December 31, 2017
The biggest event of the month for me, birding-wise, was the Augusta County Christmas Bird Count, held on December 17. (A separate Waynesboro was held yesterday, December 30.) I covered the city of Staunton, or rather four of the major park areas within the city limits, not including Bell's Lane:
I did quite a bit of walking in the first three areas, probably about 2.5 miles total. However, I only stopped at Gypsy Hill Park long enough to check the big pond next to the armory (which was empty) and the small pond with the island (which had the usual assortment of semi-domesticated ducks and geese). Late in the afternoon, I went over to the trail behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad which parallels Mountain View Road. I was desperate to get one of the winter migrants, and my efforts paid off, as I soon heard and then saw a Hermit Thrush not far away. Then I went over to Bell's Lane in hopes of seeing the Short-eared Owls. I heard what I believe was a Brown Thrasher in the bushes near the beaver pond, and just about then, Allen Larner showed up, but I couldn't elicit the bird to resume calling. Allen counted it, because someone else saw it within a day or so of the count, so that was rewarding. Allen told me he had seen nine (9) Short-eared Owls, so I went back to their usual location, and spotted one perched on a tree top.
What follows is the combined totals from all areas I covered, including the trail next to Mountain View Road.
Altogether I tabulated 37 species, exactly one more than last year. See the first checklist (for the Frontier Culture Museum) at ebird.org.
The biggest news of the month around here is the large number of Short-eared Owls that have arrived, especially on Bell's Lane, where nine were seen on the CBC. (See above.) I saw four or five of them on both December 2 and 20. Others have been seen in the Swoope area, but when I went there in late November, all I saw was Northern Harriers.
On December 2, I joined Allen Larner, Peter Van Acker, and Ann Cline on an impromptu "field trip" to Bath County, over an hour away. We saw several Bald Eagles, as expected, as well as Common Mergansers and Horned Grebes on Lake Moomaw. For the first time, at my suggestion, we took a shortcut back, along a gravel road that passes through Richardson Gorge, which is very scenic. We also stopped at Warm Springs, one of the resort communities in that remote mountainous area of Virginia. On the way back, we stopped at Augusta Springs and saw a Winter Wren and Swamp Sparrow, but I was only able to get a photo of the latter. After returning to Staunton, three of us went to Bell's Lane and were rewarded by seeing at least four Short-eared Owls, which flew up from their roosts in an open field just as the sun went down. We were startled that they were so close to us, but it was hard to get a good photo.
Soon after that trip, we learned that a Snowy Owl had been sighted in Mount Crawford area, so I went up there on December 10 and spotted it in the middle of a field. Quite a few other birders were there as well that day. Unfortunately, it was too far away (200 yards?) to get a good photo. As I was leaving, I saw and photographed a Bald Eagle flying over that same field. Back in Staunton, I stopped on Bell's Lane and saw a Wilson's Snipe and White-crowned Sparrow.
Responding to another alert, I drove up to Dayton on December 16 and soon spotted the rare Long-tailed Duck on Silver Lake. That species is a diving duck, and it is hard to photograph since they dive so quickly and so frequently. I saw my first-ever Long-tailed Duck in February 2014 at Willow Lake, south of Raphine.
A leisurely drive north of Staunton on Christmas Day yielded views of a few interesting birds, most notabley, two Wilson's Snipes:
Today, December 31, was the Seventh Day of Christmas, and coincidentally, there was a report of a Trumpeter Swan near Waynesboro, so I went over there today. Sure enough, I found it, and got some good pics. Not seven, but seeing one was enough, as they are rather rare. But almost as significant for me was the group of Northern Pintails, both male and female, on the western side of that pond, which is bisected by Route 254. There were also 30 or so Canada Geese, a dozen or so Mallards, and a couple Ruddy Ducks. I was also surprised to see Yellow-rumped Warblers foraging along the edge of the semi-frozen pond, along with some Bluebirds. I don't think I have ever seen a warbler walking on ice before!
NOTE: The photo montages seen above, along with individual bird photos, can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly page.