What a month! Bird "fallout" from winter storms
For most people, March 2014 has been one of the worst weather months in years, but for bird lovers, it was one of the best -- thanks in no small part to the weather! Repeated bouts of the "polar vortex" forced a number of birds further south than their habitual wintering grounds, and every snowstorm seemed to yield a big birding dividend. In fact, I spent so much time looking for birds, photographing birds, digitally editing the images of birds, and uploading them to the Internet, that I hardly had any time left over to blog about birds -- or about much of anything else, for that matter! This colorful montage will serve as a starting point for my recapitulation of this amazing month, from beginning to end:
The first big snow storm came on March 3, and as the white stuff piled up, I was surprised to see Brown-headed Cowbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Grackles in our back yard, along with the other usual birds. The next day I headed out to Bell's Lane with my camera, and photographed Savannah Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows. A few days later I was alerted to a Fox Sparrow in the back yard of Penny Warren, president of the Augusta Bird Club, but my repeated visits there did not bear fruit. I had better luck when I went to Lake Shenandoah on March 9, getting some decent photos of Red-necked Grebes. (See above.) I had to scramble along some treacherous muddy slopes to get close enough, but it was worth it! There were plenty of Ring-necked Ducks and Lesser Scaups as well, but none of the Red-breasted Mergansers which I had seen there in February.
The next big event was a sighting of three Sandhill Cranes in some fields west of Harrisonburg. I went up there on March 11, I drove for miles and miles in vain. But the next time, on March 13 (lucky number?), I managed to spot the heads of those Sandhill Cranes peeking up from behind some reeds next to a pond. It was hard to believe, but when they jumped up and flew a short distance to a nearby corn field, there was no doubt about their identity. Yes! The only time I had seen that species before was at a rest stop in Indiana in 1998, and that was just a brief glimpse. The photo below may not look that impressive, but it was taken from a distance of about 350 yards, and for me it will do just fine.
Other bird sightings
The very next day I ventured over to Waynesboro (shopping for some musical items), and afterwards made a quick stop at the South River Greenway, near the Invista manufacturing complex. While walking along the trail, all of a sudden I spotted a Black-crowned Night Heron standing on a concrete spillway on the other side of the river. So, I quickly snapped a few photos, and they turned out pretty clear:
After that, I went for a short walk in the woods at Coyner Springs Park, south of Waynesboro, and saw many more Robins and Juncos, as well as a loud Flicker up above. The highlight, however, was a Yellow-rumped Warbler which responded to the iPod-played song by approaching close enough for an excellent photo in the bright afternoon sun.
Bonanza on Bell's Lane
The next blast of winter (on March 16-17) shut down virtually all the schools and stores, but proved to be a blessing in disguise for us bird watchers. Jacqueline and I spent most of the day in Highland County, enjoying the annual Maple Festival there, and I got some good photos of Hooded Mergansers. (See above.) We also saw plenty of Meadowlarks and Robins, but no Eagles, which I had been hoping for. The snow began falling, so we headed back home and upon returning, I learned via e-mail that a flock of Tundra Swans had been sighted by Allen Larner on Bell's Lane, so I made a quick visit there and was barely able to make out the huge white birds on the big upland pond, about 300 yards away.
The next day, after shoveling snow (AGAIN!), I drove out there again, and saw hundreds of Robins along the road. I caught a glimpse of a reddish-hued bird, and within a few minutes spotted some Fox Sparrows in the stream and along the road. Finally! I met up with Penny Warren as I approached the upland portion of Bell's Lane, and she told me about a strange bird she saw that turned out to be an American Pipit. The little guy was very cooperative as I approached for a photo op. Excellent! Also of note: many Meadowlarks, White-crowned Sparrows, a Killdeer, and a Northern Harrier. It was truly an amazing day, marred only by the overcast skies! I returned the next day, and got better photos of the Tundra Swans, but the other birds were gone.
On Wednesday, March 19, I had to go over to Charlottesville, and on the way back I stopped in Crozet, where a Red-shouldered Hawk was perching on a wire very close by. It was cloudy and drizzly, however, so the photo was only average quality. Further west, in the community of Greenwood, I stopped at Emmanuel Episcopal Church (same name as our church!), and saw a Golden-crowned Kinglet and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but my attempts to photograph them were totally frustrated.
Snow Goose chase
A few days later, after most of the snow had melted, I responded to a report of a Snow Goose and a Ross's Goose near Harrisonburg, and drove up there on the spur of the moment. I stopped briefly at Lake Shenandoah and got a nice closeup of an American Coot, but the Red-necked Grebes were too far away for a good photo. Then I drove over to nearby Rockingham Memorial Hospital, and located the pond in back, where another birder was already present. Sure enough, there was the gleaming white Snow Goose, which graciously stayed put as I cautiously approached to within 100 feet for a photo.
[One day later I headed north again, in search of some Eurasian Collared-Doves that had been seen in the town of Mount Solon. (I had seen two of that species in Sangerville, just a few miles away, in 2007.) I parked at the small post office in Mount Solon, and after a few minutes heard the distinctive "ca-coo-coo" call. Soon I spotted a pair in a nearby tree, taking several photos, and then saw a third one about 100 yards to the west. I speculate that Eurasian Collared-Doves are establishing a colony in this part of Augusta County. They entered North America about 10-20 years ago, probably via the Caribbean, but they are primarily found further to the south and west of Virginia.]
And speaking of snow, we had yet another round of frozen precipitation on March 25. During a heavy snow squall, I took a photo of a Mockingbird that looks very uncomfortable, almost as if it were cringing.
Since January, there have been multiple reports of a Clay-colored Sparrow near the Day's Inn on Bell's Lane, but each time I went looking for it, my search ended in frustration. Apparently the bird is more active during the early morning, and I kept arriving there in the afternoon. But on Wednesday March 26, I finally got lucky. After looking in vain for a rare Eurasian Green-winged Teal Fishersville area, I drove along Bell's Lane on the way home. Just in case, I decided on the spur of the moment to turn left up the hill toward the Day's Inn, where the rare bird had been reported. After looking all around for a while, I saw a group of sparrows in the grass by the road, and noticed one that looked paler. Could it be? I grabbed the binoculars and quickly confirmed that it was indeed a Clay-colored Sparrow. Fortunately, I was able to take a few photos from my car before it flew away. I then tried to approach it on foot a couple times, but couldn't quite get the shot I wanted. But this image is more than enough:
The only previous time I had seen a Clay-colored Sparrow was at the ruins of Teotihuacan, north of Mexico City, in 2003. That's an indication of how far north of its normal wintering grounds this particular bird was. Ver-r-ry interesting...
Visit to Piney River
On the way back from CVCC yesterday (March 27), I stopped at Piney River, one of my favorite birding hot spots in Nelson County. Even with snow still on the ground, I anticipated that some of the early spring migrants might have arrived, and soon after I played its song on my iPod (with the Audubon Birding app), a Pine Warbler flew over in response. First of the year! Appropriately, it was flittering about high up in pine trees, but the angle of the sun made it very hard to get a good photo. I had much better luck with photographing a Hermit Thrush that was foraging along the asphalt path. Then I stopped at Rockfish Elementary School in Nelson County, where some Wilson's Snipes had been reported, but none were present that day. I did see a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk in a nearby tree, however, so I snapped several photos of it.
After recrossing the Blue Ridge into Augusta County, I paid a brief visit to Quillen's Pond south of Stuarts Draft, and was surprised to see a Double-crested Cormorant about 150 yards away. After a while, it apparently got nervous by my presence and made a "running start" along the water to get airborne, after which it climbed in a circular pattern and then resumed its northbound migration. Very impressive! There were also a couple dozen Ring-necked Ducks on the other side of the pond.
New bird photo gallery
Even though I haven't had any blog posts about birds this month, I have been regularly posting photos of birds on Facebook and on my Web site. In addition to the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery, which includes all decent-quality bird photos I have taken over the past several years, I have created a new bird photo gallery: Wild Birds species list, with the best photo I have taken for 183 species. Right now, it includes only birds found in Augusta County (with one exception), but in due course I intend to add to it birds photographed in western states or Latin America. I still need to fill in the missing information on when and where each photo was taken. Enjoy!