Charlottesville City Big Day: May 2022

On May 25th my brother Theo and I decided to do a birding “big day” in Charlottesville City.  On the surface it was a strange date to attempt to run up a large bird list, as peak spring migration was already two or three weeks in the past.  However, I wanted to investigate the status of several uncommon breeding species in the city, (i.e., common merganser, prothonotary warbler) as well as see what late migrants we could find.  Theo and I are relatively new residents of urban Charlottesville City, and so in celebration of the fact that we no longer had to drive long distances between birding sites we decided to limit ourselves to walking on our big day. 

We started our day at 5 am, working south along the Rivanna Trail from Meadow Creek towards Riverview Park.  We’d hoped to pick up an owl or two pre-dawn, but we were surprised by how quickly the songbirds started singing, obscuring any owl that might’ve called.  The first birds we heard were eastern bluebirds calling from the Pen Park golf course across Meadow Creek from us.  The bluebirds were soon followed by a cacophony of northern cardinals, American robins, and common grackles which kept us company all the way until dawn. 

Eastern wood-pewee. This photo is from later in the day at Pen Park.

As the sun rose, we entered the paved section of Rivanna Trail that leads from River Road (north of the Route 250 bridge) to Riverview Park.  The birding was relatively slow, but we did pick up common breeding woodland songbirds like eastern wood-pewee, great-crested flycatcher, white-eyed vireo, and a single common yellowthroat along the river.  An orchard oriole sang from the tall trees by the Riverview parking lot. 

Once we reached the Riverview Parking lot, we continued into the neighborhood beyond, walking towards the Riverview Cemetery.  The cemetery is located on a hilltop, and from it one can see not only the Rivanna River floodplain below but also the mountain ridges beyond.  We spent about half an hour in the cemetery, watching for interesting flyovers.  Cedar waxwings were abundant flying back and forth between the large junipers and holly trees, and we also saw a Cooper’s hawk and a belted kingfisher.  Unfortunately, probably the best bird present was a duck which we failed to identify as it disappeared behind the trees. 

As we walked back north along the Riverview Park trail, we encountered a small group of active chickadees, vireos, and gnatcatchers.  Hoping the small mixed flock might contain other species, my brother began making “pishing” noises to attract the birds.  Suddenly, a chunky, olive yellow bird flitted across the path.  Hoping it might’ve been a mourning warbler, we redoubled our efforts.  Sure enough, a few seconds later, the mourning warbler popped back up on top of a tangle of grape vines.  It had a complete pale gray hood, pink legs, a yellow underside, and the very faintest traces of eye arcs. 

Mourning warbler at Riverview Park. Photographed by Theo Staengl.

A little further along the trail, we were startled into stopping by another duck zooming overhead.  Like the one at the cemetery we barely had time to get on it before it disappeared behind the trees, but this one’s large size, long neck, light color, and contrastingly dark head were enough to identify it as a female common merganser.  Common mergansers have started breeding on the Rivanna River in Charlottesville in recent years, but they’re by no means common, so it was a treat to see one for our big day.  An American redstart, a silent Trail’s flycatcher (willow/alder) and a second (!) mourning warbler rounded out our time at Riverview Park. 

Female common merganser with chicks. This photo was taken on the Rivanna River near Charlottesville on May 27 2021.

As we crossed Meadow Creek into Pen Park, we simultaneously heard the sharp chip of a blue grosbeak and the melodious trill of a pine warbler coming from the golf course.  We were unable to locate the blue grosbeak, but we did eventually find the pine warbler calling from a large pine in the golf course.  We furtively edged our way around the golf course and then continued north along the trail next to the river.  One of our main targets there was prothonotary warbler, a bird that breeds along the James River but is very scarce in the summer along the Rivanna.  However, we’d seen one along that stretch of trail at Pen about a week before, so we hoped it might still be there.  One individual also apparently summered there in 2019.  Sure enough, as we rounded a bend in the river, we heard the loud “sweet sweet sweet sweet” song of a prothonotary warbler coming from the opposite shore.  We scrambled down a steep bank onto a small sandy beach to search for it.  Eventually we located it in a tree across the river from us, but I couldn’t manage more than abysmal photos.  We did pick up yellow-throated warbler and a pair of mallards though.  As we continued along the trail we flushed a gray-cheeked thrush — an uncommon migrant and a city lifer for me.

We emerged from the trails at Pen Park along Pen Park Lane in the Lochlyn Hills neighborhood and decided to walk to Lochlyn Hills Park, which is another spot with a good view of the sky, to eat lunch.  In addition to many more cedar waxwings, we saw both red-shouldered and broad-winged hawks as we were eating.

Unfortunately, after lunch the birding slowed down significantly.  We walked back along Meadow Creek towards Melbourne Road, and then up the trail along the John W. Warner Parkway towards Greenbrier Park.  At Greenbrier we added wood thrush and pileated woodpecker to our day list, but nothing else.  We finished the day sky watching at McIntire Park without adding anything new. 

Screenshot of the locations we visited during the big day (in red). Taken from the eBird trip report.

We ended up seeing 66 species of birds (plus the Trail’s flycatcher) and walking a little over 15 miles.  Doubtless we could’ve seen many more species had our effort been better timed with spring migration, but it was fun to explore the city during a slightly less frequently birded time of year.  We were rewarded with several interesting breeding species, and a handful of uncommon migrants.  It’s amazing to me what natural wonders live right outside my door, even though I’m now living in Charlottesville City. 

Costa Rica Birding 2021 Part 4 – Savegre Valley

The Savegre area was the place that had the highest elevation of any on our trip, and because of that, it had very different birds.  This was immediately apparent upon our arrival, as even the birds in the garden of the Savegre Hotel (where we stayed) were very different from what we’d been seeing the rest of our trip.  Talamanca, fiery throated and volcano hummingbirds, as well as white-throated mountain-gem (also a hummingbird) were common and relatively tame.  Yellow-bellied siskins, flame-colored tanagers, and slaty flowerpiercers were also abundant.  Long-tailed silky flycatchers, an absurdly elegant bird that looks like it might be finely sculpted from wax, were rarely out of earshot our entire stay.

white-throated mountain-gem

Our first night we went on the night tour offered by the lodge, because it was advertised as providing a good chance at finding several different species of owls.  Apparently, however, there was some miscommunication between the guide and the lodge, because we spent nearly the entire time trying to call in one species, the bare-shanked screech-owl.  After a truly disturbing amount of playback from our guide, we did eventually manage to spotlight the owl, which was a special experience.  Despite that, though, I regret not insisting sooner that enough playback was enough, and it was ok if we just heard the owl.  I suppose I can hope that particular night tour isn’t very popular. 

The unfortunate bare-shanked screech-owl.

One of the most unique habitats we visited on our entire trip was the high elevation páramo that covers the very tops of the mountains in that region.  The páramo is a stunningly gorgeous grassland that only grows above 11,000 feet or so.  When we went many of the forbs and shrubs were blooming, coloring the mountain peaks bright shades of yellow and white as they faded into the distance.  Tiny crystal-clear streams filtered through the vegetation, in one of which my brother found a bright green salamander.  Unsurprisingly, the birds of the páramo are also unique — many of them are restricted to that habitat.  We spent four hours at one páramo site (Cerro Buenavista communication towers in Los Quetzales National Park) and only saw 17 species.  However, almost half of those were lifers.  Volcano juncos were everywhere, hopping about on the ground and in the short vegetation.  Large-footed finches were also easy to find, usually sitting still in the bases of bushes.  Timberline wrens usually stuck to the dense tangles of bamboo, although my brother did manage to photograph one in a small shrub amidst tangles of reindeer lichen.  Yellow-winged vireo, black-capped flycatcher, mountain elaenia, black-billed nightingale-thrush, and sooty thrush were also all abundant. 

volcano junco

On our final day, we took a long hike around our lodge.  The trail led through a forest of old and gigantic oaks, their trunks absurdly tall and straight, and their distant branches covered in lichens and epiphytes.  The birding was slow, but pleasant, and we slowly racked up an interesting list of species.  At one point, a family of spotted wood-quail quickly ran across the path in front of us.  At another, a flock of sulphur-winged parakeets descended noisily from the sky.  Perhaps the most exciting bird of the hike was a wrenthrush Theo and I encountered deep up the valley of a small mountain stream.  Wet vegetation pressed all around us as we huddled on a little beach, our binoculars trained on the brilliant red crest of the small bird agitatedly singing on the bank opposite us.  We also saw flame-throated warblers, silver-throated tanagers, yellow-winged vireos, a buffy tuftedcheek, a spot-crowned woodcreeper and my 1000th life bird, an ochraceous pewee.  The pewee ended up being my last life bird of the trip, as when the hike was over we sadly said goodbye to the beautiful Savegre Valley and began the long and grueling drive back to San José for our flight home. 

silver-throated tanager

Costa Rica Birding 2021 Part 3 – Rancho Naturalista

The next destination on our trip was Rancho Naturalista, located in the foothills of the Cartago province.  Unlike the other lodges we’d been staying at in Monteverde and Arenal, Rancho Naturalista specifically advertises itself as a birding lodge.  They had two very skilled birding guides, a Costa Rican women named Mercedes and a British man named Harry.  Both had extensive experience birding the region of Costa Rica and had also traveled elsewhere in the tropics.  Every meal at Rancho Naturalista was cooked for us, and honestly it was some of the best food we had our entire trip.  Aside from us, the only other guests at the lodge were a couple of photographers.


Rancho Naturalista is a great place to see many different bird species, but the one we were most excited about ahead of time was the snowcap, because Rancho Naturalista was the spot on our itinerary where we were most likely to see one.  Snowcaps are a small and extremely charismatic species of hummingbird endemic to the mountains of southern Central America.  Males have an iridescent wine purple body with a bright white cap.  Females are glittering green on the back and white below. 

white-necked jacobin

We arrived at Rancho Naturalista in the early evening.  After dropping off our bags in our rooms we walked down a short path to the lodge’s communal area, where a deck overlooked a set of fruit and hummingbird feeders, and more distantly, the mountains.  As the sun set, we watched birds on the feeders and surrounding trees.  The most numerous hummingbirds were large species, particularly white-necked jacobins and green-breasted mangos, but other species were also present, including green hermit, crowned woodnymph, and rufous-tailed hummingbird.  Cocoa and streak-headed woodcreepers worked the trees behind the feeders, and a buff-throated foliage gleaner poked cautiously around the edge of the small clearing the lodge was built in. 


The next day we were up bright and early, guided by Harry.  We walked down the dirt road from the lodge, stopping constantly to look and listen to a somewhat bewildering array of birds.  Slaty-capped, yellow-olive and tawny-chested flycatchers were all present near the lodge, the first two of which were lifers.  Harry led us to a house off the main road where there was a large clump of the purple Verbena the hummingbirds love.  It was only a few minutes before the first snowcap flew in, chattering excitedly.  Occasionally he would take a break from his feeding and perch on a small twig, allowing us to get close for photos.  Other hummingbirds were also using the Verbena patch, including green thorntails, brown violetears, and rufous-tailed hummingbirds.  We spent the rest of the morning walking the trails and roads around Rancho Naturalista, exploring forests, pastures and gardens.  We saw a total of eighty species, some of the most exciting of which to me (that weren’t already mentioned) were tropical gnatcatcher, white-vented euphonia, speckled tanager, stripe-throated hermit, checker-throated stipplethroat, and dusky antbird.


Following Harry’s advice, before we left Rancho Naturalista the next day, we stopped at a bridge crossing a small, swiftly flowing stream in the adjacent town.  Sure enough, on a branch across the stream about thirty feet away was a small nest, with a sunbittern sitting on top.  At some point the sunbittern got up to go hunt, revealing two downy white chicks.  With that last lifer we headed off to our final destination of the trip, Savegre Hotel in the Savegre Valley.

Costa Rica Birding 2021 Part 2 – Arenal

My first impression of the Arenal Volcano was when we were sitting in our lodge’s restaurant the evening we arrived.  It was raining and very cloudy, and most of the world seemed to be cloaked in white mist.  Below our window a couple great curassows ate watermelon slices that had been left out for them.  Suddenly, the fog cleared, and a tall, conical mountain appeared in an area I had assumed was just empty sky.  Lightning flickered near its top, periodically illuminating it through the fog. I had a vague memory in the back of my mind that there was a volcano in the Arenal area, but I’d never seen pictures. I certainly hadn’t expected such a perfectly conical one. It was beautiful, and a little intimidating. For the entirety of our stay in Arenal it was always present, either visible looming over us or blocked from sight by the rain and clouds.

Arenal Volcano
rufous-tailed hummingbird

After arriving from Monteverde, we spent the next three days in Arenal, exploring the fabulous grounds of Arenal Observatory Lodge.  The lodge had an extensive trail system that led through diverse habitats, including dark forests, open pastures, and several small rivers.  Each habitat had its own set of associated birds, and the result was that it was relatively easy to see a lot of species in a small area, or without much effort.  We averaged around 70 species a morning without a guide, and someone more familiar with tropical birds would undoubtedly have detected many more.  The lodge had planted many clusters of a purple flowering Verbena shrub that the hummingbirds loved.  On our first morning, we spent over an hour just standing and photographing the hummingbirds at one such clump.  There were violet-headed hummingbirds, blue-vented hummingbirds, green thorntails, and the ubiquitous rufous-tailed hummingbirds.  Occasionally a black-crested coquette would swoop in and hover at eye level before zipping off to a flower to feed.  The males of this little hummingbird species are particularly spectacular, with shiny dark green throats and crests, light orange bills, and spotted green and white undersides. 

black-crested coquette

Another interesting experience at Arenal was seeing a mixed species foraging flock.  We were walking along a woodland trail with very few birds, other than the distant calls of a white-collared manakin lek.  Suddenly, the forest seemed to come alive.  Carmiol’s tanagers dripped from every tree and shrub.  A spotted antbird hopped out on the path.  Various woodpeckers, woodcreepers, tanagers, flycatchers and euphonias moved all around us.  Even one of the white-collared manakins briefly flew in, bouncing around near the ground like a ping-pong ball and making a sound like two marbles clicking together.  Mixed species flocks are of course a phenomenon in temperate regions too, but rarely have I seen one so impressively large and species rich as that one. 

yellow-faced grassquit

On some of our walks from the lodge we went further afield, following trails through the woods that emerged into an area of wide open pasture. Eucalyptus groves dotted the lush green fields, and the Volcano loomed over it all. Short-tailed hawks, white hawks, barred hawks, gray hawks, and swallow-tailed kites circled lazily in the sky, while swarms of white-collared swifts zoomed by. Yellow-faced grassquits foraged in the field and sang from the fences. As the road passed by a cluster of farm buildings, the bird activity picked up, partly due to a gigantic nesting community of Montezuma oropendolas, which are extremely noisy birds. A small flock of orange-chinned parakeets raided a fruit tree nearby. As we walked by a small stream I saw a tiger-heron perched majestically on a pipe hanging over the water. Wanting to get a better look at the bird’s front to identify it, I slowly edged along the bank of the river. I hadn’t realized I was right under the oropendola colony until one pooped on me! Luckily there wasn’t much to its poop, but it still freaked me out. The heron was a fasciated, a species I’d never seen before.

fasciated tiger-heron

We spent two evenings at Arenal out with guides looking for owls.  The first evening was a lava tour, where we visited the site of the lava flow from the last major eruption of the Arenal Volcano, which occurred in 1968. Aside from learning many interesting things about the volcano, it was nice to be out after dark because we saw different wildlife than we would have in the same spot during the day. As the sun set, we saw several common pauraques sitting in the road. At two small ponds, we stopped and searched for frogs, and found several species, perhaps the most beautiful of which was a stunningly colored red-eyed tree frog. On our drive back to the lodge we saw both an olingo and a black-and-white owl on the power lines.

red-eyed tree frog

The next evening we went out again, this time with a different guide. Our goal was to find as many species of owls as possible. Unfortunately, despite quite a lot of driving around on back roads and some playback, we were only able to find two species, both of which we only heard — black-and-white owl and a family of mottled owls.

Costa Rica Birding 2021 Part 1 – Monteverde

Earlier this summer, my family went on a birding vacation to Costa Rica.  Previously (in 2016) we’d spent two weeks at Tortuguero National Park and the Osa Peninsula in the Costa Rican lowlands, so this time we planned our route to focus on highland ecosystems and bird species.  We flew into and out of San José and stayed one night just outside the city on either end of our trip.  We split the remainder of our time between four general areas — Monteverde, Arenal, Rancho Naturalista, and the Savegre Valley.  This post focuses on just our time at Monteverde, our first destination, but look for three more in the coming days with details about the rest of our trip.

The sky dumped rain as we drove into the small town of Monteverde on our second day in Costa Rica.  Throughout our trip it rained on and off for most afternoons, making the early mornings the superior birding time.  Despite the rain, we’d managed to see some common birds on our long drive from San José, including a crested caracara, many great kiskadees and tropical kingbirds, and our lifer brown jays.  Once we got to Monteverde we immediately went to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, as we were desperate to take a walk after sitting in the car for hours.  The forest was tall, green, wet, and very dark, and the birds were not very active.  In fact, we only saw three species on our walk, yellowish flycatcher, white-throated thrush, and Costa Rican warbler.  However, even in the pouring rain hummingbirds swarmed around the feeders by the entrance to the reserve, and we soon saw several lifers including green hermit, purple-throated mountain-gem, stripe-tailed hummingbird, and the Costa Rican endemic coppery-headed emerald. 

Yellowish flycatchers are… yellowish. This photo was taken the next day at Curi-cancha, not in the rain.

The next morning, we explored Curi-cancha Refugio de Vida Silvestre — another local cloud forest — with a guide named Johnny.  The refuge had many different habitats, including both wooded and open sections.  Birds were everywhere, and we soon saw over 50 species, a stark contrast from the previous afternoon in the rain.  Johnny quickly pointed out a three-wattled bellbird song, which was a very loud ringing call followed by a loud piercing squeak.  We listened to the bellbirds for the rest of the morning and were also able to see and photograph a few.  Other highlights (and lifers) from Curi-cancha included white-naped brushfinch, white-eared ground-sparrow, golden-browed chlorophonia, black-headed nightingale-thrush, long-tailed manakin, and smoky-brown woodpecker. 

three-wattled bellbird

We also spent the next morning with Johnny, birding around the town of Monteverde and then returning to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.  At the reserve we heard and eventually located several resplendent quetzals, perhaps one of Costa Rica’s most famous birds.  Much like bald eagles here, quetzals seem to be revered by birders and nonbirders alike.  They are indeed stunning birds, with intricately feathered glittering green backs and bright red undersides.  My photos do not do them justice, as for most of the time we were watching them they were high up in the lush canopy. 

resplendent quetzal

Johnny then showed us several other birds, including a scale-crested pygmy-tyrant, before saying goodbye.  After he left, we continued to bird the reserve by ourselves, finding prong-billed barbet, black-breasted wood-quail, spotted barbtail, eye-ringed flatbill, ochraceous wren, and a very cooperative collared redstart among many other species. 

collared redstart

The next day we went to Monteverde Sky Adventures Park, a place with many long and high bridges up in the canopy that spanned small valleys.  We watched butterflies glide from flower to flower and monkeys scramble between trees at eye level, barely noticing that we were over one-hundred feet in the air. Swallow-tailed kites circled lazily above nearby ridges. It was a fun experience to see some of the birds from previous days at eye level, and we did mange to find a few new species such as spangle-cheeked tanager and black-faced solitaire.

Here’s some howler monkeys on one of the bridges.

Winter Birding in New Hampshire

Last week, my family traveled to New Hampshire to ski in the White Mountains.  The skiing was fantastic, but I’m here to talk about the birds.  We drove up from Charlottesville over the course of two days, stopping periodically to chase continuing rarities.  We saw our life bird tundra bean goose at East Reservoir Park in Philadelphia, and our lifer tufted duck at Captain’s Cove in Connecticut.  In addition to the tufted duck, Captain’s Cove proved to be a productive birding stop in general, with several hundred lesser scaup and a glaucus gull.  Two peregrine falcons briefly appeared over the frozen river and proceeded to dive at a lazily soaring red-tailed hawk, which fended them off by flipping over in midair. 

Red-tailed hawk and peregrine falcon. Photo by Theo Staengl.

Once we arrived at our destination, the town of North Conway, NH, we were struck by how few and far between the birds actually were.  On several occasions we walked for hours in the snow-covered spruce woods and could find little more than a few black-capped chickadees.  However, one day my brother called me outside early in the morning to point out a flock of four pine grosbeaks sitting in the top of a tree just outside our house, munching on berries.  They were puffed up against the cold, making them seem even larger and rounder then they normally do.  It was only the second time we’d ever seen the species, the first being in Glacier National Park several years ago. 

Pine grosbeak. Photo by Theo Staengl.

Another day we decided to hike from Pinkham Notch onto the slopes of Mount Washington.  It was bitterly cold, so we covered as much of our skin as possible.  Even with gloves and a balaclava, my hands and face were soon cold.  However, the trail was steep, so my core quickly warmed up beneath my multiple coats.  The scenery was gorgeous.  More than a foot of snow blanketed the ground and weighed down the spruce bows.  We passed several small streams, all of them almost completely frozen, with the ice making intricate shapes along their banks.  One waterfall was particularly beautiful, with formations of gigantic icicles covering its rock face.  About two miles in we got to a flat spot with gaps in the canopy and were able to look up at the treeless caps of the mountains.  It was a landscape much more reminiscent to me of the Rocky Mountains, and utterly unlike anything I’ve seen before in the East.  We were in the bottom of a huge bowl, with white capped peaks rising up on three sides of us.  Directly in front of us, a massive wall of snow spanned the gap between two peaks.  Even though it was only two in the afternoon, the sun was low over the mountains, casting the snow in tints of gold and pink. 

Once again, the birding was very quiet on Mount Washington, but we did encounter three boreal chickadees feeding in a grove of spruce.  We were first alerted to their presence by almost imperceptibly quiet “tsee” calls.  A patch of snow fluttered to the ground, and I raised my binoculars to focus on a plump, brownish bird with a large white ear patch.  The chickadees were much more muted and warmer in coloration than the black-capped chickadees we’d seen earlier, but their slow, deliberate movements among the snowy evergreens had a certain charm.  Other than the two chickadee species, we only saw two other species on Mount Washington, a downy woodpecker and a common raven. 

Boreal chickadee. Photo by Theo Staengl.
Red crossbill.

The real highlight of the birding part of our trip came on our way home, when we stopped at Salisbury State Park in Massachusetts.  We were lured there by tantalizing eBird reports of winter finches, but we were under time pressure to drive the twelve hours back to Virginia before a snowstorm hit that we worried might make the roads impassable.  The entrance road to Salisbury led through a partly frozen brackish marsh, which was inhabited by hundreds of American black ducks.  We also spotted a few common goldeneye, mallards, and buffleheads.  Inside the park we drove to a snow-covered campground, which was notable for its extensive sameness.  Every campsite was alike, with a pine tree, a fire pit, and sometimes a picnic table.  It wasn’t long before we heard the calls of red crossbills and located a large flock foraging in the pines.  I spotted a smaller, streakier bird, and watched it until it turned to face me.  Sure enough, it had a bright red dot on its forehead, one of the most obvious features of a common redpoll, a finch I’d never seen before.  The redpoll briefly dropped down onto the ground, before moving off with a group of crossbills.  American tree sparrows foraged on the snowy ground, and large flocks of snow buntings wheeled about in the sky. 

Snow buntings. Photo by Theo Staengl.

A local birder told us the location of two long-eared owls that were wintering in the park, and we followed her directions to them.  Although long-eared owls are present in Virginia, they’re very rare and hard to find, so we’d only seen one individual before those two.  After the owls, we walked out onto the beach and scanned the Atlantic Ocean for ducks.  White-winged scoters and common eiders were the two most abundant species, a striking contrast from Virginia where they’re among the rarest of the expected sea ducks.  In addition, we picked out a few surf scoters, long-tailed ducks, and common loons.  Three sanderlings foraged on the line of the breaking waves. 

Our lifer common redpoll. Photo by Theo Staengl.

The time forced us to leave Salisbury to start our long drive home.  Normally I find being in the car for long trips tedious, but the week had been so filled with activity, sights, and birds that the time to sit and relax felt welcome.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge – 2021

I walked down a narrow strip of compact, damp sand, my brother Theo a few paces behind me.  The air was crisp and cool, and when the wind gusted it ripped through my three coats.  My fingers, even inside my gloves, burned from the cold as they gripped the legs of my spotting scope tripod.  To my right, low sand dunes stretched into the distance, only sparsely covered with vegetation.  To my left, the Atlantic Ocean disappeared over the horizon.  Above me, the sky was brilliant, depthless blue, unbroken by cloud or bird. 

My brother and I were at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, in what has now become a yearly tradition.  For the past four years, we have spent several days in the first week of January birding Coastal Virginia, arguably the crown jewel of which is Chincoteague.  Chincoteague is always one of the most fun days of the trip, because its size and varied habitats allow us to spend more time in one place, which encourages slower, less frenzied birding and more attention to details of identification and counting.  Over the years it’s become a tradition for us to try to get as many species as possible on an all-day eBird checklist from the national wildlife refuge.  So far, my personal record is 90, which was set in 2019.

Ipswich savannah sparrow is a savannah sparrow subspecies that winters in sand dunes along the Atlantic Ocean. They’re larger and paler than typical savannah sparrows.

We started our visit to Chincoteague the same way we did all our others — with a walk down the beach between the Atlantic Ocean and Tom’s Cove.  We saw giant flocks of snow geese wheeling in the sky, and long-tailed ducks, black and surf scoters, horned grebes, and common loons diving in Tom’s Cove.  Eventually, we reached the abandoned coast guard station at the far side of Tom’s Cove.  We watched an Ipswich savannah sparrow forage in the sand dunes from an old, wind bleached boardwalk, the color of the weathered boards closely matching that of the sparrow.  At the coast guard station, we faced a choice.  Either we could go back up the beach to the parking lot and bird the rest of the refuge, or we could push on along the beach a few more miles to the mythical mudflats at the very southern tip of the island known as the hook.  We’d been to the very edge of the hook once before, but never seen the massive shorebird flocks that were rumored to haunt this hard to access area.  Our curiosity was too great, so we set off down the beach, our hopes high. 

Dunlin flock, with sanderling and western sandpipers.

As we approached the end of the island, the beach widened out, so that we were looking out over a large expanse of sand.  Large pieces of driftwood dotted the landscape.  A thick line of shells, wood, and human trash ran along the edge of the beach.  My brother and I split up so we could search the plain of sand more effectively for shorebirds.  I walked along the edges of the dunes, keeping my eyes out for snow buntings or more Ipswich sparrows.  We walked for a long time, but the landscape didn’t change, and there were few birds to be found.  Finally, I heard the sound of my brother’s voice on the wind.  Running out from behind a dune, I saw his distant wind-blown form hunched over the spotting scope, gesturing for me to come.  When I reached him, he pointed out a flock of several hundred dunlin huddled together next to the ocean.  Looking farther down the beach, I saw several similar flocks.  All the dunlins were huddled close together, and most were sleeping with their heads tucked under their wings. 

Western sandpiper, with dunlin.

I carefully scanned the dunlin flock, searching for any irregularities in size or color that could give away another shorebird species.  Several pale gray sanderlings were clustered near one end of the flock, along with several slightly smaller shorebirds.  On first glance, they looked almost like miniature dunlin, but closer inspection revealed they were slightly paler, and when they raised their heads to look around, they had different facial patterning and shorter, straighter, bills.  They were western sandpipers, a species we’d never seen at Chincoteague before, despite extensive searching.  We lay on our stomachs on the sand and photographed the birds as they preened, until the cold wind compelled us to keep moving. 

While I’d been scanning the shorebird flock with the scope, Theo had been searching the ocean with his binoculars.  He drew my attention to a common eider among a flock of surf scoters and common loons.  It was a beautiful young male, with a white body and a brown head.  Surprisingly, it was the seventh of our trip, many more of this uncommon sea duck than we had seen on any of our previous Coastal Virginia trips.

Western sandpiper, with dunlin.

We continued down the beach, scanning and counting the dunlin flocks as we went.  By the time we turned around, we had seen more than one-thousand dunlin, and nineteen western sandpipers.  We also encountered a large gull flock with lots of herring, great-black backed, and ring-billed gulls, and one lesser black-backed gull.  Ruddy turnstones, sanderlings, dunlins, and black-bellied plovers foraged around the gulls’ feet.

Eventually, we started hiking the several miles back up the beach towards the rest of the refuge.  It seemed to go on forever, the uniform plain of sanding stretching nearly to the horizon.  I became hot in my coats, and thirsty.  Other than the occasional flock of scoters over the ocean, there were almost no birds to distract us.  The wind whistled, blowing sand into our legs.  When we did get back to the car, we just sat there for several minutes, eating, drinking, and recuperating before we birded the rest of the refuge.

The rest of our trip to Chincoteague followed a more typical path.  We scanned Swan Cove, seeing marbled godwits, Bonaparte’s gulls, tundra swans, and hundreds of dabbling ducks of various species.  Then we drove around wildlife loop, counting hundreds more northern shovelers, gadwall, American black duck, and green-winged teal.  Finally, we stopped on the boardwalk bridge on the way out of the refuge to pick up a seaside sparrow, forced to the edge of the marsh by the high tide.  We ended with 71 species on our eBird checklist, and had another fun day of birding adventure. 

Nelson County Big Day 2020 – Raptorthon

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.


Tree Swallows at Rockfish Valley Trail

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.


Cape May Warbler at Spruce Creek Park

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!

Nelson County Rarity Roundup 2019 Results

The results for the first Nelson County Rarity Roundup are in!  On October 6, 23 birders from all over Virginia birded in Nelson County, in search of low density fall migrants and to help create eBird data during an interesting time of year in a relatively poorly birded area.  The county was divided into 18 randomly drawn territories.  Twelve territories received some birding effort, although only six were birded thoroughly for most of the day.  Together, all the teams had 113 species, 23 of which were seen by only one team.  The rarest bird of the day was a Connecticut warbler found by Drew Chaney and Baxter Beamer at the Three Ridges Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.


Connecticut Warbler (Photo by Drew Chaney)

Rockfish Valley Trail was productive as usual, with bobolink, two Lincoln’s sparrows, and the county’s fourth record of marsh wren being the highlights.  Three of the four previous marsh wren records from Nelson have been in the first two weeks of October, the fourth was in the last week of April.  The marsh wren apparently stuck around for at least one day, as Theo and I saw and photographed one at Rockfish Valley Trail on Monday.  Elsewhere in the county, highlights included two other Lincoln’s sparrows — one at James River State WMA and one at Democracy Vineyards — as well as a Trail’s flycatcher at the Piney River Railway Trail and abundant gray-cheeked thrushes (8 between all teams).  Birds flagged by eBird as late included two yellow-throated vireos, four blue-gray gnatcatchers, two worm-eating warblers, one veery, and one prairie warbler.  Between all the teams, we counted 3,594 birds.  The most numerically abundant species was cedar waxwing (289), followed closely by blue jay (252) and then by northern cardinal (205).  The most numerous sparrow was chipping (92), and the most numerous warbler was common yellowthroat (58).


Common Yellowthroat

Between all the teams, we saw eleven out of the twelve unflagged sparrow species, missing only vesper.  We saw 21 warbler species, with the only unflagged species we missed being Wilson’s.  We also got all the unflagged raptor species, eleven, including the three falcons.  Notable misses included least flycatcher, Philadelphia vireo, fish crow, northern-rough-winged swallow, brown creeper, hermit thrush, purple finch, and summer tanager.  Here’s the link to the map of territories, and here’s a spreadsheet with the results.  Thanks again to everyone who participated, and I look forward to next year!

Support Team Turnstone & Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory!


Whimbrel (one of the many species of birds that depend on habitat on the Eastern Shore during migration)

The Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory is celebrating their 25th anniversary this Saturday, September 28, with their annual fundraiser, the Kiptopeke Challenge.  For the 3rd year in a row, I will be competing with Team Turnstone in the youth division of the 24 hour birding contest to raise funds and have fun!  Please consider sponsoring our team at this link to support CVWO’s important research and conservation work.  All funds go to CVWO.  Recent news has made it more clear than ever that we need to be directing resources towards bird conservation, and Coastal Virginia is critical habitat for many species of birds and other organisms.  Thank you!


Brant (found on the VA coast in winter)