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.

Birding on the Chesapeake Bay

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT) is a great birding hotspot, with over three hundred species recorded from it.  It’s one of the more reliable places in the state to see white-winged scoter, harlequin duck, common eider, purple sandpiper, razorbill and even Iceland gull.  Since the closure of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel Island One in October 2017, the only way to bird the Tunnel Islands is by boat.  The Williamsburg bird club often charters a large fishing boat and spends the morning out on the bay.  My brother and I were lucky enough to go with them in early February.

We arrived at Lynnhaven Inlet, where the boat was leaving from, five minutes ahead of schedule, and Theo and I walked down the dock to look around while our dad got tickets.  A harlequin duck was diving with a bufflehead next to a nearby boat.  Usually harlequin ducks are only found out by the islands in the middle of the bay, but this bird had been hanging out in the inlet for about a week.  Several cormorants roosted on a rock out in the inlet, and a common goldeneye hunted in the water next to them.

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Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis)

The water was glassy and smooth as we started out into the Bay, with barely a ripple to speak of.  Red-breasted mergansers, surf scoters, and the occasional long-tailed duck flew away from our boat over the water.  Suddenly two small, compact seabirds flew right in front of the bow, beating their wings rapidly.  Razorbills, and some of the closest ones I’d ever seen too!  The winter of 2018/2019 has been a good year for razorbills — an irruptive species — which are much more numerous on the Virginia coast during irruption years than non irruption years.

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Razorbill (Alca torda)

We continued along the Bay Bridge Tunnel into the Bay, stopping around the islands where birds concentrated.  At the first island, more long-tailed ducks, red-breasted mergansers, buffleheads and surf, and white-winged scoters flew past us.  Several lesser black-backed gulls sat on the rocks.  At further islands, the birds were similar, although we added great cormorant, brant and purple sandpiper.

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Brant (Branta bernicla)

I raised my binoculars to look at a large sea-duck under the bridge.  I assumed it would be a surf scoter, but to my surprise it had the long, sloped forehead and distinctive profile of a common eider.  Eiders are one of my favorite ducks, because the summer males are gorgeous.  This was a female, so it was mostly brown, but it was still nice to see as I’d only seen four others in my life.

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Common Eider (Somateria mollissima)

On the way back, people threw bits of fish off the back end of the boat to attract gulls.  Although nothing really rare showed up this year, it was exciting to see gannets diving at the fish pieces close to the boat, along with many lesser black-backed and herring gulls.  Further excitement was provided by the appearance of a humpback whale part way back to Lynnhaven Inlet.  We got to watch the whale’s back slowly sliding through the water, and see the plumes of water it exhaled.  We watched it for a long time — probably a little longer than necessary — before heading back to the harbor.

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Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus)

Winter Bird Irruption

Many species of birds, including raptors, warblers, waterfowl, shorebirds and sparrows migrate twice each year, south in fall, north in spring. Not all birds migrate to the same places each year though. Some birds that breed in the boreal forests of the north come as far south as the Mid-Atlantic states only occasionally, after an absence of several winters. These irregular southward migrations are known as irruptions. Unusually large numbers of several of these “irruptive” species have reached Virginia this winter, including such beautiful birds as purple finches, red-breasted nuthatches, and evening grosbeaks.

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Purple Finch

Other irruptive species include boreal finches, like pine siskin, red and white-winged crossbills, common and hoary redpolls, and pine grosbeaks, as well as certain species of owls and raptors, such as rough-legged hawk, northern goshawk, and snowy owl. Black-capped chickadees also irrupt. These northern species rarely all come south in the same years, but it is not uncommon to have years when multiple species have large coordinated movements.

Irruptive birds move south when there is not enough food to support their populations in the north. The finches, red-breasted nuthatches and black-capped chickadees fly south because of bad conifer cone crops in the boreal forest. Snowy owls, on the other hand, seem to irrupt in years when their prey, lemmings, are particularly abundant. While these irruption triggers appear contradictory, they really are not. In both cases, relative scarcity of prey to predators causes a food shortage. The snowy owl population explodes from the plentiful food to the extent that the lemming population can no longer support them all come winter, so they come south in search of food.

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Pine Siskin. Photo by Drew Chaney.

Irruption is closely tied to a cyclical fluctuation in the seed crops of trees the birds depend on as winter food sources. Birches, alders and conifers in the boreal forests— all important food sources for irruptive songbirds — do not bear equal seed crops every year. “Mast” years when lots of seeds are produced are followed by several years of poor seed production. This appears to be an evolutionary strategy to limit the populations of creatures that eat the trees’ seeds to ensure the maximum possible number of seeds survive. In good seed crop years, seed eaters do well, and their population expands. When the next year’s crop is poor, there’s even less food for each animal than there would have been if the population hadn’t grown the year before, and the population falls. Then, when the next good year comes, there are not enough animals to fully capitalize on the seed crop, and some seeds escape. Oaks, hickories, and beeches in the deciduous forests of the East have similar cyclical fluctuations in seed production.

The winter of 2018-2019 is an irruption year for many species of boreal birds. Red-breasted nuthatches started moving south into Virginia as early as August. I saw my first of the season on August 19th in Sussex County. By September they were abundant throughout the state, with several migrating individuals being observed each day at the Rockfish Gap Hawk-watch in Augusta County. Starting in September and October, the nuthatches were joined by large numbers of purple finches and pine siskins. Numbers of these three species dropped significantly by December, but they remained present throughout the state. Many evening grosbeaks and even a couple of common redpolls have also been found in Virginia this year.

Few of the irruptive finches are as beautifully colored or as interesting as the evening grosbeak. Evening grosbeaks were fairly rare in eastern Canada over 100 years ago. Their population exploded about 60 years ago, which corresponded to a major outbreak of their preferred summer food — the spruce budworm. During the mid to late 20th century, they irrupted in huge numbers, sometimes with hundreds in Virginia at once. Since then, their population in the East has crashed, possibly due to habitat reduction from logging in the boreal forest, increased diseases, or decreased spruce budworm populations. As the evening grosbeak population has declined, they’ve irrupted in smaller numbers. So far, this winter has been relatively great for them though, with many having been seen at feeders around the state.

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Evening Grosbeak

Bird feeders are a particularly good way to see some of the beautiful finches that will be visiting our region this winter. Almost all of them like black-oil sunflower seeds. Pine siskins and redpolls — if we should be lucky enough to have more of them this winter in Virginia — particularly like nyjer or thistle seed. My brother and I recently put up a large platform feeder full of black-oil sunflower seeds in hopes of attracting an evening grosbeak, as they apparently prefer platform feeders to tube feeders. In all probability, we won’t see one on our feeder this winter, but you never know!

Sources

Pittaway R. (2014, September 20). Winter Finch Basics. Retrieved from http://www.jeaniron.ca/2012/winterfinches.htm

Pittaway R. (2018, September 20). Winter Finch Forecast 2018 – 2019. Retrieved from http://jeaniron.ca/2018/wff18.htm

Ehrlich P. R., Dobkin D. S., & Wheye D. (1988). Irruptions. Retrieved from https://web.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Irruptions.html

Shaw D. W. Bird Irruption: A Sudden Surge of Birds. Retrieved from http://www.birdsandblooms.com/birding/birding-basics/bird-irruption-surge/

Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Evening Grosbeak Life History. Retrieved from https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Evening_Grosbeak/lifehistory

Mortensen R. (2012, November 7). Birders Can Contribute to Evening Grosbeak Science Right Now! Retrieved from http://blog.aba.org/2012/11/birders-can-contribute-to-evening-grosbeak-science-right-now.html

Devokaitis M. (2018, November 6). This Could be the Winter You Get Evening Grosbeaks at Your Feeder. Retrieved from https://www.allaboutbirds.org/this-could-be-the-winter-you-get-evening-grosbeaks-at-your-feeder/

Virginia Rarity Roundup 2018

I don’t remember the first time I heard about the Virginia rarity roundup, but I know I had wanted to participate last year.   I couldn’t, because it coincided with the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in South Texas, which I was fortunate enough to attend.  This November, though, I was excited to bird in this annual birding event on Virginia’s coast.

Rarity roundups are events dedicated to finding rare birds.  The first ever rarity roundup was held in coastal Maryland on November 11, 2000.  Since then, many other East Coast states have held rarity roundups in early November, including North Carolina, Maine, and Virginia.  

Todd Day organized the first Virginia rarity roundup in Northampton County in 2002, and continued to do so on and off until 2016, when James Fox and Matt Anthony took over.  The rarity roundup encourages birders to thoroughly survey Northampton County, arguably the best county for birding in the state, during November, which is prime time for vagrant birds.  This sort of organized hunt is unique in that it encourages birders to cover all areas equally, including random roads, fields, and woodlands, which visiting birders usually wouldn’t give much attention to.  Matt Anthony thinks it’s important to emphasize this approach to rarity finding.  As he says, “obviously a rarity can turn up anywhere.”  Matt also particularly appreciates the community aspect of the roundup, trying to involve teams from all over the state and organizing a “tally rally” dinner at the end of the day.  This year, birders traveled from all over Virginia to participate, including teams from Northern Virginia, Charlottesville, Williamsburg, and as far away as Montgomery County.   

Many great rarities have been found over the years during the Virginia rarity roundup, including white-winged dove, western tanager, western kingbird, sandhill crane, ash-throated flycatcher and Harris’s sparrow.  Sparse but regular migrants such as cave swallow, golden eagle, clay-colored sparrow, snow bunting and lark sparrow are also sometimes found.

For the rarity roundup, Northampton County is split up into small territories, each of which is assigned to a team.  My team, Andrew Rapp, Theo Staengl and myself, got the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge territory, which makes up the southeast corner of Northampton County.  

We started at dawn at the end of the furthest south road in our territory — Ramp Road.  To the south and east we looked out through the half light on expanses of salt marsh and scattered islands.  A clapper rail called loudly from a nearby clump of marsh grasses.  Wood ducks and mallards flew overhead.  A northern harrier hunted over the marsh.  

By the time it was light enough to see well, Andrew arrived, and we waded out into the salt marsh in search of sparrows and wrens.  Several species of sparrows inhabit Virginia’s coastal marshes during the winter, primarily Nelson’s, saltmarsh and seaside.  All three of these sparrows have an extremely annoying habit of hiding deep in the marsh grasses where they can’t be seen, then suddenly taking flight only to plop back down under cover.  The difficulty in seeing them combined with the fact that Nelson’s and saltmarsh look rather similar, can make them challenging to identify.  We flushed a couple of sparrows, including a Nelson’s.  We also heard a marsh wren chipping.  When we got back to the parking lot, we saw the first two of the many, many sharp-shinned hawks we would see that day fly overhead.  Further down the road, we plunged back into the marsh, this time with more success.  We managed to herd a little flock of sparrows between the three of us, and get good enough view to confirm that we had two Nelson’s and a saltmarsh.  We even got photos, although they were pretty terrible.  

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Nelson’s Sparrow (Ammodramus nelsoni)

We birded the rest of Ramp Road, slowly making our way up to the main body of the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge.  We had hooded mergansers and lesser scaup on a pond, and flocks of willets and greater yellowlegs flying over the marsh.  Once we got up into a more forested area, we heard red-breasted and brown-headed nuthatches, as well as a house wren and several gray catbirds. 

We drove slowly along Hallett Circle, the main road of the Refuge, listening for bird activity.  The vegetation around us was dense and scrubby, perfect habitat for all manner of songbirds, including — we hoped — rare flycatchers like western kingbird or ash-throated flycatcher.  We stopped and got out of the car when we encountered a large flock of yellow-rumped warblers.  A gray catbird, brown thrasher, winter wren and palm warbler were all we could find mixed in.  Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks continued to migrate overhead in large numbers.  One was almost always visible in the sky.  We also saw several migrant red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks.  On the butterfly trail, we had our first unusual birds of the day, a blackpoll warbler and a white-eyed vireo.  Both of these are just late migrants, not the really rare birds that the roundup was targeting, but still very interesting finds.  We watched them forage with palm and yellow-rumped warblers in fennel stalks for some time before continuing on.

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Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens)

We slowly birded our way up to the visitor center without anything else particularly notable.  Near the visitor center we encountered a small flock of field sparrows, chipping sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, but we couldn’t find anything else mixed in.  We were working our way through a song sparrow flock in front of the visitor center when Andrew said with excitement in his voice that he had an ash-throated flycatcher.  Sure enough, just 30 feet away in the bottom of a tree sat the ash-throated.  Andrew sent out a text alerting other birders participating in the rarity roundup to its presence, and we set about trying to keep the bird in sight until some of them arrived.  Many of the birders that soon arrived did get to see the bird, although some did not, as it disappeared into a thicket of dense brush.  I don’t think it was seen again after that.  A migrating peregrine falcon and merlin added a few more species to our day list before we decided to leave for the next part of our territory.

We drove down the dirt road to Magothy Bay Natural Area Preserve through fields of corn stubble.  We heard an American pipit calling as it flew over us, and we flushed some savannah sparrows from beside the road.  We saw gadwall and a large flock of green-winged teal on Bull’s pond, as well as greater yellowlegs and a pectoral sandpiper. Then we started down a mowed path through a pine forest.  Eventually, the path opened up with lots of brush and trees on one side and marsh on the other.  At the end of the trail we had a good view of the bay, and we set to scanning with our scopes.  We could see hundreds of birds huddled on the beach of a distant barrier island, but they were too far to make out anything but a group of oystercatchers among them.  Two horned grebes dove in a channel in the marsh closer to us.  Common loons, buffleheads and a surf scoter could be seen bobbing on the water in the distance.  Flocks of dunlin flew by.  

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Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum)

Our final stop in our territory was Mockhorn Island Wildlife Management Area.  We followed Jones Cove Drive almost to its end, where there is a little parking lot for the WMA.  When we got out of the car we were immediately aware of sparrows everywhere, hopping and flying around in the dense brush on either side of the road.  We scanned them thoroughly, but unfortunately, we didn’t find anything unusual.  They were mostly white-throated, with some chipping, savannah and song sparrows as well as dark-eyed juncos and eastern towhees.  We found a group of hermit thrushes, and were extremely surprised to see an extremely late Swainson’s mixed in with them.  We began to walk down the trail away from the parking lot, where we had red-breasted nuthatch, winter wren and brown creeper.  We also heard but did not see a flock of tundra swans flying overhead.  We were several minutes down the trail when Andrew got a text that a Sandhill Crane had been seen flying north from the preserve immediately to our south — Magothy Bay.  We rushed to an area where we could see the sky, but we could not spot the crane.  Andrew received another text saying that the bird was flying low and would likely land in a field somewhere nearby.  As we were driving away from Mockhorn we got another text saying someone had seen two American white pelicans flying north from south of us.  We got out of the car next to a field and set up our scopes to look for them flying overhead.  After several minutes and another text saying they’d been seen to the north of us, we realized we’d somehow missed them, and were getting ready to leave when my dad called that he saw the crane.  This seemed a little too coincidental to be true,  but he pointed out the big gray lump that was the cranes back.  The field that we had chosen completely randomly for looking for the white pelicans turned out to be the same one that the crane decided to spend the night in!  

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Sunset by Theo Staengl

All the participating birders met at a local brewery for dinner and a “tally rally,” where we tallied all the birds that everyone had seen during the day.  I don’t remember exactly what the total number was, but it was over 150 species.  While I would always enjoy birding on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, it was particularly satisfying to know that every bit of Northampton County was covered by capable birders.  At the end of the day, I may not have gotten to see every single rare bird that was found, but someone did, and I doubt very much that many got away unobserved.  This group effort and thorough coverage is important to making Virginia’s rarity roundup a special birding event.  

Special thanks to Matt Anthony for providing me with information about the history and organization of the rarity roundup.  

Blue Ridge Young Birders Club Field Trip to Rockfish Valley Trail Fall 2018

On October 14th I lead a trip for the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club to the Rockfish Valley Trail, a local birding hotspot in Nelson County.  I had high hopes for the trip, as the Rockfish Valley Trail tends to be a very productive place for finding uncommon and rare migrants in the fall, with Philadelphia vireo and Lincoln’s sparrows often present.  Only a few weeks previously I’d had one of the best mornings of birding in my life there, finding Philadelphia vireo and blue-winged, Connecticut and mourning warblers.  Around this time of year last year, my brother and I had two marsh wrens.  Six young birders attended the trip.

We walked under Route 151, doing our best to avoid getting our feet wet in the water overflowing from the South Fork of the Rockfish River.  The day was cool and cloudy but not unpleasantly so.  We encountered a large flock of song sparrows in a dense tangle of pokeweed and began scanning them for Lincoln’s.   We didn’t find any Lincoln’s in that flock but saw a few swamp sparrows.  As we were walking along a mowed path through a dense, brushy field, a tiny, bright yellow bird dropped out of a tree and into the grass.  Curious about what this could be so late in the year, we went to investigate.  The bird popped up onto a low branch of a black walnut tree for a few seconds, and I saw it was a Wilson’s warbler.

We continued around the loop towards the back of the field, where we encountered more sparrows.  I put my binoculars up to one and saw that it had a yellowish malar, gray supercilium and a yellowish breast covered in super fine, dark streaks — a Lincoln’s sparrow.  I think everyone got on the bird, although it soon hopped back down into the brush.

A flock of purple finches flew over and landed in the branches of a leafless oak.  We soon began hearing more purple finch calls, and several other flocks joined the first.  By the end of the day we counted 34 in small flyover and foraging flocks.  It was still early in the year for purple finches and seeing them in these numbers was encouraging for a good winter for them in our area.

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Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus)

As we rounded the bend in the path a flock of birds flew up into a tree.  One appeared to be a Catharus thrush, which my brother got on and said looked like a gray-cheeked.  We slowly crept to the other side of the tree so as not to scare the thrush again and saw that it was indeed a gray-cheeked thrush.  We re-found the Wilson’s warbler and a late Eastern wood-pewee nearby.

Once we got back to the top of the loop where we first saw the Wilson’s warbler, we paused for a bit to listen.  I heard a yellowthroat chipping in a large patch of common mugwort, so I went to investigate.  I found the yellowthroat and a couple of palm warblers, and I was just about to return to the group when Baxter called that he thought he had a Connecticut warbler.  The group assembled behind him and we slowly advanced towards the bird, which was entirely obscured by the dense mugwort.  I got a brief glimpse of the bird through the vegetation and saw a large warbler with a pale gray hood and a thin eye ring.  Suddenly the bird lifted off and flew to the end of the mugwort patch, followed a second later by a similar looking bird.  There were two of them!  Chaos ensued as everyone tried to see the birds while we debated their ID’s.  Eventually we cornered the two birds in a corner of the mugwort patch, and everyone got a decent look.  Their eye rings, although fairly extensive, were not complete, making them mourning warblers, not Connecticuts.  Finding two of them was still extremely exciting, and it was a Nelson County high count.  We photographed a beautiful blue-headed vireo in a willow along the river on our way back towards the cars.

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Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius).  Photo by Baxter Beamer.

The next location for the trip was State Route 610, a quiet mountain road that can sometimes have good migrants.  When we arrived the area was totally quiet.  We had to walk down the road for five minutes before we even heard a bird, which was a pileated woodpecker.  I did not give up hope, as I’d birded up here many times before when it first appeared very slow but then incredible bird activity occurred in explosive bursts.  Sure enough, a few minutes later the forest suddenly rang with a cacophony of warbler chips, and birds could be seen moving in every tree.  The vast majority of the warblers were blackpoll, but we also found several other species including Tennessee, Cape May, bay-breasted, pine and black-throated green.  Kinglets were also present in high numbers — we had fifteen golden-crowned and five ruby-crowned on a small stretch of road.  I spotted a red-eyed vireo, which was beginning to get late, as well as another blue-headed vireo.

Rockfish Valley Trail and State Route 610 did not let us down!

Creature Feature: Common Buckeye

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Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)

Common Buckeye

Junonia coenia

Family: Nymphalidae

Distinguishing Features/Description

Common buckeyes are medium sized, brightly colored and strikingly patterned butterflies.  Each of the buckeye’s four wings have two dark colored eye spots circled in a thin band of yellow.  The eye spots are positioned along the edges of the wings, and the two central ones on each side of the body are the largest.  The large eye spots on the forewings are surrounded by a thick white band, the shape and color of which are important identification features for separating this species from the other two North American buckeyes.  The leading edges of the forewings between the body and these white patches are brown, interrupted by two orange to red vertical lines parallel to the body.  The hindwings are mostly brown around the eye spots, with orange and yellow bands on the trailing edges.  The underside of the forewings is similar to the upperside, while the underside of the hindwings is much duller, with smaller less colorful eye spots and less patterning.  In the fall you might see common buckeyes “Rosa” form, with much brighter, pinkish hindwings.

The common buckeye is named after the resemblance of its eye spots to the eyes of male deer (bucks).  Interestingly, Native Americans named the buckeye trees with an indigenous word meaning buck eye, due to the nuts’ resemblance to bucks’ eyes, but there is no other apparent connection between the tree and the butterfly.

Common buckeye is the only buckeye in Virginia, so it is difficult to confuse with other butterflies in the state.  Two other buckeye species do live in the United States however, the mangrove buckeye in Florida and the tropical buckeye in Florida, Texas and the Southwest.  Both other buckeye species are duller, with smaller eye spots and not as bright colors compared to common.  Mangrove buckeye has orange instead of white bands on the forewings, which are bordered on the inside by black.  Tropical buckeye has very thin pinkish bands on the forewings and is much darker than common in general. 

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Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)

Distribution and Habitat

Common buckeyes can be found throughout the southern United States year-round, but their range extends up to southern Canada in the summer months.  They are absent from much of the west, including Montana, Idaho and the surrounding states.  They are also present in Mexico and some of the Caribbean.

In Virginia common buckeyes can be found in a variety of open sunny habitats throughout the state.  They are present in many disturbed habitats, such as roadsides and pastures, as well as the many types of natural grasslands in the state, such as woodlands, savannas and prairies.  Common buckeyes can be found anywhere their generally prairie affiliated host plants can be found.

Ecology

Caterpillars are generalists on a wide variety of herbaceous plants, including plantain and wild-petunia.  Adults feed on nectar from a variety of plants, but the Asteraceae seems to be a favorite family.

On September 26th, 2018 CUH surveyed a piedmont prairie growing in a powerline right of way in Albemarle County.  We observed common buckeye caterpillars feeding on Agalinis purpurea (purple false foxglove), and adults in great numbers on Euthamia graminifolia (common flat-topped goldenrod).  The flat-topped goldenrod was growing in a large patch in the middle of a large and exceptionally biodiverse piedmont prairie remnant in a high-tension powerline right of way.  It was in the peak of its bloom, and the flat clouds of yellow flowers stood out from the surrounding broomsedge and other prairie grasses. Butterflies, moths and other insects including fiery skippers and swarms of common buckeyes fed from the flowers. Almost every flat-topped goldenrod flower had several buckeyes on it, the eye spots on their wings reflecting the sunlight in a dazzling array of iridescent colors.

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Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) on Common Flat-topped Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)

The scene above illustrates a couple of ecological relationships between the Piedmont prairie plant community and the common buckeye.  Many possible host plants for the buckeye grow in the prairie, including wild petunia and purple false foxglove, the latter of which we directly observed the buckeye caterpillar eating.  The prairie is also full of good nectar plants for migrating and resident adult butterflies, with the flat-topped goldenrod stealing the show in this scene.  The buckeyes, like other insects that feed on nectar, are inadvertently pollinating the plants they are feeding on.

Although we did not observe any predation of adults or caterpillars, they undoubtable serve as food sources for birds and predatory insects living in the powerline right-of-way.  The caterpillars are covered with thick dark spines, possibly serving as a physical defense from such predation, and of course the adult butterflies have the brightly colored eye-spots, which may serve as a distraction to predators.

Like the famous monarch, common buckeyes are at least partially migratory, with the first brood in the south of their range moving up into the northern US and southern Canada in the spring.  Different individuals fly back south in the fall, causing a peak in the numbers of common buckeyes in Virginia during their migration period.  Common buckeyes fly in Virginia roughly from May to October, with pupae surviving the winter.  They fly all year in the deep south but only briefly and sporadically in the northern part of their range during summer.

Shearwater Journeys Pelagic Birding Trip on Monterey Bay

I stood along the railing of a large fishing boat, a strong, cold wind blowing on my face.  The water of Monterey Bay was choppy and dark beneath a cloudy sky.  Thousands of sooty shearwaters flew by both sides of the boat in long lines, flapping hard and fast low over the ocean and then soaring up above the horizon in arcing, stiff-winged glides.  Two common murres flushed off the water in front of our boat, flying straight away from us over the waves.

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Sooty Shearwater taking off.

Going on a Shearwater Journeys pelagic birding trip in Monterey Bay had been a dream of mine ever since my dad read The Big Year by Mark Obmascik out loud to my brother and I a few years ago.  The Big Year is a goofy book that follows three birders competing in a North American Birding Big Year.  One of the characters in The Big Year, a very competitive and stubborn birder named Sandy Komito, decided to do a pelagic birding trip with Debbi Shearwater of Shearwater Journeys.  Sandy Komito enjoyed the trip until he realized that the boat was “wasting” valuable birding time looking at whales when he could’ve been adding birds to his year list.  He went to the trips leader, Debbi Shearwater, and demanded that they keep moving.  She denied him.  He then went around the boat and asked every person whether they were there to see birds or whales.  He confronted Debi again, informing her that 47 out of the 50 people on the boat were there to see birds, not whales.  Debi — who did not move the boat for him — disliked his rude behavior so much that she gave a free trip to one of Sandy’s big year opponents.  My brother and I laughed our heads off at this exchange.

Although pelagic birds could theoretically be found almost anywhere over the ocean, they concentrate around spots with lots of food, like Monterey Bay.  Under the water of the Bay lies a huge submarine canyon which brings cold, nutrient rich water close to shore that forms the base of the Bay’s rich food web.  Tens of thousands of migratory seabirds use the bay as a staging location during their long migrations, and some species like tufted puffin and ashy storm-petrel breed on nearby islands.

So there we were, four years after I’d first heard about the wonders of Monterey’s seabirds, on a boat with Debi Shearwater herself.

After exiting the harbor we traveled along the edge of a kelp forest.  Flocks of elegant terns flew over, their rattling calls filling the foggy air.  Great egrets and great blue herons hunted from atop the kelp mats.  A peregrine falcon alighted on a tall cell tower just barely visible through the fog.  Parasitic jaegers harassed gulls into giving up their meals, periodically flying over the boat.

As we turned away from the kelp beds and headed out into open water, someone spotted a gigantic ocean sunfish drifting near the surface of the ocean.  The sunfish was bizarrely shaped, seemingly nothing but a large chunk of fish flesh with a weird fin that was feebly moving back and fourth above it.  The ocean sunfish or mola mola is the heaviest bony fish in the world, sometimes weighing more than a ton.  This one was several feet thick.  The boat pulled up for a closer look, and we saw that the sunfish was actually being torn apart by sea lions and western gulls.  The sea lions dove at the sunfish in a swirl of motion and emerged with their mouths full of chunks of bloody meat.  The western gulls picked off the bits and pieces that fell out of the sea lions’ mouths.  It was sad to see such an awesome creature being eaten — especially when it was apparently still alive — but it was fascinating to see all the feeding activity around it.  We soon saw a few more, much smaller but healthy sunfish.

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Western Gull with Pelagic Red Crab.  Photo by Theo Staengl.

Suddenly I heard Debi yelling something in an excited voice.  I looked around, worried that I was missing a bird.  She repeated herself, and I realized she was talking about the pelagic red crabs that a couple of western gulls were happily munching on.  One of the guides standing next to us remarked that “Debi can be a little excitable.”  Debi was saying that it was unusual to see such large numbers of the red crabs in the bay except during years with unusually warm water, when they move up the California coast.  I remembered seeing swarms of similar looking red crabs in the Channel Islands National Park near Los Angeles two years earlier, so this was interesting information.

A leader began throwing pieces of anchovies out of the boat, which soon attracted a hungry swarm of western gulls.  Northern fulmars flew past the boat, occasionally dropping into the wake for a piece of anchovy.  Someone yelled “pink footed shearwater!”  I ran to the back of the boat and looked behind us at a large, slow-flapping shearwater with a white belly speeding towards us on bowed wings.  At least one pink-footed shearwater followed the boat for the rest of the day, sometimes dropping so far behind us as to be barely visible, and then with a few flaps and subtle adjustments of its wings speeding up the wake to right behind the boat.

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Pink-footed Shearwater

We continued our progress out into the bay, carefully scanning the sooty shearwaters for other shearwater species.  We found a black-vented shearwater, slightly early in Monterey Bay.  This was one of the few pelagic birds I had already seen, as they were the abundant shearwater in the Channel Islands when I visited.  A Buller’s shearwater made a brief appearance in the in the chum slick, and I barely saw the bird’s bright white underside.  Unfortunately it was the only one we saw all day, so I never got a better look. Our boat flushed common murres and rhinoceros and Cassin’s auklets every so often, as well as small flocks of red-necked and a few red phalaropes.

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Black-footed Albatross

I began to wonder if we would see albatrosses on the trip.  I was pretty sure they were still supposed to be reliable in early September, but I was getting worried since we hadn’t seen one yet.  I needn’t have feared.  A few minutes later, a large, dark seabird appeared on the horizon and began moving towards us.  The black-footed albatrosses flight was graceful and even seemingly effortless.  When one landed in the wake right behind the boat, we got a good size comparison with western gulls.  The black-footed albatross looked double the size, and many times the weight.  And they’re supposed to be a small species of albatross!

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Black-footed Albatross

We arrived back at the harbor around 3:00 pm, exhausted from the wind and motion of the boat but thrilled with the birding experience.  I got 12 life birds, which hasn’t happened in the United States for a long time.  I also learned a ton about west coast pelagic birds and their identification, and got to see some amazing birds like the black-footed albatross.  Debi Shearwater is retiring next year, so I would highly recommend anybody who’s interested to sign up for a trip with her while you still can.

 

 

Shorebird Habitat Conservation on the Eastern Shore of Virginia

Some of my favorite birding areas in the entire state of Virginia are on the coast: Virginia Beach and Northampton and Accomack Counties on the Eastern Shore.  Back Bay NWR, Pleasure House Point, Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR, Magothy Bay Natural Area Preserve, Kiptopeke State Park and Chincoteague NWR are some of the best spots.  My friends and I have done a January Eastern Shore and Virginia Beach birding trip for the last two years, and both times it’s been one of the highlights of my winter.  Another annual birding event that takes place in the region is the Kiptopeke Challenge (KC), which my friend Tucker, my brother and I participated in last year.  The Kiptopeke Challenge is a birding big day that takes place in the Coastal Plain of VA in the height of fall migration and also serves as an important fund raiser for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory (CVWO).

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The ruddy Tturnstone (Arenaria interpres), our Kiptopeke Challenge team mascot.

This year — on September 22nd — Tucker and I are excited to be doing the Kiptopeke Challenge as Team Turnstone for the second year in a row.  Not only does the KC offer fantastic birding, but I’m also happy to be raising money for the CVWO because their mission is important to me. The CVWO’s mission is “protecting wildlife through field research, education, and habitat conservation.”  Some of their more well-known research programs include the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch and Baywatch — a survey of migrating water birds, including raptors, gulls and terns, waterfowl and shorebirds.  They also conduct regular shorebird surveys at Craney Island in Portsmouth and Grandview Beach Nature Preserve in Hampton.

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Sanderling (Calidris alba)

The CVWO’s research, education and conservation projects benefit one of my favorite kinds of birds.  Shorebirds are not only very beautiful and diverse, but also perform awe-inspiring migrations twice each year.  They often sport beautiful plumages, from the stunning plumes of breeding male ruffs to the subtler but still striking buffy orange color of a non-breeding marbled godwit or buff-breasted sandpiper.  They also come in many different sizes, from the tiny least sandpiper up to humongous curlews, godwits and oystercatchers. Many species of shorebirds fly incredibly long distances each spring and fall, some moving from breeding grounds in the Arctic all the way to South America.  The greater yellowlegs, for instance, breeds in Canada and winters as far south as Argentina and Chile.

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Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca)

Shorebird habitat conservation is critically important. Shorebirds need places they can safely stop to rest and refuel during their migrations.  Lower Northampton County on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is one such stopover location where birds rest before making the potentially dangerous crossing of the Chessapeake Bay.   Further, as CVWO states on their webpage, the area, “represents a significant stopover bottleneck for millions of landbirds migrating along the Atlantic Coast [with habitats] essential to their survival.”  Preserving coastal habitats not only helps birds but is also important for a resilient coastline, protecting against severe weather and flooding.

Please help CVWO continue its important research and conservation efforts and support our KC team, Team Turnstone, by donating here. All money raised will go directly to the CVWO.  If you can’t donate, please share this post.  Thank you!

The Blackbirds of Moonglow Dairy

We drove into Moonglow Dairy on a dusty dirt road, scanning for blackbird flocks.   We passed muddy cattle pens with little grass or other vegetation and looming heaps of compost.  Even the leaves of the distant eucalyptus grove were brown with dust.  Completing the picture, black phoebes hunted from the tops of leafless bushes.  When we stepped out of the car, our faces contorted as we smelled hundreds of cows at close range.  Cows stood in lines behind their food troughs, eating through piles and piles of slimy vegetables — which did not smell so great either.  Flies swarmed in thick clouds around the cows and their rotting food, doing nothing to improve the atmosphere.

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Cattle Pens at Moonglow Dairy.  Photo by Theo Staengl

We were at this stinky cow farm to see a bird, specifically the tricolored blackbird.  They have a fairly small range, mostly in California — making them an attractive target for birders from the east coast — although they also have scattered breeding colonies in Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Baja California.  Tricolored blackbirds breed in large communal colonies in fresh water cattail marshes, but they seem to gravitate to more artificial habitats for foraging, such as fields and cattle pens in their range.

Tricolored blackbirds look very similar to a much more widespread species, red-winged blackbirds. Males of both species are medium sized, glossy black and have a red patch on the shoulder bordered by a light-colored stripe.  Females are streaked brown and white.  The only field mark our field guide gave to separate males of the two species was that on tricolored blackbirds, the light line was supposed to be white, while on red-winged blackbirds it was supposed to be yellow.  The book did warn that the shoulder patches of freshly molted or molting male tricolored blackbirds could look more yellowish though.  Not much to go off, as we soon realized.

We got our birding stuff and braved the foul air and flies, walking slowly up the road.  We saw a few blackbirds, but they were mostly hidden from view by small hills.  Most of the ones we could see clearly were Brewer’s, although there were some with thick yellow stripes on their shoulders.  As far as we knew, tricolored blackbirds should have white next to the red on their shoulders, so we decided that the birds we saw with the thick, yellow stripe must be red-winged rather than tricolored.  Even so, I was pretty sure I had never seen a red-winged blackbird with this much yellow on the wing and so little red.  Could it be a plumage I didn’t see often, such as that of an immature male? Just as we were coming to this conclusion, a huge mass of blackbirds lifted off from behind a distant barn and descended into the cattle pen in front of us, totally swamping the few birds we had been struggling to see before.  Of the hundreds of birds now present, almost all had the thick yellow stripe, while a few had a massive red patch and almost no lighter color at all. Surely all these birds couldn’t be immature male redwings.  We decided that the tricolored and red-winged blackbirds must be distinguishable from each other based on the relative whiteness of the “yellow” stripe rather than on a clear categorical difference.

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A tiny portion of the huge flock of blackbirds.  Photo by Theo Staengl

At that point our search became farcical.  My brother Theo started pointing out birds with light colored stripes that he thought were whiter than those on the birds surrounding them.   Unfortunately, I could see no decisive difference between the birds he claimed were tricolored and the birds that looked exactly the same to me, that we agreed were red-wings, sitting right next to them.   He pointed out bird after bird with supposedly whiter wing stripes.  Even the act of finding his birds amidst the mass of feeding blackbirds was a struggle.  He would zoom our scope in to its maximum distance and attempt to convey the location of the bird he wanted me to look at with land marks as unpredictable as which way the fattest pigeon in the scope view was facing. Inevitably, just as I thought I had found the right bird, the entire scope field would be taken up by the curious head of a cow.

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Tricolored blackbirds, European starlings and rock pigeons feeding under a cow.  Photo by Theo Staengl

Theo grew impatient with my inability to see the birds with obviously whiter stripes and I grew more and more frustrated.  To make matters worse, my parents, who sometimes still cannot identify a bird as striking as a pelican in flight, chimed in that they too saw birds with whiter stripes than others.  What the heck was going on?  Was I suddenly color blind?  I didn’t think so, but it was hard to rule out the possibility.  I know it’s silly, but I particularly can’t stand my little brother getting a bird that I miss.  It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it hurts.  He saw a bananaquit in Florida, for instance, while I was scanning the wrong bush for it.  The bird spent half a second in the bush Theo was watching, and then disappeared, never to return.

We continued our search for the now seemingly mythical white stripe blackbirds for about three hours before we gave up and walked dejectedly down onto the trail that went around the nearby pond next to Elkhorn Slough.  A pectoral sandpiper and several semipalmated plovers foraged in what I thought looked suspiciously like watery decomposing cow manure.  A cinnamon teal flew by.

We ran into an older English birder who said he had been coming to Moonglow for years.  He said the tricolored blackbirds were molting, which was why the feathers looked yellow instead of white.  All the red-winged blackbirds he had seen at Moonglow had been of the California bicolored group, so they had almost no color other than red on their wings.  Therefore, they were even easier to distinguish from the tricolored blackbirds than the more eastern group of red-winged blackbirds would be.

The heavens opened and I heard the angelic chorus sing.

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Tricolored blackbird in a relaxed posture.  When these birds were feeding I hardly ever saw any red on the shoulder.

We got our life bird tricolored blackbird, but more importantly, I was able to leave feeling that I had learned and now understood the identification of North American Agelaius blackbirds at a deeper level.  Clearly, size of the light color on the shoulder is a much better field mark for separating male red-winged and tricolored blackbirds than color.  Even if the red-winged blackbirds at that particular location had been of the more eastern “tricolored” group, they still wouldn’t have had as thick a light stripe as the tricolored blackbirds did.  We did not escape Moonglow unscathed, however, our rental car — newly christened the Mobile Cow Pie — smelled like a dairy for the rest of our vacation, and when we returned it at the airport it was the dirtiest car in the garage by a large margin.  Oh well, some things are worth a little dirt.