Nelson County Big Day 2019

We drove slowly down the dirt road Findlay Gap Drive through clouds of fog, the shadows of pines just visible through the dark night.  Eastern whip-poor-wills sang around the road, some close, their songs loud and incessant, others further, at the edge of my hearing.  We passed a small creek, and a few frogs called above the noise of the moving water.  We stopped where a recently cut area bordered a more mature stand of pines.  A barred owl called from farther down the row of trees.  I occasionally caught the high buzzy calls of warblers flying overhead.  We continued down the road, pausing periodically to listen, or to play a screech-owl song, but we didn’t hear any more owls.

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Eastern Whip-poor-will — Photo from Ohio

By the time we arrived at Norwood Road, the night felt a little less dark.  We stopped across a farm field from a row of pines and deciduous trees bordering the James River.  Two whip-poor-wills sang from the trees, as well as a chuck-wills widow, it’s longer, more complicated song blending in with the whip-poor wills.  The chuck-wills widow was the first one I’d ever heard in Nelson County.  We drove along Norwood Road and then up James River Road towards James River State Wildlife Management Area.  We heard and even saw several more whip-poor-wills as they flew up from the road, but the only new species we added was a northern rough-winged swallow we heard flying overhead.  We got to James River State WMA just as the sky was beginning to lighten in the east.  Two whip-poor-wills sang near the entrance, a hotspot first.

Our mom left me and my brother Theo to meet our friend Drew, who would be joining us for the rest of the day.  The three of us were doing a Nelson County Big Day, trying to see as many species of birds as we could in Nelson County in 24 hours.  We’d done our first Nelson County Big Day on April 29, 2018, when we had 98 species.  Now we were doing it on May 3rd, several days farther into spring migration, and with much more knowledge about how to find birds in Nelson County.  The goal of both big days, aside from having fun birding, was to explore Nelson County and add to the eBird data, since Nelson is still not birded nearly as much as many of the adjacent counties.

Nelson County is vaguely rectangular in shape, with the southeast border formed by the James River, and the northwest border roughly following the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Nelson is very rural, with many small rivers and large patches of forest, as well as a significant amount of agricultural land and pasture.  Last year, our big day route had started at dawn along the James River, then continued across the county and up into the mountains, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and ended in the Rockfish Valley in the northern portion of the county.  This year I planned on following a similar route, but with the exact locations and time spent at each location optimized from my experience to get us the most birds.  For example, last year our nocturnal birding had consisted only of a visit to Sturt park, where we got whip-poor-wills and nothing else.  This year, I’d carefully planned our route to give us as good a chance as possible at other nocturnal birds, especially chuck-wills-widow.

At James River State WMA, Theo and I walked down the main road listening to the dawn chorus of birds.  Blue-gray gnatcatchers, indigo buntings, common yellowthroats, white-eyed vireos, and yellow-breasted chats sang all around us.  At the James River, we heard a prothonotary and yellow-throated warbler singing from tall silver maples that lined the river.

The fog was still dense and low as we walked into the marsh impoundments, making it hard to see more than 15 feet in front of us.  The path was not mowed, so despite the earliness of the season it was already overgrown by waist high grasses and mustards.  The dense fog had coated the weeds with water, so as we brushed up against them the water rolled off, drenching my shorts and filling my boots with water.  One would have hoped the wetness would suppress the ticks a little, but sadly this was not the case.  By the time we reached the end of the marsh, I had pulled several off me.

Every time I visit the James River State WMA marsh in the spring I dream of finding bitterns or rails, or some other epic marsh bird that isn’t yet recorded from Nelson County on eBird.  The marsh isn’t super high quality because the water level fluctuates constantly and there are many invasive plants, but it is the best one I know about in Nelson, so I will keep hoping.

We heard wing flapping, and then the cries of wood ducks as they flushed off the marsh in front of us.  The marsh was high with little exposed mud, so we were unsurprised, although a little disappointed, not to find any shorebirds (or bitterns or rails sadly).  We heard a northern waterthrush chip, and then saw the bird briefly fly over us and land in a dense clump of vegetation.  Orchard orioles sang from the willows all around us.  At the end of the marsh, a wood duck family swam away from us, the chicks still downy and unable to fly.

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Northern Waterthrush — Photo from Augusta County

From the end of the marsh impoundments we continued back into the WMA, along a grassy road bordered on both sides by dense box elder thickets.  We emerged onto the train tracks and began to follow them back towards the main road.  Yellow warblers sang from the swamp around us, as did the omnipresent common yellowthroats and indigo buntings.  Drew called, and said he had a bobolink at the intersection of the train tracks and road.  We picked up our pace, and soon joined him in trying to re-find the bobolink.  We walked off the road into a wet field, picking our way carefully through blackberries and rushes.  A swamp Sparrow foraged in the bottom of a wet ditch.  Suddenly, a black bird with gold and white highlights flew past us.  “Bobolink!”  I shouted, as the bird landed in the top of a tree in front of us and began to sing.  It was the second Nelson County lifer of the day for me, as well as a hotspot first for James River State WMA.

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Bobolink

The three of us continued up the road, adding pine warbler, prairie warbler, Baltimore oriole, and ruby-throated hummingbird.  We walked along a power line right-of-way into a field overgrown with shrubs, where we found blue grosbeaks, and had a green heron and a red-headed woodpecker flyover.  A bright yellow warbler also flew overhead.  At first we thought it might be a blue-winged, but review of our photos showed it to be a Cape May, not as rare but still new for the day.

The next stop was Wingina Boat Ramp, where James River Road crosses the James River. About 50 cliff swallows were nesting under the bridge, flying out over the river and the adjacent corn fields in swirling masses.  We also heard a black-and-white warbler and a yellow-throated vireo singing from the tall trees along the river.

We drove back along Norwood Road, now in full daylight, looking and listening for birds.  We saw a mallard on a small pond by the side of the road, and a common grackle building a nest.  On Variety Mills Road, we stopped to check a long, muddy puddle in a cow pasture that I’d seen on previous trips.  To our delight, there was a lesser yellowlegs foraging in the mud with three solitary sandpipers.  Since the puddle was only a couple of feet from the side of the road, we were able to approach for photos.

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Lesser Yellowlegs

We followed Variety Mills Road through wooded ravines and along a small, swift flowing river.  We heard ovenbirds, worm-eating warblers, black-and-white warblers, American redstarts, northern parulas, and a blackpoll warbler.  When the road emerged out of the woods back into a large stretch of pasture, we heard grasshopper sparrows singing.  By the time we reached the intersection of Variety Mills Road and Route 29 at Colleen, our list for the road was 47 species.  I hadn’t known before that Variety Mills Road could be such a good birding spot, and I wondered what it would be like in fall migration.

From Colleen we followed Route 56 northwest into the mountains.  At first the landscape was similar to that along Variety Mills Road, with extensive pastures and the Tye river running close to the road.  The fresh, sweet scent of sweet vernal grass in the fields perfumed the air.  We were watching the river carefully, as in 2018 we’d had a pair of common mergansers on it.  Drew caught something on the river out of the corner of his eye, but it was just two Canada geese.  We were about to continue when we saw the brilliant white plumage of a male common merganser just a couple feet below the geese.  A closer look revealed a female as well, swimming near the male.  As we got higher into the mountains, the landscape became more forested, and we could soon hear American redstarts and Ovenbirds almost constantly out the windows.

At the Montebello State Fish Hatchery we walked along the road, hearing chestnut-sided and blackburnian warblers along with many redstarts.  We located a female blackburnian, and watched it forage low in the shrubs for several minutes.  Although not as bright as a male blackburnian’s throat, the dull, rusty orange of this bird’s throat was still impressive.  Other high elevation breeding birds like blue-headed vireos sang.  An osprey flew overhead.

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Chestnut-sided warbler

We got on the Blue Ridge Parkway and drove northeast towards Afton.  We stopped at all the overlooks and pullouts on the Nelson County side of the road, and slowly but steadily added a few more species.  Bald eagle, cerulean warbler, and common raven were all new for the day.  Other warblers sang around us almost the whole drive, including ovenbird, American redstart, and hooded, black-and-white, and chestnut-sided warblers.  At Wintergreen we added dark-eyed junco, only a few weeks ago common all over the county, but now requiring a search at their breeding grounds high in the mountains.

As we drove into the Rockfish Valley, we totaled our species list so far.  We were at 99 species, already one ahead of last year, and it was only about 1:00 pm.  Unfortunately, the morning’s rush of birds was over, and it took a few hours and a lot of effort before we added anything new.  Our one-hundredth bird was a red-tailed hawk at Rockfish Valley Trail.  101 was a black-throated blue warbler, at the same location.  We also got great looks and photographs of this yawning tree swallow.

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Tree Swallow

We arrived at The Quarry Gardens at Schuyler at 5:30, just as the bird activity was beginning to pick up again.  We walked around the gravel trails slowly, carefully scanning through large flocks of yellow-rumped warblers.  Near one such flock of yellow-rumps I found a pine siskin, a day bird.  In another flock we had a ruby-crowned kinglet.  The final new bird at Quarry Gardens was a yellow-billed cuckoo.

The last new bird of the day was wild turkey — species number 105 — at Taylor Creek Road.  We tried for common nighthawk at Rockfish Valley Elementary School, a place I’d had them before in fall, without luck.  We returned home around 8:30, exhausted after nearly 16 hours of birding, but happy with our day.  We missed a few birds that should have been really easy, including red-shouldered hawk and northern flicker, so there’s definitely still room to do better, perhaps much better, next year.