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Wild Bird Watching

A diary of birds I've observed, with occasional commentary on wildlife conservation issues, spiced up with photos of varying quality. Captions identifying the birds in these photo montages are found on the Wild Birds intro page.

Wild bird montage shadow
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July 18, 2015 [LINK / comment]

Summer birding doldrums

As I prepare to hit the road on my big summer road trip for this year, I thought I should write a few lines about recent birding and outdoor experiences. I have continued to get in shape by hiking this month, but now that breeding season is nearing an end, not as many birds are singing.

Earlier this month, Allen Larner reported seeing a group of Ruddy Ducks, with males in full breeding plumage, on Lake Shenandoah in Rockingham County. So, I drove up there and did see the birds in question, but they were too far away for a good photo. I returned on July 14, but they were already gone. I did see a Green Heron there, however, as well as a young Great Blue Heron at Leonard's Pond on the way back home.

Then on Thursday, I took a short hike south from the Humpback Rocks area, in search of breeding Cerulean Warblers. That species is in decline, and that part of the Blue Ridge is known as a habitaul breeding ground for them. I heard and saw quite a few birds, including Indigo Buntings, Scarlet Tanagers, Eastern Wood Pewees, Pileated Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatches, Blue-headed Vireos, and Red-eyed Vireos. Finally, as I was heading back to the parking lot, I heard the distinctive buzzing song of the Cerulean Warbler. I may have caught a glimpse, but couldn't be sure. It was still very rewarding to identify its presence.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting (male), at the Humpback Rocks parking lot, July 16.


June 25, 2015 [LINK / comment]

Hiking up Little North Mountain

Last Saturday, June 20, Allen Larner and I hiked along Jackson Trail all the way to the top of Little North Mountain, in a quest to find out what kinds of birds may be breeding in that remote wilderness. (It's a Wildlife Management Area, requiring a permit from the Virginia Dept. of Games and Inland Fisheries to enter.) We heard and/or saw nearly all of the expected neotropical migrants, most notably Acadian Flycatchers, American Redstarts, Scarlet Tanagers, and Yellow-billed Cuckoos. Nothing really out of the ordinary, however, unless you count the Black Bear that we spotted on the trail about 100-120 yards ahead. To my surprise, it walked toward us briefly, before leaving the road and heading into the woods. I figure it was in the range of 150-180 pounds, probably two years old. There were lots of Great Spangled Fritillaries just about everywhere we walked. Allen and I covered nearly seven miles altogether, with a net climb of about 1,000 feet, leaving us both exhausted and sore.

Black Bear

Black Bear, at the top of Little North Mountain, VA.

Afterwards, Allen took me over to nearby Augusta Springs to look for a family of Pied-billed Grebes. After ten or so minutes, we finally spotted them on the other side of the pond, and I took some photos. It is the second-ever documented record of this species breeding in Augusta County!

Pied-bill Grebes, juv.

Pied-billed Grebes (juvenile), in Augusta Springs, VA.

Next, we drove to Swoope and confirmed that the Bald Eagle nest is empty, now that the youngster has fledged. Finally, we went to a nearby spot where a male Alder Flycatcher has been singing lately. (They are visually indistinguishable from Willow Flycatchers, but have a very distinct "song.") Playing the Alder Flycatcher song on my iPod soon attracted the bird in question to a perch just 15 or so feet from the car, and I took several photos. It ignored the Willow Flycatcher song I played, but got very agitated by the Alder Flycatcher song, and at one point even "attacked" us, hovering within a couple feet of Allen's face. There are no records of this species breeding in Augusta County.

Alder flycatcher

Alder flycatcher, in Swoope, VA.

All in all, not a bad day to enjoy nature in the Great Outdoors!

Hiking up Trimble Mountain

On Tuesday, June 16, I went on a big hike, climbing Trimble Mountain in northern Augusta County. It was about 900 feet gain in elevation, covering four miles altogether. Boy, did I need the exercise! The last time I went there was in June 2012, but that visit was cut short by a close encounter with a bear on the trail ahead, and I had to turn back. (So did the bear.) Well, the same thing happened again this time, except this time it was just a small (yearling) bear, probably close to 100 pounds, and it was in the bushes off to the side and scampered away immediately. So, I was able to continue, and eventually came across a group of three women hikers, advising them that they might see a bear. The last time I completed the three-mile circuit hike was May 2009, six years ago, which is the same time elapsed since my first hike there. Here are the highlights of the birds I saw:

  • Scarlet Tanagers (M, F)
  • Red-eyed Vireos
  • Acadian Flycatcher
  • Worm-eating Warblers
  • Eastern Wood Pewee
  • Broad-winged Hawk ???
  • American Redstarts (M, F)

I saw and/or heard Acadian Flycatchers in several locations, probably 8-10 of them altogether, finally getting some good photos of that species. Seeing so many was a surprise, as was the fact that some of them were near the top of the mountain. They are usually found close to a wooded stream. I also heard some Ravens, Black-throated Green Warblers, Black and White Warblers, Blue-headed Vireos, and Pine Warblers.

Acadian flycatcher

Acadian Flycatcher, Trimble Mountain.

Highland County field trip

On Saturday June 13, the Augusta Bird Club had its annual summer field trip to Highland County. I was dearly hoping to get photos or at least good looks at two target species: Golden-winged Warbler and Mourning Warbler. We did see the former, but it was at least 60 yards away, and the only photo I got was poor quality. I'm pretty sure I heard and then glimpsed the latter in a particular brushy meadow just across the West Virginia state line where it is usually found, but the group was in a hurry, so I had to leave it. We had very nice looks at a Bobolink (see below) and some Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. Other birds of note that we saw: Bald Eagle, Alder Flycatcher, Black-throated Blue Warbler, and Canada Warbler.

Bobolink, male

Bobolink, male, west of Blue Grass, VA.

The above photo, and the other new ones, can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.


June 12, 2015 [LINK / comment]

Bird breeding season is here!

Now that migrating birds have settled down, breeding season is well underway. (For most resident bird species such as Cardinals, breeding season begins a couple weeks sooner, and there's often a second brood in mid-summer.) Here's a quick review of my more significant birding adventures over the past three month, since the spring semester ended.

On Saturday May 16, I joined other Augusta Bird Club members in their annual picnic-brunch. Like last year (which I was unable to attend), it was held at Natural Chimneys, in northern Augusta County. Our group saw a number of interesting birds during a 45-minute walk along a trail, the best one being a Yellow-throated Vireo. That's a bird I have only seen a few times, and in fact I considered myself lucky to have seen one at Sweet Briar College the last day I went birding there in early May. Other birds seen at Natural Chimneys included Great Crested Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Eastern Towhee, Black & White Warbler, Indigo Bunting, Goldfinch, Red-eyed Vireos, Wood Thrush, and Pileated Woodpecker. It was a very pleasant day, in contrast to the very windy conditions which were experienced there a year earlier.

Yellow-throated Vireo

Yellow-throated Vireo, at Natural Chimneys, May 16.

On Friday May 22, Jacqueline and I went for a short walk to the recently-rebuilt dam and reservoir on Coles Run, in the Big Levels area. There weren't many birds around in the afternoon, but I did see an Osprey perched on a tree limb, as well as a Blue-headed Vireo.

On Monday May 25, I hiked about half-way up the Road Hollow trail, beginning at the Ramsey's Draft picnic area in western Augusta County. Among the birds I saw were Worm-eating Warblers, Ovenbirds, Black & White Warblers, Eastern Towhee, Black-throated Green Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler (WOW!), Pine Warbler, and Indigo Bunting. I also heard Blue-headed Vireos, Red-eyed Vireos, and Scarlet Tanagers, but didn't see any.

On Saturday May 30, after mowing the grass at church (!), I hiked for about a mile south of the Confederate Breastworks, which is very near the Road Hollow trail. I had been on that trail once before, but did not go as far. I would have gone farther, but had to turn back when it started to rain. Along the way I saw Ovenbirds, Black & White Warblers, Eastern Towhee, Red-eyed Vireos, and Scarlet Tanagers.I also heard but did not see Black-throated Green Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo, a Great Crested Flycatcher, and a probable Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Ovenbird, male

Ovenbird, south of the Confederate Breastworks, May 30.

On Monday June 1, I went for a hike up Furnace Mountain trail, beginning at the Madison Run trail head entrance to the Shenandoah National Park east of Grottoes. Birds of note that I saw included Worm-eating Warblers, Ovenbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Eastern Towhee, Prairie Warbler (a big surprise), Indigo Bunting, Goldfinch, Red-eyed Vireos, and Blue-headed Vireos.

On Saturday June 6, I went looking for a new way into the Big Levels area, hoping to reach a parking area marked on my trail map, which unfortunately turned out to be faulty. The road in question dead-ended at a private property line, so I had to take a detour all the way to the entrance to St. Mary's Wilderness, about four miles south. I ended up doing a lengthy excursion from there all along Coal Road all the way to the entrance near the campground south of Stuarts Draft, which is how I usually approach the Big Levels area. I stopped briefly at a couple trail heads, and spent well over an hour hiking about a mile up Forest Road 162, which zig-zags back and forth. I saw several Worm-eating Warblers, Ovenbirds, Blue-headed Vireos, Scarlet Tanagers, Eastern Towhee, and Indigo Bunting. While hiking I observed a lot of disturbed or excavated earth, which made me wonder if the Dominion people have begun doing work to lay the controversial natural gas pipeline. (It hasn't been approved yet, so it must be something else.)

Worm-eating Warbler

Worm-eating Warbler, at Big Levels, June 6.

Finally, on Sunday June 7, Jacqueline and I drove up to the Reddish Knob area at the corner between Augusta County, Rockingham County, and West Virginia. We were disappointed by the overcast skies, but the venture proved very worthwhile nonetheless. On the way up we stopped at the Briery Creek reservoir, and heard some Northern Parulas. Before long I coaxed one into close range and got a very good photo of it in a bush. That was a surprise bonus. As we reached the higher elevations, we found lots of Chestnut-sided Warblers, as expected, but no Black-throated Blue Warblers, which I had seen there last year. We also saw Scarlet Tanagers, Blackburnian Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Cedar Waxwings, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Indigo Buntings, and a Veery! Several others (most notably, Black-throated Green Warblers) were heard but not seen. It's a wonderful place to go birding, and I was amazed at the variety and number of interesting birds all around.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula (male), at Briery Branch Reservoir, June 7. (Full disclosure: I had to "splice" the beak from a different photo of the same bird onto the Parula photo. Click on the image to see the original.)

The above photos, and many more, can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.



tiny tanager

Favorite warblers
(already seen):

  1. Chestnut-sided warbler
  2. Magnolia warbler
  3. Prothonotary warbler
  4. Blackburnian warbler
  5. Yellow warbler
  6. Northern parula
  7. Black-throated green warbler
  8. Canada warbler
  9. Common yellowthroat
  10. American redstart

Yet-unseen warblers:
(eastern species)

  • Blue-winged warbler
  • Kirtland's warbler
  • Swainson's warbler
  • Bachman's warbler (extinct?)

Yet-unseen warblers:
(western & semitropical)

  • Virginia's warbler
  • Lucy's warbler
  • Colima warbler
  • Crescent-chested warbler
  • Tropical parula
  • Black-throated gray warbler
  • Golden-cheeked warbler
  • Townsend's warbler
  • Hermit warbler
  • Grace's warbler
  • MacGillivray's warbler
  • Bahama yellowthroat
  • Belding's yellowthroat
  • Gray-crowned yellowthroat
  • Bahama yellowthroat
  • Red-faced warbler
  • Painted redstart
  • Slate-throated redstart
  • Fan-tailed warbler
  • Golden-crowned warbler

"Abundant" birds
(ones I normally don't bother counting):

  • European starlings
  • House sparrows
  • Cardinals
  • Tufted timice
  • Carolina chickadees
  • Carolina wrens *
  • Song sparrows
  • House finches *
  • Gray catbirds *
  • Mockingbirds
  • American robins *
  • Blue jays
  • Common grackles *
  • American crows
  • Fish crows *
  • Turkey vultures
  • Canada geese
  • Mallards

  • * Sometimes less common