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!

Bird Finding in Virginia: Rockfish Valley Trail

Note about this post: On past birding trips I have found bird finding guides extremely helpful.  Written by people familiar with local hotspots, these books give the sort of tips and tricks for birding a location that can take many visits to figure out for oneself.  Since there is no recently updated bird finding guide to Virginia, I have decided to make an online version through writing posts like this.  I will try to publish a new one every week.  Soon I will add a page on this blog with links to all the bird finding in Virginia posts that have been published so far.  Some of my friends from the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club have agreed to help me on this project.  Welcome Baxter Beamer, Tucker Beamer, Max Nootbaar, Ira Lianez and Drew Chaney to the birdsandbuds team!  We will stick to our local area for now, as that is where we are most familiar with the birding locations, but I would like to make this a statewide project.  If anyone reading this (especially in other parts of the state) would like to contribute articles like the one below, please send me an email.

 

Just past the town of Nellysford on the Rockfish Valley Highway (151), the Rockfish Valley Trail (RVT) is currently the most birded eBird hotspot in Nelson County.  Although there are certainly other locations in Nelson waiting to be discovered by birders, the RVT will remain one of the classics.  Driving 151 South, the Rockfish Valley Trail parking lot is on your right immediately after Horizon Village Road and the Bold Rock Cidery.

The Rockfish Valley Trail traverses cow pastures, overgrown fields and floodplain forests.  Sections of the trail run along both the South Fork of the Rockfish River and Reid’s Creek.

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Section of the Glenthorne Loop Trail.

From the parking lot, the Rockfish Valley Trail runs east and west along the South Fork of the Rockfish River.  Although both sides are good, I find that the eastern side — known as the Glenthorne Loop Trail — is usually more productive, especially for sparrows in the fall. To get to the Glenthorne Loop Trail from the RVT parking lot, go under the bridge beneath 151. On the other side of the bridge you will see a large cow pasture to your right and a row of densely planted cedars to your left.  Walk down the path between the cedars and the field, watching for eastern meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows in the field.  Once the cedars stop, the path splits off in two directions and crosses an extremely brushy field.  During the spring and summer, the willows along the river here are a good place to see orchard orioles, eastern kingbirds and sometimes yellow warblers.  In previous Octobers this field has been an amazing spot for sparrows, with large numbers of Lincoln’s and swamp present.  I also had two marsh wrens here last October.

The trails eventually meet back up to form the beginning of Glenthorne Loop in front of Reid’s Creek, and from there you can either cross the creek on a bridge into another large field, or continue on the RVT side.  This area, behind the brushy field, is a great place for fall warblers.  I’ve had multiple blackburnian, blackpoll, bay-breasted and black-throated-green warblers in the early successional forests that border the path here.  This is also a great area for olive-sided flycatcher in the fall, although the tree they used to perch on has fallen down.  The trail goes back into the woods before coming out next to the cow pasture again, now following Reid’s Creek to the south, and I’ve never found it worth continuing at that point.  Other than more grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks, white-eyed vireos and the occasional warbler, there usually aren’t many new birds there, so I turn around and bird the west side.

If you don’t cross under 151 and instead follow the trail west from the parking lot, you’ll walk in between a large field and a small riparian corridor along the river.  Extensive jewelweed patches grow next to the river here, and people often have mourning warblers in them during late August.  As you walk this section of trail, scan exposed perches for flycatchers.  Many species of Empidonax flycatchers can be found in the fall, including willow, least, yellow-bellied and probably alder.  Olive-sided flycatchers are also annual.  In the fall, watch for warbling and Philadelphia Vireos in the willows.  The trail extends for about a mile before you have to turn around.

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Philadelphia Vireo

Good birds seen at the Rockfish Valley Trail include: Olive-sided flycatcher, yellow-bellied flycatcher, least flycatcher, Trail’s flycatcher sp., northern waterthrush, mourning warbler, Connecticut warbler, blackburnian warbler, Wilson’s warbler, blue-winged warbler, black-billed cuckoo, warbling vireo, Philadelphia Vireo, gray-cheeked thrush, Lincoln’s sparrow, marsh wren, dickcissel and bobolink.

The Rockfish Valley Trail is a great place to bird any time of year, but especially in migration.  In my opinion September and October are the best months to bird the RVT, as that is when most of the warblers, flycatchers and sparrows are coming through.  I hope I’ve inspired you to come out to Nelson County to do some birding!

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!