Mount Rogers Naturalist Rally Part 1: Salamanders at White Top Mountain

All we could see from the Elk Garden parking lot at White Top Mountain was a thick blanket of fog.  It covered the meadows and mountains to our left, and obscured the distant Yellow Birches of the forest on our right.  It wasn’t exactly raining, but we could feel the heavy wetness in the cool air.  It was around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, an average temperature for this elevation even on a summer morning.  White top Mountain’s peak is the second highest peak in Virginia at 5,525 feet, but we were only at a bit over 4,000 feet.  As our group assembled in the parking lot, our guide, Kevin Hamed, Professor of Biology, at Virginia Highlands Community College, told us interesting things about salamanders.  He said that in addition to being able to regrow lost tails, many salamanders can regrow legs and even large parts of their heart.  He also told us that the total biomass of salamanders in the Southern Appalachians is greater than the biomass of all the mammals and birds in the area combined.  That’s a lot of salamanders! As we walked down a small gravel road on our way to the salamander spot, I noticed how different the flora was from Shenandoah National Park back home.  Instead of White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), the common trillium carpeting this forest was Red Trillium (Trillium erectum).  IMG_1266_edited-1.JPG

Also Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) was abundant, in contrast to the Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) common back home. In general, the wildflowers on the forest floor were extremely rich and diverse, even more so then in Shenandoah National Park.

After 40 minutes of searching around a rocky moss covered slope, our group found 7 species of salamanders in an area less then one acre. We saw the regional endemic Weller’s Salamander, which lives only in the Mount Rogers area of Virginia and North Carolina and far eastern Tennessee.


Weller’s Salamander (Plethodon welleri)

We also saw: Yonahlossee Salamander (Plethodon yonahlossee), Northern Pygmy Salamander (Desmognathus organi), Northern Grey-cheeked Salamander (Plethodon montanus),  Blue Ridge Dusky Salamander, (Desmognathus orestes), Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus), and Blue Ridge two lined Salamander (Eurycea wilderae). 


Yonahlossee Salamander (Plethodon yonahlossee)


Northern Pygmy Salamander (Desmognathus organi)

After finishing at that site, we headed to a fast flowing mountain stream to look for aquatic species.  By turning over rocks in the stream we found more Grey-cheeked and Northern Dusky Salamanders as well as Blackbelly Salamander (Desmognathus quadramaculatus) and Seal Salamander (Desmognathus monticola), which were both new species for the day. Interestingly, the previously abundant Weller’s and Yonahlossee Salamanders were completely absent.  Upon returning to the Konnarock Community Center, the home base for the Mount Rogers Naturalist Rally, we heard about a Northern Red Salamander under a wooden board.  It was our 11th species of Salamander for the day.


Northern Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber ruber)

Piney Grove and the Dismal Swamp

Piney Grove Preserve is the only place in Virginia where the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker lives. It is also the furthest north site for this species.  As we drove down the narrow entrance road to the preserve, we could hear the rising song of Prairie Warblers from almost every clump of vegetation by the road.  Eastern Towhees, Black-and-white Warbler, and Ovenbirds also sang along the road.  Old Loblolly and Long-leaf Pines towered over the understory of Wax Myrtle and young Black and Water Oaks, creating the beautiful habitat of southern pine savannah. We photographed several Pink Lady’s Slippers that grew in the thick mat of decaying pine needles covering the forest floor at the entrance to the Nature Conservancy’s Darden Nature Trail.


Pink Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule)


Very pale Pink Lady’s Slipper

I saw a couple of Brown-headed Nuthatches foraging in the smaller pines.  This small species only lives on the Coast, so I don’t get to see them very often.  Theo, my brother, brought my attention to a very distant, slow, “yank yank yank” call, clearly a Red-breasted Nuthatch.  Soon after, I heard the faster, jerkier call of the White-breasted Nuthatch.  It was the first time I had ever seen all three eastern Nuthatches in the same day!  We saw Ovenbirds and Yellow-throated Vireos, but no Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.  We decided to drive the main road of the preserve to look for the spot we had seen them the last time we came here, over a year ago.  As we were pulling out of the parking lot, Theo spotted a Blue Grosbeak sitting on a tree beside the road.  What an unexpected treat! They are a common breeder in this habitat later in the year, but this was the first one I had seen this season.   We walked down the main road, seeing plenty of Pine Warblers, Prairie Warblers, Palm Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and Yellow-throated Warblers, but still no Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.  Suddenly, two “footballs with wings” exploded out of the brush in front of us, their feathers making a tremendous noise.  Bobwhite! This was a very long awaited lifer. After lunch we decided we’d better head to the Dismal Swamp if we wanted to have much time there, so with much regret, we gave up on the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and got into the car for the drive.

Our first stop at the Great Dismal Swamp NWR was Jericho Ditch, a famous spot for the elusive Swainson’s Warbler.  When we got out of our car, the sight that greeted us was not exactly spectacular.  A long path stretched into the hazy distance with a ditch nearly hidden by dense, shrubby vegetation beside it.  Heat shimmered off the gravel parking lot.  We heard and then saw several Prothonotary Warblers, their brilliant yellow bodies contrasting with their slate grey wings.  As we walked along the ditch, giant Swamp Darners and other dragonflies swarmed all about us.  Eventually, we heard a Swainson’s Warbler sing about 10 feet off the trail.  We stood and waited patiently, tried “pishing,” and even tried to enter the dense brush and briers that made a wall at the edge of the trail, but nothing we did let us see the bird.  After we waited for a good half hour, we gave up seeing it and went to Washington Ditch.  Washington Ditch was much nicer than Jericho Ditch, with real coastal swamp forest instead of scrub.  Mature Red Maples, Willow Oaks, and Water Oaks cast a cooling shade, with lush Devils Walking Stick and Cinnamon Fern carpeting the forest floor.  As we walked along the wide cool path, we heard the noises of a mixed flock off to the left.  Soon Yellow-rumped and Prothonotary Warblers sang on either side of us.  Then we heard the distinctive “whee whee whee whip-poor-will” song of a Swainson’s Warbler.  I found the bird this time, due to the more open canopy, and enjoyed my first views of it.


Swainson’s Warbler

After the Warblers had moved on and we were walking back to the car, we heard a Barred Owl call through the distant swamp woods.

Exploring the Southern Piedmont in Amherst County

The other day me and a friend explored Beck Creek in Amherst County in search of Odes (short for Odonata, the dragonfly and damselfly order) and anything else we could find.  We had high expectations for the springtime dragonflies, with almost every interesting early April flying Ode, including Eastern Red Damsels and Southern Pygmy Club-tails, supposedly abundant and easy to see here.  We drove down the dusty gravel road looking for a spring off to one side in the forest.  When we found the small trickle of crystal clear water and got out of the car, a giant logging truck came roaring by, spraying us with dry, sticky dust. We escaped into the lush green vegetation surrounding the seep and started to gently knock the many sedges for red damsels.  The diversity of the native wildflowers around us was immediately apparent, and they soon made up for the near total lack of Odes. Royal Fern, Sensitive Fern, Field Horsetail, Tall Scouring Rush, Trout lily, White Turtle Head, Cut-leafed Coneflower, Cardinal Flower, Golden Ragwort, Bulbous Bittercress, Appalachian Foam Flower, Dwarf Ginseng, Robin’s Plantain, Wild-blue Phlox, Eastern Solomon’s Plume, and Solomon’s Seal were some of the herbaceous plants that grew in and around the spring.


Bulbous Bittercress


Dwarf Ginseng

We walked down the road in search of other Odes like Uhler’s Sundragon and Brown Spike-tail, but sadly the only dragonfly we saw was a single Springtime Darner.  My friend found a large colony of Yellowroot and Leatherwood growing next to the creek.  These were life plants for both of us.


Yellow root



I spotted an Elfin butterfly of some type flying next to the road.  We rushed to get pictures, but another huge truck came through, plastering us with more dust, and scaring it away. Eventually we refound it, and were able to determine that it was a Brown Elfin.  Fire Pink and Green-and-gold grew profusely on the rock outcrops above the road. I had never seen Green-and-gold before, despite it apparently being rather common, so it was nice to finally see some.


Fire Pink



When we got back to the car, we decided to have one more go at the odes in the seep around the spring before we had to leave.  It was a good thing we did! We very quickly found a teneral Southern Pygmy Club-tail resting on a clump of sedge as its wings dried out.  This was our most wanted dragonfly for the trip so it was a good thing we eventually found one, not that it would have mattered much with all those great plants!  We photographed it until we had to go.


Southern Pygmy Club-tail

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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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