Late fall / early winter birding
Technically, winter doesn't begin until next week, but with a major ice storm, a minor snow fall, and heavy snow storm behind us already, winter essentially arrived one month ago. Freezing rain all day on November 15 resulted in thousands of downed tree branches across this area, and we lost power just before 9:00 that evening. Not until 3:30 the next day did our power (and heat) come back on line: 18 1/2 hours without electricity! It was miserable, as the temperature inside dropped to 60 degrees, but other folks I know suffered for days, and in some cases with major property damage. Anyway, I was fortunate to see and photograph three rare or uncommon bird species over the past month.
On Saturday November 17 I was scheduled to lead an Augusta Bird Club field trip to the new trail at the Mill Place industrial park in Verona, just north of Staunton. But those plans were set aside by the sudden passing away of a dear friend in the club, Ed Lawler. A memorial service for Ed was held later that same morning, so I decided to just make a brief, perfunctory visit to Mill Place in Ed's memory, just in case some people didn't get the news about Ed, to allow for enough time to get to the service. I was not at all surprised that no one else came. But as it turned out, the birding was excellent that morning, highlighted by two birds that only rarely come to visit the Staunton-Augusta area: a Fox Sparrow and a Hermit Thrush.
Two days later, November 19, I went along on an Augusta Bird Club field trip to Bell's Lane led by Penny Warren. Others had a good view of some Ring-necked Ducks on a farm pond, but I only had a glimpse of them flying away. The big highlight of the morning was not a bird, however, but a River Otter in the beaver pond near the north end of Bell's Lane. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a photo before it swam away.
A day later I was surprised to see a female Pileated Woodpecker in a tree out back. They usually avoid populated areas. Also that day I learned about a flock of Rusty Blackbirds via an e-mail alert from Marshall Faintich, a renowned bird photographer from the Afton/Crozet area. He described the location very accurately, the Cline River Road bridge over the Middle River a mile or so south of the Weyer's Cave airport, so I went there on Wednesday, November 21. It took just a few minutes before I spotted some blackbirds, and I was lucky to see and photograph one in a nearby tree. Bingo! It was the first time I have ever taken a good photo of that species, and that was very gratifying. On the way back into Staunton I stopped at the Bell's Lane beaver pond, and saw a few interesting birds.
Of note is the probable Carolina Chickadee which looks a bit like a Black-capped Chickadee based on the blurry lower edge of the black "bib." Baxter Beamer, a young birder from Albemarle County who gave a presentation to the bird club in October, noticed that feature and opined that it could be a Black-capped Chickadee or a hybrid of the two species. If so, it would be unusual, since the border between the ranges of those respective species is fairly well define, coinciding roughly with Shenandoah Mountain, a high ridge about 15-20 miles west of Staunton.
I didn't do any real birding for the rest of that month, but on the first day of December I spotted a Brown Creeper on a tree out back. The photo I took was mediocre, unfortunately. Two days later I got lucky when a Flicker showed up at our suet feeder:
On December 5, following a minor snow storm, Penny Warren spotted some swans on one of the Bell's Lane farm ponds, and invited me to try to take some photos to identify the species: Tundra or Trumpeter? Unfortunately, they were gone by the time I got there, but we did at least see some nice ducks and a young Pied-billed Grebe. The big news of the day for me was a Gray Catbird spotted by Jacqueline outside our apartment. I think the last time I saw that species in a winter month was December 2005; it remained for at least a couple months thereafter.
Field trip to Mill Place
Last Saturday, December 8, I led an Augusta Bird Club field trip to the new trail at the Mill Place industrial park in Verona, just north of Staunton. Given the freezing temperatures, I was pleasantly surprised that five other members showed up. It is a very scenic nature spot that seems to have been developed with great care in planning, featuring a sheltered picnic area, multiple benches for resting along the way, and a wooden foot bridge. It is all asphalt. Even better, it is an excellent habitat for a variety of sparrows and other songbirds. Highlights of the day were a Red-shouldered Hawk, a Hermit Thrush, and a Swamp Sparrow. In the reeds, two members spotted a very small brown bird that was most likely a Marsh Wren or a Winter Wren, and some of us saw what was either a Yellow-rumped or a Palm Warbler. I counted a total of 21 species, pending confirmation from others who were there.
On Sunday December 9 we had a major snow storm, measuring 8-10 inches in Staunton, far more than the 1-2 inches that were forecast. I haven't done much birding this week, but I am pleased to report that (as of yesterday) the Rufous Hummingbird in Stuart's Draft (see November 10) has survived the brutal wintry onslaught! As always, other photos can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.