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.
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.
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!