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June 9, 2008 [LINK / comment]

Field trip to Highland County

On Saturday I joined eleven other members of the Augusta Bird Club and the Bath-Highland Bird Club on a very successful field trip to Highland County, braving the high temperatures that were only slightly less oppressive at the high elevations. Known as Virginia's "Little Switzerland," this is a special location because a number of bird species breed in the mountains of West Virginia (or near it) but nowhere else in these latitudes. Altogether, our group identified (by sight or by sound) 99 species of birds, and I personally saw 65 species, two of which were life birds for me: the Alder Flycatcher and the Golden-winged Warbler. I saw twelve different kinds of warblers, possibly the most I have ever seen in one day, taking video shots of several of them (see montage below), and I heard a few others as well. Since this is the middle of breeding season, the males of almost all the species were singing loudly, making them relatively easy to locate.

Even before [our car load of four] guys met up with the rest of the group in Monterey, we came across a Barred Owl that was perched on the side of the road only about ten yards away. We were very lucky that it stayed put while we got our cameras ready, but the low light conditions of the early morning detracted from the image quality:

Barred Owl

Barred Owl, just west of the Augusta-Highland county line, on Route 250.

Because our trip covered such a vast area, with multiple habitats, I have subdivided the list of birds into separate trip segments. Our first stop was near the Bear Mountain Lodge on Route 601, just south of Route 250 within a mile or so of the West Virginia line. Highlights of what we saw there:

Next we crossed into West Virginia, went a few miles and then turned back east on Route 54. We stopped near the Buffalo Lake recreation area and a few more times along the thickly forested road, getting a great closeup view of a Winter Wren singing his heart out. As we approached the Virginia state line the road began to climb, and at the top we had great success at a semi-open area full of blackberry bushes. I located one of the main target species, the Mourning Warbler, but I was disappointed that the auto-focus on my video camera didn't work. While at that spot, we saw several Chestnut-sided Warblers and heard some Veeries singing not far away. Then we resumed our eastward course along Rt. 642 (Laurel Fork Road) and made a few more stops as we gradually descended. Highlights:

Eventually, we emerged from the forest and returned into open pasture countryside, where the sun was blazing. We stopped at Straight Fork, where there is a wetland area with a couple beaver dams, and almost immediately spotted the Alder Flycatcher singing atop a tree snag about 100 yards away. Further along, we saw more pasture-habituated birds. Highlights:

Around noon, we stopped to buy food and refreshments in the small town of Blue Grass, and continued on to the O'Bryan's home on the West Virginia state line, where we had lunch on a balcony with a spectacular view. They were very gracious and friendly hosts. (It was the same place where I had seen my first Golden Eagles in January 2007. Sure enough, we soon heard the buzzing "song" of the Golden-winged Warblers, and saw two of them during a short walk up a brushy slope later on. Triumph! Highlights:

This was my first clear sighting of a Golden-winged Warbler; I caught a probable glimpse of one in Augusta 2005.

After lunch we drove south, and stopped at the Spahrs' house, where a Yellow-throated Vireo was sitting in a nest that was very difficult to see in the tree top. It was the first record of nesting by that species in the county. Then we continued toward the south and saw more birds in the open countryside near Hightown, pretty much wrapping up the day. Highlights:

On our way back to Staunton, we stopped briefly at Ramsey's Draft, and heard a Northern Parula, just as I had hoped, adding one last bird to our list, and saw two additional male and one female Blackburnian Warblers. It was an exhausting, ten-hour foray into the Wild Kingdom of Nature, but the results were well worth it. Many thanks to Dr. John Spahr for planning and scouting the trip route, to Allen Larner for his driving and bird identification skills, and to all the others who made the field trip such a big success.

Highland County bird montage

Montage of songbirds from Highland County. Clockwise, from top left: Canada Warbler, Bobolink, Mourning Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Black-throated blue Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Winter Wren, and in the center, Blackburnian Warbler. Most of these images are freeze-frames from digital video clips. YouTube video pending...

Based on these new observations, I have updated my Life Bird List page, and will do likewise soon for the Annual Arrivals page.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 10 Jun 2008, 9: 29 AM

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