Blue Ridge Young Birders Club Field Trip to Rockfish Valley Trail Fall 2018

On October 14th I lead a trip for the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club to the Rockfish Valley Trail, a local birding hotspot in Nelson County.  I had high hopes for the trip, as the Rockfish Valley Trail tends to be a very productive place for finding uncommon and rare migrants in the fall, with Philadelphia vireo and Lincoln’s sparrows often present.  Only a few weeks previously I’d had one of the best mornings of birding in my life there, finding Philadelphia vireo and blue-winged, Connecticut and mourning warblers.  Around this time of year last year, my brother and I had two marsh wrens.  Six young birders attended the trip.

We walked under Route 151, doing our best to avoid getting our feet wet in the water overflowing from the South Fork of the Rockfish River.  The day was cool and cloudy but not unpleasantly so.  We encountered a large flock of song sparrows in a dense tangle of pokeweed and began scanning them for Lincoln’s.   We didn’t find any Lincoln’s in that flock but saw a few swamp sparrows.  As we were walking along a mowed path through a dense, brushy field, a tiny, bright yellow bird dropped out of a tree and into the grass.  Curious about what this could be so late in the year, we went to investigate.  The bird popped up onto a low branch of a black walnut tree for a few seconds, and I saw it was a Wilson’s warbler.

We continued around the loop towards the back of the field, where we encountered more sparrows.  I put my binoculars up to one and saw that it had a yellowish malar, gray supercilium and a yellowish breast covered in super fine, dark streaks — a Lincoln’s sparrow.  I think everyone got on the bird, although it soon hopped back down into the brush.

A flock of purple finches flew over and landed in the branches of a leafless oak.  We soon began hearing more purple finch calls, and several other flocks joined the first.  By the end of the day we counted 34 in small flyover and foraging flocks.  It was still early in the year for purple finches and seeing them in these numbers was encouraging for a good winter for them in our area.

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Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus)

As we rounded the bend in the path a flock of birds flew up into a tree.  One appeared to be a Catharus thrush, which my brother got on and said looked like a gray-cheeked.  We slowly crept to the other side of the tree so as not to scare the thrush again and saw that it was indeed a gray-cheeked thrush.  We re-found the Wilson’s warbler and a late Eastern wood-pewee nearby.

Once we got back to the top of the loop where we first saw the Wilson’s warbler, we paused for a bit to listen.  I heard a yellowthroat chipping in a large patch of common mugwort, so I went to investigate.  I found the yellowthroat and a couple of palm warblers, and I was just about to return to the group when Baxter called that he thought he had a Connecticut warbler.  The group assembled behind him and we slowly advanced towards the bird, which was entirely obscured by the dense mugwort.  I got a brief glimpse of the bird through the vegetation and saw a large warbler with a pale gray hood and a thin eye ring.  Suddenly the bird lifted off and flew to the end of the mugwort patch, followed a second later by a similar looking bird.  There were two of them!  Chaos ensued as everyone tried to see the birds while we debated their ID’s.  Eventually we cornered the two birds in a corner of the mugwort patch, and everyone got a decent look.  Their eye rings, although fairly extensive, were not complete, making them mourning warblers, not Connecticuts.  Finding two of them was still extremely exciting, and it was a Nelson County high count.  We photographed a beautiful blue-headed vireo in a willow along the river on our way back towards the cars.

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Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius).  Photo by Baxter Beamer.

The next location for the trip was State Route 610, a quiet mountain road that can sometimes have good migrants.  When we arrived the area was totally quiet.  We had to walk down the road for five minutes before we even heard a bird, which was a pileated woodpecker.  I did not give up hope, as I’d birded up here many times before when it first appeared very slow but then incredible bird activity occurred in explosive bursts.  Sure enough, a few minutes later the forest suddenly rang with a cacophony of warbler chips, and birds could be seen moving in every tree.  The vast majority of the warblers were blackpoll, but we also found several other species including Tennessee, Cape May, bay-breasted, pine and black-throated green.  Kinglets were also present in high numbers — we had fifteen golden-crowned and five ruby-crowned on a small stretch of road.  I spotted a red-eyed vireo, which was beginning to get late, as well as another blue-headed vireo.

Rockfish Valley Trail and State Route 610 did not let us down!

Nelson County Big Day

Big days are an old birding tradition.  During a birding big day, individuals or teams compete with each-other as they try to see the most species in a given 24 hour period.  Often big days are used by conservation organizations as fundraisers, like the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory’s (CVWO) Kiptopeke Challenge.  Teams collect pledges for the CVWO for every species that they see during the big day.  I participated in last year’s Kiptopeke Challenge, and my team, Team Turnstone, raised over $400.  Other members of the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club (BRYBC) and I enjoyed the Kiptopeke Challenge so much that we decided to do our own big day, as a fundraiser for our club.

Since I moved to Nelson County four years ago, I have been frustrated with the lack of knowledge about how and where to find birds in the County.  I couldn’t just look on eBird like I usually do when I’m looking for new places to bird, because very few people submit bird sitings from Nelson County.  Nelson has 2,243 checklists on eBird at the time of this writing, compared to adjacent Albemarle’s 18,248.

Learning more about birding my local area is a very rewarding experience, as it puts me in touch with my surroundings.  Whenever I’m walking or driving in Nelson, I’m always looking for new and interesting habitats and wondering what birds might live in them.  I’ve already found one first Nelson County record, a canvasback at Lake Nelson, and I expect more will follow.

I figured since our club was doing a big day as a fundraiser, I might as well use it as an excuse to learn more about Nelson County.  There are still so many places I look at on google maps and wonder about what birds could be there.  I hoped the big day might help me answer some of those questions.  I invited my friends Drew, Tucker, Ander, Paul and my brother Theo, and got planning.

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Our group (minus Theo and Ander) at Rockfish Valley Trail at sunset.  Photo by Galen Staengl

Our big day started at 6:00 PM on Saturday April 28th.  As the count time started, we were walking down a steep trail into a rich river gorge just below Wintergreen Ski Resort.  Spring ephemerals such as sessile and perfoliate bellwort, Solomon’s seal, wild geraniums and showy orchid carpeted the ground around us.  Drew called out that he saw spring coralroot, a leafless orchid that gets all of its nutrients from parasitizing fungi.  Drew and I had found the first county record of this plant nearby in 2016.

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Spring Coralroot (Corallorhiza wisteriana)

The flowers were beautiful, but there weren’t many birds out.  In fact, I hadn’t heard a single species since we started birding.  No matter, I knew from last year that as soon as we crossed the creek we would get to better habitat and the activity would pick up.  As we descended into the ravine, the noisy rushing of the creek — freshly swollen from recent heavy spring rains — reached our ears.  We came out of the forest at the bank of the creek, and I realized that the water was too high to cross.  So much for that.  We decided to cut our losses and get to Rockfish Valley Trail for the rest of the evening.

The Rockfish Valley Trail, running next to the south fork of the Rockfish River, is the best known birding spot in Nelson.  Parts are forested, but most of the land is open pasture and brushy fields.  We took our time birding, as we had no where else we needed to be before dark.  We saw 36 species, including eastern kingbird, eastern meadowlark and a beautiful Cape May warbler.  We left the Rockfish Valley Trail at 7:30, and headed south towards Shipman, where I had a nightjar spot staked out.

We arrived at Sturt Park, a large tract of land near Shipman, just as it was getting dark.  We walked up an old trail through a dense forest of loblolly and shortleaf pines.  The loblollies were no doubt planted, but they had grown up in such a way as to appear almost natural.  Spring peepers called loudly from the puddles in the path.  The occasional dry trill of an upland chorus frog came from the surrounding pines.  A prairie warbler sang, its rising buzzy trill cutting through the loud frog calls.  Once it was totally dark, besides the bright full moon which was rising above the pines, we heard our first eastern whip-poor-will singing.  Soon there were many calling simultaneously, their voice intertwining from all directions in a loud cacophony of whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will…

The next morning we fell out of our beds at 4:30 am, hoping we would be able to hear rails, bitterns, or marsh wrens before the sun rose at the wetland impoundments at James River State WMA.  As we pulled into the dirt parking lot overlooking the muddy James River we heard the songs of common yellowthroats coming from the marsh.  A wild turkey gobble drifted out of the fog.  Yellow-breasted chats whistled and grunted from the field across the wetland from us.

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Yellow-breasted Chat (Photo taken at James River State WMA later in the day, after the sun rose)

We walked out along the marsh impoundment as the sun slowly began to light up the eastern sky.  Soon it was light enough to see a little bit of color.  Someone spotted a small rufous colored bird hopping around in the base of a willow.  Could it be a marsh wren?  It was only a swamp sparrow — still new for the day — but not as exciting as a marsh wren.  Finally the sun rose, and the marsh came alive with bird song.  We began adding species to our day list left and right.  Prothonotary and yellow-throated warblers and a warbling vireo sang from the large maples, ashes and sycamores along the river.  When we reached the end of the wetland, we turned around and walked back towards our car.  A northern waterthrush sang in a thick tangle of brush next to the marsh.  We stopped briefly by the same willow clump that we’d seen the swamp sparrow in earlier, and to our surprise a small rufous bird was once again hopping around.  I raised my binoculars and saw that it was a marsh wren.  It was Nelson County’s 3rd record, and the first one in the spring.

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Marsh Wren

We left James River State WMA half an hour later, with our big day total being 70.

Our next stop was the parking lot for Crabtree Falls, where we hoped to get some mountain breeding warblers.  I had never birded there before, so like most of the big day, it was an experiment, but after our highly successful morning along the James River I was feeling pretty good about it.  As we drove up into the mountains, the Tye River rushed and crashed over rocks right next to the road.  Suddenly, someone yelled, “Go back, I see ducks!”  We quickly turned around and were thrilled, if somewhat unsurprised — there are only so many ducks that can be found in a small mountain river in central VA during April — to find two common mergansers sitting on a rock in the middle of the river.  Unfortunately, they flew away before we could get any decent photos.

The Crabtree Falls area was a bit of a disappointment.  We added a few species, including black-and-white warbler, ovenbird, blue-headed vireo, and black-throated green warbler.  The next stop, Montebello State Fish Hatchery, was slightly more successful.  A small, slow sandy bottomed stream flowed next to the road.  We heard the high buzzy song of a blackburnian warbler coming from a group of old pines.  A Louisiana waterthrush sang from the stream.  We drove up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, keeping our eyes and ears peeled for warblers.

Wind whistled up the valleys towards us as we drove along the parkway, obscuring any faint warbler song we might’ve been able to hear.  We did manage to see some raptors fighting against the wind, including broad-winged hawk, red-tailed hawk and American kestrel.  Periodically, we stopped at areas sheltered from the wind and got out of the car to listen, but there just wasn’t much singing other than the occasional American redstart, black-and-white warbler or black-throated green warbler.  I wondered if the lack of warblers was because we were too late in the day, too early in the season, or perhaps it was just too windy?

We exited the Blue Ridge Parkway at Wintergreen Ski Resort, where we hoped to find breeding dark-eyed juncos or common ravens.  We drove up a winding road to a parking lot called Devil’s Knob, overlooking the ski slopes from the top of the mountain.  Sure enough, we quickly heard the rattling, musical trill of a dark-eyed junco, and we soon found a few more.

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Dark Eyed Juncos are a common breeding species at high elevations in the Appalachians, but they are completely absent from lower elevations during the summer.  Photo by Theo Staengl

Just as we were getting ready to leave, the distinctive shape of a common raven appeared over the ridge.  At least that stop went as planned.

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur.  It was hot, and we were getting tired.  We birded several more locations without finding any new species, including the Rockfish Valley Trail and the adjacent Horizons Eco Village.

Things finally began to pick up around 4:00 PM as we got to Schuyler.  We found a spot where the road went over the dammed Rockfish River, and got out to look for cliff swallows.  I was excited to see about twenty of them swirling around over the water, every now and then carrying an insect under the bridge to their nests.

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Cliff swallows often nest under bridges over rivers.  The only place I’d heard of them breeding in Nelson was the Howardsville Bridge over the James River, which was too far out of our way to go for the big day, so it was especially lucky to find a new colony that day.  Photo by Theo Staengl

An osprey flew over the reservoir, shrieking loudly and scattering the swallows.  I added up our list for the first time since the morning, and found that we were at 94 species, significantly more than I expected.  Could we make it to 100 before we had to be back in Charlottesville for the tally/potluck at 6:00 PM?  I was happy with our Nelson County birding, feeling that I had gained significantly in my knowledge of Nelson’s bird life, so I decided we should spend our last hour in Albemarle, where we hoped we’d be able to add a few more species more easily.

Our first stop was King Family Vineyards, where two artificial ponds often hold shorebirds.  I quickly found a spotted sandpiper in the scope, along with the hooded mergansers that have bred there for the last two years.  As we drove toward Charlottesville we talked about the easiest way to get four more species.  We decided on the Secluded Farm Trail at Kemper Park, where both kinds of tanagers and Kentucky warblers are usually reliable.  With any luck, we would stumble on another new bird as well.  We ran up the trail into a large field with old growth tulip populars scattered in the middle.  Tucker led us down a path into the woods where he often had Kentucky warblers.  Just as we were giving up hope of finding any new birds before we had to go, the three rising whistles of a black-throated blue warbler reached our ears.  A scarlet tanager started making chick-burr calls to our left.  We knew we had to leave then in order to be in time to get to Ivy Creek, so we sadly trooped back to the car.  Just our luck to have an amazing day of birding and end up just two short of 100.  Oh well.

On our drive to Ivy Creek I looked over the tally one more time, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.  To my surprise, I saw I hadn’t counted the whip-poor-will.  99.  Then I realized I didn’t remember putting down wild turkey.  With mounting excitement, I looked back through the checklist, and sure enough, wild turkey wasn’t marked.  We’d made it to 100 after all.  We were thrilled, probably more so than a two bird difference should have made.  I handed the list to Paul and Theo to count, and they added an additional two species that I’d forgotten.  We finished the day with 98 species in Nelson County, plus an additional 4 in Albemarle County.