June: a month (of birding) to remember!
June may have been forgetable in other ways (such as baseball), but in terms of birding, it was definitely a month to remember! In my never-ending quest to get caught up on documenting my various activities, here is a summary of what I did in June, in chronological order.
On June 2, I went on an Augusta Bird Club field trip around the Swoope area, as part of the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas project. John Spahr led the trip and us tips on how to use the eBird app to submit observations via an iPhone. There are specific codes for different kinds of breeding behavior: male singing, nests being occupied, etc. The big highlight was a Ruby-throated Hummingbird nest very close to the road, and before long I spotted the mother-to-be in the nest. In a nearby tree, two Eastern Wood-Pewees seemed to be preparing a nest. We also saw two Yellow-billed Cuckoos nearby, but I wasn't able to photograph them. It was one of the few times I have seen Red-headed Woodpeckers at two different locations on the same day.
On June 6 (the 74th anniversary of the "D-Day" invasion of France), I led two other Augusta Bird Club members went on a hastily-improvised field trip to Highland County, taking advantage of momentary good weather. (With all the rain, we just couldn't be sure about scheduling such a trip more than a few days in advance.) We succeeded in spotting three main target species. At the Blue Grass cemetery, several Bobolinks were singing and displaying. A few miles north, close to the West Virginia state line, there was a guy with a huge camera on the side of the road, and we figured that he was trying to get a photo of a Golden-winged Warbler, since it was very close to our destination. So we stopped, and sure enough, we saw one after a few minutes. Then we proceeded to the house where Margaret O'Bryan once lived; for many years that has been a regular stop for Augusta Bird Club field trips. We saw the usual variety of warblers up there, including a Chestnut-sided Warbler, but not until we were about to leave did we finally hear and then glimpse a Golden-winged Warbler. We did see a female Yellow Warbler in her nest, very useful photographic data for VABBA. Next, we drove out to Paddy Knob, on the southwest corner of Highland County, right on the West Virginia state line. It was the first time that any of use had been there, and we were trying to follow the directions by Marshall Faintich, a prominent local bird photographer who regularly posts reports of his ventures. We lost track of distance, however, and went a few miles beyond the primary "hot spot" destination. Finally, we did see an elusive Mourning Warbler, and I managed to get a decent photo in spite of obstructing bushes. We also saw Black-throated Blue Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos, and a Least Flycatcher.
Saturday, June 9th was the Augusta Bird Club's annual spring picnic brunch, for the first time at Humpback Rocks Picnic Area on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The weather was great and attendance was high. Crista Cabe and I led two separate groups on hikes along nearby trails, and a nice variety of birds were heard and seen. Among the highlights were Baltimore Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, Cerulean Warblers, American Redstarts, and Blue-headed Vireos. I had intended to return to that area to get better photos of Cerulean Warblers, but haven't managed to do it thus far.
On June 16, John Spahr led five other Augusta Bird Club members on a second field trip related to the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas project. (See the June 2 report above.) The main destination was Braley Pond, near the village of West Augusta, but most of the time was spent along the Johnson Draft trail upstream from the pond. That trail turned out to be very rich in terms of likely breeding birds, and a number of Northern Parulas, Worm-eating Warblers, and Indigo Buntings (including a female with nesting material) were heard and/or seen. Afterwards, some of us stopped for lunch at the nearby convenience store, where a Ruby-throated Hummingbird came to a feeder. Finally, we spent a while at the Chimney Hollow trail, where we saw an Acadian Flycatcher and Louisiana Waterthrush, as well as some juvenile Eastern Phoebes.
On June 23 I went on my first solo venture as part of VABBA. It had rained in Staunton the day before, but apparently it was much heavier in the West Augusta area, as the Chimney Hollow trail was flooded for much of the way. I made it as far as the first stream crossing, but that proved to be totally impassible, so I waited for a while and then turned back. I spotted the Acadian Flycatcher but not much else. Next I went to nearby Braley Pond, where I saw an Ovenbird (male by definition) singing repeatedly near the parking area. As expected, there was a nest in the informational kiosk. At the pond there were two big surprises: a Great Egret and an Osprey.
On June 30, I went on a follow-up trip to the same area for VABBA, and started off by taking a look at a trail with which I was not familiar: Dowell's Draft. The trailhead is easy to miss as you drive along the road which heads north toward Elkhorn Lake, which I had covered on Big Spring Day, May 5. If it weren't for VABBA, under which specific rectangular plots of land measuring about three miles by five miles are assigned to volunteer observers, I might not have discovered that trail at all! Dowells Draft happens to be located right next to the pipeline clearing, and I saw many signs along the way, such as "noxious weeds" and "waterbody crossing." I began at about 9:45 and intended to spend under an hour there before going to nearby Braley Pond and Chimney Hollow, but I soon realized that Dowells Draft itself was so thick with birds that it took up my whole day (well, five hours) of birding! One discovery led to another, as I explored that area for the first time. Early on, I had great views of Northern Parulas, Ovenbirds, etc. There is a side trail on the left that connects Dowells Draft to other trails farther north, but instead I continued along the fire road which roughly parallels the pipeline right of way. I was "lured" by the distant song of a Prairie Warbler, and before long I saw at least one and probably two at fairly close range. That species favors semi-open countryside, and the clearing of trees for the pipeline might actually be beneficial for them. Soon I came upon another "hot spot," where several different warbler species were very active, including probable families of Black and White Warblers and American Redstarts. Then I crossed a stream and began a long uphill climb, gaining about 600 feet in elevation. Along the way, I saw Scarlet Tanagers and heard Pine Warblers, among others. As I approached the summit of Chestnut Oak Knob, I decided to turn back since it was already 1:00 PM and I didn't have any food or water with me. (Rather foolish, I admit, but that is not how I had planned my day.) Fortunately, I found blackberries to munch on, and that kept me going. I returned to the trailhead about 3:00, tired but very satisfied with a great day of birding and adventuring.
Well, that takes care of that! Most of the narrative text above consists of postings I made to Facebook, edited for context and brevity. (The latter two paragraphs were written from scratch.) Many other photos can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page. A separate blog post covering birds in [July] will follow soon...