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.
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.
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.
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.