Shorebird Habitat Conservation on the Eastern Shore of Virginia

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

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

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

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Sanderling (Calidris alba)

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

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Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca)

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

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

The Blackbirds of Moonglow Dairy

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

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Cattle Pens at Moonglow Dairy.  Photo by Theo Staengl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The heavens opened and I heard the angelic chorus sing.

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Large Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera grandiflora)

 

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Bird Finding in Virginia: Greenbrier Park

Located in the Greenbrier neighborhood on the north side of Charlottesville, Greenbrier Park has the fourth-most species of any eBird hotspot in the City of Charlottesville, and some of its best birding.  Park entrances are located at the intersection of Greenbrier Drive and Kerry Lane, the end of Jamestown Road, and the Brandywine Drive bridge over Meadow Creek.  There is street parking on Brandywine Drive, Greenbrier Drive, Jamestown Road, and Kerry Lane.  The hotspot encompasses both Greenbrier Park itself, on the east side of the Brandywine bridge, and the section of the Rivanna Trail that runs through city property from the west side of the Brandywine bridge to Hydraulic Road.  Habitats in the park include floodplain forest, upland forest, fields, swamp forest, and marsh.

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From the Brandywine Drive bridge, you can walk east or west.  The east side is generally better for warblers, while the west is better for sparrows.  If you go east from the bridge along the trail that runs parallel to Meadow Creek, you will soon reach an intersection with a paved trail that leads across a wooden bridge over the creek.  A left turn takes you up a hill to the Kerry Lane entrance, while a right turn over the bridge leads to another intersection.  A left takes you on a trail that parallels the one opposite the creek, while continuing straight leads to the Jamestown Drive entrance.  Past this point, trails run parallel on each side of the creek, and form a loop at the railroad track that makes the park’s eastern boundary.  The section of trail that connects the two sides runs over a tunnel through which the creek passes under the tracks, and is steep, slippery, and overgrown, with a drop into the water below on one side.  Fortunately, there is a rock crossing about three-quarters of the way down the trail that is much safer during low water.  This entire east side of Greenbrier is very good during spring migration, with species such as both waterthrushes, prothonotary, worm-eating, black-throated blue, black-throated green, and yellow warblers, northern parula, scarlet tanager, Baltimore oriole, veery, and Lincoln’s sparrow recorded here.

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Scarlet Tanager

A marsh on the south side of the creek, opposite the rock crossing, is good for migrant green herons and solitary sandpipers.  Rusty blackbirds may also be here in the late winter, and the swampy woods on the north side can have wood ducks.  Also on the north side of the creek, a backyard that runs down to the trail has feeders which can be good for finches and other songbirds, and a brush pile next to a boardwalk here is good for wrens and sparrows.  A dead-end trail just past the marsh on the south side leads you through a moist wooded area with much undergrowth where I have seen American woodcock, white-eyed vireo and barred owl.

On the west side of the bridge, the trail runs along the creek for a short while before crossing it at some rocks where a cable has been put across the stream to hold on to.  The woods just after you cross have lots of fallen logs and are great for winter wrens.  In fact, Greenbrier is probably the most reliable place for that species that I have been.

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Winter Wren

A little farther down, you will reach a gas cut that comes down a steep slope on the left.  If you climb the hill through the cut, there is a small trail that goes off to the right.  This trail is very good for thrushes and ovenbird, the latter only in migration as far as I know.  If instead of going left up the gas cut you take a right from the main trail, you will reach a large, weedy field on your left.  This is a fantastic area in the fall and winter, with tons of sparrows.  This spot is good for swamp and field sparrows, winter wren, red-shouldered hawk, common yellowthroat, and indigo bunting.  I have found willow flycatcher, eastern meadowlark, and American tree sparrow in this field as well.  If you continue straight on the trail past the gas cut, you will see upland, oak-dominated woods on your left and floodplain forest on the right all the way down to Hydraulic Road, with some small clearings and woodland trickles.  This whole area is excellent for woodpeckers, kinglets, and songbirds in general.  Don’t forget to look up every now and then on the trail, as hawks are frequently seen here, as well as the occasional common raven and bald eagle.

Greenbrier Park is one of the best hotspots in Charlottesville, but before I started birding it, I believe there were only about 70 species recorded there.  Now at this time of writing, that number is up to 119, with plenty more new species to come.  Spring migration is probably the best time to bird at Greenbrier, but winter is quite good as well, and fall migration has the possibility of turning up some good species.  Summer is not as active, since most of the breeding birds are common species, but it’s not bad nonetheless.  I would recommend Greenbrier to beginner birders looking to see a good diversity of species, and really any birder in Charlottesville looking for a new place to bird.

You can view the hotspot on eBird here: https://ebird.org/hotspot/L1543531?yr=all&m=&rank=mrec

 

Drew Chaney, a member of the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club, is writing posts about birding locations for this blog.  In addition to birds, Drew is passionate about Plants and Odonata.

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.