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.

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.