Birding Highland County

One of the first field trips I took with the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club was in January 2014 to Highland County, looking for Golden Eagles, Rough-legged Hawks, and American Tree Sparrows.  Highland, a green, hilly county on the West Virginia border, contains a large wintering population of Golden Eagles.  I remember feeling a little intimidated by the older boys, who were so skilled at bird ID and so patient and generous with helping me see the birds.  My 7 year old brother was bored because he wasn’t that into birding yet, so he threw a snowball at the club’s Vice President.  Andrew responded with good humor and soon everyone was involved in a memorable snowball fight that helped me and my brother feel even more welcome.   We saw about 15 Bald Eagles that day.  At the time, they excited me almost as much as the single immature Golden Eagle we saw having a vicious air battle with a Bald Eagle.

After having been to Highland for four winters in a row now, I desperately wanted to go in late May to see some of the breeding birds that are more common further north yet reach the southern limit of their range there.  Last year, I waited until June to go, and most of Highland’s rare breeding birds like the beautiful Golden-winged Warbler and Black-billed Cuckoo had already stopped singing.  This year, the date of the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club annual trip, May 21, finally worked for me.  As we descended into the Blue Grass Valley, we started seeing Bobolinks and Meadowlarks by the road.  This area of Highland is mostly endless farmland, so it can be a great place to look for field birds in the spring, and Golden Eagles in winter.  We made a few brief stops at little streams that flowed out of the lush, rolling green hills.  At one stop in the Forks of Water area, we found a Warbling Vireo, its boisterous, bubbly song intermingling with the sound of the swiftly flowing creek.  Other stops in the valley included a graveyard for Willow Flycatcher and a large cattle pasture for Vespers Sparrow (which we didn’t get, but we did have good views of a Savannah and Grasshopper Sparrow).

As we began to climb up toward the West Virginia border and Margaret O’Bryan’s house (the location of one of the best breeding colonies of Golden-winged Warblers in Virginia) the vegetation became more brushy, with young trees and shrubs instead of pasture.  I was most excited for this part of the trip, because Golden-winged Warblers were the only regularly occurring, eastern warbler that I hadn’t already seen.

Golden-winged Warblers are one of the rarest breeding warblers in Virginia.  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Appalachian population has declined by 98 percent since the 1960s, to only 22,000 estimated breeding individuals in 2010, the steepest decline of any North American songbird.  These declines are most likely the result of the loss and degradation of the shrubby, early successional breeding habitat that Golden-winged warblers favor, as well as loss of wintering habitat in the tropics.  Another problem is that Golden-winged Warblers frequently interbreed with extremely closely related Blue-winged Warblers.  Scientists worry that the much more abundant Blue-winged Warbler could be swamping Golden-winged genetics.

Despite the recent steep decline, I am hopeful that we may still have breeding golden wings in Virginia 50 years from now.  For one thing, the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group and other conservation organizations have taken significant conservation actions, such as habitat restoration that could make a difference.  Also, new research by the Cornell Lab shows that hybridization probably shouldn’t be considered a threat to Golden-winged Warblers because they have been interbreeding with Blue-winged Warblers for most of their evolutionary history. In this view, the species distinction may be artificial, and the two “species” sharing genes may have helped them survive and adapt to changing conditions.

We parked by the edge of the road just short of the O’Bryan property.  As soon as everybody was out of the cars, as if on cue, the high, buzzy song of a Golden-winged Warbler came over the hill.  We all scrambled across the road trying to spot it from the tops of the dense, green foliage it likes.  As it sang again, Andrew (the same leader from that first Highland trip but soon off to college) spotted it in the top of a tree in the valley below.  It was a gorgeous, pure Golden-winged adult male, the fulfillment of a birding dream for me.

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Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera)

Thrilled with such early success, we continued up the mountain and over the West Virginia border, where we saw our second Golden-winged Warbler.  Two Golden-wings in two different states!  The next part of the trip took us into the George Washington National Forest along the VA/WV border, looking for warblers like Canada, Magnolia, and Blackburnian, all of which we eventually heard.  At one stop on a dirt road high in the mountains, I found American Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria pseudomajalis), a life plant for me.

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American Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria pseudomajalis)

We descended into the Straight Fork area, where a complex of beaver ponds, creeks and open mountain meadows crossed the road.  This area is one of the best spots in Highland for Northern Odonates, which reach their southern range limit in Virginia and a very good site for Alder Flycatchers.  It wasn’t long before we heard the distinctive “free beers” song of Alder Flycatchers echoing around the stream.  Finding them wasn’t too difficult, but wasn’t that interesting, as they look almost exactly like Willow Flycatchers.  Still, it was nice to properly experience this uncommon breeder that I have never seen before.  The odes were not nearly as good as they could have been, possibly because of the cloudiness of the day, or maybe the time of year, with none of the really rare species and only some of the more interesting common northern ones present.

Our last stop was for Mourning Warblers at a fire road in the national forest.  Last June, two of them had aggressively responded to imitated chips here, and I was excited to try and repeat that.  We started walking down the fire road.  Suddenly Andrew tensed and told us to be quiet, indicating he had seen something.  He peered into the wall of greenery in front of us, and finally said he had a Black-billed Cuckoo.  We rushed forward and demanded he tell us where it was, validating Andrew’s caution in waiting to announce the bird before he’d ID’d it.  The Cuckoo, surprisingly tolerant, other than being in nearly impenetrable brush, let us get great looks and abysmal photos.  I have been fortunate enough to see a Black-billed Cuckoo in Virginia before, on migration, but for some in our party this was a Virginia lifer.  We never did see the Mourning Warblers, but what a great way to end a fantastic trip!

Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve

A friend, Drew, and I started planning our trip to Halifax County’s Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve in January. Difficult Creek is a former Pine savanna with hardpan soils, making it a very unique site in Virginia. Recently the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) announced on Face Book their discovery there of a new colony of Tall Barbara’s Buttons, a southern piedmont endemic with only one other known extant site in the world and one of our main targets for the trip.

On our way down Route 15 just north of Farmville, Drew spotted a huge mass of white wands of flowers in a power cut. Excited at the thought of what they might be, we quickly stopped. Hundreds of White Colicroot (Aletris farinosa) grew in the power line cut along with Green Milkweed, Smalls Ragwort, Carolina Rose, and Sundrops.

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White Colicroot is much rarer further north so we had never seen it before.

Shortly after entering the preserve on a windy road, we crossed Difficult Creek, its water muddy and torrential after all the recent rain. Southern Sugar Maple (Acer floridanum) and Winged Elm (Ulmus alata) grew in the forest around the creek. Soon we came to a large power line crossing the road. Underneath it bloomed the richest assortment of colorful wildflowers I had ever seen in a power line prairie. Carolina Thistle (Cirsium carolinianum), rare in Virginia, was one of the most abundant species. Plumed Thistle, Butterfly Weed, Dogbane, Green Milkweed, Green-and-Gold, Sundrops, Hyssop-leafed Skullcap, Mad-dog Skullcap, Pale spike Lobelia, and many asters, goldenrods, and other composites that were to young to identify were also plentiful.

Soon, we also found White Milkweed (Asclepius albicans) and Carolina False Dandelion (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus), both life plants for me. As we explored the power cut, we kept finding southern piedmont specialties, plants that hardly ever occur elsewhere in the state. For example, American Ipecac (Gillenia stipulata) is listed by the Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora to occur in Virginia only in Halifax and Wise Counties.

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American Ipecac

Other interesting plants we saw there were: Narrow-leaved Bluets (Houstonia tenuifolia), Old Field Milkvine (Matelea decipiens), Sampson Snakeroot (Orbexilum pedunculatum), Smooth Coneflower (Echinacea laevigata), and Lobed Coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata).

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Smooth Coneflower

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Old Field Milkvine

The birds we saw and heard were species typical of southern piedmont pine lands, with the most common species being Summer Tanager, Prairie Warbler, Pine Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, and Brown-headed Nuthatch, always a treat to see away from the coast.  We also heard a Northern Bobwhite call a couple of times, only the second time I have ever encountered it.  Other notable birds were Yellow-breasted Chat and Hooded Warbler.

When we finished exploring the power line prairie, we accessed the preserve at another point, to keep looking for Barbara’s Buttons. Loblolly Pines grew above us, Willow Oak, Blackjack Oak, Post Oak, and Sourwood made a dense shrub layer. The herbaceous diversity was not nearly as high as it had been in the open power line corridor.

As we were finishing our lunch, heavy clouds came in and it started to pour. We quickly ran back to the car to finish eating, complaining about how difficult the rain would make photography, and how generally unpleasant it was. Right when we were about to go out again, a DCR truck pulled up and its driver asked if we were looking for wildflowers. We said we were, and asked him if he could show us the site for Tall Barbara’s Buttons.  It turned out the driver was Chris Ludwig, Chief biologist of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Natural Heritage. He showed us a small colony of Tall Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia legrandii), which, despite the still heavy rain, we photographed profusely.

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Tall Barbara’s Buttons

The pouring rain necessitated that we keep moving if we did not want to get soaked, so we asked Chris if he would show us a colony of the much more common (but still new to us) Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia obovata), which also grows at the preserve. He took us to a large colony, and I was surprised at how different the two Barbara’s Buttons were from each other. I had been prepared to measure the height of the stalk in order to tell one from the other, but found that Tall Barbara’s Buttons had deep pink flowers and Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons had pure white flowers. I am sure flower color in these species is somewhat variable, and I am very curious as to the color of Tall Barbara’s Buttons at the other site it is known from in North Carolina, and to the color of other colonies of Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons.

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Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons

Chris then showed us the few other plants we had missed on our first exploration of the power cut, such as Rattlesnake Master, and Glade Wild Quinine (we had seen Common Wild Quinine earlier, so we were able to compare the species). He also identified the strange sheep like sound of an amphibian we had been hearing all day as a Eastern Narrow-mouthed Toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis).

 

Chris also told us how DCR was managing Difficult Creek.  About 40 years ago, the preserve had been converted to a Loblolly Pine plantation from hardwood forest.  As the Pines grew, they forced the herbaceous flora into the adjacent power line clearing that we had just explored. The power line cut was mowed every couple of years, which kept woody plants from encroaching and cutting off light.  DCR’s plan is to restore the preserve to pine savanna, an open canopy of pines, oaks, and hickories maintained by fire, that would have historically occurred throughout the southern piedmont before the colonial period.  They hope to accomplish this by prescribed burns and Loblolly Pine removal, which would let more light reach the ground, allowing the plants to recolonize the preserve from the power line clearing.  In addition to this restoration regime providing fantastic habitat for so many rare southern piedmont plants, it would create ideal habitat for Northern Bobwhites.

We were thrilled by the success of our trip, and the thought of that rich power cut prairie spreading throughout the entire preserve.

 

 

The Biggest Week in American Birding 2017

Last year at the Biggest Week in American Birding in Northwest Ohio, I remember seeing warblers everywhere I looked from the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area boardwalk.  By the end of the festival, we had seen 31 species of warblers, including rarities such as Kirtland’s and Mourning Warblers.   Other migrants were also abundant: Whippoorwill, Black-billed Cuckoo, Curlew Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, and White-rumped Sandpiper to name a few.  Magee Marsh and other wildlife areas that line Lake Erie in that area serve as migrant traps, where many birds stop to rest and refuel before crossing the lake.  I was very excited to be going back.

As we drove to the festival, though, I started worrying.  Migration was late this year and we had to get back to Virginia to attend the Mount Rogers Naturalist Rally.  These plans meant that we couldn’t stay till the end of the week when the rarer warblers and flycatchers would be expected even under more typical migration timing.

Our first morning, we started early at Magee Marsh.  Unfortunately, compared to last year, the boardwalk was dead.  It seemed like there were more warblers back in Virginia.  We found 41 species of birds that morning and I was able to photograph this posing Black-throated Green Warbler.

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Black-throated Green Warbler

Feeling a little depressed at having birded the self proclaimed “Warbler Capital of the World” for an hour yet seeing only 6 warbler species, we headed to the nearby Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area.  As we pulled into the small, empty parking lot, we saw 4 Sandhill Cranes fly overhead, their strange rattling calls filling the sky.  We found a muddy trail on a narrow stretch of ground just barely elevated above the water on either side of it, leading off into the wide open marshlands.  As we walked onto this little dike, we heard several Sora.  We saw American Coots and Common Gallinules in the open sections of water.  Suddenly, something sprang into flight from some grass next to my brother’s feet.  As it flew, I registered the small size, little trailing feet, and tannish coloration of a Least Bittern.  It landed at the top of some marsh grass, and we had a few seconds to look at it before it slid down the stalk and disappeared.  This Least Bittern was only the third one I had ever seen.  Marsh Wrens sang along the trail, but sadly we were never able to see one.  Not bad marsh birding at all: Sora, Common Gallinule, Marsh Wren, Sandhill Cranes, and Least Bittern!

We returned to the car and checked the Biggest Week twitter feed.  Someone had reported two Upland Sandpipers, a lifer for me, at Grimm Prairie at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.  When we got there, we saw a line of birders with scopes standing in the parking lot staring into the empty field.  The birds hadn’t been seen for awhile and were probably behind a clump of grass.  We got our scope and scanned the field, but the heat haze was so thick that we couldn’t see much in the distance.  Deciding that we would bird the rest of Ottawa and keep our eyes on twitter in case the birds were re-found, we packed up and left.

Hundreds of swallows of 5 different species surrounded us as we started down the foot trail around the impoundments at Ottawa.  I saw a Bank Swallow among the much more prevalent Tree, Northern Rough Winged, and Barn Swallows and Purple Martins, but my brother, who had never seen one, missed it.  I was therefore distracted the rest of the afternoon by the necessity of scanning every swallow that came by to try to find another Bank for him.   We didn’t see another one.  Nevertheless, I did enjoy seeing Black Tern, Least Flycatcher and a Black-crowned Night Heron there.

Back at Grimm Prairie, we saw the Upland Sandpipers (if you can call the horrible, distant, distorted scope views we had ‘seeing’) although certainly not as well as I would have liked through the heat haze.

The next morning, we started by stopping at the intersection of Angola and Raab Roads, which had a Curlew Sandpiper last year.  This year we had 5 swallow species including Bank and Cliff on the wire by the road.  My brother was very happy about finally finding a Bank.

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Bank Swallows by Theo Staengl

We spent the rest of the morning birding the metro parks of Toledo.  At Oak Openings Metropark, we got Lark Sparrow, Red-headed Woodpecker, Least Flycatcher and Nashville Warbler.  At Pearson Metropark we saw almost nothing.  Later in the afternoon, we headed back to Magee to see if anything new had shown up.  There was more Warbler activity, with Blackburnian Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Orange Crowned Warbler, and Cape May Warbler, but it still didn’t compare to last year.

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Blackburnian warbler

The next day (Wednesday), things were finally really starting to get better as far as migrant passerines were concerned.  We had 60 species of birds on the Magee Marsh boardwalk, with 19 species of warblers.  Prothonotary, Blue-winged and Hooded were some of the better ones we saw.

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Blue-headed Vireo

That afternoon, we went to Maumee Bay State Park, where birders had spotted a Clay-colored Sparrow.  As we waited for it to stick its head out of the grass, we watched Purple Martins gracefully wheeling overhead and landing on the artificial gourds that had been set out for them.  Just as we were getting ready to bird the Maumee boardwalk and come back for the Sparrow later, it flew out of the grass, circled its crowd of gathered admirers and landed in a leafless tree right in front of us.  It was the second time I have seen a Clay-colored Sparrow, but this time provided, by far, the better looks and photos.

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Clay-Colored Sparrow

We spent the  rest of the day slowly birding the Maumee boardwalk, enjoying the peaceful swamp forests.  Veerys seemed to hop on every other fallen log.  We  saw the well-known red morph Eastern Screech Owl that reliably roosts in a box next to the trail.  Ovenbirds, Nashville Warblers, and Yellow Warblers sang in the willows and cottonwoods.

We had to leave for Virginia by 10am Thursday morning, so we didn’t have much time to bird.  We decided to bird Magee Marsh for the whole time in hopes that migration would have picked up.  It was the best day so far, and at times it was almost as good as it had been last year.  One of the best things about Magee Marsh, second to the bird themselves, is that you can see warblers only feet from you at the edge of the boardwalk.  And even when they are not posing perfectly, they are never very high in the canopy like they are back home.  The birds’ proximity and diversity make this an exceptionally good location for warbler photography.  Here are some favorite photos that I took that last morning in Ohio:

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Chestnut-sided Warbler

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Nashville Warbler

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Nashville Warbler

We also got great looks at Bay-breasted Warbler that day, and so many other warblers.  By the end of the trip, our trip list was 130 species, and we had seen 22 species of warblers.  Not as good as last year, but we had a lot of fun, and saw plenty of birds.

Mount Rogers Naturalist Rally Part 2: Sullivan Swamp at Grayson Highlands

From the parking lot, we looked out on the windblown landscape of Grayson Highlands State Park.  We saw huge rock outcrops surrounded by beautiful meadows and balds.  On the hill directly in front of us, scattered Red Spruce and Highbush Blueberry grew, fading into the mountains behind them.

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View of Grayson Highlands

All around us, breeding birds with northern affinities sang, Black-Throated Green Warbler, Chestnut Sided Warbler, Dark eyed Junco, and Black-capped Chickadee.  We were here to visit Sullivan Swamp, one of only thirty known Appalachian Shrub Bogs in the world.  Upon entering the small valley of Sullivan Swamp, my feet started to sink into the marshy ground.  Huge, furry fronds of Cinnamon Fern, just beginning to unfurl, grew on the tufts of earth that rose a few inches above the surface of the bog.  We walked through thick matts of green and red Sphagnum moss, trying not to think about all the plants we were stepping on.  Marsh Blue Violet (Viola cucullata) and Northern White Violet (Viola macloskeyi)  grew everywhere in the sphagnum mat.  I photographed a patch of Thymeleaf Bluet (a different species than the bluet common in the piedmont, (Houstonia cerulea)) growing on some rocks.

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Thyme leaf Bluet (Houstonia serpyllifolia)

The weather was gray and rainy, perhaps the reason none of Sullivan Swamp’s famous butterflies were out, but we did find a new species of plant for the location, Pink Lady Slipper.

Growing on the higher, drier ground off to one side of the bog, underneath a thick layer of Rhododendron, were a few Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum).

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Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)

It was a beautiful place with rare and interesting plants, but I think that later in the summer when more things are blooming and more butterflies and Odonates are flying would be a better time to visit this fantastic ecosystem.

See the Blue Ridge Discovery Center blog here and here for more information on Sullivan Swamp.

 

Mount Rogers Naturalist Rally Part 1: Salamanders at White Top Mountain

All we could see from the Elk Garden parking lot at White Top Mountain was a thick blanket of fog.  It covered the meadows and mountains to our left, and obscured the distant Yellow Birches of the forest on our right.  It wasn’t exactly raining, but we could feel the heavy wetness in the cool air.  It was around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, an average temperature for this elevation even on a summer morning.  White top Mountain’s peak is the second highest peak in Virginia at 5,525 feet, but we were only at a bit over 4,000 feet.  As our group assembled in the parking lot, our guide, Kevin Hamed, Professor of Biology, at Virginia Highlands Community College, told us interesting things about salamanders.  He said that in addition to being able to regrow lost tails, many salamanders can regrow legs and even large parts of their heart.  He also told us that the total biomass of salamanders in the Southern Appalachians is greater than the biomass of all the mammals and birds in the area combined.  That’s a lot of salamanders! As we walked down a small gravel road on our way to the salamander spot, I noticed how different the flora was from Shenandoah National Park back home.  Instead of White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), the common trillium carpeting this forest was Red Trillium (Trillium erectum).  IMG_1266_edited-1.JPG

Also Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) was abundant, in contrast to the Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) common back home. In general, the wildflowers on the forest floor were extremely rich and diverse, even more so then in Shenandoah National Park.

After 40 minutes of searching around a rocky moss covered slope, our group found 7 species of salamanders in an area less then one acre. We saw the regional endemic Weller’s Salamander, which lives only in the Mount Rogers area of Virginia and North Carolina and far eastern Tennessee.

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Weller’s Salamander (Plethodon welleri)

We also saw: Yonahlossee Salamander (Plethodon yonahlossee), Northern Pygmy Salamander (Desmognathus organi), Northern Grey-cheeked Salamander (Plethodon montanus),  Blue Ridge Dusky Salamander, (Desmognathus orestes), Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus), and Blue Ridge two lined Salamander (Eurycea wilderae). 

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Yonahlossee Salamander (Plethodon yonahlossee)

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Northern Pygmy Salamander (Desmognathus organi)

After finishing at that site, we headed to a fast flowing mountain stream to look for aquatic species.  By turning over rocks in the stream we found more Grey-cheeked and Northern Dusky Salamanders as well as Blackbelly Salamander (Desmognathus quadramaculatus) and Seal Salamander (Desmognathus monticola), which were both new species for the day. Interestingly, the previously abundant Weller’s and Yonahlossee Salamanders were completely absent.  Upon returning to the Konnarock Community Center, the home base for the Mount Rogers Naturalist Rally, we heard about a Northern Red Salamander under a wooden board.  It was our 11th species of Salamander for the day.

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Northern Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber ruber)

Piney Grove and the Dismal Swamp

Piney Grove Preserve is the only place in Virginia where the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker lives. It is also the furthest north site for this species.  As we drove down the narrow entrance road to the preserve, we could hear the rising song of Prairie Warblers from almost every clump of vegetation by the road.  Eastern Towhees, Black-and-white Warbler, and Ovenbirds also sang along the road.  Old Loblolly and Long-leaf Pines towered over the understory of Wax Myrtle and young Black and Water Oaks, creating the beautiful habitat of southern pine savannah. We photographed several Pink Lady’s Slippers that grew in the thick mat of decaying pine needles covering the forest floor at the entrance to the Nature Conservancy’s Darden Nature Trail.

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Pink Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

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Very pale Pink Lady’s Slipper

I saw a couple of Brown-headed Nuthatches foraging in the smaller pines.  This small species only lives on the Coast, so I don’t get to see them very often.  Theo, my brother, brought my attention to a very distant, slow, “yank yank yank” call, clearly a Red-breasted Nuthatch.  Soon after, I heard the faster, jerkier call of the White-breasted Nuthatch.  It was the first time I had ever seen all three eastern Nuthatches in the same day!  We saw Ovenbirds and Yellow-throated Vireos, but no Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.  We decided to drive the main road of the preserve to look for the spot we had seen them the last time we came here, over a year ago.  As we were pulling out of the parking lot, Theo spotted a Blue Grosbeak sitting on a tree beside the road.  What an unexpected treat! They are a common breeder in this habitat later in the year, but this was the first one I had seen this season.   We walked down the main road, seeing plenty of Pine Warblers, Prairie Warblers, Palm Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and Yellow-throated Warblers, but still no Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.  Suddenly, two “footballs with wings” exploded out of the brush in front of us, their feathers making a tremendous noise.  Bobwhite! This was a very long awaited lifer. After lunch we decided we’d better head to the Dismal Swamp if we wanted to have much time there, so with much regret, we gave up on the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and got into the car for the drive.

Our first stop at the Great Dismal Swamp NWR was Jericho Ditch, a famous spot for the elusive Swainson’s Warbler.  When we got out of our car, the sight that greeted us was not exactly spectacular.  A long path stretched into the hazy distance with a ditch nearly hidden by dense, shrubby vegetation beside it.  Heat shimmered off the gravel parking lot.  We heard and then saw several Prothonotary Warblers, their brilliant yellow bodies contrasting with their slate grey wings.  As we walked along the ditch, giant Swamp Darners and other dragonflies swarmed all about us.  Eventually, we heard a Swainson’s Warbler sing about 10 feet off the trail.  We stood and waited patiently, tried “pishing,” and even tried to enter the dense brush and briers that made a wall at the edge of the trail, but nothing we did let us see the bird.  After we waited for a good half hour, we gave up seeing it and went to Washington Ditch.  Washington Ditch was much nicer than Jericho Ditch, with real coastal swamp forest instead of scrub.  Mature Red Maples, Willow Oaks, and Water Oaks cast a cooling shade, with lush Devils Walking Stick and Cinnamon Fern carpeting the forest floor.  As we walked along the wide cool path, we heard the noises of a mixed flock off to the left.  Soon Yellow-rumped and Prothonotary Warblers sang on either side of us.  Then we heard the distinctive “whee whee whee whip-poor-will” song of a Swainson’s Warbler.  I found the bird this time, due to the more open canopy, and enjoyed my first views of it.

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Swainson’s Warbler

After the Warblers had moved on and we were walking back to the car, we heard a Barred Owl call through the distant swamp woods.

Exploring the Southern Piedmont in Amherst County

The other day me and a friend explored Beck Creek in Amherst County in search of Odes (short for Odonata, the dragonfly and damselfly order) and anything else we could find.  We had high expectations for the springtime dragonflies, with almost every interesting early April flying Ode, including Eastern Red Damsels and Southern Pygmy Club-tails, supposedly abundant and easy to see here.  We drove down the dusty gravel road looking for a spring off to one side in the forest.  When we found the small trickle of crystal clear water and got out of the car, a giant logging truck came roaring by, spraying us with dry, sticky dust. We escaped into the lush green vegetation surrounding the seep and started to gently knock the many sedges for red damsels.  The diversity of the native wildflowers around us was immediately apparent, and they soon made up for the near total lack of Odes. Royal Fern, Sensitive Fern, Field Horsetail, Tall Scouring Rush, Trout lily, White Turtle Head, Cut-leafed Coneflower, Cardinal Flower, Golden Ragwort, Bulbous Bittercress, Appalachian Foam Flower, Dwarf Ginseng, Robin’s Plantain, Wild-blue Phlox, Eastern Solomon’s Plume, and Solomon’s Seal were some of the herbaceous plants that grew in and around the spring.

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Bulbous Bittercress

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Dwarf Ginseng

We walked down the road in search of other Odes like Uhler’s Sundragon and Brown Spike-tail, but sadly the only dragonfly we saw was a single Springtime Darner.  My friend found a large colony of Yellowroot and Leatherwood growing next to the creek.  These were life plants for both of us.

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Yellow root

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Leatherwood

I spotted an Elfin butterfly of some type flying next to the road.  We rushed to get pictures, but another huge truck came through, plastering us with more dust, and scaring it away. Eventually we refound it, and were able to determine that it was a Brown Elfin.  Fire Pink and Green-and-gold grew profusely on the rock outcrops above the road. I had never seen Green-and-gold before, despite it apparently being rather common, so it was nice to finally see some.

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Fire Pink

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Green-and-gold

When we got back to the car, we decided to have one more go at the odes in the seep around the spring before we had to leave.  It was a good thing we did! We very quickly found a teneral Southern Pygmy Club-tail resting on a clump of sedge as its wings dried out.  This was our most wanted dragonfly for the trip so it was a good thing we eventually found one, not that it would have mattered much with all those great plants!  We photographed it until we had to go.

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Southern Pygmy Club-tail