Birding in June: high adventures!
The month of June began with Jacqueline and I going for a casual country drive through northern Augusta County. Since March she has been avidly watching a web cam live video feed of a Bald Eagle nest along the Dulles Greenway in Loudoun County, Virginia, and she has become quite attached to baby "Orion," who recently fledged. So I took her to Elkhorn Lake, where we had seen an eagle nest on March 18 (see May 31), and sure enough there were TWO (2) young Bald Eagles in that nest! Otherwise, there really weren't many birds out that day, other than Yellow-billed Cuckoos; one came very close to me on the east side of that lake by the dam. I couldn't get a decent photo of it, but I did get a photo of a different one that I heard at an overlook as we were driving back.
Friday, June 3rd, was a big day for me, as I finally made it up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which extends south of the Shenandoah National Park all the way to North Carolina. I saw two bird species for the first time this year: Cerulean Warblers, which seemed to be everywhere, and Yellow-breasted Chats, at the Afton Mountain overlook, where I saw one of them about a year ago. There were at least two of them making their distinctive cacophonous racket, and I eventually got a decent photo. It's wonderful news that this quite uncommon and delightful species seems to be settling into a new breeding ground. At various points along Rt. 610 or the BRP I also had good views of a Chestnut-sided Warbler, American Redstarts, Black-and-white Warblers, Scarlet Tanagers, an Acadian Flycatcher, and an Eastern Wood Pewee. Some Yellow-throated Vireos were making a lot of noise, but weren't very cooperative, and my only photo of one was mediocre. Indigo Buntings were abundant, as usual, and I was lucky to get a nice view of a female, in the center of the montage below.
On the morning of June 6 I visited Bell's Lane and finally got decent photos of a Common Yellowthroat and a Willow Flycatcher, unmistakeably identified by its "FITZ-bew!" call. But the highlight of the day was seeing 3 my first Warbling Vireo of the year! They are very vocal, of course, but because I hadn't heard one since last year, my first was impression was that it was an Orchard Oriole; then I thought it might be a Blue Grosbeak; and finally I figured it out. It was by the former "beaver pond" by the northeast end. I also saw a Yellow Warbler, Cedar Waxwings, Brown Thrashers, Red-bellied Woodpecker, a Great Blue Heron, an Eastern Phoebe, and of course many Gray Catbirds and Tree Swallows.
The birding climax of the month, and perhaps of the year, came on the weekend of June 11-12, when the Augusta Bird Club held an overnight field trip to Highland County, hosted by Lisa Hamilton. The club usually holds a field trip there every January and June, but that pandemic ruined those plans for the last two years. Since it is over an hour drive to get there, we had often talked about the possibility of having a sleepover so that we could do some early morning birding, and it worked out just fine. On Saturday morning (June 11) we began at the Laurel Fork Sapsuckers maple sugar farm along Rt. 250 in western Highland County. I arrived a little late, so I missed the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers that the others saw, but I did see two Bald Eagles on my way there: one juvenile and one adult. Our group went for a 2+ mile hike along a pleasant woodland trail lined with Mountain Laurels in full bloom. Among the bird highlights there were Scarlet Tanagers, Chestnut-sided Warblers, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Ovenbirds, and a Black-throated Green Warbler right next to the cabin / dining area. After a fine lunch provided by the Laurel Fork Sapsuckers folks, In the afternoon we went to Bramble Hill, where the late Margaret O'Bryan used to live, a few miles north of the town of Blue Grass. The house is now owned by the Virginia Society of Ornithology, whose members take turns residing in it. Lisa Hamilton spotted a Golden-winged Warbler in some bushes not far away, but the rest of us only managed to hear it. Another disappointment! Near the house we saw Indigo Buntings, Orchard Orioles, and House Wrens. That evening we dined at Lisa's house, and saw Red-headed Woodpeckers, Eastern Phoebes, Cedar Waxwings, and more! It was just wonderful!
On Sunday morning (June 12) I had some great looks at Bobolinks in the pasture next to Lisa's house. Their metallic song is just unreal. Down by the stream was a Yellow Warbler and a couple Eastern Phoebes. After breakfast the group headed west along Laurel Fork Road, stopping at the Straight Fork meadow, one of our traditional "hot spots." There we had great views of Common Yellowthroats, Yellow Warblers, Eastern Phoebes, Least Flycatchers, and an Alder Flycatcher, which are hard to distinguish from Willow Flycatchers. Further west we stopped at several spots along the road where we heard various warblers, vireos, Veeries, Scarlet Tanagers, etc. I had a brief look at a Magnolia Warbler, confirming the species ID by the Merlin app, as well as a Veery, but couldn't get a photo of either one. Two of the highlights of the day came as we approached our destination at Laurel Fork: Blackburnian Warbler (at the top of spruce trees) and Canada Warblers, which taunted us by singing from hidden locations for over a half hour before finally making an appearance in and around the Rhododendron bushes. I saw my first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the year at that location! As we emerged from the forest on our way back we had a great look at a Bald Eagle perched at the top of a dead tree. It was a fitting finale to a superb weekend of birding. Thanks again to Lisa Sargeant Hamilton, Lisa Matkins, and John Spahr for all they did to make this event happen.
I had high hopes for a great day of birding as Jacqueline and I drove up toward Reddish Knob on June 26. At the customary first stop along Briery Branch Reservoir, we had a great look at a Northern Parula in the sun, and Jacqueline was very impressed. At the forest clearing near the top we heard Chestnut-sided Warblers, Hooded Warblers, Eastern Towhees, etc., but the only bird that popped into view was a Red-breasted Nuthatch; strangely, it was almost devoid of color! In the distance was a Red-tailed Hawk, which I later realized was carrying either a stick (for a late nest?) or a snake. By then the clouds were gathering, and just as we got to the crossroads at the top rain drops began to fall. I'm pretty sure I saw a flock of ten or so Red Crossbills landing in a tree, but couldn't confirm it. I heard and briefly glimpsed a Black-throated Blue Warbler, and heard a Black-throated Green Warbler as well. We saw several Dark-eyed Juncos as we ascended the gravel road, and heard Wood Thrushes and Veeries, among others, but the rain only got worse, and I finally gave up and headed home. Overall, it was quite a disappointment.
In contrast, my "field trip" hike along the Shenandoah Mountain trail on Wednesday June 29 (which had to be rescheduled on short notice after I tested positive for covid-19 a week earlier) turned out to be a huge success in terms of bird species, especially warblers. The problem was that nobody else came, except for one guy who arrived hours later. Beginning from an elevation of about 2,800 feet near the Confederate Breastworks overlook, I soon heard Wood Thrushes and glimpsed a Scarlet Tanager in the tree tops. I also saw various warblers high up, and identified some of them as Black-throated Green Warblers (the first of at least eight) and Blackburnian Warblers. Further along I saw a Pine Warbler and heard several Eastern Towhees. At the intersection with the Georgia Camp trail (which was my intended destination) I heard and then saw a Hooded Warbler, my first one of the year! (New late date for me.) Since the weather was so pleasant, I decided to keep going, and soon saw multiple Black-throated Blue Warblers and Canada Warblers, to my utter delight. I got gradually ascended to about 3,700 feet before descending to a clearing (elev. 3,350) where electric transmission lines cross the mountain ridge. That was where I finally saw Chestnut-sided Warblers, at the farthest point of my hike, about a mile and a half beyond. At various points along the way, I also saw some Ovenbirds, a Worm-eating Warbler, and a Black-and-white Warbler, and I heard a Yellow-rumped Warbler that was identified by the Merlin app, which I used for the very first time. Eleven warblers altogether! (Merlin also indicated a Red-tailed Hawk screaming nearby, as well as a Barn Owl, about which I am quite dubious.) Previously I had only hiked about two miles each way along that trail, but this time I hiked over three miles in each direction, for a total of six plus. I also saw several Indigo Buntings (mostly female!), plus the usual Blue-headed and Red-eyed Vireos, Eastern Wood Pewees, etc. As I was within a mile of the trailhead, I saw another club member, Huck Hutchens, and we talked for a bit. It's just a shame that I was unable to share this wonderful outing with other birders.
So, it was another successful month of birding, even though I still haven't seen any Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. As usual, the above photo montages, including some closeup images and additional photos, can be seen on the Wild Birds chronological photo gallery page.