Briery Branch Gap

I finally made it up to Briery Branch Gap, on the Virginia-West Virginia border, again.  It’s the only place in Virginia where Red Crossbills are seen regularly.   The last time I came up here, in March, we didn’t see any Crossbills, even though large flocks of them had been seen recently.  Snow covered the ground that day, but the air was warm enough (about 50 degrees), so we figured we’d be fine.  As we started up the trail, a group of huge, noisy, monster trucks came roaring through the six inches of muddy slush and snow carpeting the narrow dirt road.  Well, so much for being dry, but the sun was still shining and it was still warm (relatively), so we kept walking.  As we got up to the campground where the Crossbills usually are, a dark, ominous, storm cloud started to roll in from West Virginia.  The temperature dropped noticeably, and it started to drizzle.  I did my best to ignore these signs, despite faintly remembered warnings about rapidly changing mountain weather.  The further we hiked, the colder it became.  We navigated around huge pockets of mud colored slush covering deep pools of frigid water.  My foot slipped into one of these pot holes.  It started to rain — cold, hard, persistent rain, soaking our long sleeve shirts and threatening to ruin our cameras.  We turned and ran for the car, which was, unfortunately, at least half a mile away.  Both of my feet were numb.  I couldn’t feel them as I ran clumsily down the mountain.  Right as we got to the car, the rain stopped and the sun came out.  The temperature rose twenty degrees and the snow started visibly melting.  I had a hard time believing that just a few minutes ago, we were in the middle of a winter storm.  Looking down at the thick blanket of dark clouds in the valley far below us, though, I could see where the storm had gone.  Needless to say, no Crossbills that day, but I did enjoy seeing interesting high-elevation plants, such as Mountain Fetterbush and Red Spruce, and strange, introduced, exotics, such as Red Pine and Norwegian Spruce.

 

This time, in April, the snow was all gone.  We got out of the car and ate lunch.  As we were finishing, we heard the distinctive flight call of a Red Crossbill in a large Chestnut Oak just on the other side of the hill.  I tried to find the bird, but ended up walking in a big circle.  Fortunately, my brother spotted a male sitting on top of a little clump of sumac a few feet from us.  It stayed still and let us photograph it for awhile, before flying onto the road right in front of us, to peck at the gravel.   Crossbills are very approachable when they “gravel,” and this one was no exception, as I was able to get within ten feet of it.

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Photo credit: Theo Staengl

After the Crossbill flew away, we had a nice, thankfully rain free hike (not that we were so unprepared this time!), up the road for a couple of miles.  We saw the usual high elevation species, like Red-breasted Nuthatch, Black-capped Chickadee, and Common Raven.  There were also many Fox and Chipping sparrows.  When we got back to the car, we heard two Blue-headed Vireos singing.  We quickly found these beautiful birds and enjoyed looking at them until we had to go.

Two Orioles and Two Owls

When I heard there was a Black Backed Oriole in Pennsylvania, I hoped we could make the trip since it would be such a great chance to see this rare species.   It’s a non-migratory species endemic to Mexico, so what was it doing in PA?   We went to the Black Backed Oriole, nicknamed “BB,” stakeout first, in hopes of getting our main target out of the way so we could relax and enjoy the rest of our trip. When we got to the right neighborhood, we saw two birders with a scope standing on the sidewalk looking across the street at a feeder. They hadn’t seen the bird yet so we stood with them and waited. After about twenty minutes “BB” came to the feeder briefly and sat in a cedar tree, where the dense evergreen branches mostly blocked it from view.

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We wanted better photos so we stayed, hoping that it would come to the feeder again. The owner of the house, Tom, came out to chat with us. He was the perfect example of what I wish all property owners near a rare bird would be like. He enjoyed all the attention and was interested in birds and birders.  He’s even made a face book page about “BB!”   He seemed to think of his role as the birder watcher. He told us to sign into the little booklet that he had because he was sending it to someone in Australia who was doing a study about the economic impact of birding.   Apparently people from thirty states, some Canadian provinces, and a couple of European countries have come to see this bird! Imagine how that might help a region’s economy! This is especially ironic because “BB” is probably not really an ABA countable, wild vagrant from Mexico, but rather an escaped cage bird.   So basically, someone could just let a super rarity out of a cage and many birders will come to see it and spend money on hotels, meals, etc.  Sadly, “BB” did not come back to the feeder for another hour, so we moved on, thinking that we would try to get better pictures in the morning before we left.

Our next stop was a nearby park with a Great Horned Owl nest that one of the birders visiting “BB” had told us about.  We found the large bird easily, sleeping inside a hole near the parking lot.

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Photo credit: Theo Staengl

We finished the day at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, which has been getting some good birds lately, like Eurasian Widgeon and Golden Eagle. The highlight for us, though, was the large number (over 1000) of Tundra Swans on the lake.  I hope everyone has the chance to experience huge flocks of any water bird making noise. Thousands of Sandhill Cranes, thousands of Snow Geese, or thousands of wintering swans make a truly gorgeous noise.  The Tundra Swans filled the space around us as they flew overhead and landed on the lake, constantly calling long, rattling, trumpeting noises that blended together to create one musical chorus.  To see or hear birds, or most wildlife, really, in such abundance is always special.

As dusk fell, a lone short-eared owl put on a show for us hunting over the fields in the waning light.

The next morning, it was snowing heavily and much colder. Our first target was a Bullock’s Oriole, a western species rarely seen east of the Mississippi.  We sat in our car and waited as we watched the Flickers and Juncos, among other birds, coming to the feeders.   Soon, the Bullock’s landed on the suet feeder.  It was an immature male, shining brightly against the dreary wet snow, with a bright yellow breast and black throat spot and eye line.

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Photo credit: Theo Staengl

Next we went back to Middle Creek WMA. This time, in addition to the large numbers of Tundra Swans, Black Ducks, Shovelers, and Canada Geese, there were also 12 Common Mergansers and thousands of Snow Geese on the main lake. The driving snow made it very difficult to scan the large body of water for more waterfowl, so we decided to drive around a little wildlife loop in hopes that the storm would stop. We quickly found three American Tree Sparrows in a flock of sparrows foraging on the roadside (the only not snow covered ground).  Even though Tree Sparrows are fairly common in Pennsylvania, we were excited to see them, as we rarely see them in Virginia.

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Other notable sightings on the wildlife loop were Killdeer, Wilson’s Snipe and Horned Larks. As the storm blew out, we drove back to the trail to the lake. The Tree Sparrows still foraged in the bushes by the road. A mixed flock descended out of the trees, both Carolina and Black-capped Chickadees calling and flying around everywhere. We flushed a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds, a year bird for me! At the lake, we saw some Green Winged Teal and three Ruddy Ducks.  Huge flocks of snow geese flew overhead, with both blue and white morph birds. My brother spotted a Palm Warbler hopping around in the snow. This crazy bird should have been in the deep south now, so this was quite a surprise! Palm Warblers have such a distinctive habit of pumping their tail up and down constantly that it is used as a field mark.

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When I totaled up my Pennsylvania life list I found it had 96 species. I do not know about you, but I really hate seeing numbers that are so close to a good solid 100 but not quite! Overall, we had an amazing trip and I am very glad to be back home now.

Owls and Woodcocks at Beagle Gap

Last night we headed up to Beagle Gap in Shenandoah National Park to try to hear the Saw-whet Owl that has been wintering there.  When we got there it was still light, so we walked around a nearby meadow that was outside the boundaries of the park for a while, looking for any American Woodcocks or other birds.  We were alone in the silent meadow, enjoying the pink light falling on the mountains in the distance and  the golden glow of the meadow grasses.  Suddenly we heard a dry, harsh “peeent” call from the bushes beside the field.   As we walked toward the spot where the Woodcock had been calling, it suddenly erupted out of the grass by our feet. I hate how they do that!  I was able to get it in my binoculars and had a  decent look.  Soon there were “peeents” coming from all directions – there must have been more than five! The males would sit out in the field “peeenting” and then suddenly pop into flight. Then you could hear their rapid twitter as they flew overhead.

IMG_5467_edited-1.JPGWoodcock photo I took in Ohio last Spring, not at Beagle Gap.

As the last “peeents” dwindled, an Eastern Screech Owl called from the distance. Its eerie trill fading to nothing as the meadow once again went silent.  After waiting a little bit, we played the Saw-whet call in hopes that it would respond.  After a couple of rounds of playing and then waiting for a few minutes we finally heard, somewhat distantly, but clearly, the wail-like call of the Northern Saw-Whet Owl.  It called just three times, but it felt almost as good as seeing it.  By then it was freezing cold so we left the mountain in a hurry.

Gulling on the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry

We recently found ourselves in Surrey County by the James River, in need of crossing to see the Clay Colored Sparrow that has been coming to a feeder in Jamestown. The obvious solution was to cross on the ferry. The Jamestown-Scotland Ferry has had some interesting rarities over the years, including Black Legged Kittiwake and Sabine’s Gull. You will be sad to learn that no super rarities were seen that day, but we did have some good studies of some decent birds. As we waited for the ferry, we scanned the gulls perched on the pilings and on the water. There was a Great Black Backed Gull on the water with Ring Billed and Herring Gulls. We were pleased to hear a Pine Warbler singing, one of the first short distance migrant songbirds arriving in Virginia – a bit early, but not unexpected with all the crazy warm weather we have been having lately. The ferry docked and as we drove onto it, my friend spotted a Laughing Gull on one of the pilings. It was beginning to molt out of its non-breeding plumage with an incomplete hood and a black bill. This species is a common summer resident of coastal Virginia, but it is still a little early for them.

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As the ferry headed out onto the James River it quickly attracted a large swarm of gulls traveling in its wake. Gulls often fly behind large ships so that they can eat any fish the ships’ engines chop up or stir to the surface. Quickly another Laughing Gull joined the first one in the crowd of Ring Billed Gulls. Soon, we could see Bonaparte’s Gulls in the flock and by the end of the ride we had counted over twenty!

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The Bonaparte’s and the Laughing Gull were VA year birds for me!