Bird Finding in Virginia: Rockfish Valley Trail

Note about this post: On past birding trips I have found bird finding guides extremely helpful.  Written by people familiar with local hotspots, these books give the sort of tips and tricks for birding a location that can take many visits to figure out for oneself.  Since there is no recently updated bird finding guide to Virginia, I have decided to make an online version through writing posts like this.  I will try to publish a new one every week.  Soon I will add a page on this blog with links to all the bird finding in Virginia posts that have been published so far.  Some of my friends from the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club have agreed to help me on this project.  Welcome Baxter Beamer, Tucker Beamer, Max Nootbaar, Ira Lianez and Drew Chaney to the birdsandbuds team!  We will stick to our local area for now, as that is where we are most familiar with the birding locations, but I would like to make this a statewide project.  If anyone reading this (especially in other parts of the state) would like to contribute articles like the one below, please send me an email.

 

Just past the town of Nellysford on the Rockfish Valley Highway (151), the Rockfish Valley Trail (RVT) is currently the most birded eBird hotspot in Nelson County.  Although there are certainly other locations in Nelson waiting to be discovered by birders, the RVT will remain one of the classics.  Driving 151 South, the Rockfish Valley Trail parking lot is on your right immediately after Horizon Village Road and the Bold Rock Cidery.

The Rockfish Valley Trail traverses cow pastures, overgrown fields and floodplain forests.  Sections of the trail run along both the South Fork of the Rockfish River and Reid’s Creek.

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Section of the Glenthorne Loop Trail.

From the parking lot, the Rockfish Valley Trail runs east and west along the South Fork of the Rockfish River.  Although both sides are good, I find that the eastern side — known as the Glenthorne Loop Trail — is usually more productive, especially for sparrows in the fall. To get to the Glenthorne Loop Trail from the RVT parking lot, go under the bridge beneath 151. On the other side of the bridge you will see a large cow pasture to your right and a row of densely planted cedars to your left.  Walk down the path between the cedars and the field, watching for eastern meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows in the field.  Once the cedars stop, the path splits off in two directions and crosses an extremely brushy field.  During the spring and summer, the willows along the river here are a good place to see orchard orioles, eastern kingbirds and sometimes yellow warblers.  In previous Octobers this field has been an amazing spot for sparrows, with large numbers of Lincoln’s and swamp present.  I also had two marsh wrens here last October.

The trails eventually meet back up to form the beginning of Glenthorne Loop in front of Reid’s Creek, and from there you can either cross the creek on a bridge into another large field, or continue on the RVT side.  This area, behind the brushy field, is a great place for fall warblers.  I’ve had multiple blackburnian, blackpoll, bay-breasted and black-throated-green warblers in the early successional forests that border the path here.  This is also a great area for olive-sided flycatcher in the fall, although the tree they used to perch on has fallen down.  The trail goes back into the woods before coming out next to the cow pasture again, now following Reid’s Creek to the south, and I’ve never found it worth continuing at that point.  Other than more grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks, white-eyed vireos and the occasional warbler, there usually aren’t many new birds there, so I turn around and bird the west side.

If you don’t cross under 151 and instead follow the trail west from the parking lot, you’ll walk in between a large field and a small riparian corridor along the river.  Extensive jewelweed patches grow next to the river here, and people often have mourning warblers in them during late August.  As you walk this section of trail, scan exposed perches for flycatchers.  Many species of Empidonax flycatchers can be found in the fall, including willow, least, yellow-bellied and probably alder.  Olive-sided flycatchers are also annual.  In the fall, watch for warbling and Philadelphia Vireos in the willows.  The trail extends for about a mile before you have to turn around.

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Philadelphia Vireo

Good birds seen at the Rockfish Valley Trail include: Olive-sided flycatcher, yellow-bellied flycatcher, least flycatcher, Trail’s flycatcher sp., northern waterthrush, mourning warbler, Connecticut warbler, blackburnian warbler, Wilson’s warbler, blue-winged warbler, black-billed cuckoo, warbling vireo, Philadelphia Vireo, gray-cheeked thrush, Lincoln’s sparrow, marsh wren, dickcissel and bobolink.

The Rockfish Valley Trail is a great place to bird any time of year, but especially in migration.  In my opinion September and October are the best months to bird the RVT, as that is when most of the warblers, flycatchers and sparrows are coming through.  I hope I’ve inspired you to come out to Nelson County to do some birding!

Exploring the Millboro Shale Formation: A Treasure Hunt for Endemic Plants

I had been wanting to make a trip to Bath County to explore shale-barrens for a couple of years, so I was very excited to finally be visiting one.  Drew and I climbed up a steep slope, trying not to dig our feet into the loose shale too much, towards the light green of the herb layer ahead.  The canopy opened up around us as we neared the top of the mountain.  The only trees in site were gnarled old eastern redcedars growing out of the rocky ground, and the occasional chestnut oak, northern red oak or Virginia pine.  Large rock outcroppings pierced the shaley ground, covered in blunt-lobed woodsia and rock spikemoss.  Would we find what we were looking for?

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Shale-barren in Bath County.  Note the shale-barren wild buckwheat (the big fuzzy leaves and stalks growing on the center of the big rock).

Shale-barrens occur on hot, dry, south facing slopes in the Mid-Atlantic states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia.  They are characterized by shaley soils, with many small pieces of broken up shale on the surface of the ground.  Shale-barrens are too dry for most tree species to grow, leading to a very sparse, open canopy.  However, many species of herbaceous plants are specifically adapted to shale-barrens, growing in no other habitats.  These shale-barren endemics are confined by the small range of their habitat, so many of them have relatively few populations, making them vulnerable to extinction.

Two of the shale-barren endemics I was most excited about seeing were the white-haired and Millboro Leatherflowers (Clematis albicoma and C. viticaulis respectively).  Both occur only on shale-barrens, C. albicoma only in Virginia and adjacent West Virginia, and C. viticaulis only in Bath, Augusta and Rockbridge Counties in Virginia.  They are both small, semi-woody plants.  They have opposite rounded leaves, beautiful drooping flowers and incredible spiraled seed-heads.

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Clematis albicoma seed-head in its full glory.

On our drive out, we had watched the road bank for interesting flowers on the long, winding road in Bath County.  Suddenly a splash of pink appeared, perhaps a phlox of some type?  We marked the spot in our memory so we could check it out on the way back.  We passed several places where the road banks were covered in loose shale flakes, telling us we were now on a shale formation.

Once we emerged from the forest onto the shale barren, we began to look around for the white-haired leatherflower, and I soon spotted a large clump growing on a nearby rock.  We were disappointed to find it had already flowered, but its elegant spiraled seeds made up for it.

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White-haired Leatherflower (Clematis albicoma)

As we were photographing the white-haired leatherflower, I noticed several clumps of Kate’s mountain clover growing on the rock above it.  Kate’s mountain clover (Trifolium virginicum) is endemic to rock outcrops in the Mid-Atlantic states, but unlike many other shale-barren plants, it can grow on types of rock other than shale.  For instance, at a site in Loudoun County that I wrote about earlier this year, it grows on a diabase outcropping.

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Kate’s Mountain Clover (Trifolium virginicum)

We continued to carefully pick our way through the barren, pausing here and there to examine plants.  Large mats of shale-barren pussytoes (Antennaria virginica) grew everywhere — sometimes we had to work hard to avoid stepping on them.  Clumps of shale-barren wild buckwheat (Eriogonum allenii) were also abundant; their large, leathery leaves stood out against the wiry leaves of the pussytoes.  The brilliant purple and yellow flowers of downy wood mint and Maryland hawkweed added the occasional splash of color to the scene.  I examined one of the large rocks closely, finding maidenhair spleenwort and moss phlox mixed in with the blunt-lobed woodsia and thick mats of rock spikemoss.

All too soon it was time to go, as we had one more important stop planned.  As we drove back down the road, we kept our eyes out for the mystery phlox we’d seen on the way in.  Suddenly a flash of bright pink appeared on the road bank.  We scrambled out to take a look.  This plant had brilliant pink, five-petaled flowers and super narrow, lance-shaped leaves.  A quick look at the key in the Flora of Virginia confirmed our suspicions: this was the state rare sword-leaved phlox (Phlox buckleyi), an endemic of shale woodlands.

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Sword-leaved Phlox (Phlox buckleyi)

Our final stop of the day was another road bank, also in Bath County.  This stop was the site for Millboro leatherflower, one of the rarest plants we could see that day.  We hoped it would sill be blooming, as its seeds are not nearly as beautiful as white-haired leatherflower, in my opinion.  We turned onto the road and began slowly driving up it, scanning the shaley banks on either side for leatherflowers.  We were getting close to the end of the road when Drew spotted the first one.  We leapt out of the car and ran over to check it out.  It was still blooming, its drooping, purple, tube-shaped flowers in pristine condition.  Soon we found several more nearby.

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Millboro leatherflower (Clematis viticaulis)

The Millboro leatherflowers were growing right out of the shale flakes with common wild quinine and New Jersey tea.  The leatherflowers were so close to the roadside that it looked like one bad land slide was all that it would take to destroy the population.  I wondered how many other sites for this rare and beautiful flower there could be given its very specific habitat requirements and its tiny, three county range.  They seemed to be thriving on that road bank despite conditions too harsh for many other plants.  Hopefully they will continue to do well…

 

Nelson County Big Day

Big days are an old birding tradition.  During a birding big day, individuals or teams compete with each-other as they try to see the most species in a given 24 hour period.  Often big days are used by conservation organizations as fundraisers, like the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory’s (CVWO) Kiptopeke Challenge.  Teams collect pledges for the CVWO for every species that they see during the big day.  I participated in last year’s Kiptopeke Challenge, and my team, Team Turnstone, raised over $400.  Other members of the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club (BRYBC) and I enjoyed the Kiptopeke Challenge so much that we decided to do our own big day, as a fundraiser for our club.

Since I moved to Nelson County four years ago, I have been frustrated with the lack of knowledge about how and where to find birds in the County.  I couldn’t just look on eBird like I usually do when I’m looking for new places to bird, because very few people submit bird sitings from Nelson County.  Nelson has 2,243 checklists on eBird at the time of this writing, compared to adjacent Albemarle’s 18,248.

Learning more about birding my local area is a very rewarding experience, as it puts me in touch with my surroundings.  Whenever I’m walking or driving in Nelson, I’m always looking for new and interesting habitats and wondering what birds might live in them.  I’ve already found one first Nelson County record, a canvasback at Lake Nelson, and I expect more will follow.

I figured since our club was doing a big day as a fundraiser, I might as well use it as an excuse to learn more about Nelson County.  There are still so many places I look at on google maps and wonder about what birds could be there.  I hoped the big day might help me answer some of those questions.  I invited my friends Drew, Tucker, Ander, Paul and my brother Theo, and got planning.

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Our group (minus Theo and Ander) at Rockfish Valley Trail at sunset.  Photo by Galen Staengl

Our big day started at 6:00 PM on Saturday April 28th.  As the count time started, we were walking down a steep trail into a rich river gorge just below Wintergreen Ski Resort.  Spring ephemerals such as sessile and perfoliate bellwort, Solomon’s seal, wild geraniums and showy orchid carpeted the ground around us.  Drew called out that he saw spring coralroot, a leafless orchid that gets all of its nutrients from parasitizing fungi.  Drew and I had found the first county record of this plant nearby in 2016.

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Spring Coralroot (Corallorhiza wisteriana)

The flowers were beautiful, but there weren’t many birds out.  In fact, I hadn’t heard a single species since we started birding.  No matter, I knew from last year that as soon as we crossed the creek we would get to better habitat and the activity would pick up.  As we descended into the ravine, the noisy rushing of the creek — freshly swollen from recent heavy spring rains — reached our ears.  We came out of the forest at the bank of the creek, and I realized that the water was too high to cross.  So much for that.  We decided to cut our losses and get to Rockfish Valley Trail for the rest of the evening.

The Rockfish Valley Trail, running next to the south fork of the Rockfish River, is the best known birding spot in Nelson.  Parts are forested, but most of the land is open pasture and brushy fields.  We took our time birding, as we had no where else we needed to be before dark.  We saw 36 species, including eastern kingbird, eastern meadowlark and a beautiful Cape May warbler.  We left the Rockfish Valley Trail at 7:30, and headed south towards Shipman, where I had a nightjar spot staked out.

We arrived at Sturt Park, a large tract of land near Shipman, just as it was getting dark.  We walked up an old trail through a dense forest of loblolly and shortleaf pines.  The loblollies were no doubt planted, but they had grown up in such a way as to appear almost natural.  Spring peepers called loudly from the puddles in the path.  The occasional dry trill of an upland chorus frog came from the surrounding pines.  A prairie warbler sang, its rising buzzy trill cutting through the loud frog calls.  Once it was totally dark, besides the bright full moon which was rising above the pines, we heard our first eastern whip-poor-will singing.  Soon there were many calling simultaneously, their voice intertwining from all directions in a loud cacophony of whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will…

The next morning we fell out of our beds at 4:30 am, hoping we would be able to hear rails, bitterns, or marsh wrens before the sun rose at the wetland impoundments at James River State WMA.  As we pulled into the dirt parking lot overlooking the muddy James River we heard the songs of common yellowthroats coming from the marsh.  A wild turkey gobble drifted out of the fog.  Yellow-breasted chats whistled and grunted from the field across the wetland from us.

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Yellow-breasted Chat (Photo taken at James River State WMA later in the day, after the sun rose)

We walked out along the marsh impoundment as the sun slowly began to light up the eastern sky.  Soon it was light enough to see a little bit of color.  Someone spotted a small rufous colored bird hopping around in the base of a willow.  Could it be a marsh wren?  It was only a swamp sparrow — still new for the day — but not as exciting as a marsh wren.  Finally the sun rose, and the marsh came alive with bird song.  We began adding species to our day list left and right.  Prothonotary and yellow-throated warblers and a warbling vireo sang from the large maples, ashes and sycamores along the river.  When we reached the end of the wetland, we turned around and walked back towards our car.  A northern waterthrush sang in a thick tangle of brush next to the marsh.  We stopped briefly by the same willow clump that we’d seen the swamp sparrow in earlier, and to our surprise a small rufous bird was once again hopping around.  I raised my binoculars and saw that it was a marsh wren.  It was Nelson County’s 3rd record, and the first one in the spring.

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Marsh Wren

We left James River State WMA half an hour later, with our big day total being 70.

Our next stop was the parking lot for Crabtree Falls, where we hoped to get some mountain breeding warblers.  I had never birded there before, so like most of the big day, it was an experiment, but after our highly successful morning along the James River I was feeling pretty good about it.  As we drove up into the mountains, the Tye River rushed and crashed over rocks right next to the road.  Suddenly, someone yelled, “Go back, I see ducks!”  We quickly turned around and were thrilled, if somewhat unsurprised — there are only so many ducks that can be found in a small mountain river in central VA during April — to find two common mergansers sitting on a rock in the middle of the river.  Unfortunately, they flew away before we could get any decent photos.

The Crabtree Falls area was a bit of a disappointment.  We added a few species, including black-and-white warbler, ovenbird, blue-headed vireo, and black-throated green warbler.  The next stop, Montebello State Fish Hatchery, was slightly more successful.  A small, slow sandy bottomed stream flowed next to the road.  We heard the high buzzy song of a blackburnian warbler coming from a group of old pines.  A Louisiana waterthrush sang from the stream.  We drove up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, keeping our eyes and ears peeled for warblers.

Wind whistled up the valleys towards us as we drove along the parkway, obscuring any faint warbler song we might’ve been able to hear.  We did manage to see some raptors fighting against the wind, including broad-winged hawk, red-tailed hawk and American kestrel.  Periodically, we stopped at areas sheltered from the wind and got out of the car to listen, but there just wasn’t much singing other than the occasional American redstart, black-and-white warbler or black-throated green warbler.  I wondered if the lack of warblers was because we were too late in the day, too early in the season, or perhaps it was just too windy?

We exited the Blue Ridge Parkway at Wintergreen Ski Resort, where we hoped to find breeding dark-eyed juncos or common ravens.  We drove up a winding road to a parking lot called Devil’s Knob, overlooking the ski slopes from the top of the mountain.  Sure enough, we quickly heard the rattling, musical trill of a dark-eyed junco, and we soon found a few more.

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Dark Eyed Juncos are a common breeding species at high elevations in the Appalachians, but they are completely absent from lower elevations during the summer.  Photo by Theo Staengl

Just as we were getting ready to leave, the distinctive shape of a common raven appeared over the ridge.  At least that stop went as planned.

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur.  It was hot, and we were getting tired.  We birded several more locations without finding any new species, including the Rockfish Valley Trail and the adjacent Horizons Eco Village.

Things finally began to pick up around 4:00 PM as we got to Schuyler.  We found a spot where the road went over the dammed Rockfish River, and got out to look for cliff swallows.  I was excited to see about twenty of them swirling around over the water, every now and then carrying an insect under the bridge to their nests.

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Cliff swallows often nest under bridges over rivers.  The only place I’d heard of them breeding in Nelson was the Howardsville Bridge over the James River, which was too far out of our way to go for the big day, so it was especially lucky to find a new colony that day.  Photo by Theo Staengl

An osprey flew over the reservoir, shrieking loudly and scattering the swallows.  I added up our list for the first time since the morning, and found that we were at 94 species, significantly more than I expected.  Could we make it to 100 before we had to be back in Charlottesville for the tally/potluck at 6:00 PM?  I was happy with our Nelson County birding, feeling that I had gained significantly in my knowledge of Nelson’s bird life, so I decided we should spend our last hour in Albemarle, where we hoped we’d be able to add a few more species more easily.

Our first stop was King Family Vineyards, where two artificial ponds often hold shorebirds.  I quickly found a spotted sandpiper in the scope, along with the hooded mergansers that have bred there for the last two years.  As we drove toward Charlottesville we talked about the easiest way to get four more species.  We decided on the Secluded Farm Trail at Kemper Park, where both kinds of tanagers and Kentucky warblers are usually reliable.  With any luck, we would stumble on another new bird as well.  We ran up the trail into a large field with old growth tulip populars scattered in the middle.  Tucker led us down a path into the woods where he often had Kentucky warblers.  Just as we were giving up hope of finding any new birds before we had to go, the three rising whistles of a black-throated blue warbler reached our ears.  A scarlet tanager started making chick-burr calls to our left.  We knew we had to leave then in order to be in time to get to Ivy Creek, so we sadly trooped back to the car.  Just our luck to have an amazing day of birding and end up just two short of 100.  Oh well.

On our drive to Ivy Creek I looked over the tally one more time, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.  To my surprise, I saw I hadn’t counted the whip-poor-will.  99.  Then I realized I didn’t remember putting down wild turkey.  With mounting excitement, I looked back through the checklist, and sure enough, wild turkey wasn’t marked.  We’d made it to 100 after all.  We were thrilled, probably more so than a two bird difference should have made.  I handed the list to Paul and Theo to count, and they added an additional two species that I’d forgotten.  We finished the day with 98 species in Nelson County, plus an additional 4 in Albemarle County.

Spring Butterflies at Quarry Gardens

The hairstreaks and elfins in the genus Callophrys are some of my favorite butterflies.  They are tiny, usually not much bigger than a dime.  Their wings range in color from brilliant green to iridescent brown, blue and even pinkish.  Elfins especially fly only early in the season, so I was anxious to try to see and photograph some before they disappeared for the year.  A late April trip to Quarry Gardens at Schuyler provided the perfect opportunity.  Extensive stands of short-leaf and Virginia pine with eastern juniper in the understory — the host plants of pine elfin and juniper hairstreak — grow there.  Brown elfins have also been recorded, although their host plants, blueberries, are less numerous.

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Golden Ragwort at Quarry Gardens

Quarry Gardens is a botanical garden designed to showcase the flora and fauna native to Schuyler, VA and the surrounding area.  The Center for Urban Habitats inventoried the plants and animals naturally occurring there, and used that information to design and plant gardens representative of particular native plant communities.  It lies partly on top of a formation of soapstone rock, and several abandoned, water-filled, soapstone quarries are on the property.  It is home to fragments of a state rare plant community — ultramafic woodland — which only grows on magnesium rich (ultramafic) rocks like soapstone.  Many locally and regionally uncommon species have been documented there.  For more information about Quarry Gardens’ unique history, geology, plants and animals, see my older post: Quarry Gardens: Ecosystem Modeling Under Geological Constraints.

Bernice Thieblot and Devin Floyd — the owner of Quarry Gardens and the director of the Center for Urban Habitats, respectively — met my brother, Theo, and me at the gates.  My friend Drew and a photographer named Emily soon arrived.  We walked down to the visitor center, where a large patch of golden ragwort was in full bloom.  We hoped to find elfins nectaring on the ragwort, as Devin had seen them there last year.  Juvenal’s dusky-wings and native bees buzzed around.  It wasn’t long before we spotted what would be the first of many juniper hairstreaks, drinking from a ragwort flower.  We all pressed forward, hoping to get a picture of this stunningly green little butterfly.

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Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus) on golden ragwort (Packera aurea)

We decided to meander down the path that led around the old quarry pits.  It was cool and shady under a thick canopy of pines.  Lichens carpeted the ground in places.  The mulch covered trail led down rock steps into an area planted with rich forest spring ephemerals.  Mayapples, Solomon’s seals, wild geraniums, dwarf larkspur and wild ginger bloomed near the path.

We emerged from the trees into a small meadow, sloping down towards the edge of the water in the quarry pit to our right.  The white flowers of pussytoes and wild strawberries were just beginning to open.  Suddenly, Theo called out that he saw an elfin.  Drew and I rushed over, and we watched it land on a barely opened pussytoes flower.  One of its hindwings was damaged, but it was able to fly well enough to make getting a good photo difficult.  Eventually it settled down, and we watched as the brown elfin tilted its wings into the sun.  For a moment, the color seemed to change from plain brown to a rich assortment of pinkish and orangey hues.

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Brown Elfin (Callophrys augustinus) on pussytoes (Antennaria sp.)

We left the brown elfin and continued down the trail.  We looked for mountain bellwort, one of the rare plants growing at Quarry Gardens.  We were excited to discover all 10 of the plants growing there in full bloom.

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Mountain Bellwort (Uvularia puberula)

Drew, Theo and I walked to a swale planting, filled with golden ragwort, swamp rose, marsh marigold, skunk cabbage and various sedges.  Emily, who had been wandering around separately from us, showed us a picture of a pine elfin she had just seen.  Pine elfins look like brown elfins, but their wings are covered with intricate pink and brown mottling.  They are also less common and more difficult to see than brown elfins.  We fanned out, scanning the ground and the sky trying to re-find it.  I decided to walk down by the edge of the quarry pits, where I found my first of year Selys’ sundragon, but no pine elfin.

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Selys’ Sundragon (Helocordulia selysii)

Just as I was getting back toward the seep, I heard Theo yelling his head off about a pine elfin.  I ran toward him, and arrived just as he lost the butterfly into the trees.  We set about walking around once again, desperately trying to re-find it.  I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.  Turning, I saw a nickel sized butterfly bouncing away from me.  We chased after it, and soon the pine elfin landed.  The sunlight sparkled off of its metallic wings in a way that photos never seem to do justice to.  The white bands and mottling flashed in the light.  Then, before I could even reach for my camera, it was gone.

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Pine Elfin (Callophrys niphon), Photo by Emily Luebke.

As I was walking back, still hoping for another pine elfin to photograph, I looked at a small brownish butterfly sitting on an American holly leaf.  I assumed it would be another juniper hairstreak — they were one of the most common butterflies out — or a brown elfin.  To my surprise, I saw a white band on the hindwing, meaning it was not a brown but a Henry’s elfin — a first Quarry Gardens record!

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Brown Elfin (Callophrys henrici) on American Holly (Ilex opaca)

In retrospect, I probably should have realized it might have been a Henry’s sooner, as it was sitting on a holly leaf, which is a host plant for Henry’s elfin.  With three species of elfins in one day, I was ready to forego my dreams of perfect pine elfin photos.  Maybe next year…

Red Crossbills at Briery Branch Gap

We stood at the intersection of Briery Branch Road and 85, near the summit of Reddish Knob, watching and listening to the red crossbills feeding all around us.  Crossbill flocks roved about the mountaintop, chattering and singing constantly.  Some birds dangled from the cones of table mountain and pitch pines, using their long, sturdy, crossed bills to pry the seeds out from deep within the cones.  Other crossbill flocks gathered in the dirt road not more than five feet in front of us, squabbling and moving constantly as they ingested little bits of gravel to aid in their digestion.

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Red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) eating rocks in the road.

Red crossbills are fairly rare throughout most of Virginia — they are most common during irruption years, when large numbers come north during the winter — but they can usually be found in the tall mountains along the VA/WV border in Rockingham County.  The crossbills are present all year round, including the breeding season, and have raised young successfully in the Reddish Knob Area before.

The red crossbill is an extremely complex species.  Many subspecific taxa, commonly referred to as crossbill “types” have been named, and it is possible that some of them will be elevated to species status in the future.  Indeed, just this past year the Cassia crossbill — endemic to one county in southern Idaho — was split out from the red crossbill.  One of the most variable features of crossbill types is bill size, as it seems different types have evolved different bills to allow them to specialize on different conifer species.  The types also differ in body size and call.

The red crossbills at Briery Branch Gap had previously been recorded and identified as Appalachian red crossbill (type 1), but I wanted to make sure our birds were as well, so I took some recordings.  When I got home, I sent my red crossbill recordings to Matt Young, a scientist who’s been studying them.  He told me that I had recorded both type 1 and type 2, the ponderosa pine crossbill, which had not been documented in Virginia recently.

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Red crossbill (Loxia curvirostra), type 1 or 2

Seven young birders had met for the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club field trip to Briery Branch Gap early in the morning at the Rockfish Gap Hawk-watch.  The trip to Briery Branch was uneventful until we got to Airport Road, just south of the town of Bridgewater, in Rockingham County.  Suddenly, three massive, lightly-colored birds crossed the road in front of us.  I only got to see them for a few seconds before they were obscured by the trees, but I had enough time to make out their huge, black-tipped wings, light bodies, tiny tails, and massive bills.  They were American white pelicans, a 2nd county record.

We encountered the flocks of red crossbills as soon as we got to the pull off for Briery Branch Gap.  It was by far the most I’ve ever seen at once, and the best views.  After the crossbill show, we walked up forest road 85 in search of other mountain birds.  Pines, hemlocks and oaks grew over a dense layer of mountain fetterbush next to the trail.  Blue-headed vireos, dark-eyed juncos and black-capped chickadees sang from the branches.  We walked into a field surrounded by red spruce and eastern hemlock.  A few more red crossbills flew over our head, accompanied by American goldfinches and pine siskins.  Black-and-white warblers sang their whispery, greasy wheel song.  Someone flushed an American woodcock, which flew twenty feet and then landed deep in a fetterbush colony.  We decided we should turn around so we’d have time for a few stops in the valley on our way home.

For some reason, the field at the end of Lumber Mill Road in Dayton is one of the most reliable places in the valley for the introduced Eurasian collared dove.  Why the doves prefer this particular manure-covered field to a million exactly like it all over Rockingham County is beyond me.  We found three Eurasian collared doves perched on the powerlines next to the road.

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Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)

Our final stop of the day was Oakwood Pond, where we found two pectoral sandpipers.  We headed home, happy with our morning’s birding.

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Our group photographing the red crossbills.

Salamanders at Maple Flats

The Maple Flats area in southeastern Augusta County is home to a strange array of flora and fauna.  Many organisms occur in and around the Shenandoah Valley Sinkhole Ponds at Maple Flats but no where else in Virginia.  Plants that usually grow in northern bogs and the southeastern coastal plain can be found growing side by side there.  A few species of animals also have disjunct populations that live in the sinkholes.

Maple Flats is underlain by dolomite, a calcareous (calcium rich) rock formed during the Cambrian Period.  On top of the dolomite lies a deposit of more acidic quartzite weathered from the nearby mountains, which is responsible for the many plants found growing at Maple Flats that typically grow in more nutrient poor soils.  Over time, the dolomite is dissolved by water, leading to its collapse and the formation of the sinkhole ponds.

Many of the sinkholes at Maple Flats could also be called vernal pools, as they dry up in the summer, protecting the numerous species of amphibians and insects that depend on them from predation by fish.  All the salamanders in the mole salamander family, including tiger, spotted, marbled, Mabee’s, Jefferson’s, and mole need good quality vernal pools to breed in.  Other species that occur only in vernal pools include wood frog and fairy shrimp.  Spring peepers also commonly breed in vernal pools, but they can tolerate other types of wetlands.

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Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)

The eastern tiger salamander, which has a fairly large range in the coastal plain up through the mountains of Kentucky has a disjunct population in the vernal pools at Maple Flats.  Tiger salamanders are state endangered, have very few other populations in Virginia, and most of them are far away in the coastal plain.  Eastern tiger salamanders spend most of their time deep underground, coming out only on warm, wet nights in February to breed.  They stay near the vernal pools for a few weeks afterwards before they disperse back underground.  Some friends and I decided to go to Maple Flats in late March to look for tiger and other salamanders.

When I stepped out of the car into the warm, damp spring air at Maple Flats I felt good about our chances of finding salamanders.  If I was a salamander, I’d be out on a day like today.  I breathed in the damp air, smelling the gentle spring scent of the forest.  We started down the dirt road — overgrown in the summer by black huckleberries and common greenbrier.  To my right a trickle of water ran through the sandy soil underneath a canopy of black gum and oaks.

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Seepage Swamp

A pine warbler sang, the musical trill of its voice coming from an old pitch pine growing next to the trail.  Looking up, I caught a flash of bright yellow as the pine warbler flitted in between dense clumps of pine needles.  It sang again, and Tucker noticed the chip of a second pine warbler coming from across the path.

We came to the first sinkhole, a deep pit in the landscape, but barely twenty feet wide.  We made our way down the steep banks to the water’s edge, listening to the faint chorus of spring peepers in the background.  The water in the pool was crystal clear — I could see every leaf at the bottom.  A northern cricket frog hopped across a rock in front of me, pausing long enough for us to see every wart on its back.

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Northern Cricket Frog (Acris crepitans)

Emily said she had heard that this particular pool sometimes held fairy shrimp, a species of fresh water crustacean that lives in vernal pools, but none were present that day — perhaps it was too early in the season.

As we walked back toward the trail, I reached down to lift a log as I had been doing all morning.  To my surprise, I saw a three-inch long marbled salamander curled up under the log.  Further down the length of the log, the head of a second marbled salamander poked out of its burrow.  The silvery blotches along the salamanders’ damp backs sparkled in the sun.

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Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum)

Like tiger and spotted salamanders, marbled salamanders breed in vernal pools, but unlike the other mole salamanders they breed in the fall instead of the spring, so I hadn’t thought we would see one.  I guess they were out to feed near the surface in the damp weather.  I carefully put the log back, making sure not to crush the salamanders.

We set to work flipping over rocks and logs, always restoring them to their original position after looking underneath, slowly working our way toward the next pool.  We found a few more marbled salamanders, but nothing else for a while.  Suddenly, Theo yelled, “I have a salamander, but I don’t know what it is!”  By the time we got there the salamander had disappeared into the ground.  Theo said he was pretty sure that he had seen a slimy salamander.  I moved a particularly large log off the ground.  Underneath lay a particularly large salamander.  It was longer than my hand and fairly chunky; its body was black with tiny white spots.  I didn’t know until I picked it up, but its body was also covered in thick super sticky slime.  I called over my friends and showed them the slimy salamander as we discussed its ID.

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Slimy Salamander

Around 10 species of slimy salamander live in the Southeastern US, and most of them look very similar.  Lucky for us, only two species, the white-spotted and northern slimy salamanders live in our area, but they are almost impossible to identify.  We settled on a tentative ID of white-spotted slimy salamander, based on habitat.  If anyone has any insight into the identification of slimy salamanders at Maple Flats, please let me know.

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Slimy Salamander

After we let the slimy salamander go, I was beginning to worry we weren’t going to find a tiger salamander, as I felt like we’d flipped every good-sized rock in the area already.  We decided to walk around the pond in search of more promising salamander habitat.  The pond on our left was a large artificial one, half filled with water and half covered in a dense thicket of buttonbush.  Four green-winged teal flushed suddenly out of nowhere as we rounded a bend.  On our right lay another pond, probably also artificial, this one full of water and bordered by smooth alder.  I saw a small trickle of water running through patches of lush Sphagnum moss in front of us.  A few minutes later, we’d found a northern dusky salamander under a log in the seep.  On our way back up to the trail, someone kicked over a rotting log.  Underneath lay a large sleepy spotted salamander, its eyes covered by a dirty membrane.

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Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)

Two mole salamanders in a day was exciting, especially since the spotted was a lifer for my friend Tucker, but where were the tigers?

We spent the rest of the day walking to Spring Pond, the largest of the ponds at Maple Flats.  We never did see an eastern tiger salamander, but we did see six other interesting species.  Next year, I think it might be better to go earlier in the year.

El Quetzal de Mindo Chocolate Tour

Every day that we were in Mindo it rained, usually starting around 1 pm.  Despite the constant downpour, we still went out after long mornings of birding to hike, hoping to see even more birds.  Towards the end of our trip, though, the rain and our tiredness made my brother and me more receptive to a suggestion my parents had made on our first day: take a chocolate tour.  That afternoon, we walked to El Quetzal de Mindo, a restaurant, artisanal chocolate factory, and lodge on the edge of town.

Our tour was led by an energetic Portuguese man named Sergio.  He started the tour by showing us examples of cacao in various stages of production, and giving us a brief overview of the process.

Sergio then led us out into the central courtyard of the chocolate factory, and to a small garden.  They had a few young cacao trees on display in the garden, as examples of what they look like, since Mindo is too high and cold for chocolate to do well.

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Cacao (Theobroma cacao)

The cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) is a small, compact tree, at least when it’s cultivated.  It has broad, glossy leaves and flowers consistently throughout the year, as is typical of many tropical trees that do not have to worry about seasons.

The flowers are tiny and pop right out of the trunk and larger branches, giving the tree an abnormal appearance.

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Cacao Flower

If a flower is pollinated by a cacao midge — various species in the genus Forcipomyia — it ripens into a long, grooved, orange, pod.

One of the other people on the chocolate tour mentioned that they’d heard that chocolate was in danger of going extinct.  Sergio said something about the cacao midge declining, worrying Ecuadorian authorities.  This statement piqued my curiosity, so I did a little research.  It soon became obvious that cacao is in no danger as a species, but there are some concerns for the well-being of the cacao industry.  Climate change is likely to move and reduce suitable habitat for both cacao and its only pollinator.  Cacao does best in humid climates with lots of rain and warm, stable temperatures — it is well adapted to its home in the lowland rainforests of South and Central America.   Despite cacao’s origin and long history of use in tropical America, the majority of industrial cacao production is in West Africa.

One frequently cited study forecasts that the region suitable for cacao production in West Africa, where two thirds of the world’s cacao is produced, will move uphill into the mountains as the climate becomes drier, due to climate change.   This smaller and more inaccessible territory would be a problem for the Ivory Coast, especially, as according to Wikipedia, 40% of their national export income is from cacao.   Drier conditions are also a serious problem for cacao midges (Forcipomyia), the only bugs that can pollinate cacao.  They are adapted to moist, shady conditions, as is the cacao plant itself.  They need rich, damp leaf litter to complete their life-cycles.  The midges’ need for moisture is already causing the chocolate industry problems due to the industry’s favored growing technique of large monoculture plantations.  When cacao is planted in large plantations with no other trees, it creates a drier micro-climate, without good leaf-litter.  These dry conditions result in the pollination rate of plantation cacao flowers being only .3%.

Both present and future problems with cacao production could be partially addressed by cultivating cacao under a canopy of native rainforest trees on smaller farms instead of on large monoculture plantations.  The additional trees create a damper microclimate, which the cacao trees need to thrive.  Shade grown cacao farms have a much higher pollination rate, because the cacao midges also prefer the dampness and leaf litter that the larger trees offer.  Shade growing cacao could also help combat the effects of climate change on the cacao industry by creating damper conditions in an overall drier climate.  Furthermore, trees in cacao “agroforests” sequester more carbon than cacao monocultures, providing an opportunity to address climate change at its roots.

Although agroforests are not a substitute for primary rainforest, their greater plant diversity provides much better habitat for many species of insects, amphibians, birds and other creatures than plantations, while still producing a similar cacao bean yield.   Shifting from plantations to shade grown cacao could become increasingly important in the future if pressures continue to reduce primary rainforest habitat.   Many species of neo-tropical migrant songbirds, such as the warblers that breed in the Appalachian Mountains near where I live, need rainforest in Central and South America for wintering habitat and agroforests could meet some, but by no means all, of this need.

“Bird friendly” shade grown coffee has become relatively well-known recently, with several organizations developing certification programs so that buyers know they are getting a more environmentally friendly product, and growers can charge a premium price.  Certifications for shade grown cacao don’t seem to have made it as much into the main stream, although I did find one program, Forest Chocolate, that certifies organic and shade grown chocolate.  Fair trade chocolate, in general, is more likely to be shade grown since it comes from smaller producers.

Back in the chocolate factory, Sergio showed us the ripe, unprocessed cacao pods.  The cacao “beans” were lined up in rows, and coated with thick, white pulp.

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Opened Cacao Pod

Sergio pulled a seed out of the pod and gave it to us to suck.  The pulp tasted like a fruit and not at all chocolatey.  The first step in making the chocolate is to scoop all the pulp and cacao “beans” out of the pods and dump them into a sealed cedar box to ferment.

Once the chocolate pulp has fermented for a few days, it is scooped out of the boxes onto open trays in a greenhouse to dry.  By this point, most of the pulp has rotted off, and the inside of the beans is beginning to smell similar to chocolate.

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Drying Cacao Beans

When the cacao is dry, it is ground and roasted with hand-made simple machines.  The ground and roasted pieces of cacao are blown through a tunnel, where the heavier insides of the cacao fall to the floor while the lighter shells blow out the front.  These lightly ground, shell less, roasted chunks of cacao are called cacao nibs.  The cacao nibs are ground into a finer paste, which is either pressed into cacao powder and cacao butter or exposed to high pressures and temperatures which liquify it.  Liquid chocolate is then hand tempered, so the crystals inside the chocolate form in a way that allows the finished chocolate bar to break cleanly.  The chocolate is poured into molds, and the finished bars are hand-wrapped.  El Quetzal makes 87%, 77%, and 67% pure chocolate bars.  Sergio said that the only thing added to the chocolate was organic sugar, and in some cases flavorings, such as macadamia nuts, hot pepper, and ginger.

After the tour, Sergio brought us a host of delicious looking chocolate products to try.  I don’t eat chocolate, out of a possibly irrational paranoia that it causes my migraines, but I was seriously tempted to try some.  We were offered all the different bars in many different flavors.  Once the pieces of bars had been eaten, unfortunately not by me, Sergio gave us each one of EL Quetzal’s famous brownies.  My mom ate mine with pleasure.

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El Quetzal Chocolate Products

An Ecotourism Success Story: Refugio Paz de Las Aves

I first heard about the Refugio Paz de Las Aves — which translates as Birds of Peace Refuge — from Noah Strycker, an ornithological writer and big year birder at a talk he gave at the Biggest Week in American Birding Festival in Ohio in 2016.  He told the story of a man in north-west Ecuador who had trained rare, strange looking, tropical birds to come out when he called them.  It sounded amazing to me, but I had no idea that only two years later I would be going to the same place.

I watched the shadows of the predawn forest from a bamboo blind, eagerly waiting for my first views of an Andean cock-of-the-rock at the Refugio Paz de Las Aves lek.  Andean cock-of-the-rocks are one of the many species of birds that form communal displays, called leks, where multiple males gather to display for females.  In most species of birds that lek, the males don’t help with nesting or raising the young, but they sure do put on a show.

As the sky began to lighten, I heard faint croaking noises coming from the trees.  The sun rose, revealing five or six huge, striking, red birds with black and white wing patches in the trees in front of the blind.  They began to jump and flap their wings while making loud squawking calls.

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Andean Cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruvianus)

Once the sun had completely risen the cock-of-the-rocks continued to display, although a little less vigorously.  Apparently, if a female were to show up, they would go crazy with their displays again.  We took a last look at them, and walked up the path out of the forest.  A brilliantly green bird with a red breast, a golden-headed quetzal, flew over us and landed in a tree.  As we emerged from the forest onto a dirt road, clouds drifted overhead.  I thought I caught a glimpse of a swift in the clouds several times, but it would always disappear before I could identify it.  The founders of Paz de las Aves, Angel and Rodrigo Paz, met us at the road, and than disappeared into the forest to look for the giant antpittas Angel had trained.

Antpittas are a very secretive family of large tropical birds that like to hop around in dense brush and eat worms.  The giant antpitta, especially, is a skilled hider, and on top of that, a very rare, range-restricted Choco endemic.   Landowner Angel Paz didn’t know this information, though, when he first noticed a giant antpitta eating worms on a recently made trail years ago.  He had already discovered the cock-of-the-rock lek on his land, and begun showing it to tourists.  Angel spent the following days studying the bird, learning about its habits and what it ate.  He tried feeding it worms, but at first it wouldn’t accept them.  Finally, one day the bird ate the worms he offered.  He named her Maria, and trained her to come out whenever he called in exchange for worms.  When he realized that there were other species of antpittas on his property, such as chestnut-crowned, yellow-breasted, ochre-breasted and mustached, he worked on training those as well.  Now birders travel from all over the world to see Maria and the other antpittas, and he makes a much better living from conserving the forest and all the species that depend on it than he ever did logging it, as he once did.

We stood in the road listening to the loud low whistles of Angel’s imitations of the giant antpitta’s call.  Our guide said that the antpittas were not as reliable in the rainy season, because it was easier for them to get worms on their own.  Despite his pessimism, I began to hear a whistled response to Angel’s imitations.  Sometimes the antpitta’s call was just barely audible above the chorus of frog noises, and sometimes it seemed like the bird might hop out into the path at any moment.  Just when the bird began to sound particularly close, a motorbike roared by, and it didn’t respond again for several minutes.  Finally, after almost an hour of tense waiting, a large bird with a rufous belly barred with black, and a big, thick, bill hopped out onto the path where Angel had set down worms.

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Giant Antpitta (Grallaria gigantea)  Angel told us this bird was Maria’s mate.

I watched with fascination as the giant antpitta ate, thinking about how so many birders, including Noah Strycker, had seen this bird or his mate before me.  Eventually, he finished his worms, looked up at us for the last time, and hopped back into the forest.

We continued up the road, where Angel had once again disappeared into the woods.  When we arrived at the end of a dirt trail off the road, Angel and Rodrigo were waiting with a family of dark-backed wood quail eating a banana.  Dark-backed wood quail are another secretive endemic that was nearly impossible to see with any certainty until Angel trained them to come out.

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Dark-backed Wood Quail (Odontophorus melanonotus)  This is a link to a video I took of the wood quail family on youtube: https://youtu.be/AvA-ufjqlxA

The wood quail and their chicks ate the banana voraciously within three or four feet of us before slowly wandering down the slope.

The next stop, on a steep, densely wooded hillside, was to see the yellow-breasted antpitta.  Angel called for it, and threw worms into a clear space amid a tangle of branches and roots below us.   It wasn’t long before a small, brown-backed, yellow-breasted bird emerged from the brush, and started gobbling down the worms.

We walked through the Paz de las Aves lodge and past signs saying “ochre-breasted  and mustached antpittas that way” and onto a trail that followed the top of a bluff into the forest.  We followed the trail down the steep, muddy slope of the hill.  Monkeys hooted and climbed in the huge palms in the distance.  Eventually the trail leveled out, and we stopped to call for the ochre-breasted antpittas.  We soon saw three of these tiny, adorable antpittas eating worms and hopping on the sticks in front of us.

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I believe this individual Ochre-breasted Antpitta (Grallaricula flavirostris) was named Chiquira.

As the ochre-breasted antpittas began to retreat into the forest, Angel began throwing nuts he had picked up earlier onto the ground.  Apparently, the mustached antpitta that he had trained, named Jose, was attracted by the noise of the nuts hitting the ground.  Jose soon appeared, hopping with much more dignity than the tiny ochre-breasted antpittas, who backed up to let him pass.

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Jose the Mustached Antpitta (Grallaria alleni)

We took our final looks at the antpittas and walked back toward the lodge, where we had a delicious breakfast of mashed and fried green bananas filled with cheese and empanadas.  While we ate, we watched toucan barbets and blue-winged mountain-tanagers eat at a banana feeder.  Violet-tailed sylphs, velvet purple coronets, and fawn-breasted brilliants buzzed and swooped around the hummingbird feeders.

Paz de las Aves shows how effective ecotourism can be as a conservation tool.  Now, instead of logging patches of forest, planting crops, and then moving on to the next forest — while there is still forest left to clear– Angel and his brother can conserve the area just by being able to show a couple of birds to visitors.  Not only is Paz de Las Aves financially important for the Paz family, but it’s one of the main attractions in the wider Mindo region, where visiting birders and other tourists spend money on numerous goods and services.

 

Searching for the Choco Vireo at Amagusa Reserve

I woke up at 4:00 AM on January 17th, excited for our trip to Amagusa Reserve, one of the only places in the world where the recently discovered Choco vireo can be seen.  I sat up suddenly in bed, and my eyes rolled.  I felt horribly nauseous and dizzy.  This was not a good thing on one of the days I was most excited about, but I got dressed as fast as I could, grabbed my birding stuff, and shoved my feet into my stiff, damp boots.  I staggered down the dark, wet stairway outside, towards the road.  Upon entering the van, my stomach lurched again, and I collapsed on a whole row of seats with my head in the corner.  For some reason, the only thing I could think about on the long, painfully twisty, dark drive to Amagusa was the potatoes I had eaten last night.  They hadn’t tasted that bad then, just a little strange, but now, even the thought of them was revolting.  I settled back into a restless half-sleep, my dreams infested with rancid potatoes.

Luckily, by the time we arrived at the beginning of the Mashpi entrance road two hours later — one of the most important places near Amagusa Reserve — I was feeling well enough to bird.  We walked to the edge of a cliff, looking down at the lush tops of the trees below.  A yellow-bellied siskin and a swallow tanager sat on top of the tree in front of us, while an energetic purple-crowned fairy flashed around the tree’s flowers.  We spotted a female orange-breasted fruiteater, an interesting looking green bird with an orange bill.  We began to walk slowly down the road, stopping periodically to scan mixed flocks.

Looking out over the misty valley, I saw three rose-faced parrots climbing around in a tree in the distance.  I had heard of the rose-faced parrot, but I hadn’t expected to actually see this beautiful bird, so this was a special treat.

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Rose-faced parrot (Pyrilia pulchra)

We came to a heavily wooded bend in the road, where a steep hill rose up on one side and dropped away into the valley on the other side.  Our guide told us this was a good spot for indigo flowerpiercers, a particularly uncommon Choco endemic.  Maroon-tailed parakeets flew around in the dense foliage, always just behind or under something.  The quiet, multi-toned whistle of a black solitaire cut through the air, coming from trees further up on the slope.  Forgetting about our failed attempt at an indigo flowerpiercer, I looked up at the slope where the whistle had came from.  I could just make out the form of several all black thrushes with white cheek patches, heavily obscured by brush.  Then one hopped into the open, and I could see its red iris and white shoulder feathers.  

As we walked toward the next bend in the road the sounds of a mixed flock grew louder and louder until chattering birds were all around us.  Birds flew from the cliff above us to the tops of the trees below us on the other side of the road.  Suddenly, Sergio, an owner of Amagusa Reserve, tensed and said something in Spanish to our guide ending with “Choco vireo.”  It turned out he had recognized it by its call, and we soon located two Choco vireos foraging in the top of a broad-leafed tree on the slope below us.

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This is my atrocious picture of the Choco vireo, but because of the bird’s rarity, I decided to include it anyway.

Paul Salaman and Gary Stiles discovered the Choco vireo in the 1990’s, surprisingly recently for an entirely new species of bird.  They had the brilliant idea of auctioning the rights to the bird’s name to raise money for habitat conservation.  The Choco vireo’s scientific name became Vireo masteri, after Dr. Bernard Master, whose donation went toward establishing and maintaining a reserve where the species was first discovered in Columbia.

I was thrilled to see this drab bird because I had barely hoped we’d see one because it is so rare.  Once the vireos left, we continued scanning the flock, finding a moss-backed tanager and a barred becard.

A half-hour later, we arrived at the Amagusa Reserve feeders.  We sat at a table eating breakfast while we watched logs where bananas had been put out for tanagers.  Soon, ten tanager species were coming to the bananas, the colors in their plumages glistening and gleaming like gems.

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Flame-faced Tanager (Tangara parzudakii)

Cinnamon, black-and-white, and one-colored becards hunted behind the feeders, while a black-billed peppershrike called from a distant bush.  Several of the tanager species present at the feeders were Choco endemics, such as glistening-green and rufous-throated tanagers.

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Rufous-throated tanagers (Ixothraupis rufigula)

Even though we had already seen most of these tanager species in Ecuador, seeing them so close was an amazing experience.  Every little detail of their plumage was visible, from the black scales on the breast of the rufous-throated tanager to the brilliant yellow bodies of the golden tanagers.  I was able to get great photos of many species that are usually only glimpsed at the tops of trees.  My stomach also felt completely normal for the first time that day, and the strange dizziness did not come back.

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Glistening Green Tanager (Chlorochrysa phoenicotis)

 

Bellavista Cloud Forest

One of the great things about birding Mindo, aside from the fact that the town itself has fabulous birds, is that it serves as a convenient central location for trips farther afield.  One such location that we visited was the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, located at 7200 feet above sea level, where we saw many high elevation specialties not present in Mindo itself.

As the sky began to lighten, I looked outside the van’s windows at a landscape of endless tall, forest-covered mountains bathed in clouds.  We had been driving in the pre-dawn darkness up a bumpy, winding, gravel road into the mountains for the last half hour.  A large bird with an unusual upright posture hopped out into the road in front of our van, turning its chunky bill to look straight at us.  It had a chestnut colored head and its white breast was finely streaked with black.  A chestnut-crowned antpitta, we realized, one of the most easily seen of the notoriously shy and difficult to see antpitta family, but still a very nice bird.

The Bellavista Lodge had put out moth traps the night before, and as the sun rose, birds came to feast on the torpid moths.  It started slowly in the gray light, with strong-billed and montane woodcreepers stalking up the trees, and russet-crowned warblers foraging in the bushes near the parking lot.  Soon, however, we were spotting new birds at such a rate that it was hard to keep up.  White-winged brushfinches, masked flowerpiercers, brown-capped vireos, white-tailed tyrannulets, golden-crowned flycatchers, smoke-colored pewees, plain-tailed wrens, and gray-breasted wood-wrens flew about, eating moths in a frenzied blur of activity.  Pairs of small, cute, reddish cinnamon flycatchers hunted from exposed twigs.

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Cinnamon Flycatcher (Pyrrhomyias cinnamomeus)

Suddenly, a brilliant-blue bird flew down out of the canopy onto a banana feeder and materialized into a turquoise jay, one of the most stunning birds I have ever seen.  The jay was soon joined by a group of toucan barbets, ridiculously colorful birds with black crowns, white ear tufts, slate gray throats, red breasts, yellow bellies, and olive-green wings.  I spotted a male masked trogon sitting on a light post on the lodge, but I was distracted from photographing it by a powerful woodpecker flying onto a tree trunk.  As the morning burst of activity finally began to die down with the sun fully up, we noticed an Azara’s spinetail hoping slowly through a tangle of dense brush near the ground, and a streaked tufted-cheek hopping on a stump.

At Bellavista Lodge’s hummingbird feeders, we watched the tiny but energetic booted racket-tail vie for its position on the feeder with other much larger hummingbird species such as buff-tailed coronet, collared inca, and fawn-breasted and empress brilliants.

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A booted racket-tail watches other hummers drink at the feeder.

We walked back to our van for a breakfast of fruit, muffins and hard-boiled eggs before continuing our search.

We walked up the long, winding entrance road that we had driven in on earlier that morning, looking and listening for birds.  A loud, carrying whistle came repeatedly from the dense brush near a small, rocky cascade of water off to our right.  We tried for some time to locate it, but eventually we had to give up, and be satisfied with our heard-only ocellated tapaculo.  We picked through flocks, finding endemics such as Choco brushfinch, and dusky chlorospingus, along with blackburnian, black-and-white, and russet-crowned warblers.  We began to hear a repeated, faint screeching noise rising out of the valley below us, but I paid little attention to it until a large chunky bird with a humungous bill flew into a tree across the road from us.  The plate-billed mountain-toucan’s face was very striking, with a large blue, red, and yellow bill, and yellow and blue facial skin above its eye.  Plate-billed mountain toucans live only in the mountains of north-west Ecuador and the very south-western province of Columbia.  They are listed as near-threatened, their primary conservation concerns being habitat loss from deforestation, and illegal capture for the pet trade.

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Plate-billed Mountain-toucan (Andigena laminirostris), Photo by Theo Staengl

Soon after the toucan flew off, we turned off the main road onto a small dirt trail that followed the top of a ridge to an overlook.  The loud trill of a Spillmann’s tapaculo sounded from a clump of roots.  We emerged from the trees, into the diffused light of an overcast day.  Mountains stretched into the distance as far as we could see, their tops shrouded in mist.

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Bellavista Cloudforest, Photo by Theo Staengl

Reluctantly, we left the beautiful scenery and got back into the van for the bumpy ride to our next stop.

At the Quinde Luna Cloudforest Reserve, we sat on a patio looking out toward five or six hummingbird feeders.  More than fifty hummingbirds of thirteen different species swarmed around us at barely comprehensible speeds, living their lives at an insane pace.  In the span of seconds, two hummingbirds would go from drinking peaceably next to each other on a feeder to intense, high speed, aerial combat, finally falling, shrieking and chattering to the ground.  I couldn’t help wondering how they avoided collisions at such speeds, and despite their obvious ability to navigate, I felt an irrational impulse to cover my eyes whenever they came whirring by.  The hummingbirds’ array of colors and shapes mesmerized and entertained me long past the point where we had identified and photographed all the species present.  Seemingly every part of the hummingbirds was colorful and unique, from their bills and tails to their body plumage and fantastically iridescent gorgets.  The booted racket-tail has two big clumps of white feathers over its legs, which look like little furry white boots.  The violet-tailed sylph has a long, dazzling iridescent blue tail and a stunning greenish crown stripe.  Velvet-purple coronets are a rich, flashy purple color, with black highlights.

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Violet-tailed Sylph (Aglaiocercus coelestis)

Almost all the thirteen hummingbird species were new for me, and many of them were Choco region endemics as well.  We walked around the hummingbird garden between the feeders, watching the hummingbirds go about their frantic business.  One of my favorite endemic species, the purple-bibbed white-tip perched on a branch right in front of me.

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Purple-bibbed Whitetip (Urosticte benjamini)