Hot, hot, hot: Birding in July
I wasn't quite as busy birding in July as I was in June, which is typical given the prevailing heat this time of year, but there were some memorable moments nonethless. (July last year was a very good month, birding-wise, an aberration.) On July 2 I went first to Bell's Lane, but only caught brief glimpses of my main target bird, the Orchard Oriole. There were plenty of juvenile Tree Swallows there, and young Canada Geese over at Mill Place in Verona. In the morning on Independence Day, Bell's Lane was alive with the sound of bird music; I had an excellent view of a Brown Thrasher and saw at least two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers close by, as well as a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and a male Indigo Bunting with mixed blue and gray feathers, presumably a first year bird. I also saw an oriole nest hanging directly above the road, but there was no sign of occupancy.
On Saturday, July 6 I went for a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the first time I had been their since the Augusta Bird Club picnic on June 1. I stopped at some of the usual hot spots and saw or heard most of the regulars such as a Blue-headed Vireo and Hooded Warblers, but no Cerulean Warblers or Chestnut-sided Warblers. The only real surprise was seeing a Rock Pigeon perched on a rock outcrop at the Ravens Roost overlook. It was banded, which I thought was odd. The next day on Bell's Lane I had my best view of a Green Heron all year; it was at the beaver "pond" (which is now just a stream again) west of the road. On Route 11 near the intersection with N. Augusta Street I had a great view of Turkey Vulture. Just before I left I had a nice view of a Field Sparrow. There were no Yellow Warblers, however, and I had only a brief view of some (probable) Orchard Orioles.
Hearthstone Lake again?
On July 12 I made yet another trip (my sixth!) to the Hearthstone Lake area as part of the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas project. Once again, a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird was perched on top of the very same dead branch. I parked at the gate where Tillman Road is closed due to dam reconstruction. Wanting to cover as much of the Reddish Knob SE "priority block" as possible, I hiked (solo) to the top of Narrowback Mountain, a north-south ridge that rises about 500 feet, east of the lake. It was unfamiliar territory, and I enjoyed the "adventure." I had made a map based on the official VABBA map, adding details about the trails based on the excellent map at the kiosk at the northern edge of the George Washington National Forest. I wasn't careful enough, however, so I got confused about my exact location as I reached the top. Fortunately, that was where cell phone service returned, and I was was able to pinpoint where I was. The return trail wasn't where I expected it, so I ended up going about two miles more than I had planned, roughly 6-7 miles total. Along the way, I saw several families with young ones learning to get around and forage; pictured here are a juvenile Ovenbird and a juvenile Eastern Phoebe. At the top of the ridge I saw a Black-throated Green Warbler and heard a couple others; they were absent from the lowlands. I also heard a Yellow-billed Cuckoo up there. On my way out, I had a brief excellent look at a female Blackburnian Warbler, but couldn't get a photo.
The very next day (July 13), Jacqueline and I drove down to Virginia Beach, where we spent a pleasant, relaxing weekend by the seashore. Of course, I managed to squeeze in a little birding time. On Saturday afternoon we had a picnic lunch at First Landing State Park, and stopped at the trail center by the cypress grove, where we saw Great Crested Flycatchers and various woodpeckers. Then we drove through downtown Virginia Beach, where I got my very first photo of a Laughing Gull in breeding plumage, with the black head.
Early on Sunday we spent about 45 minutes at Pleasure House Natural Area, which has a network of sandy trails that follow the edge of a lagoon that looked beautiful in the morning light. I saw a Pine Warbler and an offspring that was about to devour a caterpillar. I also heard a strange song that reminded me of a Mourning Warbler, and after tracking the bird down, discovered to my surprise that it was a Blue Grosbeak! On our way out, I heard some squeaks like a rubber toy would make, and in some pine trees, soon spotted four Brown-headed Nuthatches!! Their range is restricted to the Atlantic coast, and I had not seen one since our last visit to that area in November 2014. At First Landing State Park, there were several Osprey nests, a family of Great Crested Flycatchers, a family of Great Blue Herons, a young Red-headed Woodpecker, and just before I turned back to leave, I was amazed to see a Yellow-crowned Night Heron -- my 505th life bird!!! At the beach, we saw 100+ Brown Pelicans perched on wood poles, as well as several Great Black-backed Gulls, Double-crested Cormorants, etc. We left early in the afternoon to get home before dark. In sum, it was a wonderful weekend.
Hearthstone Lake # 7
On July 20 Dan Perkuchin, Ann Cline, and Penny Warren joined me for one last (?) VABBA-related visit to the Hearthstone Lake area. There was one trail that had not been covered at all, so that was our first priority. We also needed to get additional documentation on breeding activity for certain species where breeding was not confirmed. It was very busy at most of the stops early on, gradually slowing down as the heat rose. At various points along Tillman Road, we saw families (adults and juveniles) of Blue-headed Vireos, Indigo Buntings, Pine Warblers, Hooded Warblers, and Ovenbirds north of Hearthstone Lake today. The subsequent visit to the Reddish Knob area was a bit disappointing, with few birds other than Juncos, and no warblers up there at all.
Two days later I took advantage of the mild temperatures by visiting Bell's Lane in the morning, and had some nice surprises. I just missed getting a shot of a Green Heron flying past, but then a Great Egret flew over! They don't breed in this region, but many such water-dwelling birds scatter to inland states after breeding season ends in mid-summer. A few minutes later I had a great look at a Ruby-throated Hummingbird shining in the sun. They love honeysuckles! Late in the afternoon, I heard a Great Crested Flycatcher out back, and managed to get a photo of it as well.
Etc., etc., etc.
July 25 was a beautiful day, sunny but not too hot, and I was determined to enjoy it fully. I had to do some things in Weyers Cave, so I stopped at Bell's Lane once again on the way up, where I had had nice views of American Goldfinches and a Cedar Waxwing. Later at Leonard's Pond (a few miles north of Weyers Cave) I saw two Red-tailed Hawks up above, as well as some Killdeers, a Solitary Sandpiper, an Eastern Kingbird, and to my great surprise, a Blue Grosbeak! The only photo of it I could get I could was rather poor, however.
Finally, on Saturday, July 27 I went hiking along the Dowell's Draft trail (in western Augusta County) for the first time since April 20. Soon after I started I was pleased to see a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, but otherwise there wasn't much bird activity along the western part of the trail. After the clear-cut area where the Atlantic Coast Pipeline construction work has been suspended, I saw a family of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, including a young one begging for food. But the big surprise of the day was a Red-breasted Nuthatch that I heard. I played its call on my iPhone, and it responded by coming very close! I got some very good photos of it, marred only by the imperfect lighting conditions. Later on, I heard another one at nearby Braley Pond. I was disappointed not to see any Prairie Warblers or Northern Parulas, both of which I had seen in April and in July last year. Finally, at Chimney Hollow trail (also in the same area) I heard some Acadian Flycatchers and saw one, and saw a Scarlet Tanager as well. The main photographic attraction on that trail was an amazing variety of mushrooms. Not a bad day!
As always, many more photos are on the Wild Birds yearly page.