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.

 

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.

Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas

I crept forward through the dense understory of spicebush, trying not to make too much noise, as I followed the soft, incessant trills of a fledgling begging call. I was birding in a small valley right next to our house in the hope of getting a wood thrush breeding confirmation, as we had heard many singing down here recently.  As I removed the final branch blocking my view of where the calls seemed to be coming from, I saw the fuzzy reddish brown backs of 3 little thrushes hopping around on the ground.  I snapped a quick photo and then left them alone.

The 2nd Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas (VABBA or VABBA2) is an ambitious citizen science project designed to document the distribution and abundance of Virginia’s breeding birds.  This year, I participated in the VABBA to learn more about our breeding birds and my local area, and to promote bird conservation through citizen science.  This year was the second of the five-year project, and my first as a volunteer.  Virginia is divided into nearly 4,400 nine square mile blocks, ideally each of which would be surveyed completely.  In recognition that complete survey is very unlikely, one out of every six blocks is a priority block, a designation given to attempt to focus efforts more evenly across the state.  There are approximately 798 priority blocks in Virginia, of which 570 now have data.  VABBA block survey consists of attempting to identify and document breeding evidence for as many species of birds as possible, across as many different habitats in the block as possible.

Through the second season of this project, I have been amazed by the ability of the birding community to contribute large quantities of important data.  The VABBA2 has received 37,669 checklists from 742 participants in just its first two years.  Atlas volunteers have confirmed 185 breeding species in Virginia.  The first VABBA, held over 25 years ago, only confirmed 196 species in five years.  So far I have confirmed 34 species in my block, with an additional 16 as probable, through 45 checklists.

This year I signed up to be the principle atlaser for the block that we live in, Greenfield Central West (CW).  It is not a priority block, but I didn’t want to have to drive somewhere else to bird and I wanted to learn more about the ecosystems around our house.   I was also happy to get to know more local property owners through asking them for permission to survey their properties.  Our immediate neighbors have been very accommodating to birding, and we have unlimited access to a large chunk of land adjacent to our own.  Participating in the Atlas was an opportunity to expand this access to other properties nearby.

I have really enjoyed my participation in VABBA2 this year, but have also found it challenging.  I learned a lot about the breeding biology and behaviors of our summer species, including the habitats different species favored, and I expect to learn much more next year.   Now I know, for example, that I can reliably find ovenbirds and worm eating warblers in the dry oak hickory forest on the Paul’s Creek Trail in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.  These are two species that I don’t expect to find breeding in the lush floodplain forest on our property in the same block, less than a couple of miles away.  Similarly, I hoped to find breeding hooded warblers as the elevation increased, and was pleased when I was able to confirm one.  I also began to learn which behaviors distinguish a bird that is likely to show breeding evidence.   For instance, a bird silently feeding in the brush or flying directly back and fourth between shrubs is much more likely to give you a breeding confirmation than a bird singing leisurely in the canopy.

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These Barn Swallows illustrate the confirmed breeding code Nest with Young (NY).

As I learned more about the differences between atlasing and regular birding, I was able to confirm many more new species per atlasing venture.  Like regular birding, atlasing consists of looking for and identifying birds, but when atlasing, you must also observe and rank breeding behaviors. There are four categories of breeding behavior: observed, possible, probable and confirmed. The goal is to observe the highest possible category for each species. For example, you might see a singing male in the same spot more than seven days apart (a ‘probable’ behavior), but you aren’t done with that species until you have observed it exhibiting a ‘confirmed’ behavior, such as feeding young. To observe so much, you have to move slower, and pay more attention to any given bird than you would in regular birding.

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This Northern Flicker Feeding Young (FY), was observed at McIntire Park, Charlottesville, VA.

On one atlasing trip in early spring, I made a visit to a farm in my block with some large fallow fields to look for displaying American woodcocks.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to confirm them, as they nest on the ground in dense vegetation and blend in so perfectly that even when you know one is right in front of you, it still might take you five minutes to see it.  Despite this, I was excited to get the probable display code on them and witness their strange display flight again.  Right as it was getting so dark I was worried we wouldn’t find any, the strange dry “peeent” of an American woodcock came from across the field, followed by the sharp twittering as it flew overhead.  We heard two or three more birds that night.

One of the aspects of atlasing that I found most challenging was figuring out the timing of the breeding season.  There are species breeding almost all year, with species like bald eagle and great horned owl starting as early as December, and the smaller owls and raptors soon following.

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This Great Horned Owl was observed on March 9nth, at Thomas P. Grater Community Park in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which is not in the VABBA2 area.  This would be the Occupied Nest (ON), confirmed breeding code.

However, the vast majority of our breeding species, the neotropical migrant songbirds, are easiest to confirm during June and early July.  I remember feeling full of energy and having plenty of time for atlasing during March when only a few species were breeding.  In May and June, though, we went to the Biggest Week in American Birding in Ohio, and to Glacier National Park, plus many weekend birding trips around the state.  By late June when most species are breeding, I felt stressed and worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to confirm a decent number in my block this year.  My stress was exacerbated by my inexperience with the VABBA protocols because I didn’t know at the outset where to focus my effort and attention.

Overall, atlasing has been a very educational and rewarding experience for me, and although this breeding season is finishing up, I am looking forward to finishing my block next summer.

An Epic Bird Finding Guide

We hiked up a steep incline to arrive at a beautiful wildflower meadow.  The brilliant oranges and reds of Indian Paintbrush contrasted starkly with the bright white Beargrass.  We had chosen the Iceberg Lake trail in Glacier National Park because of the enticing description in our birding guide, “Glacier is for the Birds.”  From our lofty perch, we scanned the tops of the extensive spruce/fir forest in the valley below us.  We could see numerous waterfalls and cliff faces covered in wildflowers on the mountainsides around us.  Suddenly, an iridescent caramel-colored speck whizzed up the valley.  The male Rufous Hummingbird landed at the top of a nearby spruce, giving us fantastic studies of its sparkling gorget and back.  We were quickly distracted from our quest to get a photo that really showed the iridescence of the hummingbird by the call of a Dusky Flycatcher coming from further upslope.  We soon found the bird perched in the top of a bush, but I listened more than I looked, as Empidonax flycatchers are extremely hard to identify by sight.  “Glacier is for the Birds'” predictions were proving amazingly accurate: “As you proceed through the shrubs and until you head back into the trees, listen and watch for Dusky Flycatchers, Orange-crowned Warblers, MacGillivray’s Warblers and Lazuli Buntings,” though we still hadn’t seen any Lazuli Buntings.  After more searching of trees and listening for calls, we finally located a male Lazuli Bunting singing in a bush.  After the first one, they seemed to be everywhere, and we enjoyed many views of this spectacular bird.

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Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena)

We paused every mile or so and checked the book again, as it provided so much detail we couldn’t remember it all.  Next was “Past the Red-rock outcrop, look for Pine Grosbeaks until you are in the trees.”  As soon as we had fully rounded the next big projection of Glacier’s famous “red rock,” a male and female Pine Grosbeak flew off the path into the top of a large fir.  They stayed there only a few seconds, giving us just enough time to get a decent look, and then flew away.  That was the only time we saw Pine Grosbeaks on our trip.

My experience in Glacier National Park convinced me that a good bird finding guide is essential for travel, even though I usually rely heavily on eBird for local birding information.  EBird is a global citizen science project by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that gathers birders’ sitings into a massive database, which they make available to the public.  I have been eBirding since I started birding, and I can’t imagine birding without it.  EBird is a fantastic tool for keeping personal lists, finding target birds, and learning basic information about a location, but you still really need an actual book.  Some regions are poorly ebirded, leading to small and useless amount of data.  Some regions lack solid internet connection (like Glacier), making it impossible to use.  EBird also lacks the level of detailed information about bird finding often found in bird finding guides.    For instance, on one hike we did to find Timberline Brewer’s Sparrow, our book told us not only which trail but exactly which switchback to look for the sparrows’ territories.

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Brewer’s Sparrow (Spizella breweri)

Finding the Brewer’s Sparrow wasn’t the only time the guide proved so precise it made our jaws drop.  One of the few target birds we hadn’t found by the end of the trip was the Evening Grosbeak.  The guide recommended a brief hike at Goat Lick for it.  We decided to stop there on our last day heading out of the park.  That day ended up full of excitement (see previous post) and we felt like we had to skip the Goat Lick hike as we figured we couldn’t afford the time to look for the bird.  As we were driving, we saw a crowd gathered on the side of the road.  Was it a bear jam, we wondered?  Nope, it was goat jam.  A family of five Mountain Goats were standing right next to the road!

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Mountain Goat (Oreamnos americanus)

After a week of being in the park, we had seen many Mountain Goats, but they had all been distant specks way up on ridge tops.  Apparently, they come from miles away to Goat Lick to ingest minerals from the rocks like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and sodium.  The opportunity to photograph these amazing animals was too good to miss.  I didn’t even bring my binoculars, not knowing this was also the place mentioned in the book for Evening Grosbeaks.  Soon, the goats moved under the bridge and out of sight.  As we were about to go, a little yellow-and-black blob flew up the canyon, chittering wildly, and landed in a spruce near the bridge.  It was immediately followed by four more Evening Grosbeaks.  They were so close and bright, I didn’t really mind not having my binoculars.

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Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)

One of the things that made this bird finding guide so accurate was it was super up to date, published only last year.  Most of the birds he talked about still occupied the same territories they did last year, although I don’t really know they were the same individuals.  Older guides can still be useful, though.  On a trip to Florida last winter, I purchased the ABA/Lane “A Birder’s Guide to Florida,” by Bill Pranty, published in 2005.   I was saddened and disappointed several times during our trip when the birds he mentioned were gone and the described habitat looked very degraded or had even disappeared all together.   But despite being more than 10 years old, it was still full of great information, detailed directions, the authors personal advice, and great maps in a portable, accessible format.    In combination with eBird, it was very helpful in planning and accomplishing our trip.

One time in Miami, I looked on eBird for recent reports of Cave Swallows, a species that I really wanted to see.  There were no recent reports, but the bird finding guide had a nearby bridge staked out as a Cave Swallow nesting site.  Was it possible, 10 years later, that there could still be swallows under that bridge that hadn’t been reported on eBird? We drove quickly into the growing darkness to find out.  Upon arriving, my first impression was of an old, deserted bridge over a filthy canal, surrounded by busy highways.  Not a hopeful sight.  We searched the canal, under the bridge, and the surrounding area but saw no birds.  As we were getting ready to leave, my brother, lagging behind as usual, called from under the bridge that he saw a Cave Swallow.  He used his flash to illuminate the dark underside of the bridge once we were ready, and for just a second, I saw a little nest with a Cave Swallow peeping up out of it.