Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Swamp Preserve: Orchids and Carnivorous Plants

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

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

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Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)

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

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Pine Lily (Lilium catesbaei)

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

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Orange Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris)

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

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Yellow Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia flava)

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

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Hooded Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia minor)

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

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

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

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Orange Crested Orchid (Platanthera cristata)

An excellent trip, minus the ticks.

 

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

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

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

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British soldiers (Cladonia cristatella)

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

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

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

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Maple Looper Moth

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

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

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Large Whorled Pogonia

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

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

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Godfrey’s Thoroghwort

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

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Zabulon Skipper

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

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Cup Lichen (Cladonia asahinae)

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

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Banded Tussock Moth Caterpillar

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

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

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 Empidomax 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 the call, 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 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 birder’s 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.  But older guides can still be useful.  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 were 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 at temperatures over seventy degrees, and need snow or snow melt 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 in to 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 made it almost 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.