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.
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.
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!