Birding in July: not bad!
Mid-to-late summer is usually one of the dullest times of the year for bird enthusiasts, but occasionally you run across some nice surprises. On the morning of the Fourth of July (Wednesday), I went to Bell's Lane for the first time in a while, and saw two unusual species: a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that darted past me into some big bushes, and a Warbling Vireo in a sycamore tree near the beaver pond. I had a hard time placing the song of the latter but eventually figured it out. Unfortunately, they both eluded my camera lens, but I was more than consoled when a Green Heron posed for me at the beaver pond in perfect light not far away. Some juvenile and adult female Wood Ducks were also there, along with quite a few adult and juvenile Tree Swallows and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. I had a distant view of a Willow Flycatcher, but but not see or hear any Yellow Warblers or Eastern Bluebirds. The apparent lack of breeding success of those two species in the prime habitat offered by Bell's Lane is cause for concern. Finally, I was amused by a Brown Thrasher taking a dust bath in the middle of the road.
Determined to take advantage of the spectacular weather, on Tuesday July 10 I went back to three locations near West Augusta that I have been monitoring for the VABBA project. The Chimney Hollow trail was obstructed by several fallen trees, but at least I had a nice view of an Acadian Flycatcher there. At Braley Pond I spotted a Pine Warbler and Northern Parula, as well as some Indigo Buntings and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. On the Dowell's Draft trail / fire road (which I had explored for the very first time on June 30), I saw even more Northern Parulas, two of which are pictured here, but none of the Prairie Warblers which I had seen there on June 30. Ovenbirds and Worm-eating Warblers were seen or heard at multiple locations.
A couple days later, fellow Augusta Bird Club member Penny Warren asked me how to get to the Dowell's Draft trail, and I ended up joining her and Ann Cline for another visit there, on Saturday July 14. After a slow start, the excursion turned out to be a big success. Near the second stream crossing just past the second "hot spot" from my first visit, I thought I heard a Prairie Warbler song, and eventually we not only saw one but got some good photographs of it! (Ann's were better than mine, so I put them on the ABC website.) According to VABBA criteria, the repeated observation of a singing male in one location indicates probable breeding. We also saw a Black-throated Green Warbler (F or J?), among other warblers, and had amazing closeup views [and photos] of a Northern Parula. We did the rounds on Bell's Lane after we returned to Staunton, and saw a family of Eastern Kingbirds about 15 feet away, as well as families of Green Herons and Cedar Waxwings at or near the beaver pond. We will almost definitely have a regular field trip to Dowell's Draft in early September, as long as there is no pipeline construction activity, that is.
The skies were cloudy one week later (July 21), but I had some good luck with birding anyway. After trying unsuccessfully to find a way into the Shenandoah National Park via Sawmill Run east of the town of Dooms (north of Waynesboro), I caught a glimpse of a large bird perched in a dead tree along Rt. 611, so I did a U-turn. I was astonished to have a nice view of a Broad-winged Hawk, and snapped a couple photos before it flew away. Then I headed to the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, where I had nice views of an Eastern Towhee and a Scarlet Tanager, and brief glimpses of an Ovenbird and Wood Thrush. Taking a stroll on the trail east from the Humpback Rocks parking lot, I heard and eventually saw a Wood Thrush and a Hooded Warbler, and heard a Cerulean Warbler or two in the tree tops. Unfortunately, the light was inadequate for good quality photos. I also heard a Barred Owl in the distance, the first in many months for me.
Finally, on the afternoon of July 28 (Saturday) I went to Bell's Lane and saw most of the expected species, and then just south of the Ford farm entrance (the high point), I saw something odd eating a caterpillar on the road, and soon realized to my astonishment that it was a male Blue Grosbeak. Even in the most familiar places, you never know what you're going to find! Fortunately I got some decent photos of it, but could never determine whether it has a mate or offspring. Other highlights: Orchard Oriole, Great Blue Heron, Solitary Sandpiper (my first one of the "fall" migration season, which begins early for shorebirds), and lots of American Goldfinches, some gathering thistle down for their nests.
All in all, July was not a bad month at all! More photos of some of the birds in the montages above can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.