On Thursday, May 7, I participated in a big day called the Raptorthon, a fundraiser for the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch and the Hawk Migration Association of North America. My brother Theo accompanied me, and my parents drove. This year, due to the coronavirus, the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch team didn’t bird together. Each counter took a different county to bird for the Raptorthon, with Vic in Highland, Gabriel in Augusta, Baxter in Albemarle, and me in Nelson. Since I was birding in Nelson anyway, I took the Raptorthon as an opportunity to try to break my own personal Nelson big day record, 105 species, set on May 3, 2019.
We started at 6:00 AM at the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Wintergreen. Many of the breeding warblers were singing, like ovenbird, American redstart, black-and-white, and cerulean, but there wasn’t much passage migrant activity. We picked up dark-eyed junco and blue-headed vireo and then headed down the mountain towards Rockfish Valley Trail. We spent the next two and a half hours at Rockfish Valley trail, birding slowly and thoroughly. We had 60 species there, including Tennessee, palm, Cape May, and chestnut-sided warblers, blue grosbeak, Swainson’s thrush, and cliff and bank swallows. We then drove the Blue Ride Parkway southwest to Tye River Gap, listening for birds along the way. We heard more of the common breeding species like ovenbird, hooded, redstart, black-and-white, and cerulean but not much else. We did see a broad-winged hawk perched in a tree next to the road though. From Tye River Gap we proceeded south on 56, stopping at Montebello State Fish Hatchery where we added blackburnian warbler. We checked the flooded field at the intersection of 56 and 151 for shorebirds, but the only species present was solitary sandpiper. Our next stop was the field south of Diggs Mountain Road on Arrington Road, where we saw a flock of 8+ bobolink flying around, and saw savannah and grasshopper sparrows. At Lake Nelson we added double-crested cormorant and green heron and found an active hairy woodpecker nest. Prothonotary warblers sang from the swamp at the Wingina Boat Ramp. We then headed to James River State WMA, where we added Wilson’s snipe, spotted sandpiper, yellow-billed cuckoo, and pine and prairie warbler to the day list. Our last stop before returning to our home in Afton for an early dinner was Thurston lane, a small road in northeastern Nelson County. Thurston Lane was quiet except for a small warbler flock in a cypress plantation that included chestnut-sided and blue-winged warblers. The blue-winged warbler was definitely the highlight of the day for me, as it was only the second I’ve ever seen in Nelson. After dinner we drove back to James River State WMA, where we waited for dusk. Common nighthawks weaved acrobatically overhead and a ruby-throated hummingbird zipped past. As it began to get dark, American woodcocks began to “peent” from the field near the train tracks. Then a chuck-will’s widow began to sing, and it was soon joined by eastern whip-poor-wills and a barred and screech owl. We spent several more hours looking for a great-horned owl but couldn’t find one. We returned home at 11:00 PM.
All together we had 109 species, four more than my previous Nelson County Big Day record. We birded from sunrise to long after sunset and covered more than 200 miles across the county by car. We saw some awesome birds, and most importantly, we raised money for the important work of the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch and the Hawk Migration Association of North America. Thanks again to everyone who donated!