At the home of the late Margaret O'Bryan, we saw House Wrens, an Eastern Towhee, an Indigo Bunting, an American Kestrel, and at least two Chestnut-sided Warblers. After a while we finally heard and then briefly saw our main target bird: the Golden-winged Warbler! In fact, there were two of them briefly scuffling, and while Ann managed to get some decent photos of one of them, I never did. That was a disappointment, but at least I got some good looks at that striking bird. Next we headed west and saw even more Red-headed Woodpeckers, one of which was perched very nearby on a fence post! We had nice views of Cedar Waxwings, American Redstart, In the rhododendron forest along the stream, we saw another target bird: Canada Warbler. We saw three altogether, but couldn't get any good photos due to their speed and stealth. Finally, we drove farther west and saw a family of Dark-eyed Juncos as we approached the West Virginia state line. We stopped briefly at a brushy area where Mourning Warblers used to frequent, but struck out with that target species. We did at least hear a Veery while we were there. It was getting late (almost 2:30), so we then headed straight home.
Two days later, on June 17, I made a fourth trip to the Hearthstone Lake area, but only the second trip to the south side. My objective was to explore some of the trails that lead away from Tillman Road. I walked for about a half mile (one way) along a gravel road which eventually becomes Buck Mountain Trail, and saw a Pine Warbler, a Hooded Warbler, and a male Indigo Bunting that responded to the recorded songs I played on my iPhone with a wing-flapping mating ritual. That was surprising! I looked and listened for American Woodcocks once again, but not succeed. Next I hiked for about 3/4 mile (one way) along the Grooms Ridge Trail. I saw the usual Ovenbirds and Red-eyed Vireos, but not much else. Near the trail head I had a great view of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Returning south, I stopped at the Wild Oak trail head, and saw an Eastern Phoebe and a nest at a sign kiosk -- just like at Ramsey's Draft! On the way back I stopped in the village of Stokesville, mainly to take pictures of the old bridge there, but in so doing I came across a Red-eyed Vireo and got some excellent sunlit photos of it.
On Sunday, June 23rd, I led another Augusta Bird Club field trip to the north side of the Hearthstone Lake area, with Dan Perkuchin, Peter Van Acker, and Roz Holt. Unlike our previous field trip on June 8, this time we hiked along four separate side trails -- from 1/4 mile to 1/2 mile (one way) in and back each time, for a total of about 3 miles, plus another mile or so walking along Tillman Road. I was pleased to learn that those side trails were surprisingly well-maintained, and offered a nice variety of habitats, from shaded streams to semi-open meadows. The weather was almost perfect, and the scenery was beautiful.
Early on, we were excited to find a bulky nest inside a steel tube at a trail gate, but it turned out to be that of a relatively common Carolina Wren. No doubt the biggest thrill of the day was seeing (and photographing) a Blackburnian Warbler in the tree tops. It briefly skirmished with a presumed rival (or prospective mate?), behavior suggestive of breeding. At a stream crossing we saw an Eastern Phoebe at the same place as last time. Dan Perkuchin peeked under the culvert and found a nest there, just as expected, with at least two babies. Other signs of breeding included a pair of Indigo Buntings (male and female), and two pairs (male and female) of Scarlet Tanagers, the latter pair with two fledglings. Just like before, there were numerous Ovenbirds and Red-eyed Vireos, and several Acadian Flycatchers, Pine Warblers, Hooded Warblers, and Blue-headed Vireos at various locations. A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird was perched in the very same dead tree snag as it had been on the two previous visits! We also had a brief view of a Red-shouldered Hawk at the dam. Among the big "misses" that we had seen in that area previously but not this time were American Woodcocks, Bald Eagles, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
I owe thanks once again to Dan Perkuchin for compiling the eBird report, and to all three for helping out with the VABBA-2 project. I will try to arrange one or two more field trips to the Hearthstone Lake area in the near future.
[Many more photos are on the Wild Birds yearly page.]