Expedition to the top of Elliott's Knob
Yesterday (Saturday), I joined three other members of the Augusta Bird Club for a hike through the wilderness to the top of Elliott's Knob, the highest mountain in this part of Virginia. Allen Larner organized and led the trip, and Penny Warren (club president) and Ann Cline were the other two. It was the third time I had been to the top (see my blog posts of August 6, 2008 and July 13, 2004), but this time was different in that we started from the top of the ridge of which Elliott's Knob is a part. We took two vehicles, parking one of them at our planned destination, and then driving to the starting point, where Hite Hollow Road crosses North Mountain Trail. As soon as we got out of the car, we were startled to see three Ruffed Grouse flush, less than 20 yards away. One landed on a tree branch about 40 yards away, and it graciously stayed there while I got my camera:
Then we began our long hike toward the north, just after 7:00 A.M. The initial elevation was about 3,150 feet, and it was mostly a gradual uphill trek. Temperatures were cool at first, and stayed mild throughout the day. The main problem was the thick vegetation along the trail. My legs got scratched from all the thorns, but I think I managed to avoid poison ivy. (I should have worn blue jeans.) We saw a few warblers and vireos here and there, but didn't get any great views. We noticed bear scat at three separate places, and then we came across a small pond that was all brown, as if it had just been used as a bath tub. The big footprints in the mud left no doubt, but we never did see the bear.
We kept hiking along the narrow trail, only catching occasional glimpses of the valleys on eithr side of the ridge. The higher we climbed, the more flowers we saw on Mountain Laurel bushes. (At lower altitudes, they reached their peak bloom by early June.) Then about 10:00 we came across an open area where we heard all sorts of bird songs. Before long we saw some Chestnut-sided Warblers, and soon after that some Canada Warblers -- the first of that species I had seen all year! The former were mostly toward the sun or in hard-to-see bushes, but fortunately, I was able to get some very good photos of the latter:
While we lingered in that spot, we heard a Broad-winged Hawk shriek, and were startled when it flew so close to where we were standing! In another semi-open area nearby, about 11:00, we saw a large number of wildflowers and butterflies. As I remarked at the time, with perfect weather and all those colors lit by the bright sun, it really did seem like it was "Almost Heaven"! Penny Warren later identified one of the wildflowers as a Purple Fringed Orchid, evidently quite a noteworthy species.
About 11:30, we finally reached Elliott's Knob, where there are several transmission towers and small buildings filled with communications equipment. We rested and had lunch in the shade of a grove of Red Cedar trees, where we saw some Golden-crowned Kinglets and Cedar Waxwings. Afterwards, we proceeded to the summit itself, a couple hundred yards away. The peak elevation is 4,458 feet, which means we climbed about 1,300 feet altogether. We had hoped to ascend the old forest fire observation tower, but it was locked and seemed to be in a state of disrepair.
After an hour or so, we began the long descent back toward Route 42. The "trail" is actually a gravel fire road that is used by maintenance vehicles. In fact, a truck with two workers came up while we were eating. It is difficult to keep one's footing and avoid slipping in the gravel, and I made use of a sturdy branch as a walking stick. It had been partly cloudy for most of the day, but it seemed to get sunnier and warmer as we walked in the open. That's where my short pants came in handy. We didn't see many unusual birds on the way down, mostly Towhees and Indigo Buntings. There were a number of butterflies, and a pair of Dung Beetles rolling a marble-sized ball of you-know-what. (I had seen the same thing while hiking along Madison Run on May 17.)
At about 3:30 in the afternoon, we finally reached the trail head next to Route 42 -- dead tired, and eager to gulp down the cold water that was stored in the cooler! That location is about 2,100 feet in elevation, so the vertical distance we traveled during the second leg of our hike was about 2,350 feet. Given a horizontal distance of about 2.5 miles (13,000 feet), that implies an average grade of 18 percent. (By comparison, anything over 8-10 percent on a normal highway is considered extremely steep.)
In sum, it was a wonderful adventure and a precious opportunity to see unique wilderness habitats that are normally inaccessible to human beings. Here is a list of the more significant birds that I personally saw, taken from the complete list compiled by Allen Larner:
- Broad-winged Hawk
- Barred Owl (FOY)
- Downy Woodpecker
- Hairy Woodpecker
- Eastern Wood-pewee
- Eastern Phoebe
- Yellow-throated Vireo
- Blue-headed Vireo
- Red-eyed Vireo
- Common Raven
- Black-capped Chickadee
- White-breasted Nuthatch
- Golden-crown Kinglet #
- Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
- Cedar Waxwing
- Chestnut-sided Warbler
- Black-throated Blue Warbler #
- Yellow-rumped Warbler #
- Black-throated Green Warbler
- Black & White Warbler
- American Redstart
- Worm-eating Warbler
- Canada Warbler (FOY) #
- Scarlet Tanager
- Eastern Towhee
- Chipping Sparrow
- Dark-eyed Junco #
- Indigo Bunting
# = Species that breed in northern latitudes, and in certain high-elevation places in Virginia.
Other recent bird (& nature) treks
Notwithstanding the lack of any bird-related blog posts recently, I have made a number of (less-ambitious) birding trips over the past month. On June 1, on my way to a church picnic, I stopped to see the Bald Eagle nest in Swoope. I could see one young eaglet still in the nest, and they both may have fledged by now.
On June 4 I walked to the top of Betsy Bell Hill in Staunton, and took photos of some Eastern Wood Pewees and a Great Crested Flycatcher, as well as a pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds. I heard a Wood Thrush, but no sign of any Black & White Warblers, which I had been expecting.
On the way back from Washington (where I had seen a baseball game) on June 9, I spent a few extra hours driving along Skyline Drive, in the Shenandoah National Park. (I bought the annual park pass, which runs for $30, and I intend to get maximum value from it! ) It was foggy and/or rainy in several places, but I still managed to see some interesting birds. Most notable:
- Yellow-throated Vireo
- Rose-breasted Grosbeak
- Chestnut-sided Warblers
- Indigo Buntings
Also, I heard some enchanting Veeries at the Dark Hollow Falls trail head.
On Friday June 14, Jacqueline and I went to Shenandoah National Park for a leisurely couple hours. We saw plenty of Towhees, Redstarts, and Indigo Buntings, and a few Cedar Waxwings, but the main attraction was a Black Bear that crossed the road just ahead of us! Unfortunately, she (presumably a mother, since there were small ones nearby) got into the bushes before I could take a picture:
The very next day, June 15, I went to Ramsey's Draft, but it wasn't early enough in the day to see very many birds. I did see a some Worm-eating Warblers, but none of the Louisiana Waterthrushes I was hoping for. Here is the list of notable birds:
- Worm-eating Warblers
- Black & White Warbler
- Red-tailed Hawk
- Indigo Buntings
- Northern Parula
I took a photo of the Northern Parula, but it wasn't that great. Also, I heard a Black-throated Green Warbler in the distance.
On June 3 and June 20 I paid visits to Bell's Lane, where Yellow Warblers, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Willow Flycatchers are breeding once again this year. Light conditions weren't ideal on those days, however, so my photos are only average.
On June 22, I joined local butterfly expert Mark Gretch and a dozen or so other local nature lovers in Montgomery Hall Park for the annual butterfly count. We noted a few good birds along the way, including Indigo Buntings, a Great Crested Flycatcher, and a White-eyed Vireo, which kept eluding my camera lens.
On June 26, I visited Sweet Briar College, where I taught a few years ago, and photographed a House Wren, a rather common yet often elusive bird. I also saw a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and an Orchard Oriole.
On Friday June 28, Jacqueline and I went back to Shenandoah National Park for a second time together. We saw all "the usual suspects," as well as a Hooded Warbler and a Black & White Warbler, but no bears this time. The main attraction that day was a wide variety of mushrooms, some of which yielded good-quality photographs. (They'll be posted in the next few days.) My new Canon PowerShot SX-50, while excellent for taking bird photos, can be difficult to operate when trying to take closeup shots.