Winter Birding in New Hampshire

Last week, my family traveled to New Hampshire to ski in the White Mountains.  The skiing was fantastic, but I’m here to talk about the birds.  We drove up from Charlottesville over the course of two days, stopping periodically to chase continuing rarities.  We saw our life bird tundra bean goose at East Reservoir Park in Philadelphia, and our lifer tufted duck at Captain’s Cove in Connecticut.  In addition to the tufted duck, Captain’s Cove proved to be a productive birding stop in general, with several hundred lesser scaup and a glaucus gull.  Two peregrine falcons briefly appeared over the frozen river and proceeded to dive at a lazily soaring red-tailed hawk, which fended them off by flipping over in midair. 

Red-tailed hawk and peregrine falcon. Photo by Theo Staengl.

Once we arrived at our destination, the town of North Conway, NH, we were struck by how few and far between the birds actually were.  On several occasions we walked for hours in the snow-covered spruce woods and could find little more than a few black-capped chickadees.  However, one day my brother called me outside early in the morning to point out a flock of four pine grosbeaks sitting in the top of a tree just outside our house, munching on berries.  They were puffed up against the cold, making them seem even larger and rounder then they normally do.  It was only the second time we’d ever seen the species, the first being in Glacier National Park several years ago. 

Pine grosbeak. Photo by Theo Staengl.

Another day we decided to hike from Pinkham Notch onto the slopes of Mount Washington.  It was bitterly cold, so we covered as much of our skin as possible.  Even with gloves and a balaclava, my hands and face were soon cold.  However, the trail was steep, so my core quickly warmed up beneath my multiple coats.  The scenery was gorgeous.  More than a foot of snow blanketed the ground and weighed down the spruce bows.  We passed several small streams, all of them almost completely frozen, with the ice making intricate shapes along their banks.  One waterfall was particularly beautiful, with formations of gigantic icicles covering its rock face.  About two miles in we got to a flat spot with gaps in the canopy and were able to look up at the treeless caps of the mountains.  It was a landscape much more reminiscent to me of the Rocky Mountains, and utterly unlike anything I’ve seen before in the East.  We were in the bottom of a huge bowl, with white capped peaks rising up on three sides of us.  Directly in front of us, a massive wall of snow spanned the gap between two peaks.  Even though it was only two in the afternoon, the sun was low over the mountains, casting the snow in tints of gold and pink. 

Once again, the birding was very quiet on Mount Washington, but we did encounter three boreal chickadees feeding in a grove of spruce.  We were first alerted to their presence by almost imperceptibly quiet “tsee” calls.  A patch of snow fluttered to the ground, and I raised my binoculars to focus on a plump, brownish bird with a large white ear patch.  The chickadees were much more muted and warmer in coloration than the black-capped chickadees we’d seen earlier, but their slow, deliberate movements among the snowy evergreens had a certain charm.  Other than the two chickadee species, we only saw two other species on Mount Washington, a downy woodpecker and a common raven. 

Boreal chickadee. Photo by Theo Staengl.
Red crossbill.

The real highlight of the birding part of our trip came on our way home, when we stopped at Salisbury State Park in Massachusetts.  We were lured there by tantalizing eBird reports of winter finches, but we were under time pressure to drive the twelve hours back to Virginia before a snowstorm hit that we worried might make the roads impassable.  The entrance road to Salisbury led through a partly frozen brackish marsh, which was inhabited by hundreds of American black ducks.  We also spotted a few common goldeneye, mallards, and buffleheads.  Inside the park we drove to a snow-covered campground, which was notable for its extensive sameness.  Every campsite was alike, with a pine tree, a fire pit, and sometimes a picnic table.  It wasn’t long before we heard the calls of red crossbills and located a large flock foraging in the pines.  I spotted a smaller, streakier bird, and watched it until it turned to face me.  Sure enough, it had a bright red dot on its forehead, one of the most obvious features of a common redpoll, a finch I’d never seen before.  The redpoll briefly dropped down onto the ground, before moving off with a group of crossbills.  American tree sparrows foraged on the snowy ground, and large flocks of snow buntings wheeled about in the sky. 

Snow buntings. Photo by Theo Staengl.

A local birder told us the location of two long-eared owls that were wintering in the park, and we followed her directions to them.  Although long-eared owls are present in Virginia, they’re very rare and hard to find, so we’d only seen one individual before those two.  After the owls, we walked out onto the beach and scanned the Atlantic Ocean for ducks.  White-winged scoters and common eiders were the two most abundant species, a striking contrast from Virginia where they’re among the rarest of the expected sea ducks.  In addition, we picked out a few surf scoters, long-tailed ducks, and common loons.  Three sanderlings foraged on the line of the breaking waves. 

Our lifer common redpoll. Photo by Theo Staengl.

The time forced us to leave Salisbury to start our long drive home.  Normally I find being in the car for long trips tedious, but the week had been so filled with activity, sights, and birds that the time to sit and relax felt welcome.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge – 2021

I walked down a narrow strip of compact, damp sand, my brother Theo a few paces behind me.  The air was crisp and cool, and when the wind gusted it ripped through my three coats.  My fingers, even inside my gloves, burned from the cold as they gripped the legs of my spotting scope tripod.  To my right, low sand dunes stretched into the distance, only sparsely covered with vegetation.  To my left, the Atlantic Ocean disappeared over the horizon.  Above me, the sky was brilliant, depthless blue, unbroken by cloud or bird. 

My brother and I were at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, in what has now become a yearly tradition.  For the past four years, we have spent several days in the first week of January birding Coastal Virginia, arguably the crown jewel of which is Chincoteague.  Chincoteague is always one of the most fun days of the trip, because its size and varied habitats allow us to spend more time in one place, which encourages slower, less frenzied birding and more attention to details of identification and counting.  Over the years it’s become a tradition for us to try to get as many species as possible on an all-day eBird checklist from the national wildlife refuge.  So far, my personal record is 90, which was set in 2019.

Ipswich savannah sparrow is a savannah sparrow subspecies that winters in sand dunes along the Atlantic Ocean. They’re larger and paler than typical savannah sparrows.

We started our visit to Chincoteague the same way we did all our others — with a walk down the beach between the Atlantic Ocean and Tom’s Cove.  We saw giant flocks of snow geese wheeling in the sky, and long-tailed ducks, black and surf scoters, horned grebes, and common loons diving in Tom’s Cove.  Eventually, we reached the abandoned coast guard station at the far side of Tom’s Cove.  We watched an Ipswich savannah sparrow forage in the sand dunes from an old, wind bleached boardwalk, the color of the weathered boards closely matching that of the sparrow.  At the coast guard station, we faced a choice.  Either we could go back up the beach to the parking lot and bird the rest of the refuge, or we could push on along the beach a few more miles to the mythical mudflats at the very southern tip of the island known as the hook.  We’d been to the very edge of the hook once before, but never seen the massive shorebird flocks that were rumored to haunt this hard to access area.  Our curiosity was too great, so we set off down the beach, our hopes high. 

Dunlin flock, with sanderling and western sandpipers.

As we approached the end of the island, the beach widened out, so that we were looking out over a large expanse of sand.  Large pieces of driftwood dotted the landscape.  A thick line of shells, wood, and human trash ran along the edge of the beach.  My brother and I split up so we could search the plain of sand more effectively for shorebirds.  I walked along the edges of the dunes, keeping my eyes out for snow buntings or more Ipswich sparrows.  We walked for a long time, but the landscape didn’t change, and there were few birds to be found.  Finally, I heard the sound of my brother’s voice on the wind.  Running out from behind a dune, I saw his distant wind-blown form hunched over the spotting scope, gesturing for me to come.  When I reached him, he pointed out a flock of several hundred dunlin huddled together next to the ocean.  Looking farther down the beach, I saw several similar flocks.  All the dunlins were huddled close together, and most were sleeping with their heads tucked under their wings. 

Western sandpiper, with dunlin.

I carefully scanned the dunlin flock, searching for any irregularities in size or color that could give away another shorebird species.  Several pale gray sanderlings were clustered near one end of the flock, along with several slightly smaller shorebirds.  On first glance, they looked almost like miniature dunlin, but closer inspection revealed they were slightly paler, and when they raised their heads to look around, they had different facial patterning and shorter, straighter, bills.  They were western sandpipers, a species we’d never seen at Chincoteague before, despite extensive searching.  We lay on our stomachs on the sand and photographed the birds as they preened, until the cold wind compelled us to keep moving. 

While I’d been scanning the shorebird flock with the scope, Theo had been searching the ocean with his binoculars.  He drew my attention to a common eider among a flock of surf scoters and common loons.  It was a beautiful young male, with a white body and a brown head.  Surprisingly, it was the seventh of our trip, many more of this uncommon sea duck than we had seen on any of our previous Coastal Virginia trips.

Western sandpiper, with dunlin.

We continued down the beach, scanning and counting the dunlin flocks as we went.  By the time we turned around, we had seen more than one-thousand dunlin, and nineteen western sandpipers.  We also encountered a large gull flock with lots of herring, great-black backed, and ring-billed gulls, and one lesser black-backed gull.  Ruddy turnstones, sanderlings, dunlins, and black-bellied plovers foraged around the gulls’ feet.

Eventually, we started hiking the several miles back up the beach towards the rest of the refuge.  It seemed to go on forever, the uniform plain of sanding stretching nearly to the horizon.  I became hot in my coats, and thirsty.  Other than the occasional flock of scoters over the ocean, there were almost no birds to distract us.  The wind whistled, blowing sand into our legs.  When we did get back to the car, we just sat there for several minutes, eating, drinking, and recuperating before we birded the rest of the refuge.

The rest of our trip to Chincoteague followed a more typical path.  We scanned Swan Cove, seeing marbled godwits, Bonaparte’s gulls, tundra swans, and hundreds of dabbling ducks of various species.  Then we drove around wildlife loop, counting hundreds more northern shovelers, gadwall, American black duck, and green-winged teal.  Finally, we stopped on the boardwalk bridge on the way out of the refuge to pick up a seaside sparrow, forced to the edge of the marsh by the high tide.  We ended with 71 species on our eBird checklist, and had another fun day of birding adventure. 

Nelson County Big Day 2020 – Raptorthon

On Thursday, May 7, I participated in a big day called the Raptorthon, a fundraiser for the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch and the Hawk Migration Association of North America.  My brother Theo accompanied me, and my parents drove.  This year, due to the coronavirus, the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch team didn’t bird together.  Each counter took a different county to bird for the Raptorthon, with Vic in Highland, Gabriel in Augusta, Baxter in Albemarle, and me in Nelson.  Since I was birding in Nelson anyway, I took the Raptorthon as an opportunity to try to break my own personal Nelson big day record, 105 species, set on May 3, 2019.

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Tree Swallows at Rockfish Valley Trail

We started at 6:00 AM at the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Wintergreen.  Many of the breeding warblers were singing, like ovenbird, American redstart, black-and-white, and cerulean, but there wasn’t much passage migrant activity.  We picked up dark-eyed junco and blue-headed vireo and then headed down the mountain towards Rockfish Valley Trail.  We spent the next two and a half hours at Rockfish Valley trail, birding slowly and thoroughly.  We had 60 species there, including Tennessee, palm, Cape May, and chestnut-sided warblers, blue grosbeak, Swainson’s thrush, and cliff and bank swallows.  We then drove the Blue Ride Parkway southwest to Tye River Gap, listening for birds along the way.  We heard more of the common breeding species like ovenbird, hooded, redstart, black-and-white, and cerulean but not much else.  We did see a broad-winged hawk perched in a tree next to the road though.  From Tye River Gap we proceeded south on 56, stopping at Montebello State Fish Hatchery where we added blackburnian warbler.  We checked the flooded field at the intersection of 56 and 151 for shorebirds, but the only species present was solitary sandpiper.  Our next stop was the field south of Diggs Mountain Road on Arrington Road, where we saw a flock of 8+ bobolink flying around, and saw savannah and grasshopper sparrows.  At Lake Nelson we added double-crested cormorant and green heron and found an active hairy woodpecker nest.  Prothonotary warblers sang from the swamp at the Wingina Boat Ramp.  We then headed to James River State WMA, where we added Wilson’s snipe, spotted sandpiper, yellow-billed cuckoo, and pine and prairie warbler to the day list.  Our last stop before returning to our home in Afton for an early dinner was Thurston lane, a small road in northeastern Nelson County.  Thurston Lane was quiet except for a small warbler flock in a cypress plantation that included chestnut-sided and blue-winged warblers.  The blue-winged warbler was definitely the highlight of the day for me, as it was only the second I’ve ever seen in Nelson.  After dinner we drove back to James River State WMA, where we waited for dusk.  Common nighthawks weaved acrobatically overhead and a ruby-throated hummingbird zipped past.  As it began to get dark, American woodcocks began to “peent” from the field near the train tracks.  Then a chuck-will’s widow began to sing, and it was soon joined by eastern whip-poor-wills and a barred and screech owl.  We spent several more hours looking for a great-horned owl but couldn’t find one.  We returned home at 11:00 PM.

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Cape May Warbler at Spruce Creek Park

All together we had 109 species, four more than my previous Nelson County Big Day record.  We birded from sunrise to long after sunset and covered more than 200 miles across the county by car.  We saw some awesome birds, and most importantly, we raised money for the important work of the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch and the Hawk Migration Association of North America.  Thanks again to everyone who donated!

Nelson County Rarity Roundup 2019 Results

The results for the first Nelson County Rarity Roundup are in!  On October 6, 23 birders from all over Virginia birded in Nelson County, in search of low density fall migrants and to help create eBird data during an interesting time of year in a relatively poorly birded area.  The county was divided into 18 randomly drawn territories.  Twelve territories received some birding effort, although only six were birded thoroughly for most of the day.  Together, all the teams had 113 species, 23 of which were seen by only one team.  The rarest bird of the day was a Connecticut warbler found by Drew Chaney and Baxter Beamer at the Three Ridges Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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Connecticut Warbler (Photo by Drew Chaney)

Rockfish Valley Trail was productive as usual, with bobolink, two Lincoln’s sparrows, and the county’s fourth record of marsh wren being the highlights.  Three of the four previous marsh wren records from Nelson have been in the first two weeks of October, the fourth was in the last week of April.  The marsh wren apparently stuck around for at least one day, as Theo and I saw and photographed one at Rockfish Valley Trail on Monday.  Elsewhere in the county, highlights included two other Lincoln’s sparrows — one at James River State WMA and one at Democracy Vineyards — as well as a Trail’s flycatcher at the Piney River Railway Trail and abundant gray-cheeked thrushes (8 between all teams).  Birds flagged by eBird as late included two yellow-throated vireos, four blue-gray gnatcatchers, two worm-eating warblers, one veery, and one prairie warbler.  Between all the teams, we counted 3,594 birds.  The most numerically abundant species was cedar waxwing (289), followed closely by blue jay (252) and then by northern cardinal (205).  The most numerous sparrow was chipping (92), and the most numerous warbler was common yellowthroat (58).

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Common Yellowthroat

Between all the teams, we saw eleven out of the twelve unflagged sparrow species, missing only vesper.  We saw 21 warbler species, with the only unflagged species we missed being Wilson’s.  We also got all the unflagged raptor species, eleven, including the three falcons.  Notable misses included least flycatcher, Philadelphia vireo, fish crow, northern-rough-winged swallow, brown creeper, hermit thrush, purple finch, and summer tanager.  Here’s the link to the map of territories, and here’s a spreadsheet with the results.  Thanks again to everyone who participated, and I look forward to next year!

Support Team Turnstone & Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory!

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Whimbrel (one of the many species of birds that depend on habitat on the Eastern Shore during migration)

The Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory is celebrating their 25th anniversary this Saturday, September 28, with their annual fundraiser, the Kiptopeke Challenge.  For the 3rd year in a row, I will be competing with Team Turnstone in the youth division of the 24 hour birding contest to raise funds and have fun!  Please consider sponsoring our team at this link to support CVWO’s important research and conservation work.  All funds go to CVWO.  Recent news has made it more clear than ever that we need to be directing resources towards bird conservation, and Coastal Virginia is critical habitat for many species of birds and other organisms.  Thank you!

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Brant (found on the VA coast in winter)

 

Nelson County Rarity Roundup – Volunteers Wanted!

The first rarity roundup I participated in was the Virginia Rarity Roundup in the fall of 2018.  Held every year in Northampton County, one of the state’s best for birding, this event emphasizes finding state rarities and building the local birding community.  It was great birding — my team found an ash-throated flycatcher! — and lots of fun, and it got me thinking about the ways in which the format of the event could be applied to my home county.  Obviously Nelson is not Northampton.  There are no — or very few — Western, European, or Caribbean birds in the county each fall.  However, I believe Nelson is actually one of the better Central VA Piedmont counties for rare and uncommon but regularly occurring migrants, from species like Connecticut warblers and Philadelphia vireos to northern goshawks and golden eagles.  There are several eBird lists from Rockfish Valley trail with multiple rare species.  Some of the most mouth watering lists are below:

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Mourning Warbler.  This photo was taken in Highland County.

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48719356

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S11684470

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S49182860

https://ebird.org/atlasva/view/checklist/S38795337

Rockfish Valley Trail is one of the only places in Nelson that gets regular coverage in migration.  Just across the border in Augusta County, State Route 610 also used to get regular coverage, by Edward Brinkley.  He reported massive fallouts of migrating songbirds, including some rare species, like golden-winged, blue-winged, and Connecticut warblers, and olive-sided flycatcher.  More recently, I’ve had good numbers of birds on foggy days in fall, although nothing yet approaching what he reported.  The number and variety of birds that can be observed when an area is thoroughly covered by birders is amazing.  Here’s one of Edward Brinkley’s best lists:  https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S12891616

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State Route 610 during the summer.

I wonder how many more rare migrants are out there along the Blue Ridge that we don’t detect?  How many more fantastic migrant trap locations like Rockfish Valley Trail and State Route 610 are waiting to be discovered?  If birders birded all of Nelson County in one day, how many species and how many individual birds would we find?  I think the format of a rarity roundup provides a good way to encourage people to explore and begin to answer these questions.

I’ve divided Nelson County into 18 territories of unequal size and shape.  They’re drawn somewhat randomly, but I’ve tried to make the boundaries logical and to make it clear what territories the already well established birding spots lie in.  My hope is that I can get as many people or teams as possible to commit to bird a territory as thoroughly as possible for the day of Sunday October 6.  The territories are humongous compared to the one’s used for the VA Rarity Roundup in Northampton, and have much more private land, so I recognize that thorough coverage will be impossible.  The idea is more to use the territories as a broad organizational tool, so birders can split their effort across the county.  Some territories don’t have an eBird hotspot in them.  Some may not even have public land, which is OK.  There’s a lot of barely traveled backroads in Nelson, many of which could prove to be good birding.  How many new eBird hotspots can we add?

If you’re a birder, and interested in helping discover birds and birding hotspots in Nelson County and are available on October 6th, please consider covering a territory!  Here’s a link to a map of the territories.  Covering any of them would be a huge help, although I’m personally most curious about the territories along the Blue Ridge that don’t get birded, like 12 and 13.  I also think the territories along the James River, including the one with James River State Wildlife Management Area, could be interesting and productive.  Don’t worry if you don’t get your first choice territory, because I’ll be making a text group so we can alert each other to any rarities we find.  Once you know which territory you would like, or if you have any questions, contact me at ezraperegrine@gmail.com.

Bird Finding in Virginia: James River State Wildlife Management Area

James River State Wildlife Management Area is the eBird hotspot with the third most species in Nelson County, with 132, and many more still waiting to be recorded.  It still isn’t getting birded as much as it deserves, with only 67 complete eBird checklists at the time of this writing, but over the last year the coverage has improved.  It’s one of the only publicly accessible marshes in the county, which makes it a particularly important spot for local birders to check, especially in migration, when rare marsh birds like rails and bitterns are moving through the area.

There is often hunting at the WMA during the winter, so you may want to wear blaze orange.  According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fishery, Sunday is the only day they never have hunting.  One winter day we planned to bird there, but hunters and their dogs lined the road all the way from the entrance to the river.  We turned around.  Also, as for all state WMA’s, you should purchase an access permit before your trip.

The WMA is located in the eastern part of Nelson County, along the James River.  From Lovingston, you can take James River Road (56) most of the way, turning left onto Cabell Road (626) before James River Road reaches the James River at Wingina.  After about a mile on Cabell Road, turn right onto a dirt road called Midway Mills Lane.  After a few hundred feet, the entrance to the WMA is announced by a sign on the left.

If you follow the main road all the way to its end, you arrive at a small dirt parking lot next to the James River.  Sometimes in winter, if it’s very cold, ducks can be seen on the river there.  Species I’ve had on the river include common merganser, hooded merganser, and ring-necked duck.  Tall silver maples and eastern sycamores grow along the bank of the James, and in the spring both yellow-throated and prothonotary warblers can be heard singing from them.

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Entrance to the Marsh Impoundments

One of the best places to bird at James River State WMA is the marsh impoundments, which are located near the end of the main road.  The entrance to the path that leads through the marsh is about 30 meters back up the road, and on the left coming from the river.  Wood ducks are present in the marsh all year, and in the winter they are often joined by other species of duck.  I’ve had ring-necked duck, mallard, and American black duck in winter, and in March and April, blue-winged teal are abundant.  Common yellowthroats, orchard orioles, white-eyed vireos, red-winged blackbirds, indigo buntings, and green herons all probably breed, and are common all summer.  In spring, northern waterthrush, marsh wren, and warbling vireo are possible.  There’s even a record of alder flycatcher and common gallinule from late May in 2010. The marsh can have shorebirds in the spring, but it depends greatly on the water level.  If the water is too high, then there is almost no exposed mud and few shorebirds.  Greater yellowlegs, lesser yellowlegs, spotted and solitary sandpipers, and Wilson’s snipe have all occurred there in the past.  No one has yet found a rail or bittern, but I believe if people continue checking regularly it is only a matter of time.

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Marsh Impoundment.

From the end of the marsh it is possible to keep walking on the path, which leads back into the forest.  It gets very overgrown, and I’ve found the best way to get back to the road is to walk next to the train tracks that intersect that path.  If you follow the tracks, you’ll arrive back at the main road of the WMA just a little bit past the entrance to the marsh impoundment path.  Usually the birding isn’t much different from the rest of the WMA along this path, but I’ve had Philadelphia vireo in fall, and rusty blackbirds and yellow warblers in the pools of water along the train tracks.

Continuing up the road, away from the river, but before you get to the train tracks, several large, weedy fields lie to the left.  Yellow-breasted chats and northern bobwhites breed in these fields, although the former is much more abundant than the latter.  In May, bobolinks can be present.  This is also a good area to keep an eye out for red-headed woodpeckers and blue grosbeaks in the field to the left, and listen for pine and prairie warblers singing from the pines on the right.

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Yellow-breasted Chat

Past the train tracks the field continues on the left, although it is more overgrown with autumn olive and other invasive species.  Blue grosbeaks, yellow-breasted chats, indigo buntings, white-eyed vireos, and common yellowthroats are still fairly abundant though.  A power line right-of-way crosses the road about 500 meters west of the tracks, and it can be used to access the field.  If you do walk down the right-of-way to the left of the road, you’ll eventually encounter a small pond on your left.  In the summer the vegetation is often so high and dense that it’s impossible to see from the right-of-way and nearly impossible to get to, but it might be worth a check in winter and migration.  However, the only birds I have seen on it are wood duck, green heron, belted kingfisher, and swamp sparrow, which are all abundant elsewhere in the WMA.

Hog Island Audubon Camp 2019

I sat in the bottom of a small wooden rowboat with several other teen birders as we were rowed over the water of Muscongus bay towards the rocky coastline of Eastern Egg Rock.  Thousands of terns circled and called over the island.  Razorbills and black guillemots perched on the rocks around the base of the island. An Atlantic puffin flew by, heading for its burrow somewhere under the rocks, its oversized bill stuffed with fish. Our boat bumped up against the rocks in a small cove, and we scrambled out.  The interns studying seabirds on the island greeted us, and told us to wait until the rest of the campers were rowed to shore, so we wouldn’t accidentally step on any tern eggs. Indeed, just a few yards away, we could see common, arctic, and roseate terns guarding their nests.

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Roseate Tern

Visiting Eastern Egg Rock was the highlight of the Audubon Society’s Hog Island “Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens” camp.  Hog Island is a 300+ acre island just off the coast of Maine in Muscongus bay.  It has been owned and run by Project Puffin — a program of the National Audubon Society — since 2000, and by National Audubon or Maine Audubon since the early 1900s.  Since the Audubon Society first acquired Hog Island, they have used it to run programs and summer camps to inspire people to care about nature.

Soon after I first heard about Hog Island from friends in the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club, I read Project Puffin, which tells the story of how Stephen Kress restored Atlantic puffins and terns to their former breeding colony on Eastern Egg Rock.  In the 1970s, when Stephen Kress started Project Puffin, puffins survived on only one of their former breeding colonies in Maine, having been extirpated primarily by hunters from all the others.  Stephen took young puffin chicks from a large colony in Newfoundland and raised them at Egg Rock with the hope that they’d return to breed there as adults. Eventually birds started returning, and now there are several hundred puffins breeding on Eastern Egg Rock, as well as numerous arctic, common and roseate terns, and Leach’s storm petrels.  The seabird restoration techniques that Project Puffin developed have been used successfully elsewhere in Maine, and also in other countries.

I arrived on Hog Island late in the day on Sunday, June 9, after a long day of travel.  I was ferried across the small stretch of water separating Hog Island from the mainland, along with several other campers, on the Snowgoose 3, the boat we would travel on for the rest of the week.  Several buildings were scattered around a clearing and bird feeders, including a dining hall, a lecture hall, several dormitories, and a building called the Queen Mary, where the camp’s bird collection was housed.  All the teens were staying in one building, called the porthole.  I threw my stuff on my bed, went outside to meet my fellow campers, and quickly got my first lifer of the trip, a black guillemot.

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Black Guillemot

Every night after dinner, all the teens and the adults from a camp running concurrently to ours would hear a talk on some aspect of seabird biology or conservation.  The first night it was Stephen Kress himself speaking about the history of Hog Island and Project Puffin.  Other speakers talked about seabird senses, seabird families, and the effects of warming ocean temperature on seabird breeding success. That last one was one of my favorites, as I learned a lot about puffin and murre conservation.  Apparently, having a good supply of food is one of the most important things for alcid survival and breeding success, and when the fish species that the alcids eat are overfished or forced to move — potentially away from breeding colonies — by changing ocean temperatures, the effects on the alcids can be devastating.  Many of the talks were inspiring to me, because the speaker’s enthusiasm and love for the seabirds really came through.  The story of Project Puffin’s success is amazing, and hearing research with such clear and direct potential to help seabird conservation was fascinating.

During the day, we were busy with many different bird related activities.  We went back over the channel to the mainland, where we birded several different habitats, including a bog.  The mosquitoes were horrific, but we did manage to hear several warbler species, including Canada, Nashville, magnolia, and northern waterthrush, as well as a yellow-bellied flycatcher.  Back at Hog Island, we did some birding, bird art, and played ultimate frisbee with someone’s new Hog Island baseball cap.  One morning we set up mist nets around the feeders, and watched as the staff banded the birds we caught.  It was a great opportunity to see the details of their plumage up close.  We banded American goldfinches, purple finches, black-capped chickadee, red-breasted nuthatch, black-throated green, and yellow-rumped warblers, and a northern parula.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch

Finally the day arrived for us to land on Eastern Egg Rock.  After reading about it in Project Puffin and hearing about it from my friends and now from Stephen Kress himself, I — and I think all the other teens as well — was very excited to actually get to see it in real life.

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Arctic Terns

The five research interns living on the island for the summer led us slowly up the rocks and onto the island.  Every several feet, we could see one or two large, cream colored, brown speckled tern eggs on the rocks.  The noise of the terns calling as they circled overhead was deafening. Occasionally a tern would swoop at us, hitting our heads with its beak.  As we climbed away from the surf, we began to see plants growing in cracks in the rock.  We arrived at the headquarters for the researchers on the island — a tiny building they used as a lab, an outhouse, and several tents.

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The Tern Hordes

We split into two groups — I was in the group that was first to go to the blinds located around the edges of the island.  The blinds were chest high wooden boxes, with a ring of windows to look out of from the inside.  Mine was called “Arizona,” although I don’t have any idea why.  A landscape less like Arizona is difficult to imagine.  Waves crashed and churned on the rocks below, sometimes spraying water up onto the ledge of flat rock immediately below me. Common and arctic terns were everywhere, some protecting their nests, some flying frantically back and forth from the island with fish in their beaks, and others just loafing around on the rocks, seemingly unconcerned with the world.  Common eiders swam in the surf.  Several puffin burrows were marked in red paint on the rocks next to me, so I was unsurprised when I saw my first puffin land with three fish in its beak only about ten feet from me.  It looked around in a furtive way, then hunched its shoulders and scurried into one of the burrows.

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Atlantic Puffin

I saw many other puffins over the hour I had in the blind, bringing fish into the burrows. One bird didn’t even stop on the rocks, but flew directly into the burrow.  I worked on getting a flight shot of a puffin flying down the island’s coast with its beak full of fish.  Razorbills occasionally flew over the water, and black guillemots were abundant on the rocks.

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Atlantic Puffin

Later, as the whole group was eating lunch outside the main building, the island suddenly went silent. All the terns stopped calling at once, and flew low over the rocks and out over the water.  A group of terns suddenly scattered, revealing a peregrine falcon flying swiftly towards us.  It flew overhead and then back out to sea, and soon the noise of the terns returned to normal.

Before we left, one of the researchers pulled a Leach’s storm petrel out of its burrow to show us.  I knew they bred on Eastern Egg Rock, but I hadn’t expected to see one because they’re usually underground during the day.  We got to see it in the researcher’s hand, and even smell it — it smelled very good, almost citrusy.  We said our goodbyes to the Leach’s storm petrel and Eastern Egg Rock, and made our way back down the rocks to our boat for the trip back to Hog Island.

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Leach’s Storm Petrel

All too soon the day came for us to leave.  We packed our bags, ate a quick breakfast, and then went down to the dock to wait for the boat to take us back to the mainland.  We stepped onto the snowgoose 3 for the last time, and said our goodbyes to each other as we crossed the channel.

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Hog Island Dock

I continue to find the story of the Audubon Society, Hog Island, and Project Puffin very inspiring — a testament to the positive impact a dedicated group of people, or even a single person, can have on conservation.  Project Puffin took Maine from having barely any puffins left to multiple thriving colonies — all in one lifetime.  It continues to work on seabird restoration and conservation sites all over the world, and Hog Island continues to serve its vital education function, as group after group of campers come to love it, and Egg Rock, and the birds.  Some of those campers return to Hog Island as staff or researchers — I don’t know the exact number, but several of our councilors were previous campers.  I know I’d like to go back if I get the chance.  I think all who go to Hog Island come away with greater knowledge, new friends, and more hope.

 

Acknowledgements:  I’d like to thank the National Audubon Society for awarding me an Ambassador Scholarship to attend the camp.

Nelson County Big Day 2019

We drove slowly down the dirt road Findlay Gap Drive through clouds of fog, the shadows of pines just visible through the dark night.  Eastern whip-poor-wills sang around the road, some close, their songs loud and incessant, others further, at the edge of my hearing.  We passed a small creek, and a few frogs called above the noise of the moving water.  We stopped where a recently cut area bordered a more mature stand of pines.  A barred owl called from farther down the row of trees.  I occasionally caught the high buzzy calls of warblers flying overhead.  We continued down the road, pausing periodically to listen, or to play a screech-owl song, but we didn’t hear any more owls.

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Eastern Whip-poor-will — Photo from Ohio

By the time we arrived at Norwood Road, the night felt a little less dark.  We stopped across a farm field from a row of pines and deciduous trees bordering the James River.  Two whip-poor-wills sang from the trees, as well as a chuck-wills widow, it’s longer, more complicated song blending in with the whip-poor wills.  The chuck-wills widow was the first one I’d ever heard in Nelson County.  We drove along Norwood Road and then up James River Road towards James River State Wildlife Management Area.  We heard and even saw several more whip-poor-wills as they flew up from the road, but the only new species we added was a northern rough-winged swallow we heard flying overhead.  We got to James River State WMA just as the sky was beginning to lighten in the east.  Two whip-poor-wills sang near the entrance, a hotspot first.

Our mom left me and my brother Theo to meet our friend Drew, who would be joining us for the rest of the day.  The three of us were doing a Nelson County Big Day, trying to see as many species of birds as we could in Nelson County in 24 hours.  We’d done our first Nelson County Big Day on April 29, 2018, when we had 98 species.  Now we were doing it on May 3rd, several days farther into spring migration, and with much more knowledge about how to find birds in Nelson County.  The goal of both big days, aside from having fun birding, was to explore Nelson County and add to the eBird data, since Nelson is still not birded nearly as much as many of the adjacent counties.

Nelson County is vaguely rectangular in shape, with the southeast border formed by the James River, and the northwest border roughly following the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Nelson is very rural, with many small rivers and large patches of forest, as well as a significant amount of agricultural land and pasture.  Last year, our big day route had started at dawn along the James River, then continued across the county and up into the mountains, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and ended in the Rockfish Valley in the northern portion of the county.  This year I planned on following a similar route, but with the exact locations and time spent at each location optimized from my experience to get us the most birds.  For example, last year our nocturnal birding had consisted only of a visit to Sturt park, where we got whip-poor-wills and nothing else.  This year, I’d carefully planned our route to give us as good a chance as possible at other nocturnal birds, especially chuck-wills-widow.

At James River State WMA, Theo and I walked down the main road listening to the dawn chorus of birds.  Blue-gray gnatcatchers, indigo buntings, common yellowthroats, white-eyed vireos, and yellow-breasted chats sang all around us.  At the James River, we heard a prothonotary and yellow-throated warbler singing from tall silver maples that lined the river.

The fog was still dense and low as we walked into the marsh impoundments, making it hard to see more than 15 feet in front of us.  The path was not mowed, so despite the earliness of the season it was already overgrown by waist high grasses and mustards.  The dense fog had coated the weeds with water, so as we brushed up against them the water rolled off, drenching my shorts and filling my boots with water.  One would have hoped the wetness would suppress the ticks a little, but sadly this was not the case.  By the time we reached the end of the marsh, I had pulled several off me.

Every time I visit the James River State WMA marsh in the spring I dream of finding bitterns or rails, or some other epic marsh bird that isn’t yet recorded from Nelson County on eBird.  The marsh isn’t super high quality because the water level fluctuates constantly and there are many invasive plants, but it is the best one I know about in Nelson, so I will keep hoping.

We heard wing flapping, and then the cries of wood ducks as they flushed off the marsh in front of us.  The marsh was high with little exposed mud, so we were unsurprised, although a little disappointed, not to find any shorebirds (or bitterns or rails sadly).  We heard a northern waterthrush chip, and then saw the bird briefly fly over us and land in a dense clump of vegetation.  Orchard orioles sang from the willows all around us.  At the end of the marsh, a wood duck family swam away from us, the chicks still downy and unable to fly.

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Northern Waterthrush — Photo from Augusta County

From the end of the marsh impoundments we continued back into the WMA, along a grassy road bordered on both sides by dense box elder thickets.  We emerged onto the train tracks and began to follow them back towards the main road.  Yellow warblers sang from the swamp around us, as did the omnipresent common yellowthroats and indigo buntings.  Drew called, and said he had a bobolink at the intersection of the train tracks and road.  We picked up our pace, and soon joined him in trying to re-find the bobolink.  We walked off the road into a wet field, picking our way carefully through blackberries and rushes.  A swamp Sparrow foraged in the bottom of a wet ditch.  Suddenly, a black bird with gold and white highlights flew past us.  “Bobolink!”  I shouted, as the bird landed in the top of a tree in front of us and began to sing.  It was the second Nelson County lifer of the day for me, as well as a hotspot first for James River State WMA.

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Bobolink

The three of us continued up the road, adding pine warbler, prairie warbler, Baltimore oriole, and ruby-throated hummingbird.  We walked along a power line right-of-way into a field overgrown with shrubs, where we found blue grosbeaks, and had a green heron and a red-headed woodpecker flyover.  A bright yellow warbler also flew overhead.  At first we thought it might be a blue-winged, but review of our photos showed it to be a Cape May, not as rare but still new for the day.

The next stop was Wingina Boat Ramp, where James River Road crosses the James River. About 50 cliff swallows were nesting under the bridge, flying out over the river and the adjacent corn fields in swirling masses.  We also heard a black-and-white warbler and a yellow-throated vireo singing from the tall trees along the river.

We drove back along Norwood Road, now in full daylight, looking and listening for birds.  We saw a mallard on a small pond by the side of the road, and a common grackle building a nest.  On Variety Mills Road, we stopped to check a long, muddy puddle in a cow pasture that I’d seen on previous trips.  To our delight, there was a lesser yellowlegs foraging in the mud with three solitary sandpipers.  Since the puddle was only a couple of feet from the side of the road, we were able to approach for photos.

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Lesser Yellowlegs

We followed Variety Mills Road through wooded ravines and along a small, swift flowing river.  We heard ovenbirds, worm-eating warblers, black-and-white warblers, American redstarts, northern parulas, and a blackpoll warbler.  When the road emerged out of the woods back into a large stretch of pasture, we heard grasshopper sparrows singing.  By the time we reached the intersection of Variety Mills Road and Route 29 at Colleen, our list for the road was 47 species.  I hadn’t known before that Variety Mills Road could be such a good birding spot, and I wondered what it would be like in fall migration.

From Colleen we followed Route 56 northwest into the mountains.  At first the landscape was similar to that along Variety Mills Road, with extensive pastures and the Tye river running close to the road.  The fresh, sweet scent of sweet vernal grass in the fields perfumed the air.  We were watching the river carefully, as in 2018 we’d had a pair of common mergansers on it.  Drew caught something on the river out of the corner of his eye, but it was just two Canada geese.  We were about to continue when we saw the brilliant white plumage of a male common merganser just a couple feet below the geese.  A closer look revealed a female as well, swimming near the male.  As we got higher into the mountains, the landscape became more forested, and we could soon hear American redstarts and Ovenbirds almost constantly out the windows.

At the Montebello State Fish Hatchery we walked along the road, hearing chestnut-sided and blackburnian warblers along with many redstarts.  We located a female blackburnian, and watched it forage low in the shrubs for several minutes.  Although not as bright as a male blackburnian’s throat, the dull, rusty orange of this bird’s throat was still impressive.  Other high elevation breeding birds like blue-headed vireos sang.  An osprey flew overhead.

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Chestnut-sided warbler

We got on the Blue Ridge Parkway and drove northeast towards Afton.  We stopped at all the overlooks and pullouts on the Nelson County side of the road, and slowly but steadily added a few more species.  Bald eagle, cerulean warbler, and common raven were all new for the day.  Other warblers sang around us almost the whole drive, including ovenbird, American redstart, and hooded, black-and-white, and chestnut-sided warblers.  At Wintergreen we added dark-eyed junco, only a few weeks ago common all over the county, but now requiring a search at their breeding grounds high in the mountains.

As we drove into the Rockfish Valley, we totaled our species list so far.  We were at 99 species, already one ahead of last year, and it was only about 1:00 pm.  Unfortunately, the morning’s rush of birds was over, and it took a few hours and a lot of effort before we added anything new.  Our one-hundredth bird was a red-tailed hawk at Rockfish Valley Trail.  101 was a black-throated blue warbler, at the same location.  We also got great looks and photographs of this yawning tree swallow.

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Tree Swallow

We arrived at The Quarry Gardens at Schuyler at 5:30, just as the bird activity was beginning to pick up again.  We walked around the gravel trails slowly, carefully scanning through large flocks of yellow-rumped warblers.  Near one such flock of yellow-rumps I found a pine siskin, a day bird.  In another flock we had a ruby-crowned kinglet.  The final new bird at Quarry Gardens was a yellow-billed cuckoo.

The last new bird of the day was wild turkey — species number 105 — at Taylor Creek Road.  We tried for common nighthawk at Rockfish Valley Elementary School, a place I’d had them before in fall, without luck.  We returned home around 8:30, exhausted after nearly 16 hours of birding, but happy with our day.  We missed a few birds that should have been really easy, including red-shouldered hawk and northern flicker, so there’s definitely still room to do better, perhaps much better, next year.

Creature Feature: American Woodcock

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American Woodcock (Scolopax minor).  Photo by Theo Staengl

American Woodcock

Scolopax minor

Family: Scolopacidae

Other common names: Timberdoodle, Labrador Twister, Big-eye, Bog Snipe, Bog Sucker, Night Partridge

I stood at dusk in the middle of a field near the North Fork of the Rockfish River in Nelson County.  The cool, evening air blew gently around me as I listened to the loud chorus of spring peepers coming from a flooded depression to my right. Suddenly, a plump bird flew out of the grass ten feet away from me, it’s body just visible against the fading light of the sky.  The woodcock landed back in the grass behind me, and I heard it give a short, buzzy “peent” call, which it repeated several times before launching itself back into the darkening sky.  I lost track of it for a minute, but then the faint whistling of its wings reached my ears. As it spiraled lower and lower, it began to chirp and twitter in a strangely musical way over the high drone of its wings. 

Distinguishing Features/Description

The American woodcock is a large, primarily brown-colored member of the sandpiper family.  Woodcocks’ backs are covered in an assortment of shades of brown, yellow, gray, and black, making them almost impossible to spot against a background of dry leaves.  Underneath, woodcocks are a more uniform tan color.  Woodcocks have long, pinkish bills, and large dark eyes positioned near the backs of their heads.

In Virginia and throughout the rest of North America, the closest regularly occurring bird in appearance to the American woodcock is the Wilson’s snipe.  Snipe have similar proportions to woodcocks, and like woodcocks, they have a plumage of muted blacks, whites, and tans.  However, snipe forage in water and along mud flats like most other shorebirds, so there is very little habitat overlap with the almost entirely terrestrial woodcock. Snipe also have a very different plumage pattern than woodcocks, with lateral white stripes along the back that woodcocks lack.

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Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata)

There are other species of woodcocks in Europe and Asia, and at least one, the Eurasian woodcock, has occurred as a vagrant to North America.  In fact, according to the Virginia Society of Ornithology, there’s a record from Loudoun County in the Virginia Piedmont from 1873.  In the unlikely event of another Virginia occurrence of Eurasian woodcock, it could be distinguished from American by its larger size and differences in patterning, including a barred chest and belly.

Distribution and Habitat

American woodcocks can be found throughout the eastern United States. They breed from New Brunswick across southern Quebec and Ontario, west to Manitoba and south into the southeastern United States.  Although they breed in the Virginia Piedmont, they’re much easier to see during their migration in February and March when there are many more of them.  In the fall, most woodcocks migrate back south to spend the winter in the Southeast.

During their migration in February and March, woodcocks are found in a variety of brushy habitats, especially fields with nearby young forest. They are not specifically affiliated with any particular plant community, but they are often found displaying over piedmont prairies or foraging in various types of floodplain forests in our region.

Although woodcocks are not often recorded breeding in Virginia — the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas has only confirmed them to be breeding 8 times in the state in the last three years (for comparison, the Wisconsin BBA has confirmed them 186 times in the same amount of time, albeit with considerably more effort) — it is possible that they breed more in Virginia then the numbers show, as they are secretive and well camouflaged.  Breeding woodcocks use similar habitats as transient birds; young forests with nearby open areas.

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American Woodcock in Ohio.

Ecology and Life History

American woodcocks’ diet consists mainly of invertebrates, as well as some seeds.  Interestingly, the majority of the food most woodcocks eat is earthworms.  Other invertebrates they eat include beetles, millipedes, spiders, and snails.

When woodcocks are migrating through the Virginia Piedmont in February and March, they can be seen and heard displaying over almost any field around dusk.  The males sit in the field and make a dry, buzzy, loud “peent” call, repeating it every few seconds before flying up into the air.  As the woodcocks spiral back towards the ground, they chirp, and their wings make a unique whistling sound.

Woodcock nests are a shallow depression in the ground, usually formed out of the already existing leaf litter.  Clutch size ranges from 1-5 but is often 4.  The eggs are about 1.5 inches long and tan, mottled with brown or pink.  The female is solely responsible for incubating the eggs and raising the young. Incubation is between 20 and 22 days. The young are colored black, brown and tan like adult woodcocks, and are independent after about five weeks.

NOTES:

Although the easiest way to see American woodcocks is to observe their flight display in the evenings, it’s nearly impossible to see the intricacies of their plumage at night.  The best local place I know for finding them during the day is the floodplain along the Rivanna River near where the North and South Fork come together, below the neighborhood of Belvedere in Albemarle County.  It takes some work, but if you walk through the floodplain forests and brushy fields along that section of river in March, it’s possible to flush one. My best guess as to why it’s such a reliable spot for them is that it’s ideal woodcock habitat, so there’s a high density of woodcocks, and the area is frequently covered by young birders who know how to find them.  Just a couple weeks ago, a group of young birders, including my brother, found one on the ground, without flushing it.  They were able to watch it for a long time at close range, and my brother Theo even got a video of it.