Blue Ridge Young Birders Winter Field Trip to Northern Virginia

We stood shivering in the 22 degree early morning air, looking out on the partly frozen Potomac River.  To our left, we could see the smokestacks and apartment buildings of the District of Columbia, while across the river to our right the thick forests of Maryland loomed.  A thin coating of snow lay on the ground, extending out onto the ice of the Potomac.  Far out on the unfrozen parts of the river, a few-hundred ducks huddled, periodically diving or dabbling.  Occasionally, a group of common mergansers flew overhead, their green or brown heads contrasting sharply with their white necks and bodies.  A sleek, camouflage covered boat drifted out onto the river, carrying two duck hunters towards the distant rafts of ducks.  Stirred to action despite the cold by the fear that the hunters would scare the ducks out of sight, we resumed scanning through our scopes.  Two lesser scaup and a few ruddy ducks dove up and down near the sides of a large group of over fifty canvasbacks.  Mallards made up most of the second, larger raft, with other dabbling ducks like American black duck and gadwall mixed in.  Behind these ducks, on the very horizon of what we could see clearly, more diving ducks drifted and dove.  Logan said that he had a long-tailed duck, one of the rare species we were looking for here, in his scope.  I looked in his scope and saw it, but before anyone else in our group had the chance, a gunshot sounded out on the river and all the diving ducks lifted off and flew far across the river into Maryland.

We walked down the road to the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, where we hoped to see more ducks and other birds.  To our left stretched acres of the last freshwater tidal marshes next to the Potomac, and to our right grew a beautiful mature swamp forest.  As we walked in, the thickets and clumps of vegetation along the path were hopping with song, white-throated, and fox sparrows.  Swamp sparrows flitted and chipped in the marshes.  The path eventually emerged out of the woods and onto a little peninsula that stuck out into the river.  We saw many more ducks from here, mostly diving ducks such as lesser scaup, ring-necked duck, canvasback, redhead, and common mergansers, and of course, the ever present mallard.  Baxter, Shea, and my brother Theo decided to walk across the peninsula on a boardwalk to check the other part of the river.  They soon called that they had a long-tailed duck.  The rest of us rushed over the boardwalk, heedless of the slippery snow that coated it.  There turned out to be two female long-tailed ducks, quietly swimming about on the other side of a small cove, barely ten yards away.

IMG_8935_edited-1.JPG

Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis) are typically a coastal species during the winter, so seeing one inland on the Potomac River is certainly note-worthy.

The diffuse winter morning sun lit the ducks from behind us, creating a gorgeous medley of rich colors.  One of the ducks seemed to have a belly itch, because it kept turning upside down in the water and preening its belly in a rather comical fashion.  It would sit upright in the water, and use its feet to keep it from falling over, making it swim backwards in a vertical position.  Here is a video Theo got of this preening behavior.

 

 

On our walk out of Dyke Marsh, we counted 10 fox sparrows, which is the most I have ever seen at once.

Our next stop was the Laurel Hill Equestrian Area, to look for a clay-colored sparrow.  We followed the directions we had been given from the parking lot back down the road, past huge clumps and tangles of blackberry vines and grasses.  Soon we came to one such tangle, which happened to be the one the clay-colored sparrow favored.  As we walked around it, we saw a flock of white-crowned sparrows foraging next to the road.  The clay-colored sparrow was immediately apparent, as it was about half the size of the white-crowned sparrows.  Whenever the clay-colored sparrow got too close to a larger white-crowned sparrow, there would be a brief scuffle, followed by a flurry of snow, and the clay-colored sparrow would have to move further off.  Despite its low status in the flock, it behaved fairly well for us, and we all got great looks and photos.

IMG_1575_edited-1.JPG

Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida), Photo by Theo Staengl

After a quick lunch, we headed over to Pohick Bay Regional Park, another place on the Potomac, where a Eurasian wigeon had recently been seen.  We walked out onto the river on a snow coated boat dock, set down our scopes, and began to scan.  Hundreds of gadwall formed the majority of the duck flock, with good numbers of American wigeon mixed in.  A humongous American coot flock swam a little bit further out.  Two horned grebes hunted behind the ducks.  We soon identified the Eurasian wigeon by its red head, and we all had descent scope views.

After a brief and uneventful stop at Occoquan Bay NWR, we drove to the Dulles International Airports parking garages, where we wanted to look for a continuing snowy owl and two rough-legged hawks.  From the top of the parking garage, we had an uninterrupted 360 degree view of the airport’s runways, but unfortunately this meant that there was no where to hide from the relentless wind.  Northern harriers and many short-eared owls hunted over the fields in the waning light.  Max soon found the snowy owl in his scope, perched on top of a distant airport terminal.  The 2017-2018 winter is shaping up to be a large snowy owl irruption, with birds already found in Franklin, Rockingham, Isle of Wight, Suffolk, King William, Accomack, and Loudon Counties this year.  It is very exciting to see these majestic northern owls so far from their home, using large farm fields and even airports as hunting grounds.  We stayed until the increasing darkness and the cold wind finally pushed us out, but despite seeing many red-tailed hawks, we could not find the rough-leggeds.  We got in the cars and started the long drive back to Charlottesville.

 

 

 

Fallout at Rockfish Gap

As we drove up the long, winding road to the Rockfish Gap hawk watch, the barely risen sun revealed a striking scene in the valley below us.  We looked down on a solid layer of dark, heavy clouds.  The gap of clear air that we were driving through quickly gave way to more clouds above us, obscuring the taller mountain peaks.

A light drizzle filled the cool air as we reached the parking lot of the Inn at Afton, where the hawk watch is located, and where our young birders club planned to meet for the day’s field trip.   Our plan today was to bird the Rockfish Valley Trail, a local hotspot in Nelson County, and than head back up into the mountains and bird the road known as State Route 610, or the Swannanoa road.  I was even more excited than usual as today’s trip would be the first time I served as trip leader.

When I got out of the car, I heard the flight call of several warblers. Dylan, an eight year old who recently started birding with us, quickly joined my brother and me.  He pointed to a dilapidated, old road sign above our heads, and said he had seen birds in it.  The sign had once read “The Inn at Afton,” but the front had long since fallen off, revealing the sign’s bright interior lights, shining like a beacon to migrating birds.  When I raised my binoculars, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  More than 20 wood warblers sat on and near the sign’s lights.  Occasionally, another would drop out of the sky and join them, explaining the chips I had heard earlier.  Just than, the rest of the trip’s participants pulled up and joined us, making seven young birders total.

We found blackpoll, bay-breasted, black-throated blue, Tennessee, chestnut-sided, yellow-rumped, and black-throated green warblers, northern parulas, and common yellowthroats.  We even found a Nashville warbler in the sign.

35151888_Unknown.jpg

Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla), with Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) inside the sign at the Inn at Afton.  Photo by Tucker Beamer.

We were excited by what this abundance could mean for the rest of our day.  If so many warblers were in such a small area, in such strange conditions, maybe today could be a fallout.  Fallout is a condition where due to sudden, severe weather, large numbers of birds migrating at night are forced down in a small area.  Fallouts are highly sought-after events for birders, as they can result in rare species and unusual numbers of birds.

As the sun rose, the light revealed a more gruesome scene.  Little bodies of black-throated blue warblers and common yellowthroats littered the parking lot, a sad reminder of the many dangers birds face on migration.  These birds were probably attracted to the bright light of the sign and the Inn, and met their death by flying headfirst into these obstructions.

My brother and I had scouted the Rockfish Valley Trail the morning before the trip.  There had been sparrows everywhere, roving about the abandoned fields and brushy hedgerows in large flocks.  We had found five Lincoln’s sparrows, the first two white-crowned sparrows observed in Nelson that year, and tons of song and swamp sparrows.  As we scanned the flock, a strange chip suddenly came from the vegetation by our feet.  Looking down, I saw a blob of rufous feathers fly into another bush — a marsh wren!  Excitedly, we waited for it to make another appearance.  We soon found another one, and enjoyed fabulous views of both.

IMG_7065_edited-1.JPG

Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris)

It was the highest number of marsh wrens ever observed in Nelson County.  I hoped one would stick around for the next day’s field trip.

The thick cloud-cover had not thinned out much as we pulled into the parking lot at the Rockfish Valley Trail, a good sign for songbird activity.  We walked under Route 151 towards the Glenthorne Loop trail, which is usually more productive for sparrows.  When we arrived at the field I had seen the marsh wrens at the day before, I was disappointed to see that most of the sparrows were gone, and the marsh wrens were no longer present.  Even so, we quickly found some swamp sparrows, and two gorgeous white-crowned sparrows.  I walked ahead of the main group, and was relieved to have a Lincoln’s sparrow, one of my favorite sparrows,  hop out on a branch in front of me.   Its gray face, buffy malar and crisp black streaking is so beautiful.  I called to the rest of the group, and was very frustrated when it flew off before any of them could get on it.  Luckily, we soon found a few more in with a sparrow flock on the Spruce Creek side, and we all had fantastic views.

IMG_7108_edited-1.JPG

Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii)

As we were wrapping up at the Rockfish Valley Trail, I spotted a small, dark falcon flying quickly overhead.  It turned out to be a merlin, which was the first one seen in Nelson County that year.  The merlin circled once, giving us a fabulous view, before it shot off down the ridge.

As we drove back toward Swannanoa road and the hawk watch, we felt like we were racing against time.  The clouds were finally beginning to give way, and blue holes were appearing everywhere.  It was also slowly getting warmer.  When we got out of the car at the end of the Swannanoa road, it seemed our fears had been confirmed.  The beautiful Fall foliage was silent.  A turkey vulture soared lazily overhead.

However, a closer inspection revealed our fears that the birds would no longer be active were unfounded.  Warblers slowly foraged every tree, and many were surprisingly close to the road.  We quickly found blackpoll, black-throated green, Tennessee, and Cape-may warblers, as well as unseasonably large numbers of black-throated blue warblers.

35153552_Unknown.jpg

Cape-may Warbler (Setophaga tigrina).  Photo by Tucker Beamer.

As we walked farther down the road, we saw more and more birds.  Late wood thrushes feasted alongside more seasonally common Swainson’s thrushes in thick tangles of summer grape vines, laden with purple fruit.  We found a late black-and-white warbler and an American redstart.  Scarlet tanagers swooped over the road, and black-throated blue warblers chipped over our heads.  We eventually also found magnolia, palm, pine, and yellow-rumped warblers.

Our final destination for the day was a golf course in the Old Trail neighborhood of Crozet, where someone had seen a clay-colored sparrow the day before.  We had directions to the clump of pokeweed he had been in, and we soon found it.  As we arrived, Baxter saw the bird hop down into the dense brush.  We waited several anxious minutes for it to return, but we needn’t have worried.  It soon returned and sat preening itself on a poke stem while we watched.  The clay-colored sparrow was an Albemarle lifer for everybody, and a lifer for Max and Drew.

IMG_7135_edited-1.JPG

Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida)

When I totaled up our day list that evening, I found we had seen 72 species.  We had experienced a late Fall migration fallout, and we enjoyed ourselves very much.  What an incredible day of local birding!

 

The Biggest Week in American Birding 2017

Last year at the Biggest Week in American Birding in Northwest Ohio, I remember seeing warblers everywhere I looked from the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area boardwalk.  By the end of the festival, we had seen 31 species of warblers, including rarities such as Kirtland’s and Mourning Warblers.   Other migrants were also abundant: Whippoorwill, Black-billed Cuckoo, Curlew Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, and White-rumped Sandpiper to name a few.  Magee Marsh and other wildlife areas that line Lake Erie in that area serve as migrant traps, where many birds stop to rest and refuel before crossing the lake.  I was very excited to be going back.

As we drove to the festival, though, I started worrying.  Migration was late this year and we had to get back to Virginia to attend the Mount Rogers Naturalist Rally.  These plans meant that we couldn’t stay till the end of the week when the rarer warblers and flycatchers would be expected even under more typical migration timing.

Our first morning, we started early at Magee Marsh.  Unfortunately, compared to last year, the boardwalk was dead.  It seemed like there were more warblers back in Virginia.  We found 41 species of birds that morning and I was able to photograph this posing Black-throated Green Warbler.

IMG_1189_edited-1.JPG

Black-throated Green Warbler

Feeling a little depressed at having birded the self proclaimed “Warbler Capital of the World” for an hour yet seeing only 6 warbler species, we headed to the nearby Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area.  As we pulled into the small, empty parking lot, we saw 4 Sandhill Cranes fly overhead, their strange rattling calls filling the sky.  We found a muddy trail on a narrow stretch of ground just barely elevated above the water on either side of it, leading off into the wide open marshlands.  As we walked onto this little dike, we heard several Sora.  We saw American Coots and Common Gallinules in the open sections of water.  Suddenly, something sprang into flight from some grass next to my brother’s feet.  As it flew, I registered the small size, little trailing feet, and tannish coloration of a Least Bittern.  It landed at the top of some marsh grass, and we had a few seconds to look at it before it slid down the stalk and disappeared.  This Least Bittern was only the third one I had ever seen.  Marsh Wrens sang along the trail, but sadly we were never able to see one.  Not bad marsh birding at all: Sora, Common Gallinule, Marsh Wren, Sandhill Cranes, and Least Bittern!

We returned to the car and checked the Biggest Week twitter feed.  Someone had reported two Upland Sandpipers, a lifer for me, at Grimm Prairie at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.  When we got there, we saw a line of birders with scopes standing in the parking lot staring into the empty field.  The birds hadn’t been seen for awhile and were probably behind a clump of grass.  We got our scope and scanned the field, but the heat haze was so thick that we couldn’t see much in the distance.  Deciding that we would bird the rest of Ottawa and keep our eyes on twitter in case the birds were re-found, we packed up and left.

Hundreds of swallows of 5 different species surrounded us as we started down the foot trail around the impoundments at Ottawa.  I saw a Bank Swallow among the much more prevalent Tree, Northern Rough Winged, and Barn Swallows and Purple Martins, but my brother, who had never seen one, missed it.  I was therefore distracted the rest of the afternoon by the necessity of scanning every swallow that came by to try to find another Bank for him.   We didn’t see another one.  Nevertheless, I did enjoy seeing Black Tern, Least Flycatcher and a Black-crowned Night Heron there.

Back at Grimm Prairie, we saw the Upland Sandpipers (if you can call the horrible, distant, distorted scope views we had ‘seeing’) although certainly not as well as I would have liked through the heat haze.

The next morning, we started by stopping at the intersection of Angola and Raab Roads, which had a Curlew Sandpiper last year.  This year we had 5 swallow species including Bank and Cliff on the wire by the road.  My brother was very happy about finally finding a Bank.

IMG_4272_edited-1.JPG

Bank Swallows by Theo Staengl

We spent the rest of the morning birding the metro parks of Toledo.  At Oak Openings Metropark, we got Lark Sparrow, Red-headed Woodpecker, Least Flycatcher and Nashville Warbler.  At Pearson Metropark we saw almost nothing.  Later in the afternoon, we headed back to Magee to see if anything new had shown up.  There was more Warbler activity, with Blackburnian Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Orange Crowned Warbler, and Cape May Warbler, but it still didn’t compare to last year.

IMG_1068_edited-1.JPG

Blackburnian warbler

The next day (Wednesday), things were finally really starting to get better as far as migrant passerines were concerned.  We had 60 species of birds on the Magee Marsh boardwalk, with 19 species of warblers.  Prothonotary, Blue-winged and Hooded were some of the better ones we saw.

IMG_1031_edited-1.JPG

Blue-headed Vireo

That afternoon, we went to Maumee Bay State Park, where birders had spotted a Clay-colored Sparrow.  As we waited for it to stick its head out of the grass, we watched Purple Martins gracefully wheeling overhead and landing on the artificial gourds that had been set out for them.  Just as we were getting ready to bird the Maumee boardwalk and come back for the Sparrow later, it flew out of the grass, circled its crowd of gathered admirers and landed in a leafless tree right in front of us.  It was the second time I have seen a Clay-colored Sparrow, but this time provided, by far, the better looks and photos.

IMG_1259.JPG

Clay-Colored Sparrow

We spent the  rest of the day slowly birding the Maumee boardwalk, enjoying the peaceful swamp forests.  Veerys seemed to hop on every other fallen log.  We  saw the well-known red morph Eastern Screech Owl that reliably roosts in a box next to the trail.  Ovenbirds, Nashville Warblers, and Yellow Warblers sang in the willows and cottonwoods.

We had to leave for Virginia by 10am Thursday morning, so we didn’t have much time to bird.  We decided to bird Magee Marsh for the whole time in hopes that migration would have picked up.  It was the best day so far, and at times it was almost as good as it had been last year.  One of the best things about Magee Marsh, second to the bird themselves, is that you can see warblers only feet from you at the edge of the boardwalk.  And even when they are not posing perfectly, they are never very high in the canopy like they are back home.  The birds’ proximity and diversity make this an exceptionally good location for warbler photography.  Here are some favorite photos that I took that last morning in Ohio:

IMG_1218_edited-1.JPG

Chestnut-sided Warbler

IMG_1235_edited-1.JPG

Nashville Warbler

IMG_1250_edited-1.JPG

Nashville Warbler

We also got great looks at Bay-breasted Warbler that day, and so many other warblers.  By the end of the trip, our trip list was 130 species, and we had seen 22 species of warblers.  Not as good as last year, but we had a lot of fun, and saw plenty of birds.