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.  

090A7069_edited-1.JPG

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.

090A7264_edited-1.JPG

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.  

090A7284_edited-2.JPG

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!  

IMG_9292.jpg

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.

090A6909_edited-1.JPG

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.

image.png

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

Junonia coenia_9_26_18_Ezra Staengl.JPG

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. 

Junonia coenia_9_26_18_Ezra Staengl-2.JPG

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.

Junonia coenia on Euthamia_9_26_18_Ezra Staengl.JPG

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.

090A1420.JPG

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.

IMG_9824.jpg

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.

29681296567_95cbd64b03_o.jpg

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.

43710219415_c4f58c16d4_o.jpg

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!

42849872050_78ce8dbdc9_o.jpg

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).

32014423272_e250c69519_o.jpg

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.

44610578922_554d637e6d_o.jpg

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.

44587974592_cf01a6d6de_o.jpg

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.

IMG_1584.jpg

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.

IMG_1358.jpg

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.

IMG_1384.jpg

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.

090A2401_edited-1.jpg

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.

Bird Finding in Virginia: State Route 610

Tucked away in the mountains behind the Inn at Afton — also the Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch — lies a fantastic but little birded road for observing songbird migration.  State Route 610 is a very quiet road, rarely used by cars that favor the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway.  610 starts as a turn off of 250 just west of where 250 is crossed by Skyline Drive.  The road ranges in elevation from about 1,900 feet above sea level to just over 2,400.  In my experience, the best section of the road for birding — reached after about three miles — is where it runs parallel and within easy sight of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Before that point it is more developed and lower elevation, and after the two roads diverge, 610 goes into a valley.

090A9050_edited-1.JPG

Last connection between 610 and the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The section of road leading up to this  is the best part of the road for migrants.

Be warned that the road spans two counties.  The best portion of the road is in Augusta County, even though the eBird hotspot is in Nelson.  I submit most of my eBird data from 610 from a personal location in Augusta instead of the hotspot in Nelson in an effort to be accurate about my county lists.

I first learned about State Route 610 by looking on eBird.  I saw some of Edward Brinkley’s insane checklists from the 1990’s, containing huge fallouts of migrating songbirds.  However, his data stopped before the turn of the century, and since then it had not been eBirded regularly.  One morning last fall when I had nothing better to do I decided to check it out, and although it wasn’t spectacular, I had a good morning and made several repeat visits. On multiple occasions I was able to observe songbird fallouts of impressive proportions.

090A9044.JPG

State Route 610

The first portion of State Route 610 immediately behind the Inn at Afton and in Nelson County can hold warbler flocks in migration, and I often give it a quick check to try to get whatever is possible in Nelson.  At this point, the road is climbing up wooded slopes into the mountains.  There are a fair amount of houses and clearings around them, and this is the point on the road where cars are most likely to be encountered.  So far I have not observed any really notable birds here, but warblers I’ve seen here in the spring include hooded, ovenbird, magnolia, black-throated blue and cerulean.

Once I reach the section of road that runs along the Blue Ridge Parkway I usually get out of the car and walk, looking and listening for warbler flocks.  I’ve had many species of warblers in the spring — which isn’t even the best season to bird this road — in the trees  there, including Tennessee, blackburnian, bay-breasted and plentiful ceruleans.  My brother and I also found a black-billed cuckoo there last June.  I think the dense second growth scrub that fills the gap between the roads in places may be good habitat for the skulking warblers, like mourning and Connecticut.

IMG_0444.jpg

Black-billed Cuckoo.  Photo by Theo Staengl

In fall, 610 is a fantastic place to bird.  I’ve been there when there were so many birds that everywhere I looked I could see warblers flitting in the foliage.  In addition to warblers, it’s a great spot for large concentrations of Catharus thrushes.  I’ve seen 20 warbler species there in just a couple fall visits.  I think if the road were covered more regularly, people might be able to observe fallouts close to the size of the ones Brinkley reported over twenty years ago.

 

Creature Feature: Northern Bobwhite

35347588786_6f79f8612b_o.jpg

Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus). Photo by Baxter Beamer.

Northern Bobwhite

Colinus virginianus

Family: Odontophoridae

Other common names: Bobwhite Quail, Virginia Quail

Distinguishing Features/Description

Northern bobwhites are a small, round bodied species of quail with short legs and tails. Their bodies are finely patterned with bold rufous, brown, black and white markings. Most bobwhite populations have a striped white and black head, with a white throat, dark eye stripe, white supercilium and dark crown. The only exception to this head coloration is the endangered subspecies masked bobwhite (C. v. ridgwayi) of southern Arizona, which has an entirely black head.

The coloration of male northern bobwhites varies significantly across their range, while females look similar. Eastern males have rich rufous colored chests and flanks and a light brown back. Males from the Southeastern U. S. are much darker overall, with a nearly black chest and very little rufous on the flanks. Western birds are paler, with some light rufous underneath and a pale gray back.

Northern bobwhites are the only quail throughout the eastern part of their range; however, they do overlap with scaled and Gambel’s quail in the West. Where they overlap with other quail species, bobwhites can be easily identified by their smaller size and brighter coloration, including their rufous chest and striped head.

IMG_8126.JPG

Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata)

Distribution and Habitat

Northern bobwhites occur naturally in most of the eastern United States, roughly from Massachusetts to South Dakota and south through Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas to Florida. They also can be found on many of the Caribbean Islands and south through Mexico to Guatemala. Bobwhites have also been introduced to other parts of the world — including the Pacific Northwest and Europe — as a game bird.

In Virginia, northern bobwhites can be found statewide, although in many areas native populations have declined precipitously since the 1970s. Bobwhites are fairly rare in the Shenandoah Valley, becoming increasingly frequent as you travel east through the Piedmont and Coastal Plain. There are quite a few around Scottsville in eastern Albemarle, although some of these birds are likely hunting releases.

Northern bobwhites need early successional habitats — various natural grasslands and savannas — to do well, and the decline of these habitats in Virginia is probably a large cause of their decline. These kinds of prairies and open forests are maintained by disturbances, such as clear cutting or burning. Two plant communities that bobwhites rely on in Virginia are Piedmont prairie and loblolly pine savanna. Difficult Creek Natural Area and Piney Grove Preserve are two preserves in Virginia that exemplify these two plant communities respectively.

Piedmont prairies are a particularly diverse form of natural grassland, which makes them great habitat for bobwhites. The rich assemblage of flora that can be found in these disturbed habitats is often dominated by many species of grasses, legumes and asters. Since there are so many species of native plants, there are also many insects and seeds for the bobwhites to eat. The dense herb layer also provides cover from predators.

The diversity of flowering plants found in good bobwhite habitat also makes great habitat for pollinators. Many species of native butterflies, bees and wasps would also benefit from the restoration of natural grasslands.

IMG_1804_edited-1.JPG

Piedmont Prairie at Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve

Ecology and Life History

Bobwhites feed mostly on seeds and nuts in the fall and winter, but in the summer when they are raising chicks, they also eat many insects. Preferred seed sources include asters, legumes, grasses, pines and oaks.

Like other quail species, bobwhites live in groups — called coveys — of 3-20 birds. Coveys feed and sleep together, and they get along peacefully for most of the year, except during the breeding season when males fight for mates.

Nests are a shallow, grass lined scrape on the ground. Bobwhites often weave grasses over the nest into a canopy, forming a dome like shape. Typically, there is only one brood per season, but up to three have been recorded. Clutch size is large, usually more than 10 eggs. The young fledge after two weeks.

Notes

As mentioned above, northern bobwhites used to be a common bird in the eastern United States, but their populations have declined by 85% in the past 40 years, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The IUCN Red List currently considers them “near threatened”. These declines have been attributed to widespread loss of the early successional habitat that bobwhites favor to development, forest succession, and more land intensive farming practices. Historically, the Piedmont of Virginia held extensive natural grasslands. What little remain today are widely scattered and fragmented. Bobwhites are only one of the many animals and plant species that rely on these incredibly biodiverse habitats.

Native Orchids in Cranberry Glades Botanical Area

This past weekend my family and I made our now annual trip to the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest.  I first heard about Cranberry Glades several years ago — from an orchid book by Stanley Bentley called Native Orchids of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and a blog I read called floraofohio.blogspot.com by Andrew Gibson — and we have gone every year since then.

090A8281_edited-1.JPG

Cranberry Glades is a series of large, high elevation peat bogs at around 3400 feet, which contains many plants typically found in more northern regions.  Some of these plants are relicts of the last Ice Age, surviving only in this high montane valley and no where else in the Southern Appalachians.  Many species of native orchid can also be found  in and around the glades, including swamp pink, rose pogonia, large purple fringed orchid, ragged fringed orchid, and their hybrid, Keenan’s fringed orchid.

The air felt warm and fresh as we got out of the car, a noticeable difference from the mugginess of the lower elevations we had left behind.  We walked onto the half mile boardwalk that traverses part of Round and Flag Glades.  Near the parking lot, the canopy was closed with red spruce, eastern hemlock, yellow birch and black birch.  Thickets of speckled alder grew along the stream.  The ground was slightly swampy, covered in dense skunk cabbage and meadow rue growing above clumps of Sphagnum moss.  The canopy opened up around us as the boardwalk led out into the bog.  Dense tussocks of Sphagnum carpeted the ground, with both small and large cranberries growing out of them in clumps.  It was amazing to think of the many feet of dead Sphagnum and other plant materials below us — called peat— holding water like a gigantic sponge.  Bog-rosemary, one of the plants reaching the southernmost limit of its range at Cranberry Glades, grew along the edges of the boardwalk.  Small sprigs of a chokeberry species waved in the air a couple feet off the ground.  Soon the tiny, delicate pink flowers of grass pinks and rose pogonias began to appear amid the tangle of cranberry vines.

090A7004.JPG

Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides).  Unfortunately none of the pogonia plants were close enough to the boardwalk to photograph this year, so this is a photo of a plant I am growing at home.

We rounded a bend into a second glade, this one filled with clumps of giant cinnamon fern growing out of the Sphagnum.  Grass pinks bloomed beneath the ferns outstretched fronds.  As I was photographing a round leaved sundew, I heard a group of people come up behind us, eagerly searching for one of the insect-eating sundews.  They had clearly  heard about them but couldn’t find any.  I thought this was funny because sundews are all over the ground there, but they are so tiny that if you don’t bend down and look closely you can’t see them.   I pointed out sundews and the also carnivorous purple pitcher plants to the group and they were very grateful.

090A8326.JPG

Grass Pink (Calopogon tuberosus)

After lunch we decided to walk the cowpasture trail, which goes all the way around the glades through spruce woodlands and open, wet clearings.  In past years, we had found several species of orchids along it.

The wide, level cowpasture trail led into the woods from the road.  Magnolia and Canada warblers sang from the spruce, hemlock and rhododendron that lined the path.  I heard the slow, nasal call of a red-breasted nuthatch.  Not long after the start of the trail, the forest opened up into a large mountain meadow.  Meadowsweets and goldenrods grew thickly in the drier areas, while the wet seep in the center of the clearing was filled with rushes and sedges.  A pair of mating eastern red damsels perched briefly in front of me.

Back in the forest, mountain wood sorrel and various northern clubhouses appeared along the edges of the trail.  We arrived at a smaller clearing, and the wet ditch beside the trail exploded with vegetation.  Sorting carefully through the lush foliage, I was able to find the inconspicuous green flower stalk of a northern tubercled orchid.  It became apparent there were many more in this small ditch, the only place I have ever seen them.

090A8367.JPG

Northern Tubercled Orchid (Platanthera flava var. herbolia)

We continued hiking down the trail, listening to the songs of breeding birds that are rare in Virginia, such as hermit thrushes and several species of warblers.  I saw some of the wide, round leaves of pad-leaved orchid growing on a dirt bank under hemlocks, but unfortunately there were no flowers.  In another clearing I found one blooming ragged fringed orchid, along with one that had been eaten by a deer.

090A8383_edited-1

Ragged Fringed Orchid (Platanthera lacera)

Some time later we emerged back onto the road.  As we were walking towards our car, a pick up truck pulled up and a man got out and began to inspect the road bank.  My mom, always on the look out for helpful local knowledge, asked him what he was looking for.  He showed us a patch of ragged fringed orchid further up the road that we probably would have missed.

090A8405_edited-1.JPG

Ragged Fringed Orchid (Platanthera lacera)

He told us he’d met Stanley Bentley, the author of the book from which I learned about Cranberry Glades in the first place, and about the orchids that grew right in his back yard.   In the end, he gave us directions to his “secret spot” for a patch of about 40 large purple fringed orchids, although he warned us they were “a little spent.”  This information was especially exciting because I had searched for this species every time we came, but had never found it.

 

After a bit of a treasure hunt trying to follow his directions, we thought we found the spot and parked.  We climbed over a guard rail and down the slope into a marsh.  Sphagnum grew on the ground, and there were even a few cattails.  Stunted red spruce trees grew around the edges.  The first large purple fringed orchids we found were two old withered flower stalks, almost completely obscured by a bush.  I was getting worried as I walked towards the other end of the marsh.  Where were the orchids?  Luckily it turned out they were all clustered at the other end.  Many even still had very good looking flowers.

090A8441_edited-1

Large Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera grandiflora)

 

090A8449090A8465_edited-1090A8460_edited-1

What a beautiful plant!

Flora Feature: Ragged Fringed Orchid

Center for Urban Habitats recently discovered two ragged fringed orchids (Platanthera lacera) on a survey of an acidic powerline prairie in eastern Albemarle.  We found the orchid in a powerline corridor holding a remarkably diverse prairie remnant, especially notable for having multiple plants not previously recorded in Albemarle County with coastal plain affiliations.  Such typically coastal plain plants include narrow-leaved sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) and dog-fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium).

090A7986.JPG

Picture of the site

The goals for the June 19th survey included adding to the site’s flora list and looking for more regionally rare coastal plain disjuncts that could be growing in association with the sunflower.  The day’s survey team, Devin, Drew and I, spent the morning at the site, walking back and forth across the powerline every ten feet.  We found many species new for the location, including a couple of panic grasses previously reported only from the coastal plain.  We also stumbled across the ragged fringed orchid, growing in a sunny seep at the center of the powerline corridor.  We were particularly excited as we had predicted this species might be present there.

Ragged fringed orchid is considered globally secure, with a large range spanning most of the eastern United States and Canada.  Even so, this discovery has local significance, as there is only one other confirmed site for the species in the county.  This native orchid grows in wet, often acidic sunny areas, especially bogs, prairies and the edges of wooded wetlands.  It is in bloom from the middle of June in the Piedmont through late July high in the mountains.

090A7958.JPG

Ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera)

Ragged fringed orchids range in size from a little less than half a foot to more than two feet tall, although most seem to be a bit more than one foot.  The stems are topped with a beautiful, loosely packed, cylindrical inflorescence of several to many flowers.  As is suggested by the specific Latin name, the orchid’s pale green lip is deeply divided into three heavily fringed or “lacerated” lobes.  The thin, pale green nectar spur that extends behind the flower ranges in length from 11 to 23 millimeters.

090A7955.JPG

Ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera)

Although there are a few different species of orchid in Virginia with green flowers — small green wood orchid (P. clavellata), rein orchid (P. flava) and large round-leaved orchid (P. orbiculate) — only ragged fringed orchid has such a deeply divided and finely fringed lip, making it quite distinctive in the field.

090A7979.JPG

Ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera)

Ragged fringed orchids are pollinated at dawn and dusk by several species of Sphinx and Noctuid moths, including celery looper and unspotted looper, as well as the commonly seen, day flying, hummingbird clearwing.

27815064343_7f2f571fdc_o.jpg

Hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), is a pollinator of ragged fringed orchid.