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February 2014
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February 7, 2014 [LINK / comment]

Life bird: White-winged Scoter!

Last week I saw my 410th life bird, a White-winged Scoter. Scoters are diving ducks with large bills. They breed in Canada and Alaska, and winter along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. About two weeks ago, the Wildlife Center of Virginia admitted two male White-winged Scoters that had become "stranded" on land, because they can only take off from water. (The harsh winter storms of January apparently threw them off their usual migration patterns.) That prompted local birders to look for more of this species, and before long, several had been located in this part of the Shenandoah Valley.

On January 31, after birding in the Harrisonburg area (see below), I went to a large pond inside an abandoned rock quarry in Fishersville. It didn't take long before I spotted the female White-winged Scoter, part of a mixed flock of Canada Geese, Coots, Redheads, and other waterfowl nearly 200 yards away. I was lucky that the female White-winged Scoter started swimming in my direction, enabling me to get a decent photo of it.

On Wednesday I went to the pond near the Eagle's Nest airport in Waynesboro, where a male White-winged Scoter had been reported by Mary Vermeulen and Allen Larner. Fortunately, the sun had pierced through the morning fog, so I was able to get several good photos of that rare bird. It was only about 50 yards away, I estimated. As an added bonus, I also saw and photographed a Greater Scaup and a Bufflehead (a small black-and-white duck), both males. That was a very lucky day!

White-winged Scoter

White-winged Scoter (male), in Waynesboro, on February 5. Roll your mouse over the image to see the female which I saw on January 31.

Other recent birds

In other news, I made two more attempts to find the Snowy Owls, on January 15 and 31, but without success either time. (Other people have seen one of those owls this month, however, and the News Leader had a front-page article about that.) Both times, I went to nearby Silver Lake and saw pretty much the same ducks there as before, and got a few good pictures. On the latter date, I saw Fenton Day (a prominent Virginia birder) at Silver Lake, and he gave me some tips on how to get to the quarry pond in Fishersville, where the White-winged Scoter was.

Wigeon, Redheads

American Wigeon (front) and two Redheads, on Silver Lake near Dayton, January 31.

These photos, and several more, can be seen on the Wild birds yearly photo gallery page.

February 15, 2014 [LINK / comment]

R.I.P. David Beyeler

While watching Channel 3 news on Wednesday evening, I was stunned to learn that David Beyeler, a member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors, had passed away. I knew that he had been treated for cancer a few years ago, but the precise cause of his death was not reported. Thursday's News Leader (which did not arrive until Friday because of the huge snowfall) had an in-depth article on Beyeler, including quotes from people who knew him. What follows is an expanded version of what I wrote on Facebook about him on Thursday:

I was very proud to know Mr. Beyeler, the very model of what a civic leader should be. I first met him during State Senator Emmett Hanger's primary reelection campaign in May 2007. I had probably seen him a few times before that, and he appeared in a photo that I took when the Staunton bypass was completed in August 2006. (That's him next to the U.S. flag.) After seeing him quoted in the newspaper in support of Sen. Hanger, I called him up and asked if we could meet some time. He invited me to his farm, and after talking with me in his office (a small building), he showed me his own private museum situated in a converted barn, chock full of political memorabilia dating back to the 1960s. He had dozens and dozens of campaign signs, buttons, newspapers, and photos, and I was totally enthralled. He also had several Marilyn Monroe pinups on the wall, which made me smile.

Clearly, this was a man with vast political experience and knowledge, and I found it hard to believe that I had not met him years before. (I first became active with local Republicans in 2002.) In fact, I recall when I was putting together the Republican Party Web site (, launched in 2003 and terminated in 2007) being told by someone whose judgment I once trusted that Beyeler was not really a Republican -- that he wasn't "reliable." Consequently, I did not include him among the local Republican elected officials on that Web site, even though as I later learned, he clearly was a Republican! I had been badly misled, one of the first signs I had that something was amiss in the Republican Party.

Dave and his wife Elizabeth joined in the jubilant Emmett Hanger victory celebration in June 2007, and we stayed in touch off and on during the months that followed. One of the more dramatic episodes I recall was during the Augusta County Republican mass meeting in April 2008. One of the more hot-headed "grassroots" leaders (who was obviously irritated at losing) called Beyeler a "clown," with Mrs. Beyeler standing right next to him. I couldn't believe it. As always, Beyeler kept his cool and refrained from further discussion with that person. Dave once gave me a very good piece of advice: Never get into an argument with a crazy person, because any neutral person listening to the argument won't be able to figure out which person is crazy and which one is sane. Indeed!

Dave Beyeler was one of the charter members of the Mountain Valley Republicans, and attended almost all of the meetings, until it became inactive in mid-2009. As the "grassroots" faction ramped up their pressure with a mini-tax revolt at the Augusta County Government Center in March 2009, he stood firm and refused to undercut vital services such as education. I wrote then, "I was proud that South River Supervisor David Beyeler flatly refused to buckle under pressure to go back on his solemn vow as a public official." In November 2009, he was at the victory party at the Staunton Holiday Inn. At the time, we thought that the forces of reason were in the ascendancy within the GOP. Turns out we were wrong.

In November 2011, Beyeler won reelection (unopposed) to the Augusta County Board of Supervisors, representing the South River District. His moderate Republican faction barely retained a majority, with four members against the three "grassroots" members: two Republicans (both new) and one veteran Democrat, Tracy Pyles. Now that Beyeler is gone, control of the local government is evenly split for the moment. The vacancy will be filled by a vote of the six remaining supervisors, [and the person chosen] will serve until the next election, in November.

In sum, Dave was an honest, no-nonsense leader committed to good, efficient government. He really cared about his community, and proved over and over again that wouldn't take guff from anybody. He was a hard-working farmer with a real zest for life, an inspiration to those around him. His name will be remembered for many years to come. I hope to attend the memorial service for him this coming Monday, at Tinkling Springs Presbyterian Church in Fishersville.

David Beyeler

David Beyeler, on his way out of the Republican House of Delegates candidates' forum at Buffalo Gap High School, on July 27, 2009.

February 15, 2014 [LINK / comment]

Life bird: Long-tailed Duck

This winter is turning out to be very rewarding in terms of unusual birds showing up in our area. The unusually harsh weather ("Polar Vortex") may have something to do with it, forcing birds that usually winter on Lake Erie, which is frozen over, to seek refuge further south. Already this year, I have seen two life birds: a Snowy Owl and a White-winged Scoter. (Three of the latter, actually.) Responding to an e-mail alert, last Monday I drove down to Willow Lake (located just south of Raphine, in Rockbridge County), and almost immediately spotted a beautiful male Long-tailed Duck in the middle of the lake. I was astonished and delighted by this very unusual-looking duck. That made my third life bird of this year, and my 411th overall.

At first, I had a hard time getting any good photos, because it kept diving into the water before I could get the camera aimed and focused. The Long-tailed Duck was at least 150 yards away at first, and I was very lucky that it started swimming in my direction. So, I cautiously approached the shoreline, and was able to take several photos from a range of only about 20 yards. I would have been satisfied just with a recognizable image for identification purposes, but this image far surpassed what I was hoping for:

Long-tailed Duck

Long-tailed Duck (male), on Willow Lake, February 10.

It was one of my most satisfying bird sightings in a long time. As I was about two leave, two other prominent area birders showed up: Marshall Faintich and Walter Childs, both from Nelson County. Walt pointed out a young male White-winged Scoter that I had overlooked while aiming my camera at the Long-tailed Duck.

Snowy Owl leaves D.C.

One of the many Snowy Owls that have migrated south of their normal range this winter took up residence in McPherson Square, in Washington, D.C. Apparently, the pigeons and rats provided an ample supply of food. It was quite a sensation among local folks, but late last month the owl was struck by a bus and then rescued by police officers. It was taken to City Wildlife, a clinic at the National Zoo, and was gradually nursed back to health. Tests showed that it was a female. Last Sunday, the staff people took it (her) from Washington to an "unnamed facility" with a large cage for practicing flying. (Not the Wildlife Center of Virginia, I am told.) Chances are very good that the owl will be released back into the wild before long. See

February 17, 2014 [LINK / comment]

Another blast of winter

When I returned from South Dakota to Virginia in early January, I apparently brought back the subzero temperatures with me. Two weeks later came the infamous "Polar Vortex" with more snow and more frigidity. Then last Wednesday night and all day Thursday we had a massive snow storm, totalling 15 inches or more in this area. Getting the car shovelled out took two "shifts," but the temperatures climbed on Friday, melting a lot of the snow.

Ford Escape snow-buried

Our Ford Escape was buried in snow. (Feb. 13)

Winter "vacation" photos

Somehow, I didn't get around to doing a blog post about my Christmas-New Years trip to South Dakota. The first couple days it was mild enough for me to hit a few golf balls, but after that the air turned extremely cold, as low as 15 below zero on one night. Some "vacation"! This photo of the Missouri River bridge south of Vermillion is from the day (December 28) that my Dad, my brother John, and I went to Ponca, Nebraska on a bird-watching excursion.

Missouri River bridge at dusk

Missouri River bridge at dusk. (Dec. 28)

See the Winter 2014 photo gallery, which includes photos of O'Hare Airport in Chicago, Minneapolis, and other points along the way.

February 24, 2014 [LINK / comment]

Red-breasted Mergansers!

This winter is once again proving to be lucky in terms of unusual bird sightings. In response to an e-mail report from Greg Moyers, I drove up to Lake Shenandoah (east of Harrisonburg) on Sunday afternoon, and sure enough, I spotted several Red-breasted Mergansers soon after I arrived. (At first I thought they were Common Mergansers, and Gabriel Mapel -- the youngest member of the Augusta Bird Club! -- corrected me on Facebook.) To get in good position for a photograph, I had to exit the parking lot and drive around the southern end of the lake, and fortunately the colorful ducks didn't mind as I cautiously approached. There was one adult male in near-breeding plumage, plus two females and three probable young males. (The latter looked like females but with black eye "masks.")

Common Merganser, male

Red-breasted Merganser, male. Roll your mouse over the image to see a female. (Feb. 23)

While I was taking photos, a Great Blue Heron flew right up to the shore, only about 30 feet away from me. As soon as I stepped out from behind the tree to get a better picture, it flew away. Also seen while I was at Lake Shenandoah: American Coot, Pied-bill Grebe, four Red-necked Grebes, a Kingfisher, Mallards, and Canada Geese.

I recently learned that all visitors to Lake Shenandoah, not just people who go fishing, need an access permit. They are available at stores catering to hunters and fishermen, or online at Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries. An annual permit valid at all Virginia fishing lakes and wildlife management areas costs only $23, which for me was well worth the cost!

Great Blue Heron closeup

Great Blue Heron, closeup. (Feb. 23)

Because of the recent heavy snow, the ground has been too wet to do much hiking in the woods lately, so my birding activities have been curtailed. Nonetheless, I did have some luck while stopping at the Ruritan Park just north of Nellysford last Thursday:


Yellow-rumped Warbler, Nellysford Ruritan Park. (Feb. 20)

These photos, and several more, can be seen on the Wild birds yearly photo gallery page.

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