Nelson County Big Day 2019

We drove slowly down the dirt road Findlay Gap Drive through clouds of fog, the shadows of pines just visible through the dark night.  Eastern whip-poor-wills sang around the road, some close, their songs loud and incessant, others further, at the edge of my hearing.  We passed a small creek, and a few frogs called above the noise of the moving water.  We stopped where a recently cut area bordered a more mature stand of pines.  A barred owl called from farther down the row of trees.  I occasionally caught the high buzzy calls of warblers flying overhead.  We continued down the road, pausing periodically to listen, or to play a screech-owl song, but we didn’t hear any more owls.

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Eastern Whip-poor-will — Photo from Ohio

By the time we arrived at Norwood Road, the night felt a little less dark.  We stopped across a farm field from a row of pines and deciduous trees bordering the James River.  Two whip-poor-wills sang from the trees, as well as a chuck-wills widow, it’s longer, more complicated song blending in with the whip-poor wills.  The chuck-wills widow was the first one I’d ever heard in Nelson County.  We drove along Norwood Road and then up James River Road towards James River State Wildlife Management Area.  We heard and even saw several more whip-poor-wills as they flew up from the road, but the only new species we added was a northern rough-winged swallow we heard flying overhead.  We got to James River State WMA just as the sky was beginning to lighten in the east.  Two whip-poor-wills sang near the entrance, a hotspot first.

Our mom left me and my brother Theo to meet our friend Drew, who would be joining us for the rest of the day.  The three of us were doing a Nelson County Big Day, trying to see as many species of birds as we could in Nelson County in 24 hours.  We’d done our first Nelson County Big Day on April 29, 2018, when we had 98 species.  Now we were doing it on May 3rd, several days farther into spring migration, and with much more knowledge about how to find birds in Nelson County.  The goal of both big days, aside from having fun birding, was to explore Nelson County and add to the eBird data, since Nelson is still not birded nearly as much as many of the adjacent counties.

Nelson County is vaguely rectangular in shape, with the southeast border formed by the James River, and the northwest border roughly following the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Nelson is very rural, with many small rivers and large patches of forest, as well as a significant amount of agricultural land and pasture.  Last year, our big day route had started at dawn along the James River, then continued across the county and up into the mountains, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and ended in the Rockfish Valley in the northern portion of the county.  This year I planned on following a similar route, but with the exact locations and time spent at each location optimized from my experience to get us the most birds.  For example, last year our nocturnal birding had consisted only of a visit to Sturt park, where we got whip-poor-wills and nothing else.  This year, I’d carefully planned our route to give us as good a chance as possible at other nocturnal birds, especially chuck-wills-widow.

At James River State WMA, Theo and I walked down the main road listening to the dawn chorus of birds.  Blue-gray gnatcatchers, indigo buntings, common yellowthroats, white-eyed vireos, and yellow-breasted chats sang all around us.  At the James River, we heard a prothonotary and yellow-throated warbler singing from tall silver maples that lined the river.

The fog was still dense and low as we walked into the marsh impoundments, making it hard to see more than 15 feet in front of us.  The path was not mowed, so despite the earliness of the season it was already overgrown by waist high grasses and mustards.  The dense fog had coated the weeds with water, so as we brushed up against them the water rolled off, drenching my shorts and filling my boots with water.  One would have hoped the wetness would suppress the ticks a little, but sadly this was not the case.  By the time we reached the end of the marsh, I had pulled several off me.

Every time I visit the James River State WMA marsh in the spring I dream of finding bitterns or rails, or some other epic marsh bird that isn’t yet recorded from Nelson County on eBird.  The marsh isn’t super high quality because the water level fluctuates constantly and there are many invasive plants, but it is the best one I know about in Nelson, so I will keep hoping.

We heard wing flapping, and then the cries of wood ducks as they flushed off the marsh in front of us.  The marsh was high with little exposed mud, so we were unsurprised, although a little disappointed, not to find any shorebirds (or bitterns or rails sadly).  We heard a northern waterthrush chip, and then saw the bird briefly fly over us and land in a dense clump of vegetation.  Orchard orioles sang from the willows all around us.  At the end of the marsh, a wood duck family swam away from us, the chicks still downy and unable to fly.

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Northern Waterthrush — Photo from Augusta County

From the end of the marsh impoundments we continued back into the WMA, along a grassy road bordered on both sides by dense box elder thickets.  We emerged onto the train tracks and began to follow them back towards the main road.  Yellow warblers sang from the swamp around us, as did the omnipresent common yellowthroats and indigo buntings.  Drew called, and said he had a bobolink at the intersection of the train tracks and road.  We picked up our pace, and soon joined him in trying to re-find the bobolink.  We walked off the road into a wet field, picking our way carefully through blackberries and rushes.  A swamp Sparrow foraged in the bottom of a wet ditch.  Suddenly, a black bird with gold and white highlights flew past us.  “Bobolink!”  I shouted, as the bird landed in the top of a tree in front of us and began to sing.  It was the second Nelson County lifer of the day for me, as well as a hotspot first for James River State WMA.

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Bobolink

The three of us continued up the road, adding pine warbler, prairie warbler, Baltimore oriole, and ruby-throated hummingbird.  We walked along a power line right-of-way into a field overgrown with shrubs, where we found blue grosbeaks, and had a green heron and a red-headed woodpecker flyover.  A bright yellow warbler also flew overhead.  At first we thought it might be a blue-winged, but review of our photos showed it to be a Cape May, not as rare but still new for the day.

The next stop was Wingina Boat Ramp, where James River Road crosses the James River. About 50 cliff swallows were nesting under the bridge, flying out over the river and the adjacent corn fields in swirling masses.  We also heard a black-and-white warbler and a yellow-throated vireo singing from the tall trees along the river.

We drove back along Norwood Road, now in full daylight, looking and listening for birds.  We saw a mallard on a small pond by the side of the road, and a common grackle building a nest.  On Variety Mills Road, we stopped to check a long, muddy puddle in a cow pasture that I’d seen on previous trips.  To our delight, there was a lesser yellowlegs foraging in the mud with three solitary sandpipers.  Since the puddle was only a couple of feet from the side of the road, we were able to approach for photos.

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Lesser Yellowlegs

We followed Variety Mills Road through wooded ravines and along a small, swift flowing river.  We heard ovenbirds, worm-eating warblers, black-and-white warblers, American redstarts, northern parulas, and a blackpoll warbler.  When the road emerged out of the woods back into a large stretch of pasture, we heard grasshopper sparrows singing.  By the time we reached the intersection of Variety Mills Road and Route 29 at Colleen, our list for the road was 47 species.  I hadn’t known before that Variety Mills Road could be such a good birding spot, and I wondered what it would be like in fall migration.

From Colleen we followed Route 56 northwest into the mountains.  At first the landscape was similar to that along Variety Mills Road, with extensive pastures and the Tye river running close to the road.  The fresh, sweet scent of sweet vernal grass in the fields perfumed the air.  We were watching the river carefully, as in 2018 we’d had a pair of common mergansers on it.  Drew caught something on the river out of the corner of his eye, but it was just two Canada geese.  We were about to continue when we saw the brilliant white plumage of a male common merganser just a couple feet below the geese.  A closer look revealed a female as well, swimming near the male.  As we got higher into the mountains, the landscape became more forested, and we could soon hear American redstarts and Ovenbirds almost constantly out the windows.

At the Montebello State Fish Hatchery we walked along the road, hearing chestnut-sided and blackburnian warblers along with many redstarts.  We located a female blackburnian, and watched it forage low in the shrubs for several minutes.  Although not as bright as a male blackburnian’s throat, the dull, rusty orange of this bird’s throat was still impressive.  Other high elevation breeding birds like blue-headed vireos sang.  An osprey flew overhead.

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Chestnut-sided warbler

We got on the Blue Ridge Parkway and drove northeast towards Afton.  We stopped at all the overlooks and pullouts on the Nelson County side of the road, and slowly but steadily added a few more species.  Bald eagle, cerulean warbler, and common raven were all new for the day.  Other warblers sang around us almost the whole drive, including ovenbird, American redstart, and hooded, black-and-white, and chestnut-sided warblers.  At Wintergreen we added dark-eyed junco, only a few weeks ago common all over the county, but now requiring a search at their breeding grounds high in the mountains.

As we drove into the Rockfish Valley, we totaled our species list so far.  We were at 99 species, already one ahead of last year, and it was only about 1:00 pm.  Unfortunately, the morning’s rush of birds was over, and it took a few hours and a lot of effort before we added anything new.  Our one-hundredth bird was a red-tailed hawk at Rockfish Valley Trail.  101 was a black-throated blue warbler, at the same location.  We also got great looks and photographs of this yawning tree swallow.

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Tree Swallow

We arrived at The Quarry Gardens at Schuyler at 5:30, just as the bird activity was beginning to pick up again.  We walked around the gravel trails slowly, carefully scanning through large flocks of yellow-rumped warblers.  Near one such flock of yellow-rumps I found a pine siskin, a day bird.  In another flock we had a ruby-crowned kinglet.  The final new bird at Quarry Gardens was a yellow-billed cuckoo.

The last new bird of the day was wild turkey — species number 105 — at Taylor Creek Road.  We tried for common nighthawk at Rockfish Valley Elementary School, a place I’d had them before in fall, without luck.  We returned home around 8:30, exhausted after nearly 16 hours of birding, but happy with our day.  We missed a few birds that should have been really easy, including red-shouldered hawk and northern flicker, so there’s definitely still room to do better, perhaps much better, next year.

Kiptopeke Challenge 2017: A Birding Big Day on the Eastern Shore

I felt completely awake despite it being two hours before dawn from the anxiousness and excitement churning inside me.  My brother Theo, our friend Tucker Beamer, and I stood in the high grass of the salt marsh at Pleasure House Point Natural Area in Virginia Beach.  The sounds of the high buzzy chip notes of migrating warblers occasionally pierced the quiet as they flew overhead.  We were competing in a birding big day known as the Kiptopeke Challenge (KC) in order to see as many species as we could in a twenty four hour day, and raise money for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory (CVWO), an important conservation and field research organization in the area.  We had registered ourselves as Team Turnstone.

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Team Turnstone at Cape Charles later in the day

Over the past month, we had meticulously planned a birding route up the Eastern Shore of Virginia from Pleasure House Point, and we were thrilled to finally be putting our plan into action.  Suddenly, we heard the hoarse croak of a yellow-crowned night-heron as it flushed out of the grass somewhere off to our right.  The first identified species of the day!  The low grunting of resting mallard ducks drifted to us on the still night air from the water.  The raucous repeated “kek” calls of a clapper rail erupted out of the marsh and then died back.  We hurried back to the car, and drove to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT).

At 5:25 AM we pulled into the deserted parking lot of the first CBBT island, a famous birding spot, but not one I had high hopes for in the dark.  In the dim light of street lamps, we spotted the blobs of two sleeping shorebirds on the rocks in the surf below.  Closer inspection showed a ruddy turnstone and a sanderling, as well as two more juvenile yellow-crowned night-herons.

We were particularly excited for our next stop, a small section of bay-side beachfront in southern Northampton County called Sunset Beach.  We had heard that hundreds of warblers that had overshot during the night and found themselves on the edge of the difficult to cross Chesapeake Bay flew back up the peninsula of the Eastern Shore at dawn every day.  We found a Wilson’s warbler foraging in the brush, but not yet much else.  We arrived just as the sun was rising, and as we waited for more warblers, we birded along the beach in the half light.  We  saw common gulls, pelicans, and cormorant for the first time that day.

Coming back to the small woodlot near where we had parked, we saw that other Kiptopeke Challenge teams had gathered in expectation of the great flight.  Among them was the Blue Ridge Great Horns, the other youth team.  They were Tucker’s older brother, Baxter Beamer, Gabriel Mapel, and Max Nootbaar.   They jauntily approached us and asked how we were doing.  We asked them the same question instead of answering.  Baxter told us that they had done more pre-dawn birding than us, and as a result had some birds that we didn’t, like bobolink, Swainson’s thrush, and northern harrier.  They didn’t have Wilson’s warbler though.  All further talking was interrupted by a barrage of warbler flight calls.  We hurried to take up our position with the rest of the teams as 20 warblers streaked low over head and disappeared into the dense pines.  Over the next hour, we watched more than 600 warblers of almost 20 different species zip over the gap and up the peninsula.   It was hard to identify them from so brief a look, and to compound the problem, by KC rules, everyone in the team has to see a bird for it to be countable on the team’s list.  Even so, I enjoyed the challenge and the feeling of wonder at the sheer amount of birds.

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Northern parulas were one of the most common species on the morning flight at Sunset Beach.  Photo by Tucker Beamer

When the constant stream of warblers finally began to die down, we had around 60 species for the day, and it was only 7:40 AM.  We said goodbye to the Great Horns, and headed to our next stop, the Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR.  We hoped the other teams wouldn’t stop here, and we might be able to get some birds back on them.  We saw a beautiful American kestrel as we drove in to the refuge.

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American kestrel

Other notable birds at Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR included sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawk, a late eastern kingbird, and house finch, supposedly a difficult bird on the Eastern Shore.   At the Kiptopeke Hawk Platform, we were surprised by how close the migrating raptors were.  At the Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch in Augusta, the raptors appear as little specks in the sky, but at Kiptopeke most birds are low.  We saw our first confirmed merlin, as well as a tufted titmouse, a sometimes difficult species in Northampton.  We drove to Magotha Road, where we hoped to see Eurasian collared dove and marsh wren.  Sadly, the only new birds we added were peregrine falcon, least sandpiper, great egret, foresters tern, and eastern bluebird.  As we were about to leave, the Great Horns drove up again.  They asked us how we were doing again.  When they learned that we were quickly catching up to them, they left in a hurry.  We continued on to Cape Charles Beach, where we hoped to pick up the other tern species.  The sea oats on the dunes blew lazily in the midday wind.  I was beginning to feel the strain of such an intense schedule, but the terns flying by quickly distracted me.  We were only able to pick out royal and sandwich terns here, leaving us to hope we could get caspian and common at Chincoteague later in the day.  At the town of Willis Wharf’s lovely scented boatyard, (the freshest air in the place was the abandoned porta potty), we once again saw our mascot bird, the ruddy turnstone, perched atop a mountain of oyster shells.

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Go Team Turnstone!

Now we had a long time in the car, as we drove all the way up to Saxis Wildlife Management Area in the most northern part of Virginia’s portion of the Delmarva Peninsula.  Seemingly endless plains of salt marsh stretched out from the road in all directions.  We got out of the car, feeling the hot sun beating down on us, and “pished” at the grass.  A seaside sparrow flew up and further away from us. We clapped half-heartedly, hoping to coax a Virginia rail into responding, but since it was literally the middle of the day, we didn’t have much hope.  After about a minute, some Virginia rail, somewhere way out in the marsh, decided it just wanted us to shut-up and let it rest.  The grunting call of the rail was barely perceptible to us, but we could count the bird.

Now we could continue to our last stop, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.  We had planned on spending most of the afternoon at Chincoteague, which proved to be a mistake, as Chincoteague just isn’t that good in the Fall.  We should have spent more time birding sites in Northampton County.  But Chincoteague is always pretty good, and we weren’t entirely disappointed.  We were disappointed by the number of people using the beach.  Why on earth does every beachgoer in the world have to decide to come out to a wildlife refuge when they could literally choose any other spot of sand?!  The beach was so crowded, you could hardly see the ocean from behind the lines of sunbathers.  We hurried past, toward the Tom’s Cove mudflats where we hoped for shorebirds.  One of the first birds we spotted was my Virginia lifer piping plover.

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Piping Plover posing for photographs

Shortly afterward, we found a sandpiper flock, with some semipalmated sandpipers, sanderling, and semipalmated plovers.  There was also a least sandpiper, and many black-bellied plovers.  These were all new birds for the day, except the least.

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Semipalmated Plover

As we continued down the beach, we were surprised by the lack of willits and marbled godwits, which should have been common.  Up ahead, we saw a giant flock of gulls and terns and decided to scan it.  They were mostly great-black backed, herring, ring-billed and laughing gulls and royal terns, but we were able to find caspian and common terns mixed in as well.  Suddenly, a flock of  31 red knots flew in from the ocean side, and landed nearby.  This was a day-bird and Virginia lifer for me.

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Red Knots preening

We birded around Chincoteague for the rest of the day.  Highlights included an adult Lincoln’s sparrow, a bird never before seen on the Kiptopeke Challenge, that we spotted on the Black Duck Trail.

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Lincoln’s Sparrow.  Photo by Tucker Beamer.

As the sun was setting, we hurried back out to the beach to give willits and marbled godwits another shot.  As we walked down the now empty beach, massive flocks of willets and red knots were everywhere.  We were able to pick out four marbled godwits in a flock of over 50 willits.  Thank goodness we eventually got those birds!  After dinner, we came back out to the refuge to try for owls and nocturnal migrants, but we came up with nothing new.  We had planned on listening for more nocturnal migrants back at our hotel, but I guess the beds just looked too good.  It was 10:30 PM, and we had been up since 4:00 AM.  We went to bed.  Our total for the day was 107 species, perhaps not as good as we hoped, but still a fairly solid number, and we’ll be back next year to do better.