Field trip to Dowell's Draft
(It's a busy time of year for birders, and I'm struggling to get caught up with blog accounts of my recent nature excursions, so this post will only cover my activities through the end of April.)
On Saturday April 20, two other members of the Augusta Bird Club (Dan Perkuchin and Linda Corwin) joined me on a field trip to Dowell's Draft, in the western part of Augusta County. This is a trail and Forest Service fire road that provides excellent habitat for songbirds, but happens to lie in the path of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Fortunately for us, construction activity in this sector has been suspended for several months. Temperatures were mild, and the skies were clear. The only drawback with the weather was the occasional strong breeze. As we approached the trailhead in my car, we heard multiple Louisiana Waterthrushes. Soon after we began hiking, we saw a Pileated Woodpecker flying about 50 yards ahead of us, and then heard a nearby Ovenbird**, the first of the year for me. After several minutes of looking, we finally spotted it. We also heard the first of several Blue-headed Vireos* that day, but not until the latter part of our trip did we finally see (and photograph) it. While crossing the clear-cut swath, we heard a Northern Parula** singing in the distance, and then we heard a Prairie Warbler** fairly close. Those were the two main target birds, which I identified as breeders in that very same area for VABBA-2 last year. Within a couple minutes we had excellent views of the Parula (possibly two), and a so-so view of the Prairie Warbler. Further along the trail, we heard and finally saw a Louisiana Waterthrush*, but it proved to be very skilled at eluding our camera lenses. We also saw a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in that area, and heard a Red-breasted Nuthatch in the distance. On the way back we saw more Northern Parulas and a Black-throated Green Warbler**.
* = the first I have seen this year
** = the first I have seen or heard this year
Altogether, 27 bird species were observed at Dowell's Draft. (Thanks to Dan Perkuchin for tabulating our observations on ebird.org.) Next we stopped for a short while at nearby Braley's Pond, but the hoped-for Eastern Phoebes that nest there every year were not seen. We did, however, see another Louisiana Waterthrush, as well as a Muskrat foraging near the stream. All in all, it was a wonderful day of birding! Here are the highlights of our day:
On Bell's Lane on April 22, I saw several good birds, such as White-crowned Sparrows, Purple Finches, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler. Three days later I saw my first Great Crested Flycatcher of the year, as well as Purple Finches, an Eastern Kingbird, and a Brown Thrasher there.
I didn't intend to go birding on Friday, April 26, but the unusual sight of a Swainson's Thrush and Indigo Bunting (both first of the year) in the bushes out back got me motivated to head out to Bell's Lane. Penny Warren had marked on the ABC kiosk chalkboard that she had seen a Solitary Sandpiper there, and sure enough I spotted it in the mud puddle where the cows often gather. On the extended portion of Bell's Lane (north of the bypass), I saw a Yellow-rumped Warbler and and Black-and-white Warbler (FOY), as well as a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.
Big Spring Day 2019
On Saturday, April 27, I participated in the Augusta Bird Club's Big Spring Day, covering four areas in the rugged woodlands of western Augusta County that were assigned to me, with a separate eBird checklist for each one:
- Braley Pond (8:50 AM - 10:50 AM)
- Dowell's Draft (11:00 AM - 12:45 PM)
- Ramsey's Draft (1:00 PM - 2:50 PM)
- Chimney Hollow (3:00 PM - 4:00 PM)
It was fairly quiet around Braley Pond early on, but I did get an excellent closeup look at a Worm-eating Warbler, my first of the year. I continued along the trail upstream from the pond and eventually came across a couple places that were buzzing with warblers, just like last year. I saw Black-and-White Warblers, Ovenbirds, Northern Parulas, Louisiana Waterthrushes, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and at least eight Ruby-crowned Kinglets, some with their heads "ablaze" with red. At one of the clearings, I briefly had a great view of a Broad-winged Hawk flying away, but couldn't get a photo. As I was departing that area, I spotted (!) two Spotted Sandpipers at the base of the dam.
Along the Dowell's Draft trail nearby, I met a man who was looking for Ruffed Grouse; he told me where the males typically "drum" during mating season, but unfortunately I was unable to detect their presence. I saw most of the same warbler species as before, and heard a Prairie Warbler, singing in the meadow to the west of the trail head. (I did not see or hear a Prairie Warbler in the clearcut area where it had been during our field trip the week before, however.) Around an abandoned shed in that meadow, I saw two Eastern Phoebes, the only flycatchers I observed all day.
Next I went to Ramsey's Draft and heard a Northern Parula, a species which breeds there on a regular basis. Climbing the Road Hollow trail (which heads toward the crest of Shenandoah Mountain and the Confederate Breastworks) for about 3/4 mile, I heard and saw some Black-throated Green Warblers and eventually Blackburnian Warblers (FOY) as well. I was counting on Scarlet Tanagers and Red-eyed Vireos along that trail, but neither species was seen or heard. I did get a great view of a Blue-headed Vireo, however, after having heard them in numerous locations earlier in the day. Back at the picnic area as I was about to leave, I saw several Chipping Sparrows and American Goldfinches, and heard American Redstarts (FOY) singing in the trees.
Finally, I paid a visit to Chimney Hollow trail and almost immediately spotted a Louisiana Waterthrush in a nearby tree. That area was mostly quiet, however, and while I did hear and eventually see yet another Northern Parula, there were no Acadian Flycatchers as I had hoped. Other big "misses" for what was otherwise a very successful day: Yellow-rumped Warbler, Great Crested Flycatcher, White-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, and Red-bellied Woodpecker.
This photographic montage shows the highlights of my Big Spring Day:
Enlarged images of most of those birds can be seen at: Wild Birds yearly page.
Altogether I observed a total of 181 birds, including birds I saw along Route 250 and back in Staunton, accounting for 41 species.
Ending April with a bang
On April 30 I spent a nice morning at Betsy Bell Hill in Staunton, where I heard and/or saw four species for the first time this year: Scarlet Tanager, Red-eyed Vireo, Wood Thrush, and Cape May Warbler. There were lots of warblers in the tree tops, but with the poor lighting conditions, it was very hard to identify them. Yellow-rumped Warblers were most prevalent, as usual this time of year. To my surprise, I heard a Red-breasted Nuthatch, but didn't see it.
But the real fun started on Bell's Lane, where I was dumbfounded to see a Black-billed Cuckoo as soon as I got out of my car! Fortunately for me, it stayed put while I greedily took some photos -- my first ever of that species. It had been years since the last time I saw one of those. This was where the marshy stream parallels the road toward the southwest. In the distance I saw a Baltimore Oriole (FOY), and in the dense thickets I saw a Northern Parula, a Yellow Warbler (FOY), and a Cape May Warbler.
For additional photos, see the Wild Birds yearly page.