Fallout at Rockfish Gap

As we drove up the long, winding road to the Rockfish Gap hawk watch, the barely risen sun revealed a striking scene in the valley below us.  We looked down on a solid layer of dark, heavy clouds.  The gap of clear air that we were driving through quickly gave way to more clouds above us, obscuring the taller mountain peaks.

A light drizzle filled the cool air as we reached the parking lot of the Inn at Afton, where the hawk watch is located, and where our young birders club planned to meet for the day’s field trip.   Our plan today was to bird the Rockfish Valley Trail, a local hotspot in Nelson County, and than head back up into the mountains and bird the road known as State Route 610, or the Swannanoa road.  I was even more excited than usual as today’s trip would be the first time I served as trip leader.

When I got out of the car, I heard the flight call of several warblers. Dylan, an eight year old who recently started birding with us, quickly joined my brother and me.  He pointed to a dilapidated, old road sign above our heads, and said he had seen birds in it.  The sign had once read “The Inn at Afton,” but the front had long since fallen off, revealing the sign’s bright interior lights, shining like a beacon to migrating birds.  When I raised my binoculars, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  More than 20 wood warblers sat on and near the sign’s lights.  Occasionally, another would drop out of the sky and join them, explaining the chips I had heard earlier.  Just than, the rest of the trip’s participants pulled up and joined us, making seven young birders total.

We found blackpoll, bay-breasted, black-throated blue, Tennessee, chestnut-sided, yellow-rumped, and black-throated green warblers, northern parulas, and common yellowthroats.  We even found a Nashville warbler in the sign.

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Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla), with Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) inside the sign at the Inn at Afton.  Photo by Tucker Beamer.

We were excited by what this abundance could mean for the rest of our day.  If so many warblers were in such a small area, in such strange conditions, maybe today could be a fallout.  Fallout is a condition where due to sudden, severe weather, large numbers of birds migrating at night are forced down in a small area.  Fallouts are highly sought-after events for birders, as they can result in rare species and unusual numbers of birds.

As the sun rose, the light revealed a more gruesome scene.  Little bodies of black-throated blue warblers and common yellowthroats littered the parking lot, a sad reminder of the many dangers birds face on migration.  These birds were probably attracted to the bright light of the sign and the Inn, and met their death by flying headfirst into these obstructions.

My brother and I had scouted the Rockfish Valley Trail the morning before the trip.  There had been sparrows everywhere, roving about the abandoned fields and brushy hedgerows in large flocks.  We had found five Lincoln’s sparrows, the first two white-crowned sparrows observed in Nelson that year, and tons of song and swamp sparrows.  As we scanned the flock, a strange chip suddenly came from the vegetation by our feet.  Looking down, I saw a blob of rufous feathers fly into another bush — a marsh wren!  Excitedly, we waited for it to make another appearance.  We soon found another one, and enjoyed fabulous views of both.

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Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris)

It was the highest number of marsh wrens ever observed in Nelson County.  I hoped one would stick around for the next day’s field trip.

The thick cloud-cover had not thinned out much as we pulled into the parking lot at the Rockfish Valley Trail, a good sign for songbird activity.  We walked under Route 151 towards the Glenthorne Loop trail, which is usually more productive for sparrows.  When we arrived at the field I had seen the marsh wrens at the day before, I was disappointed to see that most of the sparrows were gone, and the marsh wrens were no longer present.  Even so, we quickly found some swamp sparrows, and two gorgeous white-crowned sparrows.  I walked ahead of the main group, and was relieved to have a Lincoln’s sparrow, one of my favorite sparrows,  hop out on a branch in front of me.   Its gray face, buffy malar and crisp black streaking is so beautiful.  I called to the rest of the group, and was very frustrated when it flew off before any of them could get on it.  Luckily, we soon found a few more in with a sparrow flock on the Spruce Creek side, and we all had fantastic views.

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Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii)

As we were wrapping up at the Rockfish Valley Trail, I spotted a small, dark falcon flying quickly overhead.  It turned out to be a merlin, which was the first one seen in Nelson County that year.  The merlin circled once, giving us a fabulous view, before it shot off down the ridge.

As we drove back toward Swannanoa road and the hawk watch, we felt like we were racing against time.  The clouds were finally beginning to give way, and blue holes were appearing everywhere.  It was also slowly getting warmer.  When we got out of the car at the end of the Swannanoa road, it seemed our fears had been confirmed.  The beautiful Fall foliage was silent.  A turkey vulture soared lazily overhead.

However, a closer inspection revealed ours fears that the birds would no longer be active were unfounded.  Warblers slowly foraged every tree, and many were surprisingly close to the road.  We quickly found blackpoll, black-throated green, Tennessee, and Cape-may warblers, as well as unseasonably large numbers of black-throated blue warblers.

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Cape-may Warbler (Setophaga tigrina).  Photo by Tucker Beamer.

As we walked farther down the road, we saw more and more birds.  Late wood thrushes feasted alongside more seasonally common Swainson’s thrushes in thick tangles of summer grape vines, laden with purple fruit.  We found a late black-and-white warbler and an American redstart.  Scarlet tanagers swooped over the road, and black-throated blue warblers chipped over our heads.  We eventually also found magnolia, palm, pine, and yellow-rumped warblers.

Our final destination for the day was a golf course in the Old Trail neighborhood of Crozet, where someone had seen a clay-colored sparrow the day before.  We had directions to the clump of pokeweed he had been in, and we soon found it.  As we arrived, Baxter saw the bird hop down into the dense brush.  We waited several anxious minutes for it to return, but we needn’t have worried.  It soon returned and sat preening itself on a poke stem while we watched.  The clay-colored sparrow was an Albemarle lifer for everybody, and a lifer for Max and Drew.

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Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida)

When I totaled up our day list that evening, I found we had seen 72 species.  We had experienced a late Fall migration fallout, and we enjoyed ourselves very much.  What an incredible day of local birding!

 

Pocosin Cabin: Spectacular Fall Migration in Shenandoah National Park

I recently attended the first ever Blue Ridge Young Birder Club field trip to Pocosin Cabin in Shenandoah National Park.  I had heard great things about Pocosin, and I was very excited to finally be getting up to Greene County to visit it.  The trip was well attended, with 11 young birder participants.

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Members of the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club on the Pocosin Cabin Field Trip

As we drove up the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, numerous species of asters bloomed by the roadside, creating beautiful drifts of blue and white flowers.  When we got out of the car at the Pocosin Cabin Fire Road, the air felt cool and crisp, a refreshing change from the repressive heat of summer.  Around us, the black gums and tulip populars were already starting to change color to deep reds and yellows, while many of the other tree species remained green.  We encountered our first mixed species flock just after we passed the clearing containing Pocosin Cabin.  Birds flew everywhere I looked.  Swainson’s and wood thrushes were common, but try as we might, we could not find the more uncommon gray-cheeked thrush.  Blue-headed vireos flew and sang from seemingly every branch.  Later season warblers foraged the canopy around us, with Tennessee, blackpoll, and bay-breasted warblers being the most common species.  We also saw blackburnian and black-throated-green warblers, and a northern parula.  In a jewelweed-covered ditch next to the trail, a gorgeous brilliant blue, black, and white male black-throated blue warbler hopped and flitted.  Good bird activity continued down the trail, and just as we were talking about how great a Philadelphia vireo would be, Max called from up ahead that he had one.  We all rushed to him, but by the time we got there, the bird had disappeared. Panicked, we started thoroughly searching the abundant blue-headed vireos for the vanished Philadelphia.  Finally the bird was re-found, and everybody had fabulous views as it foraged in a shrub directly above our heads.

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The Philadelphia Vireo eating a grub

We walked back up the fire road at a more leisurely pace, stopping periodically to look for salamanders under rocks and in the little creeks that crossed the path.  Aside from many common red-backed salamanders, Carson and Robert were able to turn up a southern-two lined salamander, and some monstrously sized northern dusky salamanders.

 

Khabira Wise’s Garden: A Story of Native Ecosystem Modeling

Khabira Wise’s gardens in northern Albemarle County are a stunning example of the Center for Urban Habitat’s (CUH) unique approach to landscaping through native ecosystem modeling.  When planning a garden, CUH considers factors such as geology, elevation, aspect, and lighting in order to decide which native plant community is best suited to each exact location.  The plant communities modeled in Khabira’s gardens are acidic oak-hickory forest understory, piedmont prairie, low elevation acidic outcrop barrens, and alluvial floodplain swales.

I visited Khabira’s Gardens on Thursday, August 31, and was amazed by their vibrancy and beauty.  In front of the house lies a large, colorful prairie entrance bed, with gravel trails leading through it.  If you follow these trails around the house, you come to an alluvial floodplain garden, where water from the roof supports a diverse and thriving community of wetland plants.  Behind the house lies the site for another planned local native prairie, called the megafauna meadow, and a swimming pool.  Below the megafauna meadow and pool is a vegetable garden and a small shed.  

I explored the entrance beds, enjoying the small, feathery, yellow spikes of gray goldenrod as they blended into larger clumps of mountain-mint and tall, white billows of hyssop-leaved thoroughwort.  Species like hyssop-leaved thoroughwort, short-toothed mountain-mint, gray goldenrod, early goldenrod, common yarrow, spotted bee-balm, butterfly weed, and New-England aster were most striking at this time of year.  Underneath these, grew many other less obvious prairie species, such as Pennsylvania sedge and Carolina rose, adding to the richness of the garden.  The plants in this section, as well as those in the uncompleted mega-fauna meadow, were closely modeled after the nearby acidic prairies at Albemarle County’s Preddy Creek Park.  Indeed, the mega-fauna meadow project will attempt to mostly use seeds gathered from Preddy Creek Park, making it a true extension of that local native ecosystem, whereas the entrance prairie beds use plants from a wider region.

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The entrance bed prairie with New-England aster and hyssop-leaved thoroughwort

Walking through Khabira’s gardens, I felt like the air was alive with the vitality of native insects.  As they zipped by, their tiny air currents brushed my skin.  Glistening, iridescent, colorful wasps and beetles, glittering like gems, crawled on flowers.  A bright yellow clouded sulphur butterfly sipped nectar from an orange butterfly weed.  I saw more than six species of wasps, eight species of butterflies, and innumerable hoverflies, native bees and beetles.  When I looked around, at any given time, there might have been more than ten bugs on any tiny bit of flower.  Native ecosystem modeling leads to this abundance by carefully selecting  native plants sourced as locally as possible, and by creating  the conditions needed for the plants to thrive, such as periodic disturbance and the reduction of invasive weeds.  Such careful attention to detail allows the natural community, in this case, Piedmont prairie, to establish, laying a firm foundation for maintaining and increasing biodiversity.

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Clouded sulphur on butterfly weed

I walked around the side of the house, to the next garden area, the alluvial floodplain-modelled garden, a water catchment system from the roof.  Khabira told me this was her favorite part of the gardens.  Rachel, the CUH employee who designed and planted this section, said that when she does an installation, she first chooses plants based on their tolerance or need for the varying moisture conditions present in swale gardens.  Within those habitat parameters, she enjoys considering “growth form, bloom time, and color, and painting with the plants on the ground.” She also pointed out that over time, new native species arrive on their own and add tremendously to the planned richness of the garden.  Looking at the alluvial floodplain garden, I could easily see how her skill has payed off.  Massive clumps of hollow joe-pie weed, cardinal flower, blue mistflower, white turtlehead, and cut-leaf coneflower created explosions of reds, blues, and yellows.  Behind the intense wildflowers, thick mats of bottlebrush grass and various other sedges and rushes formed a solid backdrop.

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Swale planting

Khabira heard about CUH from a friend who had hired them in 2012.  She was very impressed with her friend’s beautiful wildflower garden, and with how CUH provides a plant list specific to each location’s needs.  When she moved into her new house two years ago, she decided to plant her gardens for their beauty and ecological value as thriving native plant communities.   I asked her if she had had any early experiences in life that led to her love of nature, and ultimately contributed to her decision to plant the gardens.  She said that she would never forget a particular afternoon when she was about 8 years old, and really noticed the life and environment around her.  She called this “an indelible experience with the interconnectedness of all things,” and said that she could “feel the pulsing of the earth and how we were all really one being.”  Khabira’s gardens serves as a visual and living symbol of her deep love of nature and desire to contribute to the greater world.  

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Gray Hairstreak on clustered mountain-mint

Kiptopeke Challenge 2017: A Birding Big Day on the Eastern Shore

I felt completely awake despite it being two hours before dawn from the anxiousness and excitement churning inside me.  My brother Theo, our friend Tucker Beamer, and I stood in the high grass of the salt marsh at Pleasure House Point Natural Area in Virginia Beach.  The sounds of the high buzzy chip notes of migrating warblers occasionally pierced the quiet as they flew overhead.  We were competing in a birding big day known as the Kiptopeke Challenge (KC) in order to see as many species as we could in a twenty four hour day, and raise money for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory (CVWO), an important conservation and field research organization in the area.  We had registered ourselves as Team Turnstone.

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Team Turnstone at Cape Charles later in the day

Over the past month, we had meticulously planned a birding route up the Eastern Shore of Virginia from Pleasure House Point, and we were thrilled to finally be putting our plan into action.  Suddenly, we heard the hoarse croak of a yellow-crowned night-heron as it flushed out of the grass somewhere off to our right.  The first identified species of the day!  The low grunting of resting mallard ducks drifted to us on the still night air from the water.  The raucous repeated “kek” calls of a clapper rail erupted out of the marsh and then died back.  We hurried back to the car, and drove to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT).

At 5:25 AM we pulled into the deserted parking lot of the first CBBT island, a famous birding spot, but not one I had high hopes for in the dark.  In the dim light of street lamps, we spotted the blobs of two sleeping shorebirds on the rocks in the surf below.  Closer inspection showed a ruddy turnstone and a sanderling, as well as two more juvenile yellow-crowned night-herons.

We were particularly excited for our next stop, a small section of bay-side beachfront in southern Northampton County called Sunset Beach.  We had heard that hundreds of warblers that had overshot during the night and found themselves on the edge of the difficult to cross Chesapeake Bay flew back up the peninsula of the Eastern Shore at dawn every day.  We found a Wilson’s warbler foraging in the brush, but not yet much else.  We arrived just as the sun was rising, and as we waited for more warblers, we birded along the beach in the half light.  We  saw common gulls, pelicans, and cormorant for the first time that day.

Coming back to the small woodlot near where we had parked, we saw that other Kiptopeke Challenge teams had gathered in expectation of the great flight.  Among them was the Blue Ridge Great Horns, the other youth team.  They were Tucker’s older brother, Baxter Beamer, Gabriel Mapel, and Max Nootbaar.   They jauntily approached us and asked how we were doing.  We asked them the same question instead of answering.  Baxter told us that they had done more pre-dawn birding than us, and as a result had some birds that we didn’t, like bobolink, Swainson’s thrush, and northern harrier.  They didn’t have Wilson’s warbler though.  All further talking was interrupted by a barrage of warbler flight calls.  We hurried to take up our position with the rest of the teams as 20 warblers streaked low over head and disappeared into the dense pines.  Over the next hour, we watched more than 600 warblers of almost 20 different species zip over the gap and up the peninsula.   It was hard to identify them from so brief a look, and to compound the problem, by KC rules, everyone in the team has to see a bird for it to be countable on the team’s list.  Even so, I enjoyed the challenge and the feeling of wonder at the sheer amount of birds.

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Northern parulas were one of the most common species on the morning flight at Sunset Beach.  Photo by Tucker Beamer

When the constant stream of warblers finally began to die down, we had around 60 species for the day, and it was only 7:40 AM.  We said goodbye to the Great Horns, and headed to our next stop, the Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR.  We hoped the other teams wouldn’t stop here, and we might be able to get some birds back on them.  We saw a beautiful American kestrel as we drove in to the refuge.

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American kestrel

Other notable birds at Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR included sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawk, a late eastern kingbird, and house finch, supposedly a difficult bird on the Eastern Shore.   At the Kiptopeke Hawk Platform, we were surprised by how close the migrating raptors were.  At the Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch in Augusta, the raptors appear as little specks in the sky, but at Kiptopeke most birds are low.  We saw our first confirmed merlin, as well as a tufted titmouse, a sometimes difficult species in Northampton.  We drove to Magotha Road, where we hoped to see Eurasian collared dove and marsh wren.  Sadly, the only new birds we added were peregrine falcon, least sandpiper, great egret, foresters tern, and eastern bluebird.  As we were about to leave, the Great Horns drove up again.  They asked us how we were doing again.  When they learned that we were quickly catching up to them, they left in a hurry.  We continued on to Cape Charles Beach, where we hoped to pick up the other tern species.  The sea oats on the dunes blew lazily in the midday wind.  I was beginning to feel the strain of such an intense schedule, but the terns flying by quickly distracted me.  We were only able to pick out royal and sandwich terns here, leaving us to hope we could get caspian and common at Chincoteague later in the day.  At the town of Willis Wharf’s lovely scented boatyard, (the freshest air in the place was the abandoned porta potty), we once again saw our mascot bird, the ruddy turnstone, perched atop a mountain of oyster shells.

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Go Team Turnstone!

Now we had a long time in the car, as we drove all the way up to Saxis Wildlife Management Area in the most northern part of Virginia’s portion of the Delmarva Peninsula.  Seemingly endless plains of salt marsh stretched out from the road in all directions.  We got out of the car, feeling the hot sun beating down on us, and “pished” at the grass.  A seaside sparrow flew up and further away from us. We clapped half-heartedly, hoping to coax a Virginia rail into responding, but since it was literally the middle of the day, we didn’t have much hope.  After about a minute, some Virginia rail, somewhere way out in the marsh, decided it just wanted us to shut-up and let it rest.  The grunting call of the rail was barely perceptible to us, but we could count the bird.

Now we could continue to our last stop, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.  We had planned on spending most of the afternoon at Chincoteague, which proved to be a mistake, as Chincoteague just isn’t that good in the Fall.  We should have spent more time birding sites in Northampton County.  But Chincoteague is always pretty good, and we weren’t entirely disappointed.  We were disappointed by the number of people using the beach.  Why on earth does every beachgoer in the world have to decide to come out to a wildlife refuge when they could literally choose any other spot of sand?!  The beach was so crowded, you could hardly see the ocean from behind the lines of sunbathers.  We hurried past, toward the Tom’s Cove mudflats where we hoped for shorebirds.  One of the first birds we spotted was my Virginia lifer piping plover.

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Piping Plover posing for photographs

Shortly afterward, we found a sandpiper flock, with some semipalmated sandpipers, sanderling, and semipalmated plovers.  There was also a least sandpiper, and many black-bellied plovers.  These were all new birds for the day, except the least.

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Semipalmated Plover

As we continued down the beach, we were surprised by the lack of willits and marbled godwits, which should have been common.  Up ahead, we saw a giant flock of gulls and terns and decided to scan it.  They were mostly great-black backed, herring, ring-billed and laughing gulls and royal terns, but we were able to find caspian and common terns mixed in as well.  Suddenly, a flock of  31 red knots flew in from the ocean side, and landed nearby.  This was a day-bird and Virginia lifer for me.

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Red Knots preening

We birded around Chincoteague for the rest of the day.  Highlights included an adult Lincoln’s sparrow, a bird never before seen on the Kiptopeke Challenge, that we spotted on the Black Duck Trail.

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Lincoln’s Sparrow.  Photo by Tucker Beamer.

As the sun was setting, we hurried back out to the beach to give willits and marbled godwits another shot.  As we walked down the now empty beach, massive flocks of willets and red knots were everywhere.  We were able to pick out four marbled godwits in a flock of over 50 willits.  Thank goodness we eventually got those birds!  After dinner, we came back out to the refuge to try for owls and nocturnal migrants, but we came up with nothing new.  We had planned on listening for more nocturnal migrants back at our hotel, but I guess the beds just looked too good.  It was 10:30 PM, and we had been up since 4:00 AM.  We went to bed.  Our total for the day was 107 species, perhaps not as good as we hoped, but still a fairly solid number, and we’ll be back next year to do better.

Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas

I crept forward through the dense understory of spicebush, trying not to make too much noise, as I followed the soft, incessant trills of a fledgling begging call. I was birding in a small valley right next to our house in the hope of getting a wood thrush breeding confirmation, as we had heard many singing down here recently.  As I removed the final branch blocking my view of where the calls seemed to be coming from, I saw the fuzzy reddish brown backs of 3 little thrushes hopping around on the ground.  I snapped a quick photo and than left them alone.

The 2nd Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas (VABBA or VABBA2) is an ambitious citizen science project designed to document the distribution and abundance of Virginia’s breeding birds.  This year, I participated in the VABBA to learn more about our breeding birds and my local area, and to promote bird conservation through citizen science.  This year was the second of the five-year project, and my first as a volunteer.  Virginia is divided into nearly 4,400 nine square mile blocks, each of which should ideally be surveyed completely.  In recognition that complete survey is very unlikely, one out of every six blocks is a priority block, a designation given to attempt to focus efforts more evenly across the state.  There are approximately 798 priority blocks in Virginia, of which 570 now have data.  VABBA block survey consists of attempting to identify and document breeding evidence for as many species of birds as possible, across as many different habitats in the block as possible.

Through the second season of this project, I have been amazed by the ability of the birding community to contribute large quantities of important data.  The VABBA2 has received 37,669 checklists from 742 participants in just its first two years.  Atlas volunteers have confirmed 185 breeding species in Virginia.  The first VABBA, held over 25 years ago, only confirmed 196 species in five years.  So far I have confirmed 34 species in my block, with an additional 16 as probable, through 45 checklists.

This year I signed up to be the principle atlaser for the block that we live in, Greenfield Central West (CW).  It is not a priority block, but I didn’t want to have to drive somewhere else to bird and I wanted to learn more about the ecosystems around our house.   I was also happy to get to know more local property owners through asking them for permission to survey their properties.  Our immediate neighbors have been very accommodating to birding, and we have unlimited access to a large chunk of land adjacent to our own.  Participating in the Atlas was an opportunity to expand this access to other properties nearby.

I have really enjoyed my participation in VABBA2 this year, but have also found it challenging.  I learned a lot about the breeding biology and behaviors of our summer species, including the habitats different species favored, and I expect to learn much more next year.   Now I know, for example, that I can reliably find ovenbirds and worm eating warblers in the dry oak hickory forest on the Paul’s Creek Trail in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.  These are two species that I don’t expect to find breeding in the lush floodplain forest on our property in the same block, less than a couple of miles away.  Similarly, I hoped to find breeding hooded warblers as the elevation increased, and was pleased when I was able to confirm one.  I also began to learn which behaviors distinguish a bird that is likely to show breeding evidence.   For instance, a bird silently feeding in the brush or flying directly back and fourth between shrubs is much more likely to give you a breeding confirmation than a bird leisurely singing in the canopy.

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These Barn Swallows illustrate the confirmed breeding code Nest with Young (NY).

As I learned more about the differences between atlasing and regular birding, I was able to confirm many more new species per atlasing venture.  Like regular birding, atlasing consists of looking for and identifying birds, but when atlasing, you must also observe and rank breeding behaviors. There are four categories of breeding behavior: observed, possible, probable and confirmed. The goal is to observe the highest possible category for each species. For example, you might see a singing male in the same spot more than seven days apart (a ‘probable’ behavior), but you aren’t done with that species until you have observed it exhibiting a ‘confirmed’ behavior, such as feeding young. To observe so much, you have to move slower, and pay more attention to any given bird than you would in regular birding.

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This Northern Flicker Feeding Young (FY), was observed at McIntire Park, Charlottesville, VA.

On one atlasing trip in early spring, I made a visit to a farm in my block with some large fallow fields to look for displaying American woodcocks.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to confirm them, as they nest on the ground in dense vegetation and blend in so perfectly that even when you know one is right in front of you, it still might take you five minutes to see it.  Despite this, I was excited to get the probable display code on them and witness their strange display flight again.  Right as it was getting so dark I was worried we wouldn’t find any, the strange dry “peeent” of an American woodcock came from across the field, followed by the sharp twittering as it flew overhead.  We heard two or three more birds that night.

One of the aspects of atlasing that I found most challenging was figuring out the timing of the breeding season.  There are species breeding almost all year, with species like bald eagle and great horned owl starting as early as December, and the smaller owls and raptors soon following.

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This Great Horned Owl was observed on March 9nth, at Thomas P. Grater Community Park in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which is not in the VABBA2 area.  This would be the Occupied Nest (ON), confirmed breeding code.

However, the vast majority of our breeding species, the neotropical migrant songbirds, are easiest to confirm during June and early July.  I remember feeling full of energy and having plenty of time for atlasing during March when only a few species were breeding.  In May and June, though, we went to the Biggest Week in American Birding in Ohio, and to Glacier National Park, plus many weekend birding trips around the state.  By late June when most species are breeding, I felt stressed and worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to confirm a decent number in my block this year.  My stress was exacerbated by my inexperience with the VABBA protocols because I didn’t know at the outset where to focus my effort and attention.

Overall, atlasing has been a very educational and rewarding experience for me, and although this breeding season is finishing up, I am looking forward to finishing my block next summer.

Green Swamp Preserve: Orchids and Carnivorous Plants

Every year, my family makes a trip to Emerald Isle in the outer banks of North Carolina.  This year, one of the birds that I most wanted to see was the secretive Bachman’s sparrow of southern pine savannas.  Two young birders from the Carolinas whom I met in Glacier National Park earlier this summer told me that the most reliable spot to find Bachman’s sparrows nearish Emerald Isle was the Green Swamp Preserve in Brunswick County, near the border of South Carolina.  A quick look at ebird confirmed this information.  The Nature Conservancy’s website’s claim of “many orchids and insectivorous plants” was all the extra encouragement I needed to make the two-hour drive.   When we pulled into the small dirt parking lot, it was already getting hot.  We briefly scanned a small pond next to the road, and found one anhinga, an overdue NC lifer for me.

As we started down the trail, the sun beat through the sparse canopy of longleaf pine.  After awhile, the path started to become more wet and boggy.  Theo spotted the first venus flytrap growing in a little muddy ditch.  A few minutes of searching revealed many more, in small sphagnum clumps, their colors and sizes ranging from little green plants just an inch wide, to three or four inch plants with rich red traps.  This photo shows one of my favorites.

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Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)

The dense clumps of pineland threeawn grass thinned out more as the ground became boggier.  I saw some tiny bug eaten yellow pitcher plant clumps, and rushed to photograph them.  Just as I was almost there, I spotted a small brilliant orange lily in the grasses.  Correctly assuming it was pine or Catesby’s lily, I switched plants and went to photograph it.  What a colorful little lily.

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Pine Lily (Lilium catesbaei)

Next to the yellow pitcher plants, there were several southern purple pitcher plant clumps, their foliage tinted a deep red from the relentless sun.  I have seen the purple pitcher plant species in West Virginia, but those plants belonged to the northern subspecies, (Sarracenia purpurea subsp. purpurea), not the southern subspecies (Sarracenia purpurea subsp. venosa) that grows in pine savannas.  Over the pitcher plants, the tall, white, ball-shaped flowers of ten-angled pipewort bobbed back and forth, disrupted by my movement.  I looked up in time to see a female Amanda’s pennant flit up and perch on a stick, a lifer Ode for me.  Poking around the clump of grass, the orange inflorescence of an orange fringed orchid caught my eye.  I would have been thrilled about this only a few days before, but we had stopped and photographed a roadside colony in Croatan National Forest on the drive to Emerald Isle.  The orchids I was really hoping to see were the other platanthera  species that grow in savannas like this, such as white-fringed, yellow fringeless, or orange crested.  Despite my previous sighting, it was still an exciting plant, and maybe it was a good sign of better things to come.

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Orange Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris)

The longleaf pines opened up even more as we walked through a brightly lit glade.  Large, lush carpets of pineland threeawn grass and other herbs carpeted the wet ground, interspersed periodically with the bright spike of an orange fringed orchid.  Huge clumps of healthy, yellow pitcher plants rose out of the grass.  It’s been a few days, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating in saying that some were more than 2 1/2 feet high!

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Yellow Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia flava)

Grass-leaved Barbara’s buttons, blazing star, elephant’s foot, many species of meadow beauty, and other colorful flowers bloomed in the meadow around us.  We finally found a clump of hooded pitcher plants almost buried in the grass.

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Hooded Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia minor)

Nearby was a small red pitcher plant group, completing our four pitcher plants for the day.  Leaving the sunny glade behind, we plunged into a thick tangle of southern swamp growth.  By this time, the trail was a stream of blackwater bordered by impenetrable vegetation.  We could not see when the path would leave the swamp, and indeed didn’t know if it would.  We pressed on, as we didn’t yet have our guaranteed Bachman’s sparrow, the original reason for this trip.  We continued through a series of openings into the longleaf savanna and than plunged back into the dark, wet, swamp.  In one such opening, we heard the high, trill of a Bachman’s sparrow and then spotted it.  I had thought they wouldn’t be singing this time of year, so I was quite surprised to hear it.  We were able to watch the bird for a long time, before it finally hopped back off its branch and returned to the grass.

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Bachman’s Sparrow (Peucaea aestivalis) Photo Credit: Theo Staengl

A few plants still eluded us, so we decided to follow the trail to its end.  That was a mistake.  Just as we were finally getting ready to turn around, my brother strayed a little further down the trail.  When he came back, his legs looked like they were covered in dust.  He had stepped in a tick nest for the third time this summer!  I did the natural thing, looked down at my legs, and was hardly surprised to see that I had some on me as well.  But just a few hundred, nothing like Theo or my dad.  After half an hour of inefficiently picking ticks off our legs, we decided to go back and try not to worry about the rest till we got to the beach house.  Walking back through one of the forest openings, I found this one, pathetic, tiny, awful, old, orange crested orchid.  It isn’t much for a life plant, but it is the only one we found.

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Orange Crested Orchid (Platanthera cristata)

An excellent trip, minus the ticks.

 

Center for Urban Habitats Survey of a Oak/Heath Woodland in Orange County

We looked around at the hard greens and browns of the heath, breathing in the crisp morning air.  Today, despite being only late July, was one of the first days that you could begin to smell the cool, musty scents of fall.  The Center for Urban Habitats was conducting a biological survey on a small property in western Orange County.  Our first task was to walk the perimeter of the land and locate sample plots that appeared to best represent their given plant community.  Later, these would be surveyed exhaustively; with every plant being identified and counted in order to best classify the plant community.  

Devin, Drew and I walked a small trail through dense thickets of Black Huckleberry, Deerberry, and Hillside Blueberry under a forest dominated by small Black Gum, Black Oak, and White Oak.  I reached down and pulled a long, slender snakeskin off of the huckleberry, thinking it looked like the perfect shape for a Rough Green Snake.  Closer examination revealed little rows of keels on the scales, a feature that only a couple other snakes have.  We put the snake on our fauna list for later confirmation, and continued.  The trail under the heaths was covered with a dense layer of mosses and lichens as the forest opened up into a small clearing.  The herb layer was very light, allowing a good view of the dense carpet of mosses and lichens below.  Looking down, we could see more than ten species of bryophyte right by our feet.  

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British soldiers (Cladonia cristatella)

Deciding to come back and sample this area thoroughly just for the incredible bryophyte diversity, we continued down the property line, which was soon marked clearly by a large power cut.  Usually, Powerline right-of-way meadows are filled with native prairie wildflowers and pollinators, a vibrant community that no doubt once existed at this site.  Unfortunately, in the wake of sprayed herbicides, the powerline right-of-way resembled more of a wasteland than a piedmont prairie remnant.  Large stretches of brown earth were visible, interspersed only with stumps and the deformed unhealthy looking native herbs that managed to survive.  Ironically, periodic disturbances can be important or even necessary for the survival of this plant community, as in the lack of human or naturally occurring disturbances, succession would take it back to a forest.

Leaving the mutilated power line corridor, we walked into the dry heath forest.  Dry acidic habitats such as Oak/Heath forests are not known for their biological diversity.  The mean species richness for our area is only about 30 plant species per survey plot, one of the least species rich communities in our area.  Trees growing on heath soils never get as large as trees growing on richer substrates.  We didn’t see any trees bigger than two feet in diameter, even though some of those were likely older than 75 years.  

After we had finished our walk of the property, we decided on the location for our heath woodland survey plot, and set to work outlining and getting familiar with it.  The ground was carpeted with dense stands of Deerberry, Black Huckleberry, Hillside Blueberry and Common Greenbrier, which gave us quite a hard time moving about the plot.  The (relatively) big trees were mostly Scarlet Oak and White Oak/Post Oak hybrids (Quercus x fernowi) that were much more prevalent than either of the parent species.  In the understory, Black Oak, White/Post Oak, Black Gum, and Sassafras were the dominants.  Diffuse light filtered through the dense shrubs and huckleberries, making dancing patterns on the dry loam of the forest floor.  Each of us chose a layer of the forest to survey.  We identified and counted every plant, and then estimated how much of the ground that plant’s canopy covered.  We would later use this information to classify the plant community.  Occasionally, an insect or bird would fly by, interrupting us from our work to chase it, as the plants would stay still, and the animals wouldn’t.  I found a Maple Looper Moth (Parallelia bistriaris) in the leaves, a small surprise, as its main host, Red Maple, was quite uncommon in the plot, with only two young ones being observed.  

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Maple Looper Moth

We also saw a Red-spotted Purple ovipositing on a Deerberry, an interesting observation of what host plants it’s caterpillars favor.

As we were finishing up, we talked about other plants, including Pink Lady’s Slipper, American Chestnut, and Large Whorled Pogonia, that we might expect to find as outliers from our plot in the surrounding woods, given the habitat type.  Sure enough, Devin soon found an American Chestnut.  Like every other remaining chestnut in Virginia, it was a small shrub with its old dead trunk looming over it, killed by the chestnut blight.  Right as we were turning to leave, I glimpsed a pale green whorl of leaves out of the corner of my eye.  The leaves were too pale and stubby to be Indian Cucumber Root, and the venation was wrong as well.  Soon we had found more Large Whorled Pogonias (Isotria verticillata) in the area.  Although I have only seen this species of orchid once before, it is apparently fairly common, known from every piedmont county.  Still, I am always excited to see a native orchid thriving, especially in such an interesting and challenging environment as acidic woodlands.  

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Large Whorled Pogonia

A little further on, a ravine cut through the slope.  In this area the forest changed slightly, with some species more suggestive of a base rich substrate than the surrounding heath.  We found one tiny ash seedling at the very bottom, a Wild Yam, and a small grove of Tulip trees, a species that had been present in much smaller numbers all day.  Thinking this might represent a transition onto a more calcium rich geologic substrate and classify as a different plant community, we decided to investigate further another day.  

Moving back through the power line clearing, we photographed and identified some of the asters and goldenrods in more detail, while keeping our eyes out for insects.  We found several indicators of a once healthy ecosystem, with nice prairie flowers like goldenrods and Godfrey’s Thoroughwort, Wild Bergamot, and Toothed White-top Aster present in small numbers.  Hugging the ground, we collected several different species of Dicanthelium grasses to identify later.  One that particularly caught my attention was bushy and compact with interesting super slim lance shaped leaves.

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Godfrey’s Thoroghwort

Our final location for the day was a brief check of the property owner’s mint garden to add butterflies to our fauna list.  Gray and Red-banded Hairstreaks and Hoary Edge Skipper were some of the more interesting species that loved the mint.  Silvery checkerspots were also present, along with more common butterflies like Silver-spotted Skipper, Pearl Crescents, and Zabulon Skippers.

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Zabulon Skipper

On our final day of survey, we only had a morning in the field to inventory the bryophyte area and survey the ravine sample plot, as we needed the afternoon in the lab to enter our data and sort out more complex species identifications.  We started with the bryophyte area.  While Drew fully inventoried the herbaceous and shrub layers, Devin collected samples from the mosses and lichens to attempt to identify later in the lab.

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Cup Lichen (Cladonia asahinae)

Done with the bryophyte spot, we headed down through the heath woods to the ravine where the dense Black Gum shrub layer thinned out and the area became more open.  The ground was richer and more diverse, with White Snakeroot, a bugleweed, young Hackberry, and even a young Spicebush sapling.  We quickly marked the parameters of the plot and divided up the layers of the forest to survey.  I took the shrub layer, and it was much more enjoyable than my attempt at the thick shrubs of the heath plot yesterday.  In this plot, there was almost double the species in the shrub layer, but not nearly as many individual plants, making for more interesting, less tedious work.  In the whole plot, I only counted three Black Gums.  The dominant shrubs were the White/Post Oak hybrid, Pignut Hickory, and Mockernut Hickory, but there were also White Ash, Eastern Redbud, Ironwood, American Persimmon, and Red Mulberry.  There wasn’t much Hillside  blueberry and no Black  Huckleberries at all, unlike in the heath.  On one of the three Red Hickory in my layer, I found a small, fuzzy white caterpillar with massive black and white spikes of hair.  I photographed it, and in the lab we determined it was a Banded Tussock Moth Caterpillar (Halysidota tessellaris).

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Banded Tussock Moth Caterpillar

It remains to be seen whether or not we will classify the ravine plot as a separate plant community from the Oak/heath plot, but it definitely had many different and unique characteristics.  

After lunch, we got to work on data entry and identifications.  I worked on confirming the identity of the snakeskin we found on the first day.  From size, scale keeling, and scale count I determined it to be either a Rough Green Snake as we had expected, or a Northern Brown Snake.  Since we only had the skin, and the head scales were missing, we couldn’t confirm the identification, but since it was in bushes in a dry, acidic habitat, (a common haunt for Rough Green Snakes but fairly poor habitat for Northern Brown Snakes), we are fairly certain it was a Rough-Green Snake.