Birding Big Day in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

Thick mist rolled off the spiny limbs of unfamiliar tropical vegetation as strange calls pierced the stillness of the early morning.  We crossed over a small channel of water, watching for green kingfishers, and then walked into the woods on the other side.  Large oak branches draped in Spanish moss hung over the trail.

We were at the famous Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, located in the very southern tip of Texas.  Birding at Santa Ana and other locations in southern Texas had been a long awaited dream for me, and it felt unreal that it was finally happening. My friends and I were participating in the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF), and had scheduled this day to be a “big day,” an attempt to see as many species as possible in 24 hours.  We had all agreed in advance that we would be extremely relaxed about the pace, as we wanted to have as much time as we wanted with each new species.

As we continued walking through the old, tropical woodland, we heard the calls of great kiskadees, plain chachalacas, long-billed thrashers, and golden-fronted woodpeckers.  Mourning, white-winged, and Inca doves foraged on the ground.  Up ahead the trail opened into a large, wet marsh, called Pintail Lake.  As we walked out on an elevated dike towards the water, we heard American pipits, and spotted a vermillion flycatcher and two tropical kingbirds perched on projecting sticks.  We set down our scopes and started scanning the many ducks on the water.  We quickly found 11 species, including black-bellied whistling duck, mottled duck, redhead, and the lakes namesake, the northern pintail.

As we were about to get back into the cars, a small, gray Buteo flew low over the parking lot and landed in a nearby tree.  It was a gray hawk, a lifer for most of us.

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Gray Hawk (Buteo plagiatus), photo by Theo Staengl

I had never been to our next stop, a small city park called Anzalduas, before, but I had heard it was a good place for zone-tailed hawk.  We drove there on roads on top of high dikes overlooking the Rio Grande.  Border Patrol vans were everywhere, but most just waved at us as we drove past.  When we finally got to Anzalduas, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  A far cry from most of the natural areas we were birding in the Rio Grande Valley, Anzalduas was a large expanse of sparse grass under periodically spaced trees, broken only by decrepit playground equipment.  The only other people around were twenty or so border patrol agents.

A local constable drove up and unpleasantly informed us that the road we had driven on into the park was closed to the public, despite the complete absence of signs saying so.  He warned he’d give us a citation next time.   We walked up a side road to another dike, across the park from the Rio Grande that was supposedly a very reliable spot for zone-tailed hawk, and possibly for hook-billed kite.  After several uneventful minutes, two things happened very quickly.  First, I noticed the constable’s car coming up the road toward us, and a large, thin-winged, mostly black raptor, a zone-tailed hawk, flew low over us.  We ignored the constable, and had beautiful looks at the hawk.

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Zone-tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus)

When we looked down from the hawk, we saw the constable talking with my mom and our unofficial guide, who knew the local area well.  The constable pointed to two huge signs in front of the road we had just walked up, that said “no public use.”  We had honestly missed the signs because we had approached from the side, but from the constable’s perspective it sure looked sketchy.   In the end he let us go, and we hurried quickly off the dike.  The only other notable bird we saw at Anzalduas was a house finch, locally uncommon in the Rio Grande Valley.

Forty minutes later, we pulled into the gravel parking lot of the Frontera Audubon Center’s small tropical reserve.  We walked the short, dirt trails through dense undergrowth, scanning the bushes around us for warblers and clay-colored thrushes.  As we neared a small feeder station near the visitor center, we found our first thrush flock, with about five clay-colored thrushes.

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The range of the clay-colored thrush (Turdus grayi) just barely extends into the United States in the very southern tip of Texas.  Clay-colored thrushes and many other predominantly central American species that just extend into the southern Rio Grande Valley are what makes south Texas such a birding hotspot.  These species are often referred to in the US as Rio Grande specialties, even though many of them are much more abundant further south.

We continued on the trails deeper into the woods, listening and looking for warbler activity.  That morning, someone had spotted a tropical parula there, which would be a life bird for all of us.  Soon we came to a wooden platform overlooking a small lake.  Warblers, mainly orange crowned, chipped and flitted in the dense willows.  We scanned the flock to the best of our ability, and were able to add Nashville, black-and-white, and black-throated green warblers to our day list.  We spent another hour roaming the trails looking for the tropical parula, but it proved to be a waste of time.  I was able to photograph a buff-bellied hummingbird, another fairly range restricted species, at one of the feeding stations, though.

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Buff-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis)

As we got out of the car at Estero Llano Grande State Park, I was beginning to feel worried we had spent too much time at Frontera, and we wouldn’t have enough day-light at South Padre Island, an important shorebird spot, later in the day.  Evan so, I couldn’t help enjoying the bountiful ducks at the visitor center lake at Estero.  Wild ducks swam peacefully about, clearly used to humans being nearby.  A vermillion flycatcher foraged from a dead stick over the marsh, its brilliant red belly and crown contrasting beautifully with its brown back and eye-line.  We added cinnamon teal and least grebe to our day list.  One of the birds I was personally most excited to see here was the common pauraque, a large tan nightjar of Central and South America.  While it is locally extremely common in south Texas, it is so cryptically patterned that one could easily walk within a foot without seeing it.  We were walking along a dusty dirt road near where pauraques have been known to roost when I almost stepped on one.  Once we noticed it, we were so focused on photographing it, we failed to see two others within a yard of it until some kind older birders pointed them out.  What a weird looking bird!

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Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis)

We raced along the highway as the sky became cloudier and the sun sank ever lower toward the horizon.  Our rental car’s tinted windows probably did not help our feeling of impending darkness.  When we stepped out of the car at the mudflats above the South Padre Island Convention Center, wind coming off the Laguna Madre buffeted us and tore at our clothing and scopes.  We hurried over the muddy sand toward distant shorebird flocks, hoping the incoming tide wouldn’t strand us.  As soon as we could, we put down our scopes and started scanning.  We quickly found most of the common shorebirds we needed, along with two piping and snowy plovers.  It was only the second time I had ever seen a snowy plover, and it was a lifer for some of my friends.  We ran back to the cars across what were now inches of water, soaking our shoes.  We spent the rest of the daylight birding around the slightly more sheltered trails of the convention center.  Our list for the day was 126 species, the most I have ever seen in a day.

 

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 our 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.

 

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 then 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, ideally each of which would 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 singing leisurely 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.

 

An Epic Bird Finding Guide

We hiked up a steep incline to arrive at a beautiful wildflower meadow.  The brilliant oranges and reds of Indian Paintbrush contrasted starkly with the bright white Beargrass.  We had chosen the Iceberg Lake trail in Glacier National Park because of the enticing description in our birding guide, “Glacier is for the Birds.”  From our lofty perch, we scanned the tops of the extensive spruce/fir forest in the valley below us.  We could see numerous waterfalls and cliff faces covered in wildflowers on the mountainsides around us.  Suddenly, an iridescent caramel-colored speck whizzed up the valley.  The male Rufous Hummingbird landed at the top of a nearby spruce, giving us fantastic studies of its sparkling gorget and back.  We were quickly distracted from our quest to get a photo that really showed the iridescence of the hummingbird by the call of a Dusky Flycatcher coming from further upslope.  We soon found the bird perched in the top of a bush, but I listened more than I looked, as Empidonax flycatchers are extremely hard to identify by sight.  “Glacier is for the Birds'” predictions were proving amazingly accurate: “As you proceed through the shrubs and until you head back into the trees, listen and watch for Dusky Flycatchers, Orange-crowned Warblers, MacGillivray’s Warblers and Lazuli Buntings,” though we still hadn’t seen any Lazuli Buntings.  After more searching of trees and listening for calls, we finally located a male Lazuli Bunting singing in a bush.  After the first one, they seemed to be everywhere, and we enjoyed many views of this spectacular bird.

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Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena)

We paused every mile or so and checked the book again, as it provided so much detail we couldn’t remember it all.  Next was “Past the Red-rock outcrop, look for Pine Grosbeaks until you are in the trees.”  As soon as we had fully rounded the next big projection of Glacier’s famous “red rock,” a male and female Pine Grosbeak flew off the path into the top of a large fir.  They stayed there only a few seconds, giving us just enough time to get a decent look, and then flew away.  That was the only time we saw Pine Grosbeaks on our trip.

My experience in Glacier National Park convinced me that a good bird finding guide is essential for travel, even though I usually rely heavily on eBird for local birding information.  EBird is a global citizen science project by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that gathers birders’ sitings into a massive database, which they make available to the public.  I have been eBirding since I started birding, and I can’t imagine birding without it.  EBird is a fantastic tool for keeping personal lists, finding target birds, and learning basic information about a location, but you still really need an actual book.  Some regions are poorly ebirded, leading to small and useless amount of data.  Some regions lack solid internet connection (like Glacier), making it impossible to use.  EBird also lacks the level of detailed information about bird finding often found in bird finding guides.    For instance, on one hike we did to find Timberline Brewer’s Sparrow, our book told us not only which trail but exactly which switchback to look for the sparrows’ territories.

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Brewer’s Sparrow (Spizella breweri)

Finding the Brewer’s Sparrow wasn’t the only time the guide proved so precise it made our jaws drop.  One of the few target birds we hadn’t found by the end of the trip was the Evening Grosbeak.  The guide recommended a brief hike at Goat Lick for it.  We decided to stop there on our last day heading out of the park.  That day ended up full of excitement (see previous post) and we felt like we had to skip the Goat Lick hike as we figured we couldn’t afford the time to look for the bird.  As we were driving, we saw a crowd gathered on the side of the road.  Was it a bear jam, we wondered?  Nope, it was goat jam.  A family of five Mountain Goats were standing right next to the road!

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Mountain Goat (Oreamnos americanus)

After a week of being in the park, we had seen many Mountain Goats, but they had all been distant specks way up on ridge tops.  Apparently, they come from miles away to Goat Lick to ingest minerals from the rocks like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and sodium.  The opportunity to photograph these amazing animals was too good to miss.  I didn’t even bring my binoculars, not knowing this was also the place mentioned in the book for Evening Grosbeaks.  Soon, the goats moved under the bridge and out of sight.  As we were about to go, a little yellow-and-black blob flew up the canyon, chittering wildly, and landed in a spruce near the bridge.  It was immediately followed by four more Evening Grosbeaks.  They were so close and bright, I didn’t really mind not having my binoculars.

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Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)

One of the things that made this bird finding guide so accurate was it was super up to date, published only last year.  Most of the birds he talked about still occupied the same territories they did last year, although I don’t really know they were the same individuals.  Older guides can still be useful, though.  On a trip to Florida last winter, I purchased the ABA/Lane “A Birder’s Guide to Florida,” by Bill Pranty, published in 2005.   I was saddened and disappointed several times during our trip when the birds he mentioned were gone and the described habitat looked very degraded or had even disappeared all together.   But despite being more than 10 years old, it was still full of great information, detailed directions, the authors personal advice, and great maps in a portable, accessible format.    In combination with eBird, it was very helpful in planning and accomplishing our trip.

One time in Miami, I looked on eBird for recent reports of Cave Swallows, a species that I really wanted to see.  There were no recent reports, but the bird finding guide had a nearby bridge staked out as a Cave Swallow nesting site.  Was it possible, 10 years later, that there could still be swallows under that bridge that hadn’t been reported on eBird? We drove quickly into the growing darkness to find out.  Upon arriving, my first impression was of an old, deserted bridge over a filthy canal, surrounded by busy highways.  Not a hopeful sight.  We searched the canal, under the bridge, and the surrounding area but saw no birds.  As we were getting ready to leave, my brother, lagging behind as usual, called from under the bridge that he saw a Cave Swallow.  He used his flash to illuminate the dark underside of the bridge once we were ready, and for just a second, I saw a little nest with a Cave Swallow peeping up out of it.

 

 

The Great Ptarmigan Hunt

Since I began researching birding in Glacier National Park nearly a year ago, one of the birds that I most wanted to see was the White-tailed Ptarmigan.  I liked that Ptarmigans are unusual — rare, range -restricted, cute quail-like birds.  Ptarmigans live in harsh, alpine environments far above the tree line.  Getting up to their snow-covered habitat in late June, when we were going to the park, could be a challenge.   They have thickly feathered feet and even feathers around their nostrils to help them deal with the cold.  Every winter, they molt out of their speckled brown breeding plumage into a beautiful snow white plumage for camouflage against the snow.  These specialized adaptations have helped ptarmigans survive the cold, northern winters for millennia, but in a rapidly warming climate, they could be fatal.

When I was researching Glacier, I bought a bird finding guide called “Glacier is For the Birds” by ranger and biologist David Benson, who studies the effects of climate change on White-tailed Ptarmigans in the park.  The book was very useful in learning what birds we could expect to see on the different trails, and more generally, some basic ecology of the park.  While we were at Glacier, we had the opportunity to go on a bird walk with Dr. Benson.  We had already seen all the common birds in the area of the walk, but we went for the chance to pick his brain about ptarmigans and couple of other target birds.  He told us that the best place to see White-tailed Ptarmigans in the park was Logan Pass, but that this was a difficult time of year, since the Going-to-the-Sun Road (the only way to get to Logan Pass) was closed to all vehicles due to snow.  Also, the ptarmigans don’t have chicks or flock this early in the year, so if we saw one, it would likely be by itself.  He didn’t sound very encouraging. When we pressed him about our chances, he kind of raised his eyebrows and said,  “Well, you can try ….” He said to scan every patch of exposed rock downslope from the Hidden Lake Nature Trail, and if we didn’t find ptarmigans there, to walk up and scan the higher rocky patches.

Dr. Benson also pointed out that, unfortunately, there were less White-tailed Ptarmigans at Logan now than there used to be, probably because of declining moisture levels due to climate change.  At this point he thought there were only about 16 breeding adults left there, less than half the number that had been there 50 years ago.  Ptarmigans get stressed by temperatures over seventy degrees, and need snow or snowmelt to cool themselves down.  Less snow and earlier snowmelt makes it harder and harder for them to cool themselves down sufficiently.

Three days previously, we had attempted to find Ptarmigans at Piegan Pass, a high pass through the mountains separating the center of the park from Many Glacier where we were staying.  According to Dr. Benson’s book, a small number of Ptarmigans could be found along the barren, rocky top of the ridge line at the pass.  The five mile hike to Piegan Pass from Jackson Glacier Overlook where we left our car was almost deserted.  Flocks of Pine Siskins and Cassin’s Finches foraged on the clean white snow beneath the stunted forest of Sub-alpine Fir.  The mountain felt pristine and peaceful, exactly how I had always dreamed of mountainous coniferous forests.  I saw the blur of a wing out of the corner of my eye.  Turning I caught a Boreal Chickadee slipping into a fir.  Soon we were surrounded by Boreal and Mountain Chickadees, and Red-breasted Nuthatches.

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Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus)

It wasn’t long before the poorly traveled trail completely disappeared into the snow.  We wandered towards the wall of mountain peaks up ahead, trying to find a footprint that might show where the trail went.  The first people we met were two cross-country skiers, apparently miffed that a family of hikers was attempting to get to the pass.  They told us that they wouldn’t recommend traveling the trail without “trekking boots” or skis.  They emphatically gestured to the snow covered treeless peaks and said the Piegan Pass trail crossed “dangerous snow fields.”  We hoped they were exaggerating.  As we continued to flounder about, trying to find the trail, we heard a loud, raucous noise from the dark sky above us.  Looking up, we saw two large, gray birds with black wings swooping between  tall spruce trees.  We felt cheered by the Clark’s Nutcrackers, another life bird to keep us going.

Upon emerging from the trees, we were surrounded by steep slopes of flaky red and brown rocks, and the occasional stunted fir that managed to survive the harsh conditions.  We could see the trail crossing the peaks in front of us – a thin, straight line, mid way up the steep slopes.  Once we had climbed up to the trail, we could see the whole valley below us, and in the distance, Siyeh Bend in the closed portion of Going-to-the-Sun Road.  Periodically, thick bands of icy snow crossed the path, from the exposed peaks down to the trees far below.   The only birds we saw were two Mountain Bluebirds huddling near the tree line.  As we crossed one of the snowfields, our shoes barely digging into the steep, slippery surface, a man carrying a large backpack came around the bend.  He was extremely exuberant and cheerful about the difficult hiking conditions, in stark contrast to the skiers we had met earlier.  He told me and my brother that the “funnest thing to do in the park” if we had snow pants and an ice axe, was to slide down the snowfields all the way to tree line and meet up with our parents at the bottom of the valley.

Continuing along the path, we stumbled and slid over three more ice sheets with the wind roaring up from the valley and pushing us against the mountain wall.  We almost made it to the pass, stopping periodically and scanning the hillside on either side of us for Ptarmigans.  We knew they might blend in perfectly with the surrounding rocks and didn’t want to miss one in plain sight.  Right before we got to the pass, a steeper ice sheet stopped us.  We were so close, but still just too far to clearly see the rocks there with our binoculars.  How infuriating!

The thought of traveling back over the exposed, icy snowfields with the wind whipping up the valley harder than ever and back down through the snow-covered forest sounded hellish.  Alas, we did not have snow-pants and an ice-axe to slide all the way down!  Still, when we peered down to the road with our binoculars it looked like if we bush-whacked straight down we would encounter a lot less snow.  Once we came out on the road at Siyeh Bend, we could walk back to our car.  We followed the trail back only until it wasn’t too steep to go straight down the mountain.  As we made our way down the rocky slope, my brother suddenly called from ahead that he saw a Gray-crownd Rosy-Finch.  I nearly broke my ankle trying to get to him before it flew away.  It was the first time I had ever seen a Rosy Finch, and I was extremely happy about it.  Several hours later, we emerged on the road, having had an adventure, but not having seen a Ptarmigan.

Earlier in the week, a ranger told us that we could hike four miles from the road closure up to Logan Pass along the Going-to-the-Sun road on weekends, but not on any other days (due to work crews on the roads).  Since we were flying home on Sunday, this meant that if we wanted to go to Logan Pass, Saturday was our last chance.  We got to the Jackson Glacier Parking lot before almost everybody else Saturday morning.

Starting out on foot, the road was wet with dew and early morning rain.  Suddenly, I heard something rustle in the brush to the side of the road.  I drew back as a mother Grizzly Bear and her cub walked across the road.  I was so intent on watching them that I forgot to reach for my camera until it was nearly too late.  I did manage one good shot of the cub as they disappeared into the trees on the other side of the road.

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Grizzly Bear Cub

We enjoyed the views of the many valleys, mountains, streams and glaciers as we walked.  The only people we saw were a few bikers.  The four miles went by surprisingly quickly, and we soon found ourselves at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, which was closed.  The mountain air was clean and sharp.  The 8 foot high Sub-alpine Firs that had been growing over the last half mile of the road finally stopped, giving way to pure, white snow.  A four foot snow pack covered the ground, running from the visitor center all the way up and over the giant mountains in the background.  Every so often, a small patch of rocky alpine vegetation poked out of the snow.  The White-tailed Ptarmigans live in these patches, apparently very rarely walking on the snow or in vegetation taller than themselves (thank goodness!).  We followed the rough location of the Hidden Lake Nature Trail by walking on top of the snow, which was frozen enough to hold us up.  With excitement mounting, we began to search the lower patches for Ptarmigans.  White-crowned Sparrows and Slate-Colored Fox Sparrows foraged in the melting snow on the edges of the rocky patches, along with American Pipits, Cassin’s Finches, and Gray-crowned Rosy Finches, which finally let me get them in good lighting for photos.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis)

After thoroughly scanning the lower patches, we headed up the trail toward the towering peaks and large alpine slopes.  After having searched for over an hour and not having had any luck, I was beginning to get discouraged.  Climbing over the snow up the mountain was hard work.  The sun had come out, and it was getting hot, and since we were on snow, it was also getting extremely, glaringly, bright.  I decided that if we were going to search thoroughly, somebody should really go up above the rocks and check them from the top.  Climbing the mile or so it took to get there was probably the hardest hike in my life.  My boots dug into the slippery snow down to a good six inches and it got steep.  There would be an extremely steep segment and then it would level out again for awhile, before getting even steeper.  I was hiking over four feet of snow in a short-sleeve shirt.  As I got closer to the rocky patches, I could see the little dots that were my family far below me.  Looking out over the snow plain below me from 7,250 ft above sea level, I could see far beyond the Logan Pass visitor center and into the valley beyond it.

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Logan Pass Photo Credit: Galen Staengl

I began scanning every rocky patch for Ptarmigans and working my way back along the ridge toward the pass.  Soon, I had thoroughly seen every bit of four of the rock piles, so I started making my way toward the fifth, a small cliff like face further out in the sea of snow.  My dad, who had been scanning through our spotting scope, suddenly yelled, “I see one!” I began skidding down the mountain toward my family faster than I ever would have without such incentive.  When I got to the scope a few minutes later the Ptarmigan hadn’t moved (of course it hadn’t, it was sitting in a little indent in the cliff face and nonchalantly pecking at the dirt in front of it).  As I looked at the cute little bird, I felt that I could finally let our trip be a success. We had seen our three most important targets, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Boreal Chickadee, and White-tailed Ptarmigan.  We had also seen many other beautiful new birds and endless gorgeous scenery.  I wasn’t able to get a very good photo at that distance, but my brother got some decent ones.

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White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura) Photo Credit: Theo Staengl

We watched the bird for a half-hour, and then headed back toward the road to get to Kalispell so we could get a good night’s sleep before our 5:30am flight home the next day.

Birding Highland County

One of the first field trips I took with the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club was in January 2014 to Highland County, looking for Golden Eagles, Rough-legged Hawks, and American Tree Sparrows.  Highland, a green, hilly county on the West Virginia border, contains a large wintering population of Golden Eagles.  I remember feeling a little intimidated by the older boys, who were so skilled at bird ID and so patient and generous with helping me see the birds.  My 7 year old brother was bored because he wasn’t that into birding yet, so he threw a snowball at the club’s Vice President.  Andrew responded with good humor and soon everyone was involved in a memorable snowball fight that helped me and my brother feel even more welcome.   We saw about 15 Bald Eagles that day.  At the time, they excited me almost as much as the single immature Golden Eagle we saw having a vicious air battle with a Bald Eagle.

After having been to Highland for four winters in a row now, I desperately wanted to go in late May to see some of the breeding birds that are more common further north yet reach the southern limit of their range there.  Last year, I waited until June to go, and most of Highland’s rare breeding birds like the beautiful Golden-winged Warbler and Black-billed Cuckoo had already stopped singing.  This year, the date of the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club annual trip, May 21, finally worked for me.  As we descended into the Blue Grass Valley, we started seeing Bobolinks and Meadowlarks by the road.  This area of Highland is mostly endless farmland, so it can be a great place to look for field birds in the spring, and Golden Eagles in winter.  We made a few brief stops at little streams that flowed out of the lush, rolling green hills.  At one stop in the Forks of Water area, we found a Warbling Vireo, its boisterous, bubbly song intermingling with the sound of the swiftly flowing creek.  Other stops in the valley included a graveyard for Willow Flycatcher and a large cattle pasture for Vespers Sparrow (which we didn’t get, but we did have good views of a Savannah and Grasshopper Sparrow).

As we began to climb up toward the West Virginia border and Margaret O’Bryan’s house (the location of one of the best breeding colonies of Golden-winged Warblers in Virginia) the vegetation became more brushy, with young trees and shrubs instead of pasture.  I was most excited for this part of the trip, because Golden-winged Warblers were the only regularly occurring, eastern warbler that I hadn’t already seen.

Golden-winged Warblers are one of the rarest breeding warblers in Virginia.  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Appalachian population has declined by 98 percent since the 1960s, to only 22,000 estimated breeding individuals in 2010, the steepest decline of any North American songbird.  These declines are most likely the result of the loss and degradation of the shrubby, early successional breeding habitat that Golden-winged warblers favor, as well as loss of wintering habitat in the tropics.  Another problem is that Golden-winged Warblers frequently interbreed with extremely closely related Blue-winged Warblers.  Scientists worry that the much more abundant Blue-winged Warbler could be swamping Golden-winged genetics.

Despite the recent steep decline, I am hopeful that we may still have breeding golden wings in Virginia 50 years from now.  For one thing, the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group and other conservation organizations have taken significant conservation actions, such as habitat restoration that could make a difference.  Also, new research by the Cornell Lab shows that hybridization probably shouldn’t be considered a threat to Golden-winged Warblers because they have been interbreeding with Blue-winged Warblers for most of their evolutionary history. In this view, the species distinction may be artificial, and the two “species” sharing genes may have helped them survive and adapt to changing conditions.

We parked by the edge of the road just short of the O’Bryan property.  As soon as everybody was out of the cars, as if on cue, the high, buzzy song of a Golden-winged Warbler came over the hill.  We all scrambled across the road trying to spot it from the tops of the dense, green foliage it likes.  As it sang again, Andrew (the same leader from that first Highland trip but soon off to college) spotted it in the top of a tree in the valley below.  It was a gorgeous, pure Golden-winged adult male, the fulfillment of a birding dream for me.

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Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera)

Thrilled with such early success, we continued up the mountain and over the West Virginia border, where we saw our second Golden-winged Warbler.  Two Golden-wings in two different states!  The next part of the trip took us into the George Washington National Forest along the VA/WV border, looking for warblers like Canada, Magnolia, and Blackburnian, all of which we eventually heard.  At one stop on a dirt road high in the mountains, I found American Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria pseudomajalis), a life plant for me.

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American Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria pseudomajalis)

We descended into the Straight Fork area, where a complex of beaver ponds, creeks and open mountain meadows crossed the road.  This area is one of the best spots in Highland for Northern Odonates, which reach their southern range limit in Virginia and a very good site for Alder Flycatchers.  It wasn’t long before we heard the distinctive “free beers” song of Alder Flycatchers echoing around the stream.  Finding them wasn’t too difficult, but wasn’t that interesting, as they look almost exactly like Willow Flycatchers.  Still, it was nice to properly experience this uncommon breeder that I have never seen before.  The odes were not nearly as good as they could have been, possibly because of the cloudiness of the day, or maybe the time of year, with none of the really rare species and only some of the more interesting common northern ones present.

Our last stop was for Mourning Warblers at a fire road in the national forest.  Last June, two of them had aggressively responded to imitated chips here, and I was excited to try and repeat that.  We started walking down the fire road.  Suddenly Andrew tensed and told us to be quiet, indicating he had seen something.  He peered into the wall of greenery in front of us, and finally said he had a Black-billed Cuckoo.  We rushed forward and demanded he tell us where it was, validating Andrew’s caution in waiting to announce the bird before he’d ID’d it.  The Cuckoo, surprisingly tolerant, other than being in nearly impenetrable brush, let us get great looks and abysmal photos.  I have been fortunate enough to see a Black-billed Cuckoo in Virginia before, on migration, but for some in our party this was a Virginia lifer.  We never did see the Mourning Warblers, but what a great way to end a fantastic trip!

Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve

A friend, Drew, and I started planning our trip to Halifax County’s Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve in January. Difficult Creek is a former Pine savanna with hardpan soils, making it a very unique site in Virginia. Recently the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) announced on Face Book their discovery there of a new colony of Tall Barbara’s Buttons, a southern piedmont endemic with only one other known extant site in the world and one of our main targets for the trip.

On our way down Route 15 just north of Farmville, Drew spotted a huge mass of white wands of flowers in a power cut. Excited at the thought of what they might be, we quickly stopped. Hundreds of White Colicroot (Aletris farinosa) grew in the power line cut along with Green Milkweed, Smalls Ragwort, Carolina Rose, and Sundrops.

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White Colicroot is much rarer further north so we had never seen it before.

Shortly after entering the preserve on a windy road, we crossed Difficult Creek, its water muddy and torrential after all the recent rain. Southern Sugar Maple (Acer floridanum) and Winged Elm (Ulmus alata) grew in the forest around the creek. Soon we came to a large power line crossing the road. Underneath it bloomed the richest assortment of colorful wildflowers I had ever seen in a power line prairie. Carolina Thistle (Cirsium carolinianum), rare in Virginia, was one of the most abundant species. Plumed Thistle, Butterfly Weed, Dogbane, Green Milkweed, Green-and-Gold, Sundrops, Hyssop-leafed Skullcap, Mad-dog Skullcap, Pale spike Lobelia, and many asters, goldenrods, and other composites that were to young to identify were also plentiful.

Soon, we also found White Milkweed (Asclepius albicans) and Carolina False Dandelion (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus), both life plants for me. As we explored the power cut, we kept finding southern piedmont specialties, plants that hardly ever occur elsewhere in the state. For example, American Ipecac (Gillenia stipulata) is listed by the Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora to occur in Virginia only in Halifax and Wise Counties.

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American Ipecac

Other interesting plants we saw there were: Narrow-leaved Bluets (Houstonia tenuifolia), Old Field Milkvine (Matelea decipiens), Sampson Snakeroot (Orbexilum pedunculatum), Smooth Coneflower (Echinacea laevigata), and Lobed Coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata).

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Smooth Coneflower

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Old Field Milkvine

The birds we saw and heard were species typical of southern piedmont pine lands, with the most common species being Summer Tanager, Prairie Warbler, Pine Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, and Brown-headed Nuthatch, always a treat to see away from the coast.  We also heard a Northern Bobwhite call a couple of times, only the second time I have ever encountered it.  Other notable birds were Yellow-breasted Chat and Hooded Warbler.

When we finished exploring the power line prairie, we accessed the preserve at another point, to keep looking for Barbara’s Buttons. Loblolly Pines grew above us, Willow Oak, Blackjack Oak, Post Oak, and Sourwood made a dense shrub layer. The herbaceous diversity was not nearly as high as it had been in the open power line corridor.

As we were finishing our lunch, heavy clouds came in and it started to pour.  We quickly ran back to the car to finish eating, complaining about how difficult the rain would make photography, and how generally unpleasant it was.  Right when we were about to go out again, a DCR truck pulled up and its driver asked if we were looking for wildflowers.  We said we were, and asked him if he could show us the site for Tall Barbara’s Buttons.  It turned out the driver was Chris Ludwig, Chief biologist of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Natural Heritage.  He showed us a small colony of Tall Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia legrandii), which, despite the still heavy rain, we photographed profusely.

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Tall Barbara’s Buttons

The pouring rain necessitated that we keep moving if we did not want to get soaked, so we asked Chris if he would show us a colony of the much more common (but still new to us) Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia obovata), which also grows at the preserve. He took us to a large colony, and I was surprised at how different the two Barbara’s Buttons were from each other. I had been prepared to measure the height of the stalk in order to tell one from the other, but found that Tall Barbara’s Buttons had deep pink flowers and Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons had pure white flowers.  I am sure flower color in these species is somewhat variable, and I am very curious as to the color of Tall Barbara’s Buttons at the other site it is known from in North Carolina, and to the color of other colonies of Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons.

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Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons

Chris then showed us the few other plants we had missed on our first exploration of the power cut, such as Rattlesnake Master, and Glade Wild Quinine (we had seen Common Wild Quinine earlier, so we were able to compare the species). He also identified the strange sheep like sound of an amphibian we had been hearing all day as a Eastern Narrow-mouthed Toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis).

 

Chris also told us how DCR was managing Difficult Creek.  About 40 years ago, the preserve had been converted to a Loblolly Pine plantation from hardwood forest.  As the Pines grew, they forced the herbaceous flora into the adjacent power line clearing that we had just explored. The power line cut was mowed every couple of years, which kept woody plants from encroaching and cutting off light.  DCR’s plan is to restore the preserve to pine savanna, an open canopy of pines, oaks, and hickories maintained by fire, that would have historically occurred throughout the southern piedmont before the colonial period.  They hope to accomplish this by prescribed burns and Loblolly Pine removal, which would let more light reach the ground, allowing the plants to recolonize the preserve from the power line clearing.  In addition to this restoration regime providing fantastic habitat for so many rare southern piedmont plants, it would create ideal habitat for Northern Bobwhites.

We were thrilled by the success of our trip, and the thought of that rich power cut prairie spreading throughout the entire preserve.