Birding in September: a variety of experiences
I spent much of August preparing to teach for the fall semester, but it turned out that my classes were postponed until the middle of October, so I made the best of my unanticipated extra time in September, which is peak fall migration season. On September 6 I paid a brief late-afternoon visit to Bell's Lane, where I came across another birder, Mark Kosiewski. Thanks to his alert eyes, I managed to see and even photograph some Common Nighthawks that were passing overhead. They have such a curious manner of flying, as their wingbeats seem to have a slightly delayed cadence. In broad daylight, I really should have gotten better photos.
Five days later, on September 11, I went back to Ramsey's Draft, but didn't see much other than a Northern Parula in a low tree and some warblers (including a probable Magnolia Warbler) high in the tree tops. For the first time I crossed the stream and walked up along the trail toward Bald Ridge, which eventually connects with Braley Pond. One of these days I'll hike that entire trail... Next I drove up to the Confederate Breastworks, where I saw an Eastern Wood Pewee, a Tennessee Warbler, and a couple others. After a half hour or so there, I hiked south for a ways along the Shenandoah Mountain Trail. There were many colorful mushrooms but hardly any birds. I was most annoyed as I headed back, but just when all seemed lost, I glimpsed some motion in a tree top, and it seemed like a good-sized bird was in there. Indeed: It was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and it even posed for me in the sunlight as I cautiously got in position for what turned out to be one of my best-ever photos of that species! On the way back home I decided to stop at one of my old favorite places, Chimney Hollow, knowing full well that there usually aren't that many birds there. Well, September 11 turned out to be an exception, as I soon spotted a Blue-headed Vireo, a Bay-breasted Warbler, a Pine Warbler, a Black-throated Green Warbler, and a Nashville Warbler! Unfortunately, the lighting conditions were poor, so my photographs were mediocre.
Three days after that, on September 14, I visited Mongomery Hall Park in Staunton. I had low expectations based on past experience there, but it turned out to be a pretty good day. Soon after arriving I saw some American Redstarts and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and the longer I stayed the more interesting species I found. Getting good photos proved to be difficult, unfortunately, partly because the auto-focus on my semi-new Canon PowerShot SX-70 is sometimes unreliable in mediocre lighting conditions. I was very frustrated that I couldn't get a better shot of the Magnolia Warblers that I saw.
Three days after that, on September 17, I drove up to Washington, DC, where Jacqueline was leaving on a jet plane. After a goodbye kiss, I drove to the small park at the north end of the airport, where joggers get exercise amidst the deafening roar of jet engines overhead. I was pleasantly surprised to spot an Osprey perched on a lighting scaffold, as well as two Great Egrets, several Ring-billed Gulls, and hundreds of Rock Pigeons. After a while I drove into Washington, hoping to visit the Holocaust Museum, but learned that one needs to get advance reservations online, so I contented myself with a snack lunch on the nearby Tidal Basin. There I saw a variety of big birds passing overhead, most notably a Caspian Tern! If only it hadn't been such a cloudy day... On the way back I stopped at Huntley Meadows (southwest of Alexandria) for the first time in several years: June 30, 2016, to be exact. A Roseate Spoonbill had been reported there during mid-summer, but it was long gone by September. I held out slim hopes for seeing a King Rail that had been seen there just a few days earlier, but no such luck. I did see, however, several Wood Ducks, Great Blue Herons, and two young Little Blue Herons, as well as a Belted Kingfisher and a young male Common Yellowthroat. I was told that someone had seen a Prothonotary Warbler there earlier in the day, but I missed it. As I was leaving, I saw a good-sized Snapping Turtle on the road but didn't dare coax it to move to safety, so I placed some branches on the road to induce motorists to slow down as the next best thing. It was a very good (albeit overcast) day!
My next bird outing was two days later, September 19, when the sun was shining brightly. I did a brief walk around the boardwalk at Augusta Springs, and saw a family of Eastern Phoebes, several Cedar Waxwings, some American Goldfinches (already molted to non-breeding plumage), an Eastern Wood Pewee, and -- finally -- something truly noteworthy: a Swainson's Thrush, my first of the season!
On September 21 I went to Bell's Lane and saw some Cedar Waxwings, Cape May Warblers (first of season), a Palm Warbler (FOS), Eastern Phoebes, several Broad-winged Hawks (FOS, in a small "kettle"), and a Red-tailed Hawk. It was very cloudy, however, so my photos weren't very good.
Two days later, September 23, I joined Penny Warren's Augusta Bird Club field trip to nearby Bell's Lane. The sun was shining bright and we saw a Pied-billed Grebe on the private farm pond, but it was hard to get a good photo with the harsh early light on the water. Later we saw some Cedar Waxwings, a Wilson's Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, a Common Yellowthroat, Cape May Warblers, and just as we were finishing, a large number of Broad-winged Hawks. (I only saw a dozen or so.) Not being satisfied, I decided to go back in the afternoon, and struck paydirt: Black-throated Green Warbler, American Redstarts, more Palm Warblers, and my very first Ruby-crowned Kinglet of the season!
The very next day I went to Mongomery Hall Park, and for the second time that month, got surprisingly lucky there. Soon after arriving I saw some Warbling Vireos high up in the trees, and then a probably Yellow-throated Vireo. After a lengthy time walking around to the north side of the big hill, I finally came across a species I had seen there during migration season in years past: a male Black-throated Blue Warbler! He was hard to photograph, unfortunately. I had somewhat better luck capturing the images of a Magnolia Warbler and a Swainson's Thrush, but the biggest surprise of the day was spotting four (4) Scarlet Tanagers (all female or young) in a bare tree next to the soccer field.
The day after that I decided to visit the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch for the first time this season. As I was about to get into my car, I looked up and was dumbfounded to see two Bald Eagles soaring directly above! One was an adult, and one was a first-year juvenile presumably being instructed how to hunt for food. At the communication tower along the Blue Ridge Parkway I saw a female (or juvenile) Black-throated Blue Warbler and some Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, but not much else. At the Hawk Watch I saw some Red-tailed Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and a Broad-winged Hawk or two.
As the month wound down to a close, I finally managed to photograph an almost perfectly-illuminated Ruby-throated Hummingbird at our back porch feeder!
To see some of the bird photos mentioned above but not shown, as well as more montages and photos of individual birds, go to the Wild Birds chronological photo gallery page.