Birding in May: prime time for migration!
I began the month of May at the Mill Place Trail in Verona, where I saw two species that I had missed on the day before, which was Big Spring Day: an Orchard Oriole (my first one of the year, a first-year male) and a Pied-billed Grebe on the pond. I also spotted a a family of Canada Geese: two adults and four goslings. In back of our abode were a Yellow-rumped Warbler and White-breasted Nuthatch.
Three days later, on May 4, I went to Bell's Lane in the early afternoon. A male Baltimore Oriole caught my eye while he was chasing a female, obliging me to pull my car over to the side of the road and get a photo. It was then that I noticed a pair of Black-billed Cuckoos in a similarly amorous mood. Both species were the first ones I've seen this year. The singing White-eyed Vireo was in the same location that I saw it a few days ago, probably the same individual. I had hoped he would stay for the summer, but I didn't see him again. Pairs of Cedar Waxwings (finally!), Great Crested Flycatchers, as well as Brown Thrashers and many, many Gray Catbirds were further indications of breeding activity. I also saw both a male and female Common Yellowthroat (FOY), though in separate locations.
On Monday, May 9, I went to Bell's Lane just before noon, and after searching a while finally came upon a male Magnolia Warbler, one of the best views I've ever had! I had two other first-of-year sightings as well: Willow Flycatcher ("fitz-bew!") and Green Heron. I also saw a Yellow-rumped Warbler, a Northern Parula, and Yellow Warbler, and heard a Common Yellowthroat and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Baltimore Orioles were engaged in intense courtship behavior at two different locations, which probably means multiple nesting pairs. I also heard (but didn't see) the Bobolinks which Ann Cline had photographed a couple days ago.
On the morning of Wednesday, May 11, I went to Betsy Bell Hill for the first time in several weeks, and as soon as I stepped out of my car I heard the friendly whistle song of Eastern Wood Pewees! Nearby were two other first-of-year birds: a Swainson's Thrush and a Bay-breasted Warbler. Also present were at least four Wood Thrushes, a Scarlet Tanager, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler. Later I stopped at the Cheese Shop near Stuarts Draft, and saw at least a dozen Purple Martins flying around; another first-of-year! FInally, at the pond next to the Target distribution center I saw a Least Sandpiper (FOY), a Solitary Sandpiper (FOY), and a Killdeer.
On Friday the 13th (!) of May I did a bit of birding along Mountain View Rd., which makes a loop that parallels the trail behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad that I used to explore on a regular basis, before it was closed to the public. There I heard a Yellow-throated Vireo (FOY) and a Chestnut-sided Warbler or two, and I finally got a distant look at the latter but not the former. On a brighter note, I did get a great view of a Great Crested Flycatcher and an Eastern Wood Pewee, which was nice. I also saw a Red-eyed Vireo far away, and on nearby Commerce Rd. (Rt. 11), an Indigo Bunting or two.
I spent the morning of Saturday the 14th working on the May newsletter for the bird club and then headed to Bell's Lane in hopes of catching a warbler "fallout" between the rain showers. I'm pretty sure I heard a Common Yellowthroat and a Black-throated Blue Warbler, and saw a pair of Cedar Waxwings overhead in a bare tree. I also noticed a pair of Carolina Chickadees tending to a hole in a birch tree on the right side of the shrub-enclosed pond. I had better luck at the Mill Place trail in Verona, where I was greeted by a pair of Eastern Kingbirds and several Northern Rough-winged Swallows. I heard and eventually saw several Baltimore Orioles and Orchard Orioles in the big trees. I think there are two or three breeding pairs there, in fact. One of the singing males was a first-year bird, and he seemed to be getting along OK with an adult male, making me think it might have been his father. I have heard that first-year male Orchard Orioles learn how to be parents by serving as an "apprentice" with their father, so maybe that is true of Baltimore Orioles as well. I was also pleased to see a Scarlet Tanager, a species that usually prefers dense woodlands. An even bigger surprise was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that flew past. In a bare tree near the dam I spotted what I initially thought was a Least Flycatcher, based on its size, or perhaps a Willow Flycatcher, but based on its peaked crown and long primary wing feathers, it was more likely just an Eastern Wood Pewee.
On May 17 I heard a sharp song out back, and soon spotted a Northern Waterthrush, perhaps the same one (or its offspring) that had come to visit us exactly four years earlier. On May 18 (a Wednesday) I went to Augusta Springs for the first time since last month, but most of the birds were notoriously shy. Red-wing Blackbirds were all around the pond, and some were harrassing a Red-tailed Hawk. I saw a Canada Warbler or two for the first time this year, as well as an American Redstart, but I just couldn't get decent photos of either one. There were several Red-eyed Vireos, Worm-eating Warblers, and Wood Thrushes, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher that landed on the boardwalk railing just a few feet away from me! A squabbling threesome of Scarlet Tanagers created a dramatic moment, but I just couldn't get a photo. I heard at least one Yellow-billed Cuckoo, but it stayed far away. Toward the end I saw a pair of Cedar Waxwings, an Indigo Bunting, and a female Wood Duck with several babies.
On May 20 I led an Augusta Bird Club field trip for the first time this year, joined by three other members at the Mountain Home picnic area along Ramsey's Draft in western Augusta County. There weren't that many birds in the low area, so we hiked uphill for just a bit along the Road Hollow trail. There I had an amazing close encounter with a Blue-headed Vireo, just a few feet away! I also glimpsed a Blackburnian Warbler, my first of the year, but the photo I took was barely recognizable. A little later we saw a pair of Scarlet Tanagers, a Black-throated Green Warbler, and a Black-and-white Warbler. On our way back to Staunton, we stopped at the Georgia Camp trail head, and just as I was hoping, we had a nice closeup view of an Acadian Flycatcher! After we said goodbye I made a separate brief visit to the Dowell's Draft trail, where I had a nice view of a Pine Warbler.
Because of family obligations in Maryland, I couldn't be part of this year's Augusta Bird Club picnic brunch on May 21, but that didn't stop me from birding. I was aware that Prothonotary Warblers breed along the Potomac River downstream from Washington, so I consulted eBird to find a suitable birding hot spot near where I was, and I decided upon Piscataway Park, just east of Fort Washington. It was slow going at first, but then I noticed a Red-headed Woodpecker on a nearby dead tree! Then I heard the distinctive, repetititve song of the Prothonotary Warbler, but just couldn't get a good view of it. I did get a good view of several Blackpoll Warblers, however, including the first ones I had seen in spring for several years!! I am convinced that they have shifted their migratory patterns, as others in Virginia have reported seeing them, but not in Augusta County, as far as I know. Then it got real busy, with a young Bald Eagle, a Great Blue Heron, Northern Parulas (too high up to see), three Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and a couple Eastern Phoebes all raising a ruckus. Finally I had a clear view of my main target bird -- Prothonotary Warbler, making my day complete. On my way out I heard and then glimpsed a Black-throated Blue Warbler.
As a storm front was approaching on the afternoon of May 27 I went to Bell's Lane to see what kinds of birds were breeding there. Once again, I saw multiple Baltimore Orioles, Brown Thrashers, and the other birds you see in the (pre-storm) "rainbow" display below. I also saw an Eastern Towhee, an Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Bluebirds, a pair of Orchard Orioles, and of course many Gray Catbirds. Finally, I spotted a pair of Downy Woodpeckers going into and out of a nest hole in a dead tree branch directly above the road. (Two weeks later I discovered that the branch had fallen down and was lying by the side of the road. Perhaps it fell on that same afternoon after the storm blew in.
Finally, on May 31 I paid a visit (with Jacqueline) to the Shenandoah National Park for the very first time this year. We did a bit of hiking north from the Turk Mountain trail parking area, which was full of Mountain Laurels in full bloom. Birds were singing everywhere, most notably, Indigo Buntings, American Redstarts, Worm-eating Warblers, Ovenbirds, and Red-eyed Vireos. We also saw a Black-and-white Warbler, and along Skyline Drive as we were returning home, a female Wild Turkey with some young ones close behind. (Jacqueline saw them, not me.)
In sum, it was a very intensive, fairly successful month of birding, as I finally had some free time on my hands, and made the best of it. I was hoping to see more uncommon migratory species, but was content with the excellent view of the Black-billed Cuckoo, Magnolia Warbler, Prothonotary Warblers, and Blackpoll Warblers. Somehow I missed out entirely on Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds! The above photo montages, including some closeup images and additional photos, can be seen on the Wild Birds chronological photo gallery page.