A diary of birds I've observed, spiced up with photos and occasional commentary. Clockwise from top left: Burrowing Owl, Red-breasted Merganser, Yellow-breasted Chat, Purple Gallinule, Summer Tanager, Gray Hawk, Virginia Rail, and (in center) Magnolia Warbler.
February 4, 2019 [LINK / comment]
F-f-freezing field trip to Mill Place
On January 26 I led an Augusta Bird Club field trip to the new Mill Place trail in Verona, and with temperatures in the mid-20s, I didn't expect much of a turnout. (I had previously led a field trip there on December 8.) But to my surprise, seven other birders showed up, once again defying the frigid conditions! Immediately we could see that the thick brushy area where a retention pond used to be had been excavated and was largely barren. That was a tragedy, because sparrows of all kinds had been using those bushes for both shelter and food. Highlights included Red-shouldered Hawk, a Northern Harrier in the distance, an American Kestrel, and Savannah Sparrow which at the time I thought was a Song Sparrow. A close look at the photo after I got home left no doubt about the species. Pausing at the big pond behind Hardee's (mostly unfrozen) on the way out, some of us saw several Hooded Mergansers, some Buffleheads, two Great Blue Herons, as well as the usual Canada Geese and Mallards.
Since then, one of our club members, Ann Cline, has contacted the Augusta County Parks and Recreation Department to find out what is going on with that excavation. Hopefully the brushy area will be restored by the summer. The Mill Place trail is a real natural treasure, in the midst of an industrial park. The county government deserves credit for making the area accessible to the public.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: American Kestrel (F), Buffleheads, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-shouldered Hawk, Savannah Sparrow, Great Blue Herons, and Hooded Mergansers (F & M).
Other birds in January
A few times in January there was a Brown Creeper in our back yard, but I haven't seen it for a week or two. There was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker earlier in the winter, but it hasn't come by lately either. Contrary to the forecasts of a big "irruption" of northerly species this season, we haven't had any Pine Siskins this winter, and just one (probable) female Purple Finch. Another winter bird that seems curiously absent is the Yellow-rumped Warbler; there are extremely scarce for the second winter in a row. On January 11 I saw a Cooper's Hawk out back, and managed to get this photo before it flew away:
Cooper's Hawk, in Staunton, on January 11.
We had another big snow storm on January 13, but the roads were mostly cleared by the afternoon so Jacqueline and I took a drive. On the north side of downtown Staunton, we noticed Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures roosting in tall pine trees, and from the photos I took, there must have been at least 200 of them. On January 24 I saw the Loggerhead Shrike near the ponds on Bell's Lane once again, but it was farther away than the first time I saw it on December 27. I have seen Short-eared Owls in that area a couple times in recent weeks, but other than a blurry post-dusk photo on January 11 have not "captured" any of them in photos.
After a meeting of the Augusta Bird Club board yesterday (February 3), I paid a visit to the pond behind Hardee's, where Allen Larner had reported seeing a Long-tailed Duck. After a few minutes, I spotted the little guy (male), intermittently diving into the icy water. It was only the third time I had ever seen one, the first being February 15, 2014. The sky was cloudy, however, so my photos were only so-so.
Today was warm and sunny, however, so I went back in the latter part of the morning. Thankfully, there it was not far from the shore, and I was able to get some very good photos. There were also three Killdeers in the grass, as well as the rest of the usual ducks and geese on the water.
But my main objective of the day was to see the Evening Grosbeaks at Kevin Shank's residence in the Union Springs area in Rockingham County. With such ideal weather, I just had to take advantage. My first visit there was on December 29; see January 9 blog post. Arriving shortly before noon, I talked with Mr. Shank about where the Grosbeaks had been seen, and I prepared for a long vigil, scouting the trees around his house. But two-plus hours of patience did not pay off, and I finally left -- but not before seeing and photographing two species I had not yet seen (for sure) this winter: Pine Siskins and Purple Finches! So that was a nice consolation prize.
On my way back to Staunton I stopped at Silver Lake just north of Dayton, and had some nice, well-lit views of some interesting duck species, as seen below. (The Kingfisher was perched above a stream closer to town; it's the best photo I have taken of a female of that species.)
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Long-tailed Duck (M), Canvasback (M), Redhead (M), Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch, Greater Scaup (M), Belted Kingfisher (F), and in center, Purple Finch (M). (February 4) Roll mouse over the image to see the Long-tailed Duck enlarged.
Even more photos can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.
January 9, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Field trip to Highland County
This past Sunday, January 6 (Day of the Epiphany!), I joined Allen Larner and two other members of the Augusta Bird Club on a field trip to Highland County. (The club generally has a trip there each June and January.) The weather forecast was excellent, with clear skies and temperatures in the 50s, but it turned out to be rather breezy, probably reducing the number of birds we saw. We departed Staunton at 8:05, reached Monterey at about 9:30 and headed north to the Blue Grass area. It was slow going at first, with hardly any birds at the former home of the O'Bryans, on the Virginia-West Virginia line. After we drove a few miles to the west side of Snowy Mountain, however, we spotted three Golden Eagles in the distance. My photos of them were barely even identifiable, but soon thereafter, we spotted a young Golden Eagle swooping over a field to the west and being harrassed by two Red-tailed Hawks, with the sunlight at a perfect angle for photos! I finally realized one of my fondest photographic ambitions, getting good-quality photos of that species, at a relatively short range. I estimate the raptors were only about 100 yards away. It was almost exactly six years ago that I first photographed a Golden Eagle (from quite a distance) with my then-brand-new Canon PowerShot SX50 camera!
Next we headed south through the village of New Hampden, but didn't see much there, so we continued farther south. We went looking for a Loggerhead Shrike that was reported on Dug Bank Road, without success. Striking out again and again, we decided to go to Bath County, much farther to the south. At a farm pond along Route 220 we finally saw a big cluster of interesting birds: Common Mergansers, Hooded Mergansers, Ring-necked Ducks, and various other ducks and geese. It was there that we saw a young Bald Eagle to the southeast, toward the sunlight, so it was hard to get a good view. Next we drove to Lake Moomaw, and on the way in we saw lots of Juncos, White-breasted Nuthatches, a Winter Wren (glimpse), Brown Creeper, and Golden-crowned Kinglet. On the lake itself there were seven Horned Grebes and three Buffleheads, but not much else.
FROM TOP LEFT: Golden Eagle (imm.), Hooded Merganser (M), American Kestrel (F), Horned Grebe, Common Merganser (M), Golden-crowned Kinglet, and in center, Bald Eagle (imm.). (January 6, 2018)
Roll mouse over the image to see a larger view of the Golden Eagle.
One of the biggest surprises of the day came near the end of our visit to Lake Moomaw. We saw some strange tiny critters swooping all around the road we were driving on, and quickly realized what they were: bats! We stopped two or three times so that I could try to get some photos, but it turned out to be almost futile, as those little things are not only fast, they change direction instantaneously! But at least I captured a few recognizable images, good enough to identify the species:
Eastern Red Bats, near Lake Moomaw. (January 6, 2019)
Our return trip home was relatively uneventful, and we didn't even stop at Augusta Springs or Swoope, both of which we passed along the way.
Evening Grosbeaks? No.
On December 29, I drove up to the Union Springs area in Rockingham County, in hopes of seeing the Evening Grosbeaks that had been reported there by Kevin Shank. (He is a nature photographer who publishes an excellent magazine called Nature Friend.) I spent about two hours there, but it wasn't my day. I did see lots of Juncos, Goldfinches, and other birds, at least.
FROM TOP LEFT: Black-capped Chickadee, American Kestrel (F), Tufted Titmouse, American Goldfinch, and Red-bellied Woodpecker. (December 29, 2018)
Roll mouse over the image to see a larger view of the Golden Eagle.
Additional photos can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.
December 27, 2018 [LINK / comment]
Christmas Bird Count 2018
The weather was pretty lousy for this year's Christmas Bird Count, which is why I didn't get started until mid-morning. But at least it didn't rain much, contrary to the bleak forecasts. I covered mostly the same areas in Staunton that I did last year, leaving out Gypsy Hill Park and adding Bell's Lane:
- Montgomery Hall Park (10:30 - 11:35)
- Betsy Bell Hill (11:45 - 12:10)
- Frontier Culture Museum (12:15 - 12:50)
- Bell's Lane (1:25 - 2:35)
It was slow going at first in Montgomery Hall Park, but I was surprised to see so many Bluebirds. Since it was so muddy from all the rain of the night before, I didn't walk very much away from the paved streets. Getting nice views of two Flickers was a nice treat as well. The higher I drove up the hill where the picnic areas are, the foggier it became. Visibility was so poor at the top that you could barely see more than a quarter mile. I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk in a tree top about 150 yards away, but it got away just before I could snap a photo.
Then I drove to Betsy Bell Hill, where there were several Juncos on the ground, as well as various woodpeckers and White-breasted Nuthatches. Just before I was about to leave I was startled to hear an odd, high-pitch song. I looked up in the trees and saw two Brown Creepers chasing each other. That was quite a treat! I also saw a probable Ruby-crowned Kinglet high in the tree tops. I followed it to try to see whether it had the black facial markings of a Golden-crowned Kinglet, and I'm almost certain that it did not.
The next stop was the Frontier Culture Museum, fairly close as the crow flies, but over a mile if you are driving in a car. I finally saw Blue Jays, Mockingbirds, and Robins there, as well as two Field Sparrows and two distant House Finches. For the second year in a row, I didn't see any Bluebirds in that area, even though it features many Bluebird boxes that are part of an effort to conserve that species. There weren't any ducks or geese on the two ponds, either. Then I headed over to nearby Starbucks for hot coffee and a danish to warm up and rebuild my energy reserves.
My fourth and final area to cover was Bell's Lane. (Due to the weather, I just didn't bother with Gypsy Hill Park.) In the bushes along the road, I saw several Cardinals and Carolina Wrens, and I saw three Mallards in the overflowing stream, and 13 Canada Geese flying overhead. I saw ten White-throated Sparrows, but no White-crowned Sparrows, which was a disappointment. As I approached the north end, I saw two Kestrels and a flock of Starlings that included at least one Red-winged Blackbird. At the beaver pond, I spotted a Kingfisher and Great Blue Heron, but didn't see the hoped-for Snipes. It was starting to rain steadily by then, and I just didn't have enough desire to stick around any longer. My species total of 34 was three less than last year.
- Canada Goose -- 13
- Mallard -- 3
- Great Blue Heron -- 1
- Mourning Dove -- 5
- Turkey Vulture -- 3
- Red-tailed Hawk -- 1
- Belted Kingfisher -- 1
- Yellow-bellied Sapsucker -- 1
- Downy Woodpecker -- 2
- Red-bellied Woodpecker -- 5
- Pileated Woodpecker -- 1
- Northern Flicker -- 2
- American Kestrel -- 2
- Blue Jay -- 7
- American Crow -- 11
- Carolina Chickadee -- 10
- Tufted Titmouse -- 9
- White-breasted Nuthatch -- 8
- Brown Creeper -- 2
- Carolina Wren -- 14
- Ruby-crowned Kinglet -- 1
- Eastern Bluebird -- 14
- American Robin -- 14
- Northern Mockingbird -- 5
- European Starling -- 102
- Field Sparrow -- 2
- White-throated Sparrow -- 16
- Song Sparrow -- 9
- Dark-eyed Junco -- 11
- Red-winged Blackbird -- 1
- Northern Cardinal -- 13
- House Finch -- 2
- House Sparrow -- 7
- American Goldfinch -- 1
TOTAL SPECIES: 34
TOTAL NUMBER OF BIRDS: 299
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: E. Bluebird, American Kestrel, Northern Flicker, Mallard, American Robin, Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue Heron, Carolina Wren, White-breasted Nuthatch, and near the center, Brown Creeper and Field Sparrow; at [various places in Staunton] on December 15.
Christmas Day birding
On Christmas Jacqueline and I went for a brief drive to Bell's Lane and then I took her to Mill Place for the first time. She was quite impressed! I heard the "oika, oika" call of a Flicker nearby, and soon we saw four of them emerge from a pile of brush. The big highlight was seeing an Eastern Phoebe on the other side of the pond, and I was lucky to get a photo. There were lots of Juncos and various sparrows in the bushes, but I didn't see the lame male Cardinal which I had seen on my previous two visits. I hope he's OK. On the pond near the Mill Place entrance (in back of Hardees), I saw a dozen or so Hooded Mergansers. Later in the day I saw several Common Mergansers on the distant pond on Bell's Lane, and my photos were just good enough to be sure about the species ID.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Northern Flicker, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Bluebird, Hooded Mergansers, Dark-eyed Junco, and in center, Common Mergansers and American Kestrel; at Mill Place and Bell's Lane on December 25.
Loggerhead Shrike pays a visit!
On Sunday December 23rd Vic Laubach alerted local birders that he had seen a Loggerhead Shrike on Bell's Lane. I didn't see the message by mid-afternoon, and by the time I got there it had either left or else become inactive. Today Vic sent another alert, and I went out again and spent several minutes scanning the fields around the ponds. And all of a sudden, there it was!!! The bluish gray color really stood out even though the skies were cloudy and the light was dim. Conditions for photography weren't good, but it was at least close enough (about 100 yards) for me to get an adequate image. I saw it dive after something on the ground, but didn't see it again before I had to leave. I'll try again to get a better photo once the sun comes back -- if the Shrike is still here, that is. I had seen and photographed one of that species at close range in March 2017 while birding in Florida, and saw them at a distance two or three times before that in the Swoope area of Augusta County.
Loggerhead Shrike on Bell's Lane, Dec. 27, 2018.
Other photos can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.
What I'd really like to see for Christmas (the season which lasts until January 6) is an Evening Grosbeak! Some of them have been reported in the Shenandoah Valley, and apparently there is a southward "irruption" of this northerly species this year because one of their main food sources is scarce. Never having seen one before, this would count as the 504th bird on my life list. Unless I get lucky in the remaining few days of the year, this will be the first year since I began birding (1997) that I have not spotted at least one new "life bird."
December 14, 2018 [LINK / comment]
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.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Fox Sparrow, Cedar Waxwing, Hermit Thrush, American Goldfinch, Killdeer, E. Meadowlark, and in center, Field Sparrow and American Robin, at Mill Place on November 17.
Roll your mouse over the image to see the Fox Sparrow.
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.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Red-bellied Woodpecker, Cedar Waxwing, Downy Woodpecker (M), Pied-billed Grebe, American Robin, and American Coot. (November 19)
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.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Rusty Blackbird: M, American Kestrel, Carolina Chickadee, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Song Sparrow. (November 21)
Roll your mouse over the image to see the Rusty Blackbird.
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:
Northern Flicker (male), on December 3.
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.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Redhead, Gray Catbird, Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-crowned Sparrow, Pied-billed Grebe (juv.), Ring-necked Duck, and in center, White-breasted Nuthatch. (December 6)
Roll your mouse over the image to see the Gray Catbird a bit larger.
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.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Red-shouldered Hawk, American Goldfinch, Hermit Thrush, Dark-eyed Junco, and White-crowned Sparrows (adult and juvenile). (December 8, 2018)
Roll your mouse over the image to see the Hermit Thrush enlarged.
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.
To see previous blog entries, go to the Wild Birds archives page.