Bird Finding in Virginia: State Route 610

Tucked away in the mountains behind the Inn at Afton — also the Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch — lies a fantastic but little birded road for observing songbird migration.  State Route 610 is a very quiet road, rarely used by cars that favor the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway.  610 starts as a turn off of 250 just west of where 250 is crossed by Skyline Drive.  The road ranges in elevation from about 1,900 feet above sea level to just over 2,400.  In my experience, the best section of the road for birding — reached after about three miles — is where it runs parallel and within easy sight of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Before that point it is more developed and lower elevation, and after the two roads diverge, 610 goes into a valley.

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Last connection between 610 and the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The section of road leading up to this  is the best part of the road for migrants.

Be warned that the road spans two counties.  The best portion of the road is in Augusta County, even though the eBird hotspot is in Nelson.  I submit most of my eBird data from 610 from a personal location in Augusta instead of the hotspot in Nelson in an effort to be accurate about my county lists.

I first learned about State Route 610 by looking on eBird.  I saw some of Edward Brinkley’s insane checklists from the 1990’s, containing huge fallouts of migrating songbirds.  However, his data stopped before the turn of the century, and since then it had not been eBirded regularly.  One morning last fall when I had nothing better to do I decided to check it out, and although it wasn’t spectacular, I had a good morning and made several repeat visits. On multiple occasions I was able to observe songbird fallouts of impressive proportions.

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State Route 610

The first portion of State Route 610 immediately behind the Inn at Afton and in Nelson County can hold warbler flocks in migration, and I often give it a quick check to try to get whatever is possible in Nelson.  At this point, the road is climbing up wooded slopes into the mountains.  There are a fair amount of houses and clearings around them, and this is the point on the road where cars are most likely to be encountered.  So far I have not observed any really notable birds here, but warblers I’ve seen here in the spring include hooded, ovenbird, magnolia, black-throated blue and cerulean.

Once I reach the section of road that runs along the Blue Ridge Parkway I usually get out of the car and walk, looking and listening for warbler flocks.  I’ve had many species of warblers in the spring — which isn’t even the best season to bird this road — in the trees  there, including Tennessee, blackburnian, bay-breasted and plentiful ceruleans.  My brother and I also found a black-billed cuckoo there last June.  I think the dense second growth scrub that fills the gap between the roads in places may be good habitat for the skulking warblers, like mourning and Connecticut.

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Black-billed Cuckoo.  Photo by Theo Staengl

In fall, 610 is a fantastic place to bird.  I’ve been there when there were so many birds that everywhere I looked I could see warblers flitting in the foliage.  In addition to warblers, it’s a great spot for large concentrations of Catharus thrushes.  I’ve seen 20 warbler species there in just a couple fall visits.  I think if the road were covered more regularly, people might be able to observe fallouts close to the size of the ones Brinkley reported over twenty years ago.

 

Bird Finding in Virginia: Greenbrier Park

Located in the Greenbrier neighborhood on the north side of Charlottesville, Greenbrier Park has the fourth-most species of any eBird hotspot in the City of Charlottesville, and some of its best birding.  Park entrances are located at the intersection of Greenbrier Drive and Kerry Lane, the end of Jamestown Road, and the Brandywine Drive bridge over Meadow Creek.  There is street parking on Brandywine Drive, Greenbrier Drive, Jamestown Road, and Kerry Lane.  The hotspot encompasses both Greenbrier Park itself, on the east side of the Brandywine bridge, and the section of the Rivanna Trail that runs through city property from the west side of the Brandywine bridge to Hydraulic Road.  Habitats in the park include floodplain forest, upland forest, fields, swamp forest, and marsh.

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From the Brandywine Drive bridge, you can walk east or west.  The east side is generally better for warblers, while the west is better for sparrows.  If you go east from the bridge along the trail that runs parallel to Meadow Creek, you will soon reach an intersection with a paved trail that leads across a wooden bridge over the creek.  A left turn takes you up a hill to the Kerry Lane entrance, while a right turn over the bridge leads to another intersection.  A left takes you on a trail that parallels the one opposite the creek, while continuing straight leads to the Jamestown Drive entrance.  Past this point, trails run parallel on each side of the creek, and form a loop at the railroad track that makes the park’s eastern boundary.  The section of trail that connects the two sides runs over a tunnel through which the creek passes under the tracks, and is steep, slippery, and overgrown, with a drop into the water below on one side.  Fortunately, there is a rock crossing about three-quarters of the way down the trail that is much safer during low water.  This entire east side of Greenbrier is very good during spring migration, with species such as both waterthrushes, prothonotary, worm-eating, black-throated blue, black-throated green, and yellow warblers, northern parula, scarlet tanager, Baltimore oriole, veery, and Lincoln’s sparrow recorded here.

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Scarlet Tanager

A marsh on the south side of the creek, opposite the rock crossing, is good for migrant green herons and solitary sandpipers.  Rusty blackbirds may also be here in the late winter, and the swampy woods on the north side can have wood ducks.  Also on the north side of the creek, a backyard that runs down to the trail has feeders which can be good for finches and other songbirds, and a brush pile next to a boardwalk here is good for wrens and sparrows.  A dead-end trail just past the marsh on the south side leads you through a moist wooded area with much undergrowth where I have seen American woodcock, white-eyed vireo and barred owl.

On the west side of the bridge, the trail runs along the creek for a short while before crossing it at some rocks where a cable has been put across the stream to hold on to.  The woods just after you cross have lots of fallen logs and are great for winter wrens.  In fact, Greenbrier is probably the most reliable place for that species that I have been.

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Winter Wren

A little farther down, you will reach a gas cut that comes down a steep slope on the left.  If you climb the hill through the cut, there is a small trail that goes off to the right.  This trail is very good for thrushes and ovenbird, the latter only in migration as far as I know.  If instead of going left up the gas cut you take a right from the main trail, you will reach a large, weedy field on your left.  This is a fantastic area in the fall and winter, with tons of sparrows.  This spot is good for swamp and field sparrows, winter wren, red-shouldered hawk, common yellowthroat, and indigo bunting.  I have found willow flycatcher, eastern meadowlark, and American tree sparrow in this field as well.  If you continue straight on the trail past the gas cut, you will see upland, oak-dominated woods on your left and floodplain forest on the right all the way down to Hydraulic Road, with some small clearings and woodland trickles.  This whole area is excellent for woodpeckers, kinglets, and songbirds in general.  Don’t forget to look up every now and then on the trail, as hawks are frequently seen here, as well as the occasional common raven and bald eagle.

Greenbrier Park is one of the best hotspots in Charlottesville, but before I started birding it, I believe there were only about 70 species recorded there.  Now at this time of writing, that number is up to 119, with plenty more new species to come.  Spring migration is probably the best time to bird at Greenbrier, but winter is quite good as well, and fall migration has the possibility of turning up some good species.  Summer is not as active, since most of the breeding birds are common species, but it’s not bad nonetheless.  I would recommend Greenbrier to beginner birders looking to see a good diversity of species, and really any birder in Charlottesville looking for a new place to bird.

You can view the hotspot on eBird here: https://ebird.org/hotspot/L1543531?yr=all&m=&rank=mrec

 

Drew Chaney, a member of the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club, is writing posts about birding locations for this blog.  In addition to birds, Drew is passionate about Plants and Odonata.

Bird Finding in Virginia: Rockfish Valley Trail

Note about this post: On past birding trips I have found bird finding guides extremely helpful.  Written by people familiar with local hotspots, these books give the sort of tips and tricks for birding a location that can take many visits to figure out for oneself.  Since there is no recently updated bird finding guide to Virginia, I have decided to make an online version through writing posts like this.  I will try to publish a new one every week.  Soon I will add a page on this blog with links to all the bird finding in Virginia posts that have been published so far.  Some of my friends from the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club have agreed to help me on this project.  Welcome Baxter Beamer, Tucker Beamer, Max Nootbaar, Ira Lianez and Drew Chaney to the birdsandbuds team!  We will stick to our local area for now, as that is where we are most familiar with the birding locations, but I would like to make this a statewide project.  If anyone reading this (especially in other parts of the state) would like to contribute articles like the one below, please send me an email.

 

Just past the town of Nellysford on the Rockfish Valley Highway (151), the Rockfish Valley Trail (RVT) is currently the most birded eBird hotspot in Nelson County.  Although there are certainly other locations in Nelson waiting to be discovered by birders, the RVT will remain one of the classics.  Driving 151 South, the Rockfish Valley Trail parking lot is on your right immediately after Horizon Village Road and the Bold Rock Cidery.

The Rockfish Valley Trail traverses cow pastures, overgrown fields and floodplain forests.  Sections of the trail run along both the South Fork of the Rockfish River and Reid’s Creek.

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Section of the Glenthorne Loop Trail.

From the parking lot, the Rockfish Valley Trail runs east and west along the South Fork of the Rockfish River.  Although both sides are good, I find that the eastern side — known as the Glenthorne Loop Trail — is usually more productive, especially for sparrows in the fall. To get to the Glenthorne Loop Trail from the RVT parking lot, go under the bridge beneath 151. On the other side of the bridge you will see a large cow pasture to your right and a row of densely planted cedars to your left.  Walk down the path between the cedars and the field, watching for eastern meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows in the field.  Once the cedars stop, the path splits off in two directions and crosses an extremely brushy field.  During the spring and summer, the willows along the river here are a good place to see orchard orioles, eastern kingbirds and sometimes yellow warblers.  In previous Octobers this field has been an amazing spot for sparrows, with large numbers of Lincoln’s and swamp present.  I also had two marsh wrens here last October.

The trails eventually meet back up to form the beginning of Glenthorne Loop in front of Reid’s Creek, and from there you can either cross the creek on a bridge into another large field, or continue on the RVT side.  This area, behind the brushy field, is a great place for fall warblers.  I’ve had multiple blackburnian, blackpoll, bay-breasted and black-throated-green warblers in the early successional forests that border the path here.  This is also a great area for olive-sided flycatcher in the fall, although the tree they used to perch on has fallen down.  The trail goes back into the woods before coming out next to the cow pasture again, now following Reid’s Creek to the south, and I’ve never found it worth continuing at that point.  Other than more grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks, white-eyed vireos and the occasional warbler, there usually aren’t many new birds there, so I turn around and bird the west side.

If you don’t cross under 151 and instead follow the trail west from the parking lot, you’ll walk in between a large field and a small riparian corridor along the river.  Extensive jewelweed patches grow next to the river here, and people often have mourning warblers in them during late August.  As you walk this section of trail, scan exposed perches for flycatchers.  Many species of Empidonax flycatchers can be found in the fall, including willow, least, yellow-bellied and probably alder.  Olive-sided flycatchers are also annual.  In the fall, watch for warbling and Philadelphia Vireos in the willows.  The trail extends for about a mile before you have to turn around.

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Philadelphia Vireo

Good birds seen at the Rockfish Valley Trail include: Olive-sided flycatcher, yellow-bellied flycatcher, least flycatcher, Trail’s flycatcher sp., northern waterthrush, mourning warbler, Connecticut warbler, blackburnian warbler, Wilson’s warbler, blue-winged warbler, black-billed cuckoo, warbling vireo, Philadelphia Vireo, gray-cheeked thrush, Lincoln’s sparrow, marsh wren, dickcissel and bobolink.

The Rockfish Valley Trail is a great place to bird any time of year, but especially in migration.  In my opinion September and October are the best months to bird the RVT, as that is when most of the warblers, flycatchers and sparrows are coming through.  I hope I’ve inspired you to come out to Nelson County to do some birding!