Bird Finding in Virginia: James River State Wildlife Management Area

James River State Wildlife Management Area is the eBird hotspot with the third most species in Nelson County, with 132, and many more still waiting to be recorded.  It still isn’t getting birded as much as it deserves, with only 67 complete eBird checklists at the time of this writing, but over the last year the coverage has improved.  It’s one of the only publicly accessible marshes in the county, which makes it a particularly important spot for local birders to check, especially in migration, when rare marsh birds like rails and bitterns are moving through the area.

There is often hunting at the WMA during the winter, so you may want to wear blaze orange.  According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fishery, Sunday is the only day they never have hunting.  One winter day we planned to bird there, but hunters and their dogs lined the road all the way from the entrance to the river.  We turned around.  Also, as for all state WMA’s, you should purchase an access permit before your trip.

The WMA is located in the eastern part of Nelson County, along the James River.  From Lovingston, you can take James River Road (56) most of the way, turning left onto Cabell Road (626) before James River Road reaches the James River at Wingina.  After about a mile on Cabell Road, turn right onto a dirt road called Midway Mills Lane.  After a few hundred feet, the entrance to the WMA is announced by a sign on the left.

If you follow the main road all the way to its end, you arrive at a small dirt parking lot next to the James River.  Sometimes in winter, if it’s very cold, ducks can be seen on the river there.  Species I’ve had on the river include common merganser, hooded merganser, and ring-necked duck.  Tall silver maples and eastern sycamores grow along the bank of the James, and in the spring both yellow-throated and prothonotary warblers can be heard singing from them.

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Entrance to the Marsh Impoundments

One of the best places to bird at James River State WMA is the marsh impoundments, which are located near the end of the main road.  The entrance to the path that leads through the marsh is about 30 meters back up the road, and on the left coming from the river.  Wood ducks are present in the marsh all year, and in the winter they are often joined by other species of duck.  I’ve had ring-necked duck, mallard, and American black duck in winter, and in March and April, blue-winged teal are abundant.  Common yellowthroats, orchard orioles, white-eyed vireos, red-winged blackbirds, indigo buntings, and green herons all probably breed, and are common all summer.  In spring, northern waterthrush, marsh wren, and warbling vireo are possible.  There’s even a record of alder flycatcher and common gallinule from late May in 2010. The marsh can have shorebirds in the spring, but it depends greatly on the water level.  If the water is too high, then there is almost no exposed mud and few shorebirds.  Greater yellowlegs, lesser yellowlegs, spotted and solitary sandpipers, and Wilson’s snipe have all occurred there in the past.  No one has yet found a rail or bittern, but I believe if people continue checking regularly it is only a matter of time.

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Marsh Impoundment.

From the end of the marsh it is possible to keep walking on the path, which leads back into the forest.  It gets very overgrown, and I’ve found the best way to get back to the road is to walk next to the train tracks that intersect that path.  If you follow the tracks, you’ll arrive back at the main road of the WMA just a little bit past the entrance to the marsh impoundment path.  Usually the birding isn’t much different from the rest of the WMA along this path, but I’ve had Philadelphia vireo in fall, and rusty blackbirds and yellow warblers in the pools of water along the train tracks.

Continuing up the road, away from the river, but before you get to the train tracks, several large, weedy fields lie to the left.  Yellow-breasted chats and northern bobwhites breed in these fields, although the former is much more abundant than the latter.  In May, bobolinks can be present.  This is also a good area to keep an eye out for red-headed woodpeckers and blue grosbeaks in the field to the left, and listen for pine and prairie warblers singing from the pines on the right.

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Yellow-breasted Chat

Past the train tracks the field continues on the left, although it is more overgrown with autumn olive and other invasive species.  Blue grosbeaks, yellow-breasted chats, indigo buntings, white-eyed vireos, and common yellowthroats are still fairly abundant though.  A power line right-of-way crosses the road about 500 meters west of the tracks, and it can be used to access the field.  If you do walk down the right-of-way to the left of the road, you’ll eventually encounter a small pond on your left.  In the summer the vegetation is often so high and dense that it’s impossible to see from the right-of-way and nearly impossible to get to, but it might be worth a check in winter and migration.  However, the only birds I have seen on it are wood duck, green heron, belted kingfisher, and swamp sparrow, which are all abundant elsewhere in the WMA.

Creature Feature: American Woodcock

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American Woodcock (Scolopax minor).  Photo by Theo Staengl

American Woodcock

Scolopax minor

Family: Scolopacidae

Other common names: Timberdoodle, Labrador Twister, Big-eye, Bog Snipe, Bog Sucker, Night Partridge

I stood at dusk in the middle of a field near the North Fork of the Rockfish River in Nelson County.  The cool, evening air blew gently around me as I listened to the loud chorus of spring peepers coming from a flooded depression to my right. Suddenly, a plump bird flew out of the grass ten feet away from me, it’s body just visible against the fading light of the sky.  The woodcock landed back in the grass behind me, and I heard it give a short, buzzy “peent” call, which it repeated several times before launching itself back into the darkening sky.  I lost track of it for a minute, but then the faint whistling of its wings reached my ears. As it spiraled lower and lower, it began to chirp and twitter in a strangely musical way over the high drone of its wings. 

Distinguishing Features/Description

The American woodcock is a large, primarily brown-colored member of the sandpiper family.  Woodcocks’ backs are covered in an assortment of shades of brown, yellow, gray, and black, making them almost impossible to spot against a background of dry leaves.  Underneath, woodcocks are a more uniform tan color.  Woodcocks have long, pinkish bills, and large dark eyes positioned near the backs of their heads.

In Virginia and throughout the rest of North America, the closest regularly occurring bird in appearance to the American woodcock is the Wilson’s snipe.  Snipe have similar proportions to woodcocks, and like woodcocks, they have a plumage of muted blacks, whites, and tans.  However, snipe forage in water and along mud flats like most other shorebirds, so there is very little habitat overlap with the almost entirely terrestrial woodcock. Snipe also have a very different plumage pattern than woodcocks, with lateral white stripes along the back that woodcocks lack.

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Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata)

There are other species of woodcocks in Europe and Asia, and at least one, the Eurasian woodcock, has occurred as a vagrant to North America.  In fact, according to the Virginia Society of Ornithology, there’s a record from Loudoun County in the Virginia Piedmont from 1873.  In the unlikely event of another Virginia occurrence of Eurasian woodcock, it could be distinguished from American by its larger size and differences in patterning, including a barred chest and belly.

Distribution and Habitat

American woodcocks can be found throughout the eastern United States. They breed from New Brunswick across southern Quebec and Ontario, west to Manitoba and south into the southeastern United States.  Although they breed in the Virginia Piedmont, they’re much easier to see during their migration in February and March when there are many more of them.  In the fall, most woodcocks migrate back south to spend the winter in the Southeast.

During their migration in February and March, woodcocks are found in a variety of brushy habitats, especially fields with nearby young forest. They are not specifically affiliated with any particular plant community, but they are often found displaying over piedmont prairies or foraging in various types of floodplain forests in our region.

Although woodcocks are not often recorded breeding in Virginia — the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas has only confirmed them to be breeding 8 times in the state in the last three years (for comparison, the Wisconsin BBA has confirmed them 186 times in the same amount of time, albeit with considerably more effort) — it is possible that they breed more in Virginia then the numbers show, as they are secretive and well camouflaged.  Breeding woodcocks use similar habitats as transient birds; young forests with nearby open areas.

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American Woodcock in Ohio.

Ecology and Life History

American woodcocks’ diet consists mainly of invertebrates, as well as some seeds.  Interestingly, the majority of the food most woodcocks eat is earthworms.  Other invertebrates they eat include beetles, millipedes, spiders, and snails.

When woodcocks are migrating through the Virginia Piedmont in February and March, they can be seen and heard displaying over almost any field around dusk.  The males sit in the field and make a dry, buzzy, loud “peent” call, repeating it every few seconds before flying up into the air.  As the woodcocks spiral back towards the ground, they chirp, and their wings make a unique whistling sound.

Woodcock nests are a shallow depression in the ground, usually formed out of the already existing leaf litter.  Clutch size ranges from 1-5 but is often 4.  The eggs are about 1.5 inches long and tan, mottled with brown or pink.  The female is solely responsible for incubating the eggs and raising the young. Incubation is between 20 and 22 days. The young are colored black, brown and tan like adult woodcocks, and are independent after about five weeks.

NOTES:

Although the easiest way to see American woodcocks is to observe their flight display in the evenings, it’s nearly impossible to see the intricacies of their plumage at night.  The best local place I know for finding them during the day is the floodplain along the Rivanna River near where the North and South Fork come together, below the neighborhood of Belvedere in Albemarle County.  It takes some work, but if you walk through the floodplain forests and brushy fields along that section of river in March, it’s possible to flush one. My best guess as to why it’s such a reliable spot for them is that it’s ideal woodcock habitat, so there’s a high density of woodcocks, and the area is frequently covered by young birders who know how to find them.  Just a couple weeks ago, a group of young birders, including my brother, found one on the ground, without flushing it.  They were able to watch it for a long time at close range, and my brother Theo even got a video of it.

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.