A diary of birds I've observed, with occasional commentary on wildlife conservation issues, spiced up with photos of varying quality.
July 24, 2016 [LINK / comment]
Green Heron family on Bell's Lane
Until last Thursday, I had seen only one Green Heron on Bell's Lane all year, though I did see some elsewhere: at Huntley Meadows in Fairfax County (June 30) and at the Nazarene Church Road wetlands in Rockingham County (July 8). Penny Warren (see note below*) has reported seeing more than one such bird in the Bell's Lane area on a few occasions, and last week she reported seeing several Green Heron fledglings -- proof that they had successfully bred within the Staunton city limits! On Thursday afternoon I decided to take a look at the location she identified: the ravine near the north end of Bell's Lane, next to the entrance to the Days Inn motel. It has become flooded over the last several months thanks to a beaver dam. Anyway, I did spot the fledgling Green Herons not long after I arrived at the ravine. On the way there, I also saw and photographed an adult Green Heron perched near a Belted Kingfisher on a wire above a pond. Plus, I took a nice photo of a male Goldfinch.
Green Heron juveniles, on Bell's Lane, July 21. They appear to have fuzz around their heads, causing a sort of "halo" effect. Other photos can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.
In other local bird news, we have had further reports of Sandhill Cranes north of Fishersville, a possible indication that it may be a breeding pair. (See my June 7 blog post; scroll down.) If so, that would be HUGE news!
* ABC leadership transition
Penny Warren has served as president of the Augusta Bird Club for the last five years, a period during which the club embarked on several big new initiatives. The club logo was redesigned, and now features a stylized rendition of a Meadowlark, which members felt was a more suitable symbol of a typical bird that distinguishes Augusta County from other parts of Virginia. (Previously, it was a House Finch.) Second, hats featuring the new club logo were manufactured and sold to members, who now proudly display them on birding ventures. Third, new efforts at community outreach have been made, including the monthly "Beer and Brews, Wine and Wings" social hour at the Yelping Dog in downtown Staunton. Fourth, the club "adopted" Bell's Lane as part of Staunton's community cleanup program, and some of us have made the effort to remove trash and beverage containers from the side of the road there. Finally, a new display kiosk was built and installed on Bell's Lane, with a chalkboard that allows people to share observations of birds and other wildlife in that precious natural haven. It all adds up to a HUGE record of accomplishment for Penny, and she deserves hearty praise and recognition for it.
Understandably, Penny needed a rest from all her efforts, and Peter Van Acker was elected to replace her at the club meeting in April. That was the same month that I assumed responsibility as editor of the club newsletter, on top of my existing responsibilities as Web site editor.
July 16, 2016 [LINK / comment]
Great Egrets pay brief visit
A pair of Great Egrets visited Verona on Thursday, presumably juveniles which fledged in breeding grounds closer to the Atlantic coast. It was only by happenstance that I made this discovery, and otherwise the news might never have circulated in the local birding community. After "shopping" at the Antique Mall in Verona, I drove to the other side of the highway and took a look at the pond in back of the Hardees, at the entrance of the Mill Place industrial park. I hardly ever see any interesting birds there, and I was astonished when I saw a very tall white bird. Unfortunately, it had been raining, or else I would have brought my camera, so I had to hurry home and get my optical gear. When I returned, I saw that there were two Great Egrets, one of which was standing only about 30 yards from the road. CLICK! CLICK! CLICK! It later rejoined its companion on the other side of the pond, and I took some more photos. The breeding range of Great Egrets covers the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, extending upwards into the central Mississippi basin as far north as Illinois.
Great Egret, in Verona, July 14. Roll your mouse over the image to see a closeup of the head. More photos can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.
More encounters with nature
When I went back to Verona the next day, workers were cutting the grass around the pond, and the Great Egrets were already gone. So I took a leisurely drive through north-central Augusta County, looking for other wetlands and meadows in case something interesting should appear. Bird-wise, it was just "the usual suspects."
So then I headed farther west toward Jennings Gap, through which Route 250 passes, and then went for a short walk along the Chimney Hollow trail. I wasn't really expecting to see much in the way of birds, but mainly wanted to get some peace and quiet. Indeed, the forest was almost silent, in contrast to the countryside fields and meadows I passed on the way there. I heard a couple Acadian Flycatchers, and saw one, and I also heard some odd squeaks in the bushes and finally saw a family of Worm-eating Warblers. Other than that, just a couple of Ravens passing far overhead, the (muted) songs of some Red-eyed Vireos, and the loud call of a Pileated Woodpecker. With overcast skies, it was very dark, and there was a brief sprinkle of rain. But the abundance of colorful fungus in the moist soil more than made up for the lack of birds:
Among the mushrooms in the montage above are Clavulina cristata (top right) and Amanita abrupta (bottom left). Other species are yet uncertain... Once identified, the photos will be posted on the Mushrooms photo gallery page, which I just realized is extremely outdated.
While I was departing to attend the OneVirginia 2021 meeting on Tuesday evening, I saw an enormous moth on the hood of a neighbor's car, and ran back inside to get my camera. It was bigger than my fist, almost five inches across. I determined the species from butterfliesandmoths.org.
Imperial Moth, in Staunton, July 12. A top-view photo can be seen on the Butterflies photo gallery page, which also includes moths -- at least for the time being.
July 8, 2016 [LINK / comment]
Soras breeding in the Valley!
Prompted by some alerts from Ron Shearer and others about a family of Soras at the Nazarene Church Road wetlands (in Rockingham County) which I had read on the shenvalbirds e-mail list, I drove up to that location today, and boy was my patience sorely tested! I arrived before 10:00 A.M., and carefully checked out various likely spots, to no avail. A man was mowing his lawn with a self-propelled mower, and the noise was probably frightening the birds. Finally, he was done and it got quiet. At one point, a lady bus driver stopped, and I was afraid she was going to ask what the heck I was doing, but instead she asked "Did you see it?" Yes, she was one of the local people who had seen the Sora, and I was glad to know that I was looking in the right place. I saw a few Wood Ducks (female and juveniles), as well as a Green Heron and Kingfisher, so I took some photos. By 11:00, it was getting hot, and I had mixed feelings when dark clouds approached and light rain began to fall. The cool wind was a relief, but I feared that bad weather would cause my efforts to be wasted. I told myself, just a little more time...
And just when I was beginning to lose hope, the sun came back out and all of a sudden I saw two of the Sora fledglings, dark charcoal black in color. Finally! Of course, I started taking photos, but it was hard because they kept hiding in the marshes. I noticed that one of the juveniles had more brownish plumage than the other two, perhaps because it's a few days older. After a while, I caught a glimpse of the adult (presumably the mother), and was struck by the short, upturned tail, reminding me of a Winter Wren. No photos, though. A few times later on I heard the distinctive "whinnying" call of the Sora, so I knew it was close even if it was concealed. I took a break in my car, and when I came back, I had another clear view, and this time I was amazed by the bright yellow beak. I finally got some good photos of the adult, along with more photos of the juveniles. BINGO! I ended up with sunburns on the arms and neck, but it was worth it!
Sora, July 8. See the montage below for more Sora photos.
Soras are marsh-dwelling birds related to Rails, one of which I photographed in February. (See note at bottom.) In the eastern United States, Soras breed almost exclusively north of the Mason-Dixon line. Parts of the southwest U.S.A. are within their breeding range as well. According to Birds of Augusta County (2008), there is only one nesting record of Soras in this county, in 1973, and that nest was abandoned before the eggs hatched. I'll have to check to make sure this successful breeding has been duly recorded in the VABBA-2 system.
I first saw a Sora on July 28, 2012 near Utica, SD, during a birding expedition with my brother John and my (late) father, Alan Clem. (See my Life bird list.) It was in a muddy ditch along a highway, with many other birds, and I only had a brief view.
Ruffed Grouse encore
After I got satisfactory photos of the Soras, I headed northwest a few more miles toward Briery Branch, and ascended the mountains in the direction of Reddish Knob. I never made it to the summit parking lot, but I did accomplish my main goal, which was to see whether the Ruffed Grouse that we spotted during an Augusta Bird Club field trip on May 20 was still there. Sure enough, I spotted one almost as soon as I passed the intersection of Routes 257 and FS 85 at the gap summit. It was probably the same bird that we saw before, i.e. probably the mother, but this time there were no young ones with it / her. (That's where we saw the Red Crossbills on that trip, but they weren't there today.) Anyway, the Ruffed Grouse was just standing in the middle of the "road" (actually a rutted track), and stayed close enough to the side as I slowly passed by for me to get an excellent closeup "portrait"!
Ruffed Grouse, July 8. [This photo and caption were added subsequent to the original blog post.]
I also saw a [singing male] Yellow-rumped Warbler (see montage below) and Chipping Sparrow in that area, but nothing else. [The only other songs I heard up there were those of Juncos, Towhees, and a Black-throated Blue Warbler.] It's a sign that songbird breeding activity is quickly winding down for the season.
CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP LEFT: Belted Kingfisher (F), Ruffed Grouse, Green Heron, Sora (adult), Sora (fledgling), Yellow-rumped Warbler, Wood Duck (F). All but the middle two were seen at the Nazarene Church Road wetlands. (For more photos, see my Wild birds yearly photo gallery page.)
My photo is published!
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) publishes a magazine called Virginia Wildlife, and every year they run a nature photography contest. Well, I decided to enter it this year for the first time, and lo and behold, when the July/August issue came in the mail last week, there was my photo of a Virginia Rail on page six, coming in third behind two others in the "Virginia Fauna" section. I was hoping just to get included, and I was astounded that it ranked so highly. So, I figured an "encore" presentation of that photo would be appropriate.
Virginia Rail, on Bell's Lane, February 20, 2016 (blog link).
July 3, 2016 [LINK / comment]
Kentucky Warblers, and more!
For the third time in the past two weeks, I went to the Hightop Mountain parking area in the Shenandoah National Park yesterday, in hopes of seeing and photographing a Kentucky Warbler. I did in fact see that bird on my previous two visits, but my efforts were frustrated by bad weather (June 23) and a dying camera battery (June 30). The site is located where the Appalachian Trail intersects Skyline Drive, about one mile south of the Route 33 intersection.
Kentucky Warbler, July 2.
Just like the first two times, I heard a Kentucky Warbler almost as soon as I stepped out of the car, and soon spotted one. Before long it became clear that there were at least three males singing in adjacent territorial units nearby. I witnessed a brief fight between two of them, in fact. I played their songs and calls on my iPod Touch to lure them into camera range, but it was difficult getting a good view in the thick vegetation. After getting a few photos, I started walking northbound on the Appalachian Trail, curious about how far from the road Kentucky Warblers might be found. The only ones that I identified were within 50 yards of Skyline Drive. That may reflect their particular habitat requirements (semi-open wooded areas near streams), or it may reflect that species' apparent tendency to breed in loose colonies, clustered in particular areas rather than spread out. That is just a conjecture on my part.
The trail gradually ascended, and I encountered a variety of birds along the way. The biggest surprises were the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (female) and Cerulean Warbler (male); I probably heard at least two of the latter singing at different places. I was able to lure one down from the tree tops, but he still stayed at least 20 feet above the ground, hence the poor quality of the photo. Cerulean Warblers are notoriously difficult to photograph, more easily heard than seen. After a few hundred yards, at a point where I saw my only Scarlet Tanager of the day, I turned back. I saw at least a dozen hikers during my approximate two-hour stay, most of whom were polite and deferential once they saw I was trying to take photos. Some of them asked what I was looking at, and I was happy to explain. It was toward the end of my visit that I got the best camera views of the Kentucky Warbler; it is a shy and elusive species.
CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP LEFT: Kentucky Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Cerulean Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Wood Pewee, Hooded Warbler.
I posted five different Kentucky Warbler photos on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page, as well as separate photos of the other birds in that montage. Some are better quality than others, but each one shows a particular field mark, such as the slight crest that is sometimes raised. I can't think of any other warblers that have such a crest. I was pleased to get my best-ever photo of a Blue-headed Vireo. Other birds seen there yesterday include Eastern Towhee, Hairy Woodpecker, Tufted Titmice, and Red-eyed Vireo.
Kentucky Warblers are listed as "Uncommon" in the Augusta County bird checklist, which is based on Birds of Augusta County, edited by the late YuLee Larner. I would be inclined to classify it as "Rare," however. William Leigh and Jonathan Todd saw and heard a Kentucky Warbler at Hightop parking lot on June 12, which in fact is what prompted my visits there. (Thanks, guys!) Greg Moyers and Barbara Andes reported a Kentucky Warbler at Slate Lick Fields in Rockingham County on May 30. (I have yet to visit that location.) Otherwise, Kentucky Warblers seem to be a rarity in this part of Virginia. The last two times I saw one were in September 17, 2015 (on Shenandoah Mountain south of the Confederate Breastworks) and May 2014 (by the Falls Hollow trail head near Elliott's Knob), and before that it must have been several years.
July 1, 2016 [LINK / comment]
Birding in Huntley "Meadows"
On my way back from Washington yesterday, I stopped at one of the real natural treasures of Northern Virginia: Huntley Meadows. It's actually a lush wetland, surrounded by woods, hence the quotation marks above, suggesting a misnomer. I had been there once before, back in the 1980s, and I distinctly recall seeing what I believe was an American Bittern. It was hiding in tall sedges (grass-like vegetation), pale brownish overall with dark vertical streaks and a long bill. So, I was hoping I might find either an American Bittern or a Least Bittern, but the lady at the desk said neither species nests there at present. It's possible that what I saw back then was just an immature Green Heron.
Anyway, I spent a couple hours walking along the boardwalk, and was enchanted by the beautiful surroundings, with all sorts of birds and wild animals -- all within a mile of heavily developed suburban real estate! I was happy to see a Great Egret, but sad that I couldn't get close enough for a good photo. An Osprey kept circling overhead close to the observation tower, which is also where I saw the Hummingbird and one of the Common Yellowthroats. At that tower I met a guy (last name Rieger?) who knows John Spahr and Allen Larner from birding encounters, and was pleased to find out that he is a big Washington Nationals fan, working at Nationals Park as an usher. (I had just seen a game there the night before.) The list below shows the more significant birds I saw:
- 8 Mallards (M, F, 5 juv.)
- 6 Wood Ducks (F, 5 juv.)
- 2 Hooded Mergansers (juv.)
- 5 Great Blue Herons
- 1 Great Egret
- 3 Green Herons
- 1 Osprey
- 1 Killdeer
- 1 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
- 1 Eastern Kingbird
- 2 Great Crested Flycatchers
- 1 Acadian Flycatcher
- 1 White-breasted Nuthatch
- 2 Carolina Wrens
- 2 Red-eyed Vireos
- 4+ Common Yellowthroats
- 2 American Goldfinches
I also heard but did not see an Eastern Wood Pewee, Indigo Buntings, some kind of warbler (Prothonotary?), and a probable Red-tailed Hawk in the woods. I also saw a White-tailed Deer, Painted Turtles, Snapping Turtles, and a Bullfrog -- one of many that were making loud noises.
CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP LEFT: Osprey, Common Yellowthroat, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Great Egret, Green Heron, Great Blue Heron. To see larger-size images, go to the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.
The boardwalk at Huntley Meadows, as seen from the observation tower. On the both the left and right sides, beaver lodges can be seen.
To see previous blog entries, go to the Wild Birds archives page.