April 11, 2010
Yesterday morning (Saturday) I led an Augusta Bird Club field trip to Chimney Hollow, joined by four other club members. On the way out there, we stopped at the Great blue heron rookery on Frank's Mill Road, a couple miles west of Staunton. The new leaves on the trees are quickly obscuring the 15-20 nests that have been built high in the tree tops, so we only saw seven or eight Great blue herons. We did, however, see a nestling Great horned owl that Allen Larner pointed out to us. The rookery is at least a quarter mile away from the road, however, so it is hard to see very much.
It was still rather chilly as we began our hike along the stream, so hardly any birds were present. Instead, we contented ourselves with examining tiny wildflowers and tree fungi, which I dutifully photographed. (See below.) After all the snow melt and rain from last month, I was glad that the trail was not as muddy as I had feared. As the rising sun gradually warmed things up, the bird activity picked up, and we soon spotted two of the main target species -- a Blue-headed vireo and a Louisiana waterthrush. That was a big relief. At the urging of Allen Larner, we crossed the stream at a difficult spot where I have ended the field trip in years past, and we began climbing for a short distance as the trail headed uphill away from the stream. Just as we were about to turn back, I heard a familiar high-pitched song up ahead, so we continued forward. Our extra efforts were soon rewarded, as a Black-throated green warbler popped into view. I was amazed, because I was not expecting to see that species so early in the spring. After checking my records back home, I learned that the earliest date I had ever seen that species before was April 21 (last year), so this sighting beat my previous record by eleven days! On our return trek, we heard and/or saw several more birds, but the most startling encounter was the hundreds of tadpoles that were just emerging from their slimy egg masses in a murky pond.
Next, we headed over to nearby Braley's Pond, and for the most part, I was fairly disappointed. No sandpipers, ducks, or other birds were on the lake, and only one swallow was observed. We heard a couple woodpeckers, but didn't see any. We took a side trail through an open field and soon heard what sounded like a weak version of a Louisiana waterthrush, but was definitely something different. We stealthily approached, and some some movement high in the tree, but somehow the darned bird got away. By using Ed Lawler's iPod catalog of bird songs, we tentatively decided it was probably a Yellow-throated Warbler, and after returning home to consult his sources, Allen Larner confirmed that that's what he thinks it was. It would have been a truly amazing sighting, if only we had seen it -- D'oh! Just as we were about to leave Braley's Pond, we noticed two hawks circling around each other, and based on the bare spot near their wing tips, we decided they were Red-shouldered hawks, which are rather uncommon.
Our group stopped for snacks at the convenience store in West Augusta, after which two of us returned home, and the other three continued on to look for Bald eagle nests around Elkhorn Lake, in the mountains about five miles to the north. Even though the total number of birds we saw wasn't that high, we got several high-quality observations, so the field trip was definitely a success. Plus, it was a beautiful day, ideal for taking pictures; see below. Here is a fairly complete list of birds that we identified, by sight or by sound, in rough chronological order:
FOS = first of season; J = juvenile; * = heard but not seen.
I have made the appropriate updates to the Annual arrival page, but I may need to make further revisions to make sure all my records from the last few months are included.
The Chimney Hollow trail has long been one of my favorite places in this area to go bird watching while hiking, but I usually don't venture very far. For the first 3/4 mile or so, the trail is fairly level and thus suitable for almost anyonone, though there are a few stream crossings. It connects with a network of trails eventually leading to Elliott Knob, the tallest mountain in this part of the state. On one memorable high-elevation hike in that direction in June 2005, I saw several Ruffed grouse, and even a Black bear! Other ventures to that neck of the woods took place in April 2006 ("Big Spring Day"), May 2006 (an ABC field trip when we saw four nestling Phoebes), and July 2006 (when I spotted a Red-spotted newt!), as well as in March 2007 (an ABC field trip when we got closeup views of Yellow-bellied sapsuckers). To my surprise, after looking through my records, I have only made a few brief visits to that location since then. I must be slacking off or something.