Birding in July: hot, hot, HOT!
Bird breeding season is quickly winding down, and it seems that only birds still engaged in raising young are the goldfinches (late breeders) and bluebirds (sometimes two broods a year). That means that there aren't many males singing to attract mates or establish territorial rights, and the relative quiet makes it harder to locate birds. After a very busy late May and June (see my July 12 blog post, when I covered birding from April through June), I settled down into a more normal pace in July.
On July 2, three other Augusta Bird Club members (Peter Van Acker, Penny Warren, and Ann Cline) joined me for an informal field trip to an "undetermined location." In other words, we decided where to go on the spot, and the consensus was the trail along the crest of Shenandoah Mountain, on the western edge of Augusta County. With the covid-19 social distancing rules still in place, we each drove in separate cars. The forecast was for hot weather, so high altitude and an early start were essential in order to enjoy the outing. As soon as we arrived there were birds all around. We hiked for about 1/3 mile north of the Confederate Breastworks and back, and then for about 1 1/2 miles south, to the Georgia Camp trail crossing (and back). There weren't any spectacular findings, but we had a few good bird views and very pleasant temperatures. We heard several Scarlet Tanagers, but I don't think we actually saw a single one. There were multiple families of Eastern Towhees, Indigo Buntings, and American Redstarts. We had a few looks at a Black-throated Green Warbler and a Blue-headed Vireo or two, and heard just a few warbler species aside from the very common Ovenbirds. Broad-winged Hawks and one Red-tailed Hawk soared overhead. After we were done hiking, we stopped briefly at Ramseys' Draft (a much lower elevation), where I saw some more Redstarts, a Chipping Sparrows, and a Red-tailed Hawk, and then I went alone to the nearby Georgia Camp trailhead, where there were some Northern Parulas, an Eastern Wood Pewee, and an Acadian Flycatcher. I logged about five miles according to my iPhone.
On the morning of the Fourth of July, most of the regular birds in the Bell's Lane area were very vocal. The big highlight was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, but Aside from the other birds in the montage for that day (Indigo Bunting, Eastern Meadowlark, Red-tailed Hawk, American Goldfinch, Brown Thrasher, and Field Sparrow), I also had distant views of an Eastern Kingbird and an Orchard Oriole. Unfortunately, I still couldn't find any Yellow Warblers or Grasshopper Sparrows, two species that are known to have bred in that area almost every year. That's not a good sign.
On Thursday July 9, Jacqueline and I did a day trip to the Richmond, Virginia area, mostly touring various battlefields to the east and south. I figured I would squeeze in some birding here and there, and it paid off with some nice surprises. We started off at the Gaines Mill battlefield, seeing some Brown-headed Cowbirds, Eastern Phoebes, and Eastern Bluebirds. Near Malvern Hill I heard and finally lured into view a male Common Yellowthroat that had established a breeding are in a moist weedy clearing next to a bicycle trail. (We saw a lot of bikers.) Then at the historic Shirley Plantation, I was amazed to see a Blue Grosbeak, and was lucky to get a quick photo of itat over 50 yards distance. While driving across a bridge on the James River, we saw a family of Ospreys, with the young ones in a nest. There was no place to stop and take a picture, however. But the biggest highlight of the day came after lunch in mid-afternoon when I heard and then saw a Summer Tanager in the treetops at Petersburg National Battlefield. It sounded like a Scarlet Tanager, which are common in the Shenandoah Valley, but its song was more melodic. I'm pretty sure the last time I saw one in Virginia was in 1999 or so, in the Charlottesville area.
On July 12, for the first time, I explored the North River Gorge Trail, where Penny Warren led a field trip a couple years ago. It's beautiful, scenic, and shady, featuring a large wooden suspension bridge over the river. I saw quite a few other hikers and bikers along the way, so it is obviously a popular destination. It's located east of Todd Lake and south of Hearthstone Lake, where I have birded several times this year and last year. I must have heard eight or ten Acadian Flycatchers along the way, but didn't actually see any until I was heading back. Overall, there were fewer warblers than I had hoped. The Hooded Warbler in the photo montage finally made a rather late appearance at the very farthest point, about two miles from the beginning. (About five miles total hiking for the day.) Other highlights: a Louisiana Waterthrush, several Worm-eating Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos, and Blue-headed Vireos. Since the trees obscured the sky I didn't notice it was getting overcast, and then it started to rain! So, I had to trot back to my care for the final 1/3 mile to avoid getting soaked. A quick stop at Bell's Lane on the way home yielded a Green Heron, just as it started to rain -- for the second time that day!
July 19 started off nicely, as I saw a Ruby-throated Hummingbird out back for the first time this year. (I have seen them a few times elsewhere.) It was going to be another very hot day, so I headed for the high hills to escape the high heat, braving the rugged Hite Hollow Road west of Augusta Springs. (I would definitely NOT recommend that road except for a Jeep or SUV.) I hiked along the same trail that Penny Warren, Ann Cline, Allen Larner, and I did seven years ago; see my June 30, 2013 blog post. This time, however, I only walked about a mile because I heard some loud rustling in the bushes and decided that was far enough. (Bear?) Along the way I saw most of the usual birds, and heard some Yellow-throated Vireos, as well as Black-throated Green and Black-throated Blue Warblers. As a sign that breeding season was coming to an end, I didn't hear any singing by Scarlet Tanagers, and I saw just one. There were lots of butterflies, and I got my best-ever photo of a Pipevine Swallowtail. I returned via Deerfield, figuring (correctly) that the road wasn't as bad on that side. A brief stop at Chimney Hollow yielded a loud family of Tutfted Titmice, an Ovenbird, and an Acadian Flycatcher (heard only).
On July 20, with temperatures soaring into the upper 90s, Jacqueline and I tried to escape the heat by hiking in the Shenandoah National Park. I only had loose plans, however, and we suffered as a result. We parked at the Big Meadows visitor center (recently reopened to the public), and hiked about 1/3 mile to the Dark Hollow Falls trail head. I correctly surmised that the parking area there would be full, so the extra hiking to get there made sense. (The last time we had gone to Dark Hollow Falls was in June 2005, but I did stop briefly at the trail head in June 2013.) It was a longer hike to the main falls that I thought, and we were a little alarmed by the crowded conditions. Many people were wearing masks, in fact. In order to minimize personal contact and to avoid the steep, difficult climb, we took the long way back, hiking along a side trail that eventually connected with the Appalachian Trail. I soon regretted our decision not to bring water bottles, since I originally planned on just a short hike to the falls and back, followed by a longer hike elsewhere. Even in the mountains it was extremely hot, and by the time we were done hiking the five mile circuit, we were dangerously dehydrated. There really wern't very many birds until near the end of our trek, but we did see a Black Bear -- the third one this year! Avian highlights included a Louisiana Waterthrush, several American Redstarts, several Dark-eyed Juncos (juvenile here). Towhees seemed to be everywhere, and there were also dozens of Barn Swallows around the Big Meadows maintenance sheds. At one of the overlooks on our way home, I saw a Chestnut-sided Warbler up close.
Later that month, I went to Leonard's Pond on July 25, hoping to see some shorebirds, but the only one present was a Solitary Sandpiper. Eastern Kingbirds were visible at several place north and west of Verona. On July 29 I drove up to Route 610 (parallel to the Blue Ridge Parkway) in hopes of seeing the Kentucky Warbler that Marshall Faintich had reported there on the day before. Marshall was at the designated location, but not the Kentucky Warbler. I did have some nice consolation prizes, however: good views of an American Redstart and a Cerulean Warbler! (It was my first decent photo of the latter species this year.) I also saw a Yellow-billed Cuckoo flying overhead and we heard multiple Wood Thrushes singing nearby. A few E. Towhees rounded out a very brief bird outing. Finally, on July 30 Jacqueline and I stopped in the Shenandoah National Park on our way to Charlottesville. I was given a short period to look for birds, so all I saw was a frazzled-looking male Hooded Warbler, who was obviously starting to molt. It's another sign that the seasons are about to change...
NOTE: Much of the above text is based on Facebook posts that I made in July, with a few corrections, deletions, and additions. More bird photos for this year, listed chronologically, can be found on the Wild Birds yearly page. I'll do a separate blog post (with scenic photos) about travels in July in the near future...