May 6, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Field trip to Dowell's Draft
(It's a busy time of year for birders, and I'm struggling to get caught up with blog accounts of my recent nature excursions, so this post will only cover my activities through the end of April.)
On Saturday April 20, two other members of the Augusta Bird Club (Dan Perkuchin and Linda Corwin) joined me on a field trip to Dowell's Draft, in the western part of Augusta County. This is a trail and Forest Service fire road that provides excellent habitat for songbirds, but happens to lie in the path of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Fortunately for us, construction activity in this sector has been suspended for several months. Temperatures were mild, and the skies were clear. The only drawback with the weather was the occasional strong breeze. As we approached the trailhead in my car, we heard multiple Louisiana Waterthrushes. Soon after we began hiking, we saw a Pileated Woodpecker flying about 50 yards ahead of us, and then heard a nearby Ovenbird**, the first of the year for me. After several minutes of looking, we finally spotted it. We also heard the first of several Blue-headed Vireos* that day, but not until the latter part of our trip did we finally see (and photograph) it. While crossing the clear-cut swath, we heard a Northern Parula** singing in the distance, and then we heard a Prairie Warbler** fairly close. Those were the two main target birds, which I identified as breeders in that very same area for VABBA-2 last year. Within a couple minutes we had excellent views of the Parula (possibly two), and a so-so view of the Prairie Warbler. Further along the trail, we heard and finally saw a Louisiana Waterthrush*, but it proved to be very skilled at eluding our camera lenses. We also saw a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in that area, and heard a Red-breasted Nuthatch in the distance. On the way back we saw more Northern Parulas and a Black-throated Green Warbler**.
* = the first I have seen this year
** = the first I have seen or heard this year
Altogether, 27 bird species were observed at Dowell's Draft. (Thanks to Dan Perkuchin for tabulating our observations on ebird.org.) Next we stopped for a short while at nearby Braley's Pond, but the hoped-for Eastern Phoebes that nest there every year were not seen. We did, however, see another Louisiana Waterthrush, as well as a Muskrat foraging near the stream. All in all, it was a wonderful day of birding! Here are the highlights of our day:
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Northern Parula, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Prairie Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-headed Vireo, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Ovenbird, at Dowell's Draft on April 20.
On Bell's Lane on April 22, I saw several good birds, such as White-crowned Sparrows, Purple Finches, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler. Three days later I saw my first Great Crested Flycatcher of the year, as well as Purple Finches, an Eastern Kingbird, and a Brown Thrasher there.
I didn't intend to go birding on Friday, April 26, but the unusual sight of a Swainson's Thrush and Indigo Bunting (both first of the year) in the bushes out back got me motivated to head out to Bell's Lane. Penny Warren had marked on the ABC kiosk chalkboard that she had seen a Solitary Sandpiper there, and sure enough I spotted it in the mud puddle where the cows often gather. On the extended portion of Bell's Lane (north of the bypass), I saw a Yellow-rumped Warbler and and Black-and-white Warbler (FOY), as well as a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.
Big Spring Day 2019
On Saturday, April 27, I participated in the Augusta Bird Club's Big Spring Day, covering four areas in the rugged woodlands of western Augusta County that were assigned to me, with a separate eBird checklist for each one:
It was fairly quiet around Braley Pond early on, but I did get an excellent closeup look at a Worm-eating Warbler, my first of the year. I continued along the trail upstream from the pond and eventually came across a couple places that were buzzing with warblers, just like last year. I saw Black-and-White Warblers, Ovenbirds, Northern Parulas, Louisiana Waterthrushes, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and at least eight Ruby-crowned Kinglets, some with their heads "ablaze" with red. At one of the clearings, I briefly had a great view of a Broad-winged Hawk flying away, but couldn't get a photo. As I was departing that area, I spotted (!) two Spotted Sandpipers at the base of the dam.
Along the Dowell's Draft trail nearby, I met a man who was looking for Ruffed Grouse; he told me where the males typically "drum" during mating season, but unfortunately I was unable to detect their presence. I saw most of the same warbler species as before, and heard a Prairie Warbler, singing in the meadow to the west of the trail head. (I did not see or hear a Prairie Warbler in the clearcut area where it had been during our field trip the week before, however.) Around an abandoned shed in that meadow, I saw two Eastern Phoebes, the only flycatchers I observed all day.
Next I went to Ramsey's Draft and heard a Northern Parula, a species which breeds there on a regular basis. Climbing the Road Hollow trail (which heads toward the crest of Shenandoah Mountain and the Confederate Breastworks) for about 3/4 mile, I heard and saw some Black-throated Green Warblers and eventually Blackburnian Warblers (FOY) as well. I was counting on Scarlet Tanagers and Red-eyed Vireos along that trail, but neither species was seen or heard. I did get a great view of a Blue-headed Vireo, however, after having heard them in numerous locations earlier in the day. Back at the picnic area as I was about to leave, I saw several Chipping Sparrows and American Goldfinches, and heard American Redstarts (FOY) singing in the trees.
Finally, I paid a visit to Chimney Hollow trail and almost immediately spotted a Louisiana Waterthrush in a nearby tree. That area was mostly quiet, however, and while I did hear and eventually see yet another Northern Parula, there were no Acadian Flycatchers as I had hoped. Other big "misses" for what was otherwise a very successful day: Yellow-rumped Warbler, Great Crested Flycatcher, White-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, and Red-bellied Woodpecker.
** = the first I have seen or heard this year
This photographic montage shows the highlights of my Big Spring Day:
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Black-throated Green Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Pine Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Northern Parula, Blue-headed Vireo, Spotted Sandpiper, and in center, Louisiana Waterthrush. (At Braley Pond, Dowell's Draft, Ramsey's Draft, and Chimney Hollow, April 27.)
Enlarged images of most of those birds can be seen at: Wild Birds yearly page.
Altogether I observed a total of 181 birds, including birds I saw along Route 250 and back in Staunton, accounting for 41 species.
Ending April with a bang
On April 30 I spent a nice morning at Betsy Bell Hill in Staunton, where I heard and/or saw four species for the first time this year: Scarlet Tanager, Red-eyed Vireo, Wood Thrush, and Cape May Warbler. There were lots of warblers in the tree tops, but with the poor lighting conditions, it was very hard to identify them. Yellow-rumped Warblers were most prevalent, as usual this time of year. To my surprise, I heard a Red-breasted Nuthatch, but didn't see it.
But the real fun started on Bell's Lane, where I was dumbfounded to see a Black-billed Cuckoo as soon as I got out of my car! Fortunately for me, it stayed put while I greedily took some photos -- my first ever of that species. It had been years since the last time I saw one of those. This was where the marshy stream parallels the road toward the southwest. In the distance I saw a Baltimore Oriole (FOY), and in the dense thickets I saw a Northern Parula, a Yellow Warbler (FOY), and a Cape May Warbler.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Wood Thrush, Scarlet Tanager (M), Black-billed Cuckoo, Cape May Warbler, Pileated Woodpecker (M), Northern Parula (M), and Swainson's Thrush. (At Betsy Bell Hill and Bell's Lane, April 27.)
For additional photos, see the Wild Birds yearly page.
May 12, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Nats get roughed up on the road
Until the middle of last month, it seemed that success was close at hand for the Washington Nationals. If they could just fix their bullpen... After losing the first game of the series (once again) against the San Francisco Giants, they then beat the visitors twice. In the April 17 game, they belted four home runs and had a comfortable 9-2 lead going into the ninth inning, whereupon the bullpen collapsed right on schedule; they held on to win, 9-6. The Nats then hit the road but lost the first two of three games against the Marlins in Miami. Heading west to Denver, they lost two of three games against the Colorado Rockies, marking the last time they had an even .500 record. Since April 23, when the Nats were only 1 1/2 games out of first place, things have gone from mediocre to just plain awful for the Nationals.
Back in Washington on April 26, the Nats lost two of three games against the San Diego Padres, the latter two being extra-innings affairs. Manager Dave Martinez used closer Sean Doolittle in the 9th inning, even though the game was tied 2-2 and hence not a save situation. In the
20th [OOPS: 10th] inning, the Padres scored six (6) runs, off of Wander Suero and Justin Miller. Arghhh... Howie Kendrick homered in the bottom of the 10th, but it didn't matter as the Nats lost in a most disheartening fashion, 8-3. But thanks mainly to the "youngsters," the Nats bounced back the next night: Juan Soto, Victor Robles, and Carter Kieboom (just called up from the minors) all homered, and the score was tied 6-6 after nine innings. In the bottom of the 11th, Matt Adams led off with a towering walk-off homer and thus the Nats avoided being swept at home. Then the St. Louis Cardinals came to town and beat the Nats in three straight games. It wasn't a sweep, however, as it was a four-game series, and sure enough the Nats eked out a 2-1 win on Thursday evening (May 2) to conclude a rather bleak home stand on a positive note.
The next day the Nats headed up to Philadelphia, and once again lost the first game of the series, 4-2. Saturday's game started as a pitchers' duel between Patrick Corbin (Nats) and Jake Arrieta (Phillies), but it turned into a slug-fest in the latter innings. Brian Dozier, Kurt Suzuki, and Victor Robles all homered, taking advantage of the cozy dimentions in Citizens Bank Park. The Nats won that game, 10-8, but then they lost the finale on Sunday, 7-1. The very next day (May 6) the Nats played in Milwaukee, and once again lost the first game of the series, even though Max Scherzer threw ten strikeouts and only gave up one earned run (plus one unearned) over six innings. So much valiant effort going to waste... On the following day, Stephen Strasburg three 11 strikeouts but gave up four runs, which was four more than his own team scored. The bullpen allowed two more runs. In the finale of that series, on Wednesday afternoon, Jeremy Hellickson only lasted four innings and the Nats lost, 7-3. It was the first time this year that the Nats had been swept in a series.
The final leg of the Nats' brutal road trip took them to Los Angeles, and miracle of miracles, they actually won the first game of the series! It was only the second time in 13 series thus far this year that they have done so. Patrick Corbin threw another brilliant game for the Nats, striking out eight batters over seven innings in a 6-0 victory. A three-run homer by Howie Kendrick pretty much sealed the deal in that game. But the next day, the extraordinarily ineffective veteran starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez was relieved during the fifth inning after giving up three runs. Final score: Dodgers 5, Nats 0. On Saturday, the fiercely competitive Max Scherzer went seven full innings while only giving up two runs, but was in line for the loss after being replaced in the lineup in the top of the eighth. That's when the Nats batters woke up all of a sudden. The bases were loaded whn Juan Soto came up to bat, and he worked a long count before finally smacking an RBI single for the Nats first run. Anthony Rendon then came up to bat, and hopes were high for the Nats' #1 slugger, who recently returned from the Injured List. But "Tony Two Bags" is apparently not back to 100% just yet, because he swung at some bad pitches and struck out. That left it all up to newly-acquired Gerardo Parra, and guess what? He launched a homer several rows deep into the Dodger Stadium pavilion in right center field, the first grand slam for the Nats this year! (See the Washington Nationals page.) That gave Max Scherzer the win -- only his second win of the season. In the final game of the four-game series, the Dodgers' Hyan-Jin Ryu outdueled Stephen Strasburg, and actually had a no-hitter going into the eighth inning. Once again, Gerardo Parra was a "hero" of sorts, hitting a double for the Nats' only hit of the game [in the top of the eighth inning]. (The Nationals have never lost in a no-hitter, and the last time that happened in franchise history was in 1999, when the Yankees no-hit the Expos.) [With the tying run at the plate, Dave Martinez made another managerial goof when he let Michael A. Taylor bat rather than put in Howie Kendrick, Victor Robles, or Yan Gomes as a pinch hitter; they all have much higher batting averages. In the bottom of that] inning, Corey Seager put the icing on the cake for the home team, hitting a grand slam against Kyle Barraclough. (He has been one of the Nationals' more dependable relief pitchers this year, so that was a turn for the worse.) Final score: 6-0. [Thus the Nats ended a very rough road trip, winning just three of ten games.]
And so, at the one-quarter mark of the 2019 season, the Washington Nationals are now 16-24, which is 7 1/2 games behind the Phillies. Injuries are partly to blame, of course, but the Nationals did just fine in spite of injuries in years when they ended up winning the division. Something fundamental is really wrong with this team. The Nats payroll is among the highest in the majors right now (fourth, I believe), but they just aren't performing the way they are supposed to. Complaints about the lack of leadership are growing, and I don't see how Dave Martinez can finish this season if things don't get better soon. Why are the team's owners so patient with him? Don't they want to admit they were wrong to hire an untested guy as manager rather than the proven (and more costly) Bud Black? The Nationals have a long road ahead as they try to climb out of fourth place in the NL East, and perhaps somehow make a run for the postseason. There's no reason why a team with so much talent can't do so.
Some early-season surprises
After six full weeks of baseball, there have been a number of early season surprises. Did anyone really expect the Minnesota Twins or Tampa Bay Rays to be leading their respective divisions? Not that I'm aware. The New York Yankees have been plagued by injuries, but nevertheless have climbed to within a half game of the Rays, and they will probably take first place in the days to come. The Seattle Mariners were one of the hottest teams for the first few weeks, but they have seen cooled off as the Houston Astros have resumed their place atop the AL West. The Boston Red Sox recently climbed above .500 for the first time this season -- a rather humbling performance for the 2018 World Series champions.
In the National League, the East Division was a tight, four-way race for most of April, but the Philadelphia Phillies have now built a 3-game lead. Bryce Harper actually got booed by the home fans after striking out a few days ago; he currently is tied for fourth in the majors with 51 strikeouts. He is batting just .229 with 7 home runs. In the Central Division, the Milwaukee Brewers were very strong in April, but have since fallen behind the Chicago Cubs. Much like the Red Sox, the Cubs were playing terribly in the early weeks but have bounced back nicely. Out west, the L.A. Dodgers are ahead by four games, as the San Diego Padres, who led the division for much of April, have cooled off considerably. Manny Machado added spark to the lineup, but his actual performance has fallen short of expectation: .252 average and 8 home runs.
"Red Socks" in the White House
Championship sports teams customarily are greeted by the President at the White House, e.g. the Washington Capitals hockey team, but with the Trump administration, such traditions are sometimes dispensed with. Most of the Boston Red Sox recently made the pilgrimmage to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but manager Alex Cora and a several other players boycotted the event. Someone in the White House mistakenly wrote "Red Socks" in an official communique, which kind of makes you wonder... See bostonglobe.com.
Stadium capacity changes, 2019
For the first time in at least a few decades, and perhaps ever, there were (apprently) NO changes at all in the seating capacity of any major league baseball stadium this year. In contrast, last year (see October 3) there were seven cases of capacity changing by at least 1,000. I go by the official attendance figures shown in the box scores as published by the Washington Post, where capacity is shown in parentheses. MLB franchises seem less forthcoming aboutproviding capacity data on the various MLB web pages, compared to years past.
Busch Stadium II update
Since I have been paying greater attention in recent months to the details in the roofs of various stadiums of the "cookie-cutter" era (see April 16, when I updated the Riverfront Stadium diagrams), I made an update to the Busch Stadium II diagrams. Whereas before (2014) I attempted to convey the unique arched-support roofs of that stadium in a rather crude way, the diagrams now render more faithfully the actual appearance. While I was at it, I made a few other corrections and enhancements. The front edge of the upper deck is recessed by a couple feet, while the lateral walkway and entry portals in the rear part of the lower deck have been moved forward several feet, and are thus now (partly) "exposed" in all the diagrams. Those entry portals are much bigger than the were before, and the small sets of stairs from the lateral walkways to the aisles between the sections are now shown for the first time. Finally, the profile has been refined as well.
May 16, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Springtime short-distance travels
Last year I didn't get around to summarizing my travels in this blog until August 9, and I'm trying to do better this year. So here are a few quick items about short-distance travels that I have taken (mostly with Jacqueline) during spring. The photos below are the choicest ones of those posted on the Chronological (2019) page. On January 6 I went to Highland County and Bath County with a few others from the Augusta Bird Club, with scenic highlights at Lake Moomaw and the historic bath house in Warm Springs. On March 10 Jacqueline and I went to the Highland County Maple Festival, briefly entering West Virginia northeast of Blue Grass. (We missed that festival the year before.) As usual, we bought a quart of maple syrup and a few other souvenir and craft items.
Maple Festival 2019 in McDowell, March 10.
On May 4 Jacqueline asked me to go with her to meet with her sister in Richmond, and I seized the opportunity to do some birding in the nearby Dutch Gap area along the James River. (See the separate blog post on birding.) Just like the last time I was there (June 2016), I saw many Zebra Swallowtails. I recently learned that the caterpillars of those butterflies feed on Paw Paw leaves, and indeed I saw many Paw Paw trees in the swampy area through which I hiked. The trail was very wet in places, and at one point it was flooded, so I had to give up and head back.
Boat landing at Dutch Gap, southeast of Richmond, May 4.
On our way home, we drove north along Route 1 through south Richmond, where evidence of poverty and strong racial feelings abounds. As we approached downtown Richmond, I asked Jacqueline to take photos of the city skyline as we crossed one of the James River bridges, and she did a good job. Then we drove past Virginia Commonwealth University, which gets bigger every time I see it, and I was struck my a sort of surrealistic mural showing four people with their eyeballs detached, apparently imagining the same dream. I should try to find out more about that mural. Next we entered historic Monument Avenue just a few blocks to the west of VCU. The afternoon lighting was not ideal as we headed west, or else I would have taken more photos.
Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, May 4.
Finally, on May 6 I led an Augusta Bird Club field trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and went back to the same area the very next day with some other birders. At one point I saw an azalea bush in full bloom, and it almost seemed to be begging me to take this lush, scenic picture, looking southeast toward the Big Levels area:
Azazleas in the Blue Ridge, May 7.
May 16, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Ten Days In May:* Bird migration season peaks
The weather was very good for the first ten or so days of May, enabling us birders to fully enjoy the peak of migration season. It was raining from Saturday until Monday (May 11-13), and so before things get busy again, I'd better get recent bird events down for the record.
As mentioned in the travel blog post of today, on May 4 Jacqueline and I drove to the Richmond are, and while she was with her sister, I did some birding in the nearby Dutch Gap area along the James River. Whereas the previous time I was there (June 2016) I had a hard time getting good looks (or photos) of my main target bird, the Prothonotary Warbler**, this time I heard and then saw one within 50 feet of the parking lot! There were several more after that, and I got much better photos this time around. I also heard and then saw a White-eyed Vireo**, I heard and finally got my first clear looks at a Red-eyed Vireo** this year. Toward the end of my walk, I heard what I thought was an Indigo Bunting but then realized it lacked the buzzy tone of that bird. Then I remembered that Yellow-throated Warblers** have such a song, so I played it on my Audubon iPhone app, and within a minute or two, one came flying in my direction! Hallelujah!! It was the first time I had seen that species since I was in Florida three years ago, and the first time I have seen one in Virginia in almost ten years, I think. (My records are out of date, but I'm working on fixing that.) Besides the birds in this photo, I also saw a few Ospreys, including one in a nest across the river, as well as Double-crested Cormorants**, a young Bald Eagle, and over one hundred Black Vultures.
* = the first I have seen this year
** = the first I have seen or heard this year
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, White-eyed Vireo, and (in center) Indigo Bunting, at Dutch Gap on May 4.
Field trip to Blue Ridge Parkway
Three days later, on Monday May 6, I led an Augusta Bird Club field trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and was joined by ten other members of the club. Driving the lead car in a caravan of four vehicles (later five), I paused by the Swannanoah golf course to take a photo of a Chipping Sparrow, and was astounded that it turned out to be one of my best-ever shots of that species. Our first major "hot spot" was by the telecommunications tower a couple miles south of the Afton Inn. We heard and/or saw a wide variety of warblers, including my first Hooded** and Cerulean Warblers** of the year, and heard a Black-throated Green Warbler, a Red-headed Woodpecker, and a Red-breasted Nuthatch in the distance. There wasn't much going on at the Humpback Rocks visitor center, so we continued to a stretch of road at Mile Marker 8 with just enough grass to park safely. There we saw a Yellow-throated Vireo**, a couple Goldfinches, and a flock of small birds that turned out to be Pine Siskins. That was a big surprise! The final stop was at Hickory Springs overlook, near Mile Marker 12. There we saw more Hooded and Cerulean Warblers, as well as a Chestnut-sided Warbler** There were a couple "misses," but all in all, the trip was a great success!
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Yellow-throated Vireo, Cape May Warbler, American Redstart, Black-and-White Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, and (in center) Cerulean Warbler, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, May 6.
The very next day, Ann Cline and I returned to the same area, in hopes of getting better photos. Smart move! Once again we saw Hooded as well as Cerulean Warblers at multiple locations. At one point I spotted an Osprey flying high overhead, and managed to snap a quick shot before it was gone. I saw one of the Red-headed Woodpeckers that we had heard the day before, but only briefly from a distance. Soon we met up with two other birders, Pete and Faye Cooper, and later on encountered Marshall Faintich, a renowned bird photographer who lives on the east side of the Blue Ridge. At one point Pete and I had great closeup looks at two male Cerulean Warblers that were fighting over territory, flitting about the shrubs right next to the road. It was a great photo op, and I got my best-ever photos of that species. (They tend to stay high in the tree tops, and only rarely do I see their pale blue backs.) We had better views of the Pine Siskins than the day before, and I had a brief look at a female Indigo Bunting; they tend to stay out of sight during breeding season.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Black-and-White Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, American Redstart (1st-year male), Hooded Warbler, Pine Siskin, Ospreay, and (in center) Indigo Bunting (F) and Red-headed Woodpecker, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, May 7.
Thursday morning Jacqueline and I went for a walk along Bell's Lane, and I was amazed to see a Yellow-throated Vireo in a nearby tree, not very high up. I glimpsed a Common Yellowthroat**, Chestnut-sided Warbler, and American Redstart in the wetland trees, but could only get mediocre photos of them. I returned in the afternoon, after the sun came out, but didn't see much other than an Eastern Kingbird until I reached the northern portion of Bell's Lane. There I had very good views of a Yellow Warbler and a Baltimore Oriole, both males.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: American Redstart (1st-year male), Baltimore Oriole, Yellow-throated Vireo, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Kingbird, and Yellow Warbler, on Bell's Lane, May 9.
Finally, on Friday May 10 I had to take care of some personal matters in Weyer's Cave, after which I decided to drive a bit farther north, up to Hillandale Park on the west side of Harrisonburg. I heard a variety of songbirds as soon as I left my car, and I soon saw a Yellow-rumped Warbler, a Cerulean Warbler, an American Redstart, and best of all, a Bay-breasted Warbler**! [All were fairly high in the trees.] After that, however, bird activity quickly waned. There were many Common Grackles and Robins, a female Purple Finch, and an Eastern Towee, but not much else. So I headed to Cook's Cove Arboretum in Bridgewater, hoping to see the Eastern Screech Owl** that has been reported there. The first nest box I saw had a squirrel poking its head out, to my annoyance, but the second box was the owl!! I also heard a bird singing in the trees nearby, and soon had a pretty good photo of a Common Yellowthroat. Thus ended an especially rewarding first ten days of the merry, merry month of May!
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Common Yellowthroat, Red-tailed Hawk, Bay-breasted Warbler, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Screech Owl, and American Redstart, at Hillandale Park and Cook's Cove Arboretum, May 10.
For additional photos, see the Wild Birds yearly page.
* This is the second time I referred to a movie in the headline of a birding blog post; on April 20 there was a sly reference to a song from the movie The Producers.
May 31, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Nationals hit rock bottom, finally bounce back
This has been a trying month for fans of the Washington Nationals. Whereas they started the 2019 season on virtually the same track as the year before (with a 12-16 record in their first month compared to 13-16 in April 2018; see the Washington Nationals page), unlike May 2018 (when they went 19-7) this year they have continued to stumble throughout May. Tonight's game in Cincinnati will determine whether May is slightly better or slightly worse than April. Indeed, they were doing so badly last week (with a five-game losing streak), that it could have ended up much worse. But this week they achieved a three-game winning streak for the first time this year, and indeed have won five of their last six games -- a minor miracle.
On May 14, the Nats returned home from a bleak road trip to face the New York Mets. Once again, the Nats lost the opening game of the series as Jeremy Hellickson gave up five runs over five innings, and lost, 6-2. But with Patrick Corbin on the mound the next day, the Nats got going offensively as Anthony Rendon (just back from the Injured List) went three for four at the plate and Victor Robles homered for the second day in a row. Final score: Nats 5, Mets 1. In the final game of that series, Thursday afternoon, starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez was replaced in the second inning due to an arm injury. But somehow the bullpen managed to do an adequate job this time, while newly-acquired Gerardo Parra was the hero once again, going 3 for 3, including a home run. The Nats held on to win, 7-6, and that is how they won their first actual series in almost a month!
But the good vibes from that flicker of hope didn't last long. The Chicago Cubs came to town on May 17, and Max Scherzer had a fair outing, giving up three runs over six innings. He was in line for the win, but then the bullpen came in, and yadda, yadda, yadda... Final score: Cubs 14, Nats 6. The next day Stephen Strasburg only allowed two runs over eight innings (one earned), and the Nats won 5-2. A homer by Brian Dozier (a disappointment since he joined the team this spring) and three RBIs by Juan Soto made the difference. In the final game of that series (May 19), Jeremy Hellickson only lasted three innings. In spite of home runs by Howie Kendrick and Anthony Rendon, the Cubs won that game, 6-5. Hellickson was put on the Injured List after the game; ever since the May 3 game against the Phillies when he was abruptly pulled during the sixth inning after throwing nine strikeouts, things have gone downhill for him.
The Nats then headed up to Queens, New York for a four-game series against the Mets. On May 20 Patrick Corbin had a rare off day on the mound, giving up four runs over five innings, and the Mets won it, 5-3. The next day Erick Fedde pitched in lieu of the ailing Anibal Sanchez, and did a fine job, giving up just one run in five innings. But then the bullpen came in, ... Final score: Mets 6, Nats 5. On Wednesday Max Scherzer pitched even better than the time before, blanking the Mets over six innings. Thanks to a first-inning solo homer by Adam Eaton, he left with his team ahead, but then the bullpen came in. The relievers got three quick outs in the seventh inning, but Kyle Barraclough got in trouble in the eighth inning, and manager Dave Martinez called in the usual closer Sean Doolittle -- and all hell broke loose. The Mets hit a bases-loaded double followed by an intentional walk (to ex-Nats catcher Wilson Ramos!) and then a home run (by Rajai Davis), thus scoring 6 runs in the eighth inning. That was four more than they needed to win. And if that wasn't dispiriting enough, on Thursday May 23, the Nats wasted a heroic three-run comeback to take the lead in the top of the eighth inning, when the Mets did likewise in the bottom of the inning. The Nats' promising but inconsistent relief pitcher Wander Suero was one strike away from getting the third out when Carlos Gomez hit a three-run homer, and the Mets won the game, 6-4.
And thus the Nats got swept in a four-game series for the first time since August 13-16, 2015, playing against the Giants in San Francisco. For anyone who had previously imagined that things just couldn't get any worse for the Nationals, they did get worse. What was especially galling was that the Mets themselves had just been swept in four games by the last-place Miami Marlins! May 23 will no doubt be remembered as when the Nats hit rock bottom in 2019.
On that somber note, the Nats returned home on Friday May 24, welcoming the Marlins to D.C. It was a crazy, back-and-forth game in which rookie Kyle McGowin only lasted four innings. The Nats finally took the lead in the eighth inning thanks to home runs by Juan Soto and Matt Adams, and Sean Doolittle got the save even though he gave up a solo home run in the ninth inning. Nats 12, Marlins 10. On Saturday afternoon, Patrick Corbin returned to his normal fine form, going nine full innings without giving up any runs. It was the Nats' first complete-game shutout since April 9, 2018 (by Max Scherzer). Yan Gomes hit a three-run double in the fourth inning, providing a big safety cushion for Corbin. Final score: Nats 5, Marlins 0. On Sunday Erick Fedde pitched five solid innings once again, not giving up any runs this time, and thanks mainly to the bat of Howie Kendrick, the Nats won it, 9-6. It was the first time all year that the Nationals had won three games in a row. On Monday afternoon (Memorial Day), the Nats were in great position to take a four-game sweep as Max Scherzer took the mound, but once again the offense let him down. The Nats were ahead 2-1 when he left after six innings, but errors by Matt Adams (seventh inning) and Trea Turner (eighth inning) resulted in the Marlins tying the game and then taking the lead, as they won the finale, 3-2. [Turner broke a finger while trying to bunt in early April, and after seven weeks on the Injured List, he is slowly getting going again.]
Next, the Nationals headed south to Atlanta for a short two-game series. On Tuesday, Stephen Strasburg was again masterful, striking out 11 Braves batters over seven innings. Howie Kendrick homered once again (his ninth this year), and both he and Trea Turner got three hits. In the bottom of the eighth, Kyle Barraclough gave up a two-run homer, but Sean Doolittle struck out three batters while only allowing one hit in the ninth inning, as the Nats held on to win, 5-4. In the Wednesday night game, something truly amazing happened: starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez, who had lost six games without any wins during the first two months, was almost flawless and had a perfect game going into the sixth inning. It probably helped that the Nationals had already built a 14-0 lead by then, an extremely comfortable "cushion." But then Ozzie Albies hit a single with one out, and Sanchez's bid for history was stopped cold. (He used to pitch for the Braves.) Dave Martinez replaced him in the seventh inning, being cautious since Sanchez had just returned from the Injured List. So what do you think happened after that? Of course, reliever Kyle McGowin gives up a grand slam to Austin Riley! McGowin stayed in for the final two innings without further damage. Nats 14, Braves 4, Washington's second biggest victory of the year. (They beat the Phillies on April 10, 15-1.)
And so, the Nats have now won five of their last six games for the first time this season, as they head to Cincinnati for a three-game series against the last-place Reds. Patrick Corbin will be on the mound, looking for his sixth win of the season.
The ill fortunes of the Washington Nationals this year raises the question of whether the team can get a collective grip and contend once again for the NL East title this year. Fans wonder whether the Nats can somehow still make postseason, but at eight games below .500 (24-32) and nine games behind the first-place Phillies, that is obviously a long shot.
Rating the new Nationals
This year's Washington Nationals has been revamped since last year, and the new players have had some notable "hits" as well as misses.
| Patrick Corbin
|Starting pitcher (L)
| Anibal Sanchez
|Starting pitcher (R)
| Jeremy Hellickson
|Starting pitcher (R)
| Kyle Barraclough
|Relief pitcher (R)
| Brian Dozier
| Yan Gomes
| Curt Suzuki
Not included on the list is Victor Robles, who played during the latter part of the 2018 season. He is considered a rookie this year, as was his slugging buddy from the Dominican Republic, Juan Soto last year.
Who's to blame for the Nats' woes?
"Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan."
(Count Galeazzo Ciano, 1942)
Disappointed fans and sports analysts are quick to pin the blame whenever a team performs as far below expectations as the Nationals have this year. Lacking in the finer points of baseball strategy and tactics, I generally hesitate to criticize managers, but my reticence as been sorely tested with Dave Martinez. With that in mind, I tend to share Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell's conclusion that, while the Nationals probably have other problems to tackle, at the top of the list is the team's manager. To Boswell, it seems that Martinez just lacks any awareness that he must push and motivate his players into performing better. That plus the frequent lapses of judgment about whether or when to replace the pitcher add up to a failing grade. Another Washington Post columnist, Barry Svrluga, expressed similar thoughts.
So, who could replace Martinez? Former Yankee manager Joe Girardi is among the possibilities often mentioned. Former Nats coach Bo Porter may be interested, but Dusty Baker would probably refuse an offer even if Mike Rizzo were desperate enough to go back begging. I think it would help immensely to bring back Jayson Werth in some kind of coaching capacity, to see whether he might eventually become a managerial candidate. Ryan Zimmerman's status with the team next year is in doubt, and some have suggested some kind of front office or coaching role for him if the Lerners decide that he isn't worth the $18 million he would be owed if his contract option is taken.
But beyond the manager himself, there is also the hard-to-define quality of team spirit that seems to be lacking with the Nationals this year. The loss of Jayson Werth, Daniel Murphy, and Bryce Harper meant that no one was left to get the guys in the dugout fired up when they needed to be.
R.I.P. Bill Buckner
Former MLB star player Bill Buckner passed away at the age of 69 this week. He started with the L.A. Dodgers in 1969, and later went to the Chicago Cubs for a few years before becoming a member of the Boston Red Sox in 1984. With 2,715 hits, 174 home runs, and a .289 batting average over his long career, he deserves to be remembered for all the big things he accomplished on the field. Unfortunately, baseball -- like life in general -- is sometimes very cruel. Read about his legacy at MLB.com.
Three Rivers Stadium update
Continuing with my recent detour from my main objective of "tackling" the remaining stadiums (Griffith, Yankee, and Forbes Field) by doing minor touch-ups of certain "cookie-cutter" stadiums, I made an update to the Three Rivers Stadium diagrams. Nothing really huge changed, but it took longer than expected to resolve some nagging puzzles, and is definitely a needed improvement. The most significant changes since the last such update (on Dec. 9, 2014) are:
- The entry portals and adjacent stairs in the upper deck are now more accurate and detailed than before.
- The entry portals in the lower deck are likewise more accurate, and the dugouts do not extend as far out from home plate as they did before.
- There is no longer a gap between the outfield fence and the seating sections that were added in 1975. (One of the photos taken by former major leaguer Jerry Reuss clearly shows that the fence was flush against the wall.)
- There are now separate diagrams for the first and second decks, rather than a single lower-decks diagram as before. The second "deck" was only about 6 or 7 rows, smaller than the ten-row standard I usually apply for considering a mezzanine level a full-fledged deck. Plus, it was actually above a luxury suite / press box level, and was thus the third level, which means that what I labeled as the "third deck" was actually the fourth level. Both those diagrams shows more detail (partly conjectural in the main concourse), including arrows show which way was up in the access ramps around the stadium perimeter.
- All diagram versions now show the four main pedestrian access bridges by which fans got to and from the parking lots, etc.
As is usually the case, you can compare the new version to the old version (in this case, from 2014) by clicking on the diagram image on that page.
Like Riverfront Stadium, the dugouts at Three Rivers Stadium were ground-level, i.e., not "dug-out" at all. Ever wonder what other MLB stadiums had that characteristic? Well, here's a preliminary listing:
- Three Rivers Stadium
- Riverfront Stadium
- Jack Murphy Stadium
- Olympic Stadium
- Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium (until 1974)
- Dolphin (Hard Rock) Stadium
- Exhibition Stadium
May 31, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Birding in mid-to-late May
The weather has been pretty cooperative during the second half of May, and once again I took advantage of it. During a random country drive with Jacqueline on the 16th I stopped at Leonard's Pond (about three miles north of Weyer's Cave), and was pleased to see the Wilson's Phalarope that had been reported there earlier in the week. I also saw Solitary Sandpipers, a Spotted Sandpiper, and a Semi-palmated Plover or two. After we got back to Staunton, three Black Vultures were cleaning up a tragic mess on the street. The next day an Eastern Wood Pewee showed up in back of our apartment and posed in the sun for me! We haven't had many migrating birds out back this spring, and only one warbler species: a Palm Warbler.
In preparation for the the 2nd Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas program (VABBA-2), on May 18 I explored the Hearthstone Lake area for the first time ever. It is located in the mountains of northern Augusta County a few miles east of Todd Lake and a few miles west of Natural Chimneys. I discovered to my dismay that the main road is closed for about a half mile either side of the Hearthstone Lake dam. So, I had to walk from the "Road Closed" gate, and the extra effort paid off because I saw two American Woodcocks very close by! It was the first time I had seen that species [in several years], and was probably my best view ever. They were too quick for my camera and got away, unfortunately. Just in case, I prowled around, and briefly saw one of them flying overhead a few minutes later. They make an odd whirring sound as they fly, rather like Mourning Doves. In addition, I had nice views of Ovenbirds, Hooded Warblers, and Eastern Towees, as well as some Blue-gray Gnatcatchers in the tree tops. On the way back I stopped briefly at the Wild Oak trail, where Penny Warren led a field trip last fall. I heard a Wood Thrush, but otherwise it was fairly dull. At a farm pond north of Churchville I saw a Great Blue Heron, a Solitary Sandpiper, and two Killdeers. I will lead a VABBA-related field trip to the Hearthstone Lake area on June 8, but I may have to modify the itinerary because of the road closure.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Ovenbird, Hooded Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Killdeer, Great Blue Heron, and Eastern Towhee, near Hearthstone Lake and along Route 42 north of Churchville, on May 18.
On May 20 I went to Montgomery Hall Park in hopes of seeing or at least hearing some Blackpoll Warblers, but did not succeed in my quest. In fact, I haven't seen any of them at all yet this year, which makes three bad years in a row for that species. But I did see some Indigo Buntings, Red-eyed Vireos, and an Eastern Wood Pewee, as well as Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Later that day on Bell's Lane, I had a nice view of a Yellow Warbler, and saw a Brown Thrasher, an Eastern Phoebe, and an Eastern Kingbird as well. I may have seen an Orchard Oriole, but a truck drove by and scared it off before I could be sure.
I went back to Bell's Lane the very next morning, along with Jacqueline. I heard the familiar "fitz-bew" call of a Willow Flycatcher near the southern bend and soon spotted it on a wire. My first one of the year! I also heard a singing Orchard Oriole, and it turned out there was both a first-year male and a full adult male in that same area. Another (definite) first of the year! A few minutes later, a Green Heron flew past toward a nearby pond, and I just managed to snap an in-flight photo. On my way out I saw some Cedar Waxwings, an Eastern Wood Pewee, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at very close range. I also saw an Indigo Bunting and a Great Crested Flycatcher, and heard some Eastern Phoebes and a (probable Yellow-billed) Cuckoo.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Green Heron, Willow Flycatcher, Cedar Waxwing, Orchard Oriole (1st-yr. M), Eastern Wood Pewee, Orchard Oriole (M), and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, on Bell's Lane, May 21.
Pocosin Cabin trail
On Friday one week ago (May 24), Ann Cline and I went to the to the Pocosin Cabin trail in the Shenandoah National Park, hoping to get good photos of all the neotropical migrants that abound there. (She has a newer model of the Canon PowerShot zoom camera that I bought six and a half years ago.) Just like the last time I was there (on a solo hike) two years ago, it was yet another great day of birding, with fine weather. It was quite windy at the overlooks, but the tall trees around that trail muffled the winds. Unlike the last time (thankfully), I didn't see any bears! We saw many warblers, including American Redstarts, Chestnut-sided Warblers, a Cerulean Warbler, and best of all, a Canada Warbler*! We also heard a Black-throated Green Warbler, some Hooded Warblers, and several Ovenbirds. I was lucky to spot a female Redstart was in her nest, and I got an adequate photo which I submitted to the eBird VABBA portal. Among the other highlights: a Rose-breasted Grosbeak*, a Scarlet Tanager with many yellow feathers (a possible first year male?), Eastern Towhees, Veeries*, Red-eyed Vireos, and several flycatchers: some Least Flycatchers*, an Acadian Flycatcher*, and Eastern Wood Pewees.
* The first of that species I have seen this year. (5 total)
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Veery, American Redstart (M), Canada Warbler (M), Chestnut-sided Warbler (M), Rose-breasted Grosbeak (M), Scarlet Tanager (M), and (in center) Acadian Flycatcher and Least Flycatcher, along the Pocosin Cabin trail, May 24.
On Wednesday (May 29) I went to the Shenandoah Wetland Bank south of Stuarts Draft, hoping to see or at least hear Virginia Rails or Soras, but without luck. I did see some pretty good birds, nevertheless: Cedar Waxwings, Orchard Orioles, Green Herons (which kept flushing and flying away every time I got near), and one each of: Eastern Towhee, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Willow Flycatcher, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Brown Thrasher.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Cedar Waxwings, Orchard Oriole (1st-yr. M), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Eastern Towhee, and Green Herons, at the Shenandoah Wetland Bank, May 29.
For additional photos, see the Wild Birds yearly page. In a few hours, I will be attending the Augusta Bird Club's annual picnic brunch along the Blue Ridge Parkway!