Birding in Autumn (and early winter)
Not having blogged about birding activities since September, it's about time to get caught up. The following series of paragraphs (subsequently edited) were previously posted by me on Facebook from September through December, accompanied by photo montages of the more significant bird outings.
At the Augusta Bird Club field trip to Augusta Springs led by Allen Larner on Sept. 5, we hoped to take advantage of "peak" migration season, but only had modest success. I had a brief view of a Canada Warbler (lousy photo), but at least the whole group got to see the Cape May Warbler. The Pied-billed Grebe (spotted by Betty Gatewood) and Swainson's Thrush were nice sightings as well. There were also plenty of Red-eyed Vireos and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. The highlights were a Cape May Warbler (see Warren Faught's excellent photos) and a Swainson's Thrush. It was perfect weather!
On Sept. 13, likewise hoping to strike it rich with migratory birds, I drove up to Rt. 610 on the Blue Ridge today, where we usually have a field trip this time of year. As expected, there were plenty of Red-eyed Vireos and Chestnut-sided Warblers, and I also saw an E. Wood Pewee, some American Redstarts, Common Yellowthroat, Magnolia Warbler (prob.), and a Black-throated Blue Warbler (female, in the middle of this montage). Other nice surprises included Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Blue-headed Vireo, and Dark-eyed Junco. Many birders were up there, including Marshall Faintich and Huck Hutchens.
On Sept. 15 I visited Bell's Lane, and for a while it was a fairly dull afternoon, matching the rather drab color of the smoke-tainted sky. (That smoke had spread from apocalyptic wildfires in Colorado and other western states.) That is, until I spotted a bright yellow bird at the corner near the north end. I figured it was probably a goldfinch or a female oriole until I got a good look and was astonished to see a female Scarlet Tanager in the bushes at very close range. (The blue background in that photo is fake, but the sky behind the Mockingbird is natural.) Other highlights: Ruby-throated Hummingbird, E. Phoebe, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Great Blue Heron.
The air was quite chilly as we got started on our ABC field trip at Braley Pond on the morning of Sept. 19, and that may explain why so few birds were out and about in the early hours. We were encouraged to see two Common Yellowthroats within the first few minutes of our hike (over three miles total), but the only warblers identified by sight after that were just a shy Magnolia Warbler and an Ovenbird. There was a possible Warbling Vireo, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a Hairy Woodpecker, a couple E. Phoebes, a Common Raven, and a Belted Kingfisher or two. In addition, we heard two Red-breasted Nuthatches, a Pine Warbler, a Pileated Woodpecker, a Red-shouldered Hawk, and a Wood Thrush. Thanks to Deborah Pugh and Doug Ruby for joining me on the big woodland expedition.
Late in the morning of Sept. 20 I went to Ridgeview Park in Waynesboro, hoping to get more warblers, etc. than we found on the field trip the day before. Birds were everywhere, but to my surprise, I only saw one warbler. Based on the tail feathers and other markings, I think it might be a Blue-winged Warbler, but we'll never know for sure. Other highlights in that park were some Brown Thrashers, a N. Flicker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatches, and sizable flocks of Common Grackles and Cedar Waxwings -- about 15-20 each. On the way home I stopped at Bell's Lane and saw a Red-tailed Hawk, and back in town I saw a young Broad-winged Hawk.
I was hoping to see the Connecticut Warbler that was reported at Cowbane Prairie on Sept. 22, but was tied up until 5:00, so I did the next best thing, which was visit nearby Bell's Lane. Right away I saw a Great Crested Flycatcher perched above me in the bright sun. Otherwise, nothing much for a while, and then suddenly I came upon a warbler "fallout" for this first time this season! Black-throated Green Warblers, Magnolia Warblers, a Chestnut-sided Warbler, and probably others. Very nice! Farther north I saw several Am. Goldfinches, a Belted Kingfisher, some swallows, and two Red-tailed Hawks along Rt. 11 heading back into Staunton.
For the ABC field trip to Ramsey's Draft on Sept. 27 we had a great turnout (7), hiking about a mile and a half up the Road Hollow trail. The weather was ideal, but the birds weren't being very cooperative for us photographers. We also saw a Black-throated Green Warbler and a a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that was photographed by Ann Cline), a Swainson's Thrush, and a few other good ones. Later some of us went up to Confederate Breastworks, but not much was there.
In "our" back yard, we had Cape May Warblers and Swainson's Thrushes out back on multiple occasions from late September into early October. On Oct. 3 I took a walk along what used to be the trail behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad. It is now so badly overgrown, with fallen trees, that it simply cannot be traversed without taking multiple detours. I did get some great sightings, however: a Cape May Warbler, a Gray-cheeked Thrush, and a Black-throated Blue Warbler!
On Oct. 8 I saw the Cape May Warblers out back once again, and today I confirmed the Black-throated Green Warbler which I thought I saw out back yesterday. I also heard and briefly glimpsed a Warbling Vireo. Late in the afternoon I went to look for the Palm Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers reported on Bell's Lane by Penny Warren. Bingo! Both were first of the season for me. Other sightings there (and/or on the extended portion by the golf course) included E. Phoebe, Wood Ducks, Field Sparrows, and Cedar Waxwings.
On Oct. 9 I paid a visit to Mike and Ann Cline's house (east of Verona) where the flock of Pine Siskins she had reported provided a great show. We hiked around their property, but only had a few good sightings. Later I stopped at the Mill Place trail (in Verona), and saw some Palm Warblers in the bushes and a Blackpoll Warbler up in the trees. Finally, I drove along Bell's Lane and hit pay dirt, with a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and best of all, a Nashville Warbler! (Another photo shows the yellow throat more clearly.) This was in the thickets upstream from the pond that's near the kiosk. I saw other birds there, and heard a probable Blue-headed Vireo as well. Truly spectacular!
On the afternoon of Oct. 16 Jacqueline told me she saw a Towhee out back, so I went to look. Indeed, there was, and that was just the start of it! A Cape May Warbler appeared once again, as well as a Yellow-throated Vireo and a group of three Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers! (They were my first YB Sapsuckers of the season.) Plus a White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and assorted yard birds. I couldn't get a good Yellow-throated Vireo photo, so I included two different partial shots of it, which put together leave no doubt.
Oct. 17 In the morning I spotted my first White-throated Sparrow of the season out back, and in the afternoon Jacqueline and I went up to Skyline Drive (extremely crowded) in the Shenandoah National Park to enjoy the fall foliage. Near the Doyles River overlook I saw a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (FOS), Blue-headed Vireo, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Hairy Woodpecker. At the Loft Mountain Wayside there were in bunch of birds in the bushes right in front of where I parked, and I soon realized they were Purple Finches (FOS). Zooming around the pine tree tops were a dozen or so Pine Siskins, rounding off quite an exciting day enjoying nature.
Oct. 18 This afternoon Jacqueline and I drove around Swoope, encountering many sparrows, meadowlarks, etc. The highlight was toward the end when I spotted a Northern Harrier swooping low across a field. Yet another first-of-season migratory bird! Other birds of note included a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, E. Bluebirds, an E. Phoebe, and Great Blue Heron at our near the Boy Scout Camp lake.
On Oct. 20 we drove to the Maryland suburbs south of Washington (on a family visit), pausing briefly at National Harbor, where we saw a bunch of Double-crested Cormorants, Fish Crows, and unidentified gulls. Later on in a neighborhood near Fort Washington, many American Robins and Cedar Waxwings were flying around excitedly. I also spotted a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, two Red-tailed Hawks, and two distant Bald Eagles, among others.
On Oct. 24 I led a field trip for the Augusta Bird Club, beginning at Augusta Springs. It was rather gloomy with low clouds, so photography was difficult. One highlight was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker being chased by a (presumed) resident Red-bellied Woodpecker. Later in Swoope we saw a Red-tailed Hawk close by, and two or three immature Bald Eagles! That was a big thrill.
Penny Warren led a field trip to Bell's Lane on Oct. 26, and the variety of warblers, ducks, and other birds on Bell's Lane (and the nearby private farm pond) was almost beyond imagination. Unfortunately, it was hard to see colors in the dim, foggy light,* so it took some effort to adjust some of these photos. I saw the White-crowned Sparrow and Palm Warbler on my way home on Bell's Lane, as well as a Dark-eyed Junco.
For years I had been waiting to get a perfect shot of a male Ruby-crowned Kinglet in full display mode (usually the red crown feathers are concealed), and Oct. 28 was my lucky day! He was taking a bath in a nearby stream out back at the time, which helped. The male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, N. Flicker, and Chipping Sparrow were nice bonuses. A probable Blackpoll Warbler eluded my camera lens once again...
On the afternoon of Oct. 31 (Halloween!) I was fortunate to see the very first Calliope Hummingbird ever recorded in Augusta County! (Just as was the case with the Scott's Oriole and Western Tanager last spring, the property owner asked us not to disclose his identity or the location for the time being. It was Rich Wood, who lives in the town of Dooms, northeast of Waynesboro.) It proved difficult to get a good-quality shot, unfortunately, but at least the male's streaked purple throat is clear in this image. He was feeding exclusively from the salvia and zinnia flowers, ignoring the hummingbird feeders. I sure hope he survives this frigid wave we're in. It's the second Calliope Hummingbird that I have seen, the first being west of Lynchburg about ten years ago. Our Records Chairman Allen Larner saw it with his own eyes yesterday, so that makes it official! Others have sighted Rufous (or Allen's) Hummingbirds in the area in recent weeks, so there may be more such western species yet to come! An added benefit was a Red-breasted Nuthatch that remained still for long enough so that I could get a good photo.
After picking up our bird seed from the Augusta Bird Club annual seed sale in Verona on the morning of Nov. 7, Jacqueline and I headed south for an extended day trip to Natural Bridge, taking advantage of the sunny skies. At one point along the Cedar Creek trail, there were a bunch of Am. Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Yellow-rumped Warblers, etc., but otherwise it was fairly quiet. In contrast, birds were all over the place at Appomattox, esp. E. Bluebirds, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Juncos, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, etc., etc. The Red-tailed Hawk was at an exit ramp in the town of Appomattox. It was a huge day of exploration and bird enjoyment!
The weather was fine and the scenery was great for the well-attended field trip that I led to the Wild Oak trail / North River Gorge on Nov. 14: seven people altogether! Unfortunately, we almost outnumbered the birds that were seen there. Other than a few Dark-eyed Juncos by the wooden trail bridge, it was strangely quiet until the final leg of our hike, where we saw a cluster of Chickadees, Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and a Red-breasted Nuthatch or two. Later some of use went to Natural Chimneys, which was likewise fairly uneventful other than a Sharp-shinned Hawk that briefly visited. We had slightly better luck at Badger Road, where we saw an Amer. Kestrel and several White-crowned Sparrows. Later I went to Bell's Lane, where one of the N. Harriers was hunting. The big tree near Carolyn Ford's gate was full of E. Bluebirds and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Finally, I saw a Red-tailed Hawk being harassed by four crows over Commerce Road.
On the way to Penny Warren's field trip on Bell's Lane on Nov. 16, I saw what I believe was a young Red-shouldered Hawk perched in a tree. At the private pond we saw a pair of Ruddy Ducks, some Pied-billed Grebes, and an American Coot. All of a sudden we heard a familiar whine in a tree right next to us, and it turned out to be a female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker! On the ground nearby were five Pine Siskins. We also had distant views of a Pileated Woodpecker and another Buteo hawk; unsure about the species. At least 30 Am. Robins and six or so Cedar Waxwings lined the road on our way out. Along Bell's Lane farther to the north, a N. Harrier was flying low. Overall, it was a splendid day!
The Nov. 27 field trip to Bell's Lane led by Penny Warren yielded two first-of-season migrants for me: Brown Creeper (spotted by Ann Cline; at least 3 total) and Hermit Thrush (which I heard but only glimpsed briefly). There were also quite a few Pine Siskins, a Ruddy Duck, a Red-tailed Hawk or two, and both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets.
On the 5th of December I went to the trails at Mill Place, and saw a Red-shouldered Hawk perched a short distance from the road. On the pond behind Hardee's were some Hooded Mergansers. Later on I saw a N. Harrier on Bell's Lane.
On December 11 I drove out to Swoope in hopes of seeing the Loggerhead Shrike spotted by Vic Laubach last week, and finally succeeded on my second pass. (Many thanks to Bret Hart, whom I encountered along the way, for guiding me to the precise location!) Between my first and second visits to the location* I stopped at the Boy Scout camp, where I saw a Swamp Sparrow, a Northern Harrier, a Red-tailed Hawk, and several E. Bluebirds. I also saw a few American Kestrels [in the Swoope area], but no Bald Eagles. At dusk I went to Bell's Lane and saw an adult male Northern Harrier but no Short-eared Owls -- until I headed home and saw one on the pavement right in front of my car!!
The field trip to Bell's Lane led by Penny Warren on Dec. 21 was a big success, and we saw a rare (for winter) Brown Thrasher feeding in the mud along the road, along with the White-throated Sparrows. (Kudos to Jessica and Alissa for spotting it two days earlier; they are new bird club members.) Nearby was a Brown Creeper. Other highlights included Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers *, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Common Mergansers, Hooded Mergansers, and other ducks, as well as a N. Harrier, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a probable Cooper's Hawk. Thanks to Penny Warren for leading a great trip!
On Dec. 22, thanks to Allen Larner, I was one of the folks who got to see the Rufous Hummingbird on Morris Mill Road west of Staunton. It was a very cold morning, with snow on the nearby mountain tops, and it's amazing that these tiny birds can survive this climate. They should be farther south! I also saw several Purple Finches, Amer. Goldfinches, Chickadees, etc. at the residence.
Peter Van Acker and I covered the city of Staunton for the Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 27, and we had a few exciting moments. At Montgomery Hall Park there was a young Red-tailed Hawk not far away. At Thornrose Cemetery we saw two N. Flickers in a nearby tree, plus E. Bluebirds, etc. Betsy Bell Hill was surprisingly devoid of birds, but we had better luck at the Frontier Culture Museum, where we saw a Hermit Thrush that was pointed out to us by Mark Kosiewski. (Thanks, Mark!) Later in the afternoon, after we were done counting, I drove up to Verona and saw the Common Loon that had been spotted by Deb Kirtland, as well as a dozen or so Hooded Mergansers.
As always, many more photos are on the Wild Birds yearly page.