Birding in May: many great views, a few rarities
Much like the month of April, I had several very good birding experiences in May, but relatively few out-of-the ordinary sightings. The only rare warbler I saw was a Nashville Warbler, on May 11. The two rare birds that I did see -- Red-necked Phalarope and Yellow-breasted Chat -- were near the end of the month, on the 25th. In the narratives and captions below, asterisks (*) indicate first-of-year bird sightings. A high priority for me this summer is updating my first-of-year (spring) and first-of-season (fall/winter) records, which I used to do on the extremely outdated Annual arrival page. We shall see...
After being canceled last year due to the coronavirus, the annual "Big Spring Day" count fell on the first day of May this year, and it was a pretty big day for me. In the early morning I covered at the picnic area at Ramsey's Draft in western Augusta County, In the afternoon, I hiked along the Shenandoah Mtn. trail about 3/4 mile south of the Confederate Breastworks, where I saw several warblers and vireos. Later I stopped briefly at Dowell's Draft, where I saw two Ovenbirds courting, and Chimney Hollow, where I saw two Wood Thrushes. Other species of note: Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Louisiana Waterthrush, Tennessee Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Pine Warbler, and Pine Siskin. Altogether I tallied 42 species that day.
Penny Warren scheduled an Augusta Bird Club field trip to Betsy Bell Hill for May 3, but it was rained out, so I went there the next day when weather was much better. I was amazed that my new Canon PowerShot SX70 camera (purchased in February) was able to get such a good image of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak up in a tree at least 40 yards away. Besides the birds shown below, I also heard a Red-eyed Vireo and a Yellow-throated Vireo.
On May 8th the Augusta Bird Club's annual picnic brunch was held once again, after being canceled last year due to the coronavirus. It was at the same location as in 2018 and 2019: the Humpback Rocks picnic area along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had great looks at Ovenbirds engaged in physical combat, as well as a Red-eyed Vireo at eye level. Multiple Blue-headed Vireos and Ovenbirds were seen as well. Afterwards I made a few stops along Rt. 610 on the way home, and saw Great Crested Flycatcher*, Hooded Warbler*, and a Cerulean Warbler*. Others such as the Am. Redstarts and Cerulean Warblers were more elusive, staying in the tree tops. I took the three photos along the bottom at the visitor center and along Rt. 610 on the way home, including a Hooded Warbler (also seen by Linda J. Matkins) near the BRP visitor center, and my first Great Crested Flycatchers* of the season.
I went to Bell's Lane four times in mid-May, hoping to catch the tail end of migration season. On the 11th (Tuesday) I took a long stroll there and eventually had great looks at several warblers, etc. Jo King arrived just before I was about to leave, and she saw the N. Parula but not the Nashville Warbler, which is smaller than most warblers and therefore capable of hovering like a hummingbird. The view of the Common Yellowthroat was exceptional as well.
Penny Warren invited me to another visit to Bell's Lane the next morning, and I couldn't resist! We saw three kinds of flycatchers, including a Great Crested and an Eastern Phoebe, as well as an Empid of some sort -- probably a Willow Flycatcher. The highlight was when we heard a mysterious warbler song, so I started playing back various ones. The Connecticut Warbler song elicited a strong response, and we were eagerly hoping to see that species as the bird was moving around in the bushes. It turned out to have been a relatively plain Northern Waterthrush, however. They are uncommon, so it was a worthwhile sighting. It was the first one I had seen this year. It's remarkable how similar the two species' songs are. We later saw Northern Parulas, a Black-throated Blue Warbler*, and an American Redstart, as well as a first-year male Orchard Oriole in the distance. On the way back I got a nice look at an Indigo Bunting.
On the afternoon of the 13th, I went to Montgomery Hall Park, just in case there were any warblers there. That area is not nearly as bird friendly as it once was, but I did at least see an Eastern Towhee, Scarlet Tanager, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Red-eyed Vireo, and heard a Great Crested Flycatcher and Indigo Bunting. My luck was somewhat better on Bell's Lane, where I saw my first Baltimore Oriole* and Yellow Warblers* of the year. It was hard to get pictures, though. On the plus side, a Barn Swallow posed briefly in the sun.
My fourth visit to Bell's Lane that week was rewarded with good looks at several recent arrivals, most notably a Yellow Warbler at the corner toward the far (NE) end. Nearby was a Warbling Vireo*, the first I have seen this year. The Northern Waterthrush that Penny Warren and I saw earlier in the week was still there, singing loudly. I also saw my first House Wren of the year, as well as an American Redstart, a Great Crested Flycatcher (on the ground!), and an Indigo Bunting. A guy named John Tyndall (whom I had met once before) tipped me off about a Solitary Sandpiper in the stream south of Carolyn Ford's farm, and I noticed it was having escargot for brunch.
On the 15th of the month (Saturday), I led an Augusta Bird Club field trip to Ramsey's Draft, joined by Penny Warren, Peter Van Acker, and Herb Myers. The weather was just beautiful. We started by exploring the fringes of the picnic area, noting some American Redstarts at mid-level, as well as some other warblers up high. There was a nest full of young Eastern Phoebes under one of the kiosks. Then we began hiking up the Road Hollow trail for about a mile, with some good views of a Black-throated Blue Warbler, some Ovenbirds, a Worm-eating Warbler, and some Northern Parulas. The highlights of the day were two or three Blackburnian Warblers squabbling up above, and a female Scarlet Tanager at close range down below. On the way back to Staunton we stopped at Braley Pond but didn't see the Bald Eagles that had been seen earlier in the morning. We did hear an Acadian Flycatcher at close range, but never saw it. I stopped at nearby Chimney Hollow and saw a Northern Parula and a couple Wood Thrushes there, but not much else.
Wednesday May 19th was my day to take recycled items to the landfill south of Staunton, and since it was a beautiful day I kept going south after that. I first paid a brief visit to the Shenandoah Wetlands Bank south of Stuarts Draft, where I had excellent views of a Green Heron and a Common Yellowthroat. Later I drove up Howardsville Pike to some of the overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where I saw a number of warblers, etc.
On May 22nd I drove up to Harrisonburg, hoping that my past good luck at Hillandale Park would be repeated. That was not the case, however. At Cove Creek Arboretum in Bridgewater, however, I did get a nice view of two Cedar Waxwings engaged in courtship rituals. I hadn't seen any of that species for several months.
On May 24th I went to Bell's Lane for the first time in seven days, and had an excellent look at a male Baltimore Oriole, as well as a Brown Thrasher, and a few other birds.
Thanks to an e-mail alert from local nature lover Rich Wood, on Tuesday May 25th I made a quick impromptu visit to the pond next to the Target distribution center in Stuarts Draft. The object of my quest was a rare Red-necked Phalarope, and sure enough, I easily spotted it as soon as I parked my car along the road. (It is a constricted area with very little grass.) Also there were a few Least Sandpipers, likewise my first of the year. Since I was relatively close, I next headed up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which turned out to be completely shrouded in fog. I almost did a U-turn when I reached the top, but I figured I might as well check out the first overlook at least. I'm very glad that I did, as I soon heard a peculiar "song" consisting of whistles, clucks, and buzzes, like a catbird on steroids. Could it possibly be a Yellow-breasted Chat*? I played the "song" on my iPhone, and soon spotted the colorful vocalist. At first all I could get were miserably dull photographic images due to the fog, but soon it approached and perched in some bushes below the overlook -- a perfect pose for my camera! On the way back, I stopped at the Blue Ridge Tunnel west trailhead, where bright sunlight prevailed. There I saw a Scarlet Tanager, an Ovenbird, and some Red-eyed Vireos, one of which was acting like a nuthatch, hanging upside down from a tent caterpillar nest in pursuit of food. Most amusing! A Hooded Warbler was singing nearby, but I didn't see it.
On Thursday May 27th, I went for a long drive birding in various hot spots in western Augusta County. At Chimney Hollow I finally saw an Acadian Flycatcher, a species which hitherto I had only heard this year. Also present were Ovenbirds, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Northern Parula. At nearby Dowell's Draft I saw Wood Thrush, Northern Parula, Worm-eating Warblers, Scarlet Tanagers, Red-eyed Vireos, and Indigo Bunting; I also heard Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. There was no sign of any Prairie Warblers, however. Finally, I drove on the back roads up to Elkhorn Lake, and as usual the vicinity of the restroom was chock full of birds: American Redstarts, Louisiana Waterthrushes, Eastern Towhee, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Wood Pewee, and Wood Thrushes. There were no Blackburnian Warblers, however. At the lake itself, a Bald Eagle flew past. Overall it was a pretty good day with beautiful weather.
Finally, on May 31st I went back to Bell's Lane and confirmed that a Willow Flycatcher was there. In past years there were at least two or three breeding pairs in that area, but there numbers (and those of Yellow Warblers) seem to have descreased this year. And that concludes the "merry, merry month of May"! More photos can be seen on the Wild Birds chronological page.