Piney Grove Preserve is the only place in Virginia where the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker lives. It is also the furthest north site for this species. As we drove down the narrow entrance road to the preserve, we could hear the rising song of Prairie Warblers from almost every clump of vegetation by the road. Eastern Towhees, Black-and-white Warbler, and Ovenbirds also sang along the road. Old Loblolly and Long-leaf Pines towered over the understory of Wax Myrtle and young Black and Water Oaks, creating the beautiful habitat of southern pine savannah. We photographed several Pink Lady’s Slippers that grew in the thick mat of decaying pine needles covering the forest floor at the entrance to the Nature Conservancy’s Darden Nature Trail.
I saw a couple of Brown-headed Nuthatches foraging in the smaller pines. This small species only lives on the Coast, so I don’t get to see them very often. Theo, my brother, brought my attention to a very distant, slow, “yank yank yank” call, clearly a Red-breasted Nuthatch. Soon after, I heard the faster, jerkier call of the White-breasted Nuthatch. It was the first time I had ever seen all three eastern Nuthatches in the same day! We saw Ovenbirds and Yellow-throated Vireos, but no Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. We decided to drive the main road of the preserve to look for the spot we had seen them the last time we came here, over a year ago. As we were pulling out of the parking lot, Theo spotted a Blue Grosbeak sitting on a tree beside the road. What an unexpected treat! They are a common breeder in this habitat later in the year, but this was the first one I had seen this season. We walked down the main road, seeing plenty of Pine Warblers, Prairie Warblers, Palm Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and Yellow-throated Warblers, but still no Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Suddenly, two “footballs with wings” exploded out of the brush in front of us, their feathers making a tremendous noise. Bobwhite! This was a very long awaited lifer. After lunch we decided we’d better head to the Dismal Swamp if we wanted to have much time there, so with much regret, we gave up on the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and got into the car for the drive.
Our first stop at the Great Dismal Swamp NWR was Jericho Ditch, a famous spot for the elusive Swainson’s Warbler. When we got out of our car, the sight that greeted us was not exactly spectacular. A long path stretched into the hazy distance with a ditch nearly hidden by dense, shrubby vegetation beside it. Heat shimmered off the gravel parking lot. We heard and then saw several Prothonotary Warblers, their brilliant yellow bodies contrasting with their slate grey wings. As we walked along the ditch, giant Swamp Darners and other dragonflies swarmed all about us. Eventually, we heard a Swainson’s Warbler sing about 10 feet off the trail. We stood and waited patiently, tried “pishing,” and even tried to enter the dense brush and briers that made a wall at the edge of the trail, but nothing we did let us see the bird. After we waited for a good half hour, we gave up seeing it and went to Washington Ditch. Washington Ditch was much nicer than Jericho Ditch, with real coastal swamp forest instead of scrub. Mature Red Maples, Willow Oaks, and Water Oaks cast a cooling shade, with lush Devils Walking Stick and Cinnamon Fern carpeting the forest floor. As we walked along the wide cool path, we heard the noises of a mixed flock off to the left. Soon Yellow-rumped and Prothonotary Warblers sang on either side of us. Then we heard the distinctive “whee whee whee whip-poor-will” song of a Swainson’s Warbler. I found the bird this time, due to the more open canopy, and enjoyed my first views of it.
After the Warblers had moved on and we were walking back to the car, we heard a Barred Owl call through the distant swamp woods.