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.
May 31, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Birding in mid-to-late May
The weather has been pretty cooperative during the second half of May, and once again I took advantage of it. During a random country drive with Jacqueline on the 16th I stopped at Leonard's Pond (about three miles north of Weyer's Cave), and was pleased to see the Wilson's Phalarope that had been reported there earlier in the week. I also saw Solitary Sandpipers, a Spotted Sandpiper, and a Semi-palmated Plover or two. After we got back to Staunton, three Black Vultures were cleaning up a tragic mess on the street. The next day an Eastern Wood Pewee showed up in back of our apartment and posed in the sun for me! We haven't had many migrating birds out back this spring, and only one warbler species: a Palm Warbler.
In preparation for the the 2nd Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas program (VABBA-2), on May 18 I explored the Hearthstone Lake area for the first time ever. It is located in the mountains of northern Augusta County a few miles east of Todd Lake and a few miles west of Natural Chimneys. I discovered to my dismay that the main road is closed for about a half mile either side of the Hearthstone Lake dam. So, I had to walk from the "Road Closed" gate, and the extra effort paid off because I saw two American Woodcocks very close by! It was the first time I had seen that species [in several years], and was probably my best view ever. They were too quick for my camera and got away, unfortunately. Just in case, I prowled around, and briefly saw one of them flying overhead a few minutes later. They make an odd whirring sound as they fly, rather like Mourning Doves. In addition, I had nice views of Ovenbirds, Hooded Warblers, and Eastern Towees, as well as some Blue-gray Gnatcatchers in the tree tops. On the way back I stopped briefly at the Wild Oak trail, where Penny Warren led a field trip last fall. I heard a Wood Thrush, but otherwise it was fairly dull. At a farm pond north of Churchville I saw a Great Blue Heron, a Solitary Sandpiper, and two Killdeers. I will lead a VABBA-related field trip to the Hearthstone Lake area on June 8, but I may have to modify the itinerary because of the road closure.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Ovenbird, Hooded Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Killdeer, Great Blue Heron, and Eastern Towhee, near Hearthstone Lake and along Route 42 north of Churchville, on May 18.
On May 20 I went to Montgomery Hall Park in hopes of seeing or at least hearing some Blackpoll Warblers, but did not succeed in my quest. In fact, I haven't seen any of them at all yet this year, which makes three bad years in a row for that species. But I did see some Indigo Buntings, Red-eyed Vireos, and an Eastern Wood Pewee, as well as Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Later that day on Bell's Lane, I had a nice view of a Yellow Warbler, and saw a Brown Thrasher, an Eastern Phoebe, and an Eastern Kingbird as well. I may have seen an Orchard Oriole, but a truck drove by and scared it off before I could be sure.
I went back to Bell's Lane the very next morning, along with Jacqueline. I heard the familiar "fitz-bew" call of a Willow Flycatcher near the southern bend and soon spotted it on a wire. My first one of the year! I also heard a singing Orchard Oriole, and it turned out there was both a first-year male and a full adult male in that same area. Another (definite) first of the year! A few minutes later, a Green Heron flew past toward a nearby pond, and I just managed to snap an in-flight photo. On my way out I saw some Cedar Waxwings, an Eastern Wood Pewee, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at very close range. I also saw an Indigo Bunting and a Great Crested Flycatcher, and heard some Eastern Phoebes and a (probable Yellow-billed) Cuckoo.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Green Heron, Willow Flycatcher, Cedar Waxwing, Orchard Oriole (1st-yr. M), Eastern Wood Pewee, Orchard Oriole (M), and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, on Bell's Lane, May 21.
Pocosin Cabin trail
On Friday one week ago (May 24), Ann Cline and I went to the to the Pocosin Cabin trail in the Shenandoah National Park, hoping to get good photos of all the neotropical migrants that abound there. (She has a newer model of the Canon PowerShot zoom camera that I bought six and a half years ago.) Just like the last time I was there (on a solo hike) two years ago, it was yet another great day of birding, with fine weather. It was quite windy at the overlooks, but the tall trees around that trail muffled the winds. Unlike the last time (thankfully), I didn't see any bears! We saw many warblers, including American Redstarts, Chestnut-sided Warblers, a Cerulean Warbler, and best of all, a Canada Warbler*! We also heard a Black-throated Green Warbler, some Hooded Warblers, and several Ovenbirds. I was lucky to spot a female Redstart was in her nest, and I got an adequate photo which I submitted to the eBird VABBA portal. Among the other highlights: a Rose-breasted Grosbeak*, a Scarlet Tanager with many yellow feathers (a possible first year male?), Eastern Towhees, Veeries*, Red-eyed Vireos, and several flycatchers: some Least Flycatchers*, an Acadian Flycatcher*, and Eastern Wood Pewees.
* The first of that species I have seen this year. (5 total)
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Veery, American Redstart (M), Canada Warbler (M), Chestnut-sided Warbler (M), Rose-breasted Grosbeak (M), Scarlet Tanager (M), and (in center) Acadian Flycatcher and Least Flycatcher, along the Pocosin Cabin trail, May 24.
On Wednesday (May 29) I went to the Shenandoah Wetland Bank south of Stuarts Draft, hoping to see or at least hear Virginia Rails or Soras, but without luck. I did see some pretty good birds, nevertheless: Cedar Waxwings, Orchard Orioles, Green Herons (which kept flushing and flying away every time I got near), and one each of: Eastern Towhee, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Willow Flycatcher, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Brown Thrasher.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Cedar Waxwings, Orchard Oriole (1st-yr. M), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Eastern Towhee, and Green Herons, at the Shenandoah Wetland Bank, May 29.
For additional photos, see the Wild Birds yearly page. In a few hours, I will be attending the Augusta Bird Club's annual picnic brunch along the Blue Ridge Parkway!
May 16, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Ten Days In May:* Bird migration season peaks
The weather was very good for the first ten or so days of May, enabling us birders to fully enjoy the peak of migration season. It was raining from Saturday until Monday (May 11-13), and so before things get busy again, I'd better get recent bird events down for the record.
As mentioned in the travel blog post of today, on May 4 Jacqueline and I drove to the Richmond are, and while she was with her sister, I did some birding in the nearby Dutch Gap area along the James River. Whereas the previous time I was there (June 2016) I had a hard time getting good looks (or photos) of my main target bird, the Prothonotary Warbler**, this time I heard and then saw one within 50 feet of the parking lot! There were several more after that, and I got much better photos this time around. I also heard and then saw a White-eyed Vireo**, I heard and finally got my first clear looks at a Red-eyed Vireo** this year. Toward the end of my walk, I heard what I thought was an Indigo Bunting but then realized it lacked the buzzy tone of that bird. Then I remembered that Yellow-throated Warblers** have such a song, so I played it on my Audubon iPhone app, and within a minute or two, one came flying in my direction! Hallelujah!! It was the first time I had seen that species since I was in Florida three years ago, and the first time I have seen one in Virginia in almost ten years, I think. (My records are out of date, but I'm working on fixing that.) Besides the birds in this photo, I also saw a few Ospreys, including one in a nest across the river, as well as Double-crested Cormorants**, a young Bald Eagle, and over one hundred Black Vultures.
* = the first I have seen this year
** = the first I have seen or heard this year
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, White-eyed Vireo, and (in center) Indigo Bunting, at Dutch Gap on May 4.
Field trip to Blue Ridge Parkway
Three days later, on Monday May 6, I led an Augusta Bird Club field trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and was joined by ten other members of the club. Driving the lead car in a caravan of four vehicles (later five), I paused by the Swannanoah golf course to take a photo of a Chipping Sparrow, and was astounded that it turned out to be one of my best-ever shots of that species. Our first major "hot spot" was by the telecommunications tower a couple miles south of the Afton Inn. We heard and/or saw a wide variety of warblers, including my first Hooded** and Cerulean Warblers** of the year, and heard a Black-throated Green Warbler, a Red-headed Woodpecker, and a Red-breasted Nuthatch in the distance. There wasn't much going on at the Humpback Rocks visitor center, so we continued to a stretch of road at Mile Marker 8 with just enough grass to park safely. There we saw a Yellow-throated Vireo**, a couple Goldfinches, and a flock of small birds that turned out to be Pine Siskins. That was a big surprise! The final stop was at Hickory Springs overlook, near Mile Marker 12. There we saw more Hooded and Cerulean Warblers, as well as a Chestnut-sided Warbler** There were a couple "misses," but all in all, the trip was a great success!
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Yellow-throated Vireo, Cape May Warbler, American Redstart, Black-and-White Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, and (in center) Cerulean Warbler, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, May 6.
The very next day, Ann Cline and I returned to the same area, in hopes of getting better photos. Smart move! Once again we saw Hooded as well as Cerulean Warblers at multiple locations. At one point I spotted an Osprey flying high overhead, and managed to snap a quick shot before it was gone. I saw one of the Red-headed Woodpeckers that we had heard the day before, but only briefly from a distance. Soon we met up with two other birders, Pete and Faye Cooper, and later on encountered Marshall Faintich, a renowned bird photographer who lives on the east side of the Blue Ridge. At one point Pete and I had great closeup looks at two male Cerulean Warblers that were fighting over territory, flitting about the shrubs right next to the road. It was a great photo op, and I got my best-ever photos of that species. (They tend to stay high in the tree tops, and only rarely do I see their pale blue backs.) We had better views of the Pine Siskins than the day before, and I had a brief look at a female Indigo Bunting; they tend to stay out of sight during breeding season.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Black-and-White Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, American Redstart (1st-year male), Hooded Warbler, Pine Siskin, Ospreay, and (in center) Indigo Bunting (F) and Red-headed Woodpecker, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, May 7.
Thursday morning Jacqueline and I went for a walk along Bell's Lane, and I was amazed to see a Yellow-throated Vireo in a nearby tree, not very high up. I glimpsed a Common Yellowthroat**, Chestnut-sided Warbler, and American Redstart in the wetland trees, but could only get mediocre photos of them. I returned in the afternoon, after the sun came out, but didn't see much other than an Eastern Kingbird until I reached the northern portion of Bell's Lane. There I had very good views of a Yellow Warbler and a Baltimore Oriole, both males.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: American Redstart (1st-year male), Baltimore Oriole, Yellow-throated Vireo, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Kingbird, and Yellow Warbler, on Bell's Lane, May 9.
Finally, on Friday May 10 I had to take care of some personal matters in Weyer's Cave, after which I decided to drive a bit farther north, up to Hillandale Park on the west side of Harrisonburg. I heard a variety of songbirds as soon as I left my car, and I soon saw a Yellow-rumped Warbler, a Cerulean Warbler, an American Redstart, and best of all, a Bay-breasted Warbler**! [All were fairly high in the trees.] After that, however, bird activity quickly waned. There were many Common Grackles and Robins, a female Purple Finch, and an Eastern Towee, but not much else. So I headed to Cook's Cove Arboretum in Bridgewater, hoping to see the Eastern Screech Owl** that has been reported there. The first nest box I saw had a squirrel poking its head out, to my annoyance, but the second box was the owl!! I also heard a bird singing in the trees nearby, and soon had a pretty good photo of a Common Yellowthroat. Thus ended an especially rewarding first ten days of the merry, merry month of May!
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Common Yellowthroat, Red-tailed Hawk, Bay-breasted Warbler, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Screech Owl, and American Redstart, at Hillandale Park and Cook's Cove Arboretum, May 10.
For additional photos, see the Wild Birds yearly page.
* This is the second time I referred to a movie in the headline of a birding blog post; on April 20 there was a sly reference to a song from the movie The Producers.
May 6, 2019 [LINK / comment]
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:
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Northern Parula, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Prairie Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-headed Vireo, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Ovenbird, at Dowell's Draft on April 20.
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:
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.
** = the first I have seen or heard this year
This photographic montage shows the highlights of my Big Spring Day:
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Black-throated Green Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Pine Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Northern Parula, Blue-headed Vireo, Spotted Sandpiper, and in center, Louisiana Waterthrush. (At Braley Pond, Dowell's Draft, Ramsey's Draft, and Chimney Hollow, April 27.)
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.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Wood Thrush, Scarlet Tanager (M), Black-billed Cuckoo, Cape May Warbler, Pileated Woodpecker (M), Northern Parula (M), and Swainson's Thrush. (At Betsy Bell Hill and Bell's Lane, April 27.)
For additional photos, see the Wild Birds yearly page.
April 20, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Springtime for birders!
My overall impression is that most migratory birds have been arriving a little behind schedule this spring, but others may have had different observations. On March 23 to Bell's Lane I was pleased to see the Loggerhead Shrike on Bell's Lane for the first time since February 6 (see March 18), on the very same line of fence posts, in fact. Three days later I went back in hopes of seeing again (twice, in fact), but no luck. I did, however, see a Vesper Sparrow, another pleasant surprise. I had seen them there twice last fall, likewise a rather unusual sighting. Tree Swallows were flying around, the first time I had seen them this year.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Vesper Sparrow, Tree Swallow, Great Blue Heron, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-winged Blackbird (F), on Bell's Lane, March 26.
Augusta Springs field trip
On Saturday March 30 I led an Augusta Bird Club field trip to Augusta Springs, in the western part of Augusta County. To my surprise, the turnout was quite large, with at least a dozen people in attendance. Soon after we began, I heard a strange whistling song that reminded me of a Killdeer, but I had no idea what it was. Then I spotted the singing bird at the top of a small tree, and was astonished to realize that it was a Rusty Blackbird! I had seen a flock of those along the Middle River on last November, when it had the "rusty" non-breeding plumage, and this was the first time I had a clear view of one in breeding plumage. Then I heard a Louisiana Waterthrush singing, so we reversed course along the boardwalk trail, going counter-clockwise in pursuit of it, but without success. We did, however, have a nice view of some Yellow-rumped Warblers. (I hardly saw any of those during the past winter.) Other highlights of the morning included Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Wood Ducks, Pine Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch (heard only), and a Sharp-shinned Hawk. On the way back to Staunton somd of us stopped at the Falls Hollow trail head, east of Elliott Knob. We didn't see any birds there, so we continued to Swoope, where we saw the new Bald Eagle nest, about a mile southwest of the one in the tree that was blown down in a storm last November. All in all, it was a wonderful day of birding!
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Rusty Blackbird (M), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (M), Yellow-rumped Warbler, Pine Warbler (M), Brown Creeper, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Bald Eagles, and Wood Duck (M), on March 30. Except for the Bald Eagles (in Swoope), all others were seen at Augusta Springs.
Birding in April
I didn't get out much during the first week of this month, but I did get a nice closeup view of a male Pine Warbler in the Big Levels area on April 6. Five days later (on April 11) I went to Bell's Lane, where I had nice views of several birds, including Goldfinches in breeding plumage. Then I went to Mill Place in Verona and saw two Savannah Sparrows close by.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Purple Finch (M), Red-bellied Woodpecker (M), Evening Grosbeak, Fox Sparrow, Eastern Phoebe, Pine Siskin; at Union Springs, Rockingham County, March 16. Roll your mouse over the image to see a larger image of the Evening Grosbeak.
On Saturday April 13 (Earth Day!) I went to Montgomery Hall Park, but didn't see much other than an Eastern Towhee until just before I was going to leave then I spotted a flycatcher of some kind in nearby tree tops, and soon determined that it was an Eastern Kingbird, my first one of the year. Later that day on Bell's Lane, I had two other first-of-year birds: Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Brown Thrasher.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Eastern Towhee (M), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Downy Woodpecker, Brown Thrasher, and Eastern Kingbird, April 13.
Finally I took advantage of the nice weather on April 17 by visiting Bell's Lane again, but didn't see any of the hoped-for warblers. I did have nice views of several other birds, however, including several recently-arrived migrants:
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Eastern Phoebe, Field Sparrow, Brown Thrasher, Carolina Wren, American Goldfinch (M), and Ruby-crowned Kinglet; on April 17.
As usual, more photos can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page. In about five minutes, I'm going to lead a field trip to Dowell's Draft, in western Augusta County!
To see previous blog entries, go to the Wild Birds archives page.