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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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March 28, 2014 [LINK / comment]

What a month! Bird "fallout" from winter storms

For most people, March 2014 has been one of the worst weather months in years, but for bird lovers, it was one of the best -- thanks in no small part to the weather! Repeated bouts of the "polar vortex" forced a number of birds further south than their habitual wintering grounds, and every snowstorm seemed to yield a big birding dividend. In fact, I spent so much time looking for birds, photographing birds, digitally editing the images of birds, and uploading them to the Internet, that I hardly had any time left over to blog about birds -- or about much of anything else, for that matter! This colorful montage will serve as a starting point for my recapitulation of this amazing month, from beginning to end:

Ducks, Red-necked Grebes - Mar. 2014

Montage of various ducks and grebes, all photographed this month. Clockwise from upper left: Hooded Merganser (M), Northern Shovelers (M & F), Ring-necked Duck and Lesser Scaup (both M), Red-necked Grebes, and American Wigeon (M).

The first big snow storm came on March 3, and as the white stuff piled up, I was surprised to see Brown-headed Cowbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Grackles in our back yard, along with the other usual birds. The next day I headed out to Bell's Lane with my camera, and photographed Savannah Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows. A few days later I was alerted to a Fox Sparrow in the back yard of Penny Warren, president of the Augusta Bird Club, but my repeated visits there did not bear fruit. I had better luck when I went to Lake Shenandoah on March 9, getting some decent photos of Red-necked Grebes. (See above.) I had to scramble along some treacherous muddy slopes to get close enough, but it was worth it! There were plenty of Ring-necked Ducks and Lesser Scaups as well, but none of the Red-breasted Mergansers which I had seen there in February.

Sandhill Cranes!

The next big event was a sighting of three Sandhill Cranes in some fields west of Harrisonburg. I went up there on March 11, I drove for miles and miles in vain. But the next time, on March 13 (lucky number?), I managed to spot the heads of those Sandhill Cranes peeking up from behind some reeds next to a pond. It was hard to believe, but when they jumped up and flew a short distance to a nearby corn field, there was no doubt about their identity. Yes! The only time I had seen that species before was at a rest stop in Indiana in 1998, and that was just a brief glimpse. The photo below may not look that impressive, but it was taken from a distance of about 350 yards, and for me it will do just fine.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes, west of Harrisonburg, March 13.

Other bird sightings

The very next day I ventured over to Waynesboro (shopping for some musical items), and afterwards made a quick stop at the South River Greenway, near the Invista manufacturing complex. While walking along the trail, all of a sudden I spotted a Black-crowned Night Heron standing on a concrete spillway on the other side of the river. So, I quickly snapped a few photos, and they turned out pretty clear:

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron, in Waynesboro, on March 14.

After that, I went for a short walk in the woods at Coyner Springs Park, south of Waynesboro, and saw many more Robins and Juncos, as well as a loud Flicker up above. The highlight, however, was a Yellow-rumped Warbler which responded to the iPod-played song by approaching close enough for an excellent photo in the bright afternoon sun.

Bonanza on Bell's Lane

The next blast of winter (on March 16-17) shut down virtually all the schools and stores, but proved to be a blessing in disguise for us bird watchers. Jacqueline and I spent most of the day in Highland County, enjoying the annual Maple Festival there, and I got some good photos of Hooded Mergansers. (See above.) We also saw plenty of Meadowlarks and Robins, but no Eagles, which I had been hoping for. The snow began falling, so we headed back home and upon returning, I learned via e-mail that a flock of Tundra Swans had been sighted by Allen Larner on Bell's Lane, so I made a quick visit there and was barely able to make out the huge white birds on the big upland pond, about 300 yards away.

The next day, after shoveling snow (AGAIN!), I drove out there again, and saw hundreds of Robins along the road. I caught a glimpse of a reddish-hued bird, and within a few minutes spotted some Fox Sparrows in the stream and along the road. Finally! I met up with Penny Warren as I approached the upland portion of Bell's Lane, and she told me about a strange bird she saw that turned out to be an American Pipit. The little guy was very cooperative as I approached for a photo op. Excellent! Also of note: many Meadowlarks, White-crowned Sparrows, a Killdeer, and a Northern Harrier. It was truly an amazing day, marred only by the overcast skies! I returned the next day, and got better photos of the Tundra Swans, but the other birds were gone.

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow, on Bell's Lane, March 17.

American Pipit

American Pipit, on Bell's Lane, March 17.

Tundra Swans

Tundra Swans, on Bell's Lane, March 18.

On Wednesday, March 19, I had to go over to Charlottesville, and on the way back I stopped in Crozet, where a Red-shouldered Hawk was perching on a wire very close by. It was cloudy and drizzly, however, so the photo was only average quality. Further west, in the community of Greenwood, I stopped at Emmanuel Episcopal Church (same name as our church!), and saw a Golden-crowned Kinglet and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but my attempts to photograph them were totally frustrated.

Snow Goose chase

A few days later, after most of the snow had melted, I responded to a report of a Snow Goose and a Ross's Goose near Harrisonburg, and drove up there on the spur of the moment. I stopped briefly at Lake Shenandoah and got a nice closeup of an American Coot, but the Red-necked Grebes were too far away for a good photo. Then I drove over to nearby Rockingham Memorial Hospital, and located the pond in back, where another birder was already present. Sure enough, there was the gleaming white Snow Goose, which graciously stayed put as I cautiously approached to within 100 feet for a photo.

Snow Goose

Snow Goose, behind Rockingham Memorial Hospital, March 22.

[One day later I headed north again, in search of some Eurasian Collared-Doves that had been seen in the town of Mount Solon. (I had seen two of that species in Sangerville, just a few miles away, in 2007.) I parked at the small post office in Mount Solon, and after a few minutes heard the distinctive "ca-coo-coo" call. Soon I spotted a pair in a nearby tree, taking several photos, and then saw a third one about 100 yards to the west. I speculate that Eurasian Collared-Doves are establishing a colony in this part of Augusta County. They entered North America about 10-20 years ago, probably via the Caribbean, but they are primarily found further to the south and west of Virginia.]

And speaking of snow, we had yet another round of frozen precipitation on March 25. During a heavy snow squall, I took a photo of a Mockingbird that looks very uncomfortable, almost as if it were cringing.

Clay-colored Sparrow!

Since January, there have been multiple reports of a Clay-colored Sparrow near the Day's Inn on Bell's Lane, but each time I went looking for it, my search ended in frustration. Apparently the bird is more active during the early morning, and I kept arriving there in the afternoon. But on Wednesday March 26, I finally got lucky. After looking in vain for a rare Eurasian Green-winged Teal Fishersville area, I drove along Bell's Lane on the way home. Just in case, I decided on the spur of the moment to turn left up the hill toward the Day's Inn, where the rare bird had been reported. After looking all around for a while, I saw a group of sparrows in the grass by the road, and noticed one that looked paler. Could it be? I grabbed the binoculars and quickly confirmed that it was indeed a Clay-colored Sparrow. Fortunately, I was able to take a few photos from my car before it flew away. I then tried to approach it on foot a couple times, but couldn't quite get the shot I wanted. But this image is more than enough:

Fox Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow, near the Day's Inn on Bell's Lane, March 26.

The only previous time I had seen a Clay-colored Sparrow was at the ruins of Teotihuacan, north of Mexico City, in 2003. That's an indication of how far north of its normal wintering grounds this particular bird was. Ver-r-ry interesting...

Visit to Piney River

On the way back from CVCC yesterday (March 27), I stopped at Piney River, one of my favorite birding hot spots in Nelson County. Even with snow still on the ground, I anticipated that some of the early spring migrants might have arrived, and soon after I played its song on my iPod (with the Audubon Birding app), a Pine Warbler flew over in response. First of the year! Appropriately, it was flittering about high up in pine trees, but the angle of the sun made it very hard to get a good photo. I had much better luck with photographing a Hermit Thrush that was foraging along the asphalt path. Then I stopped at Rockfish Elementary School in Nelson County, where some Wilson's Snipes had been reported, but none were present that day. I did see a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk in a nearby tree, however, so I snapped several photos of it.

After recrossing the Blue Ridge into Augusta County, I paid a brief visit to Quillen's Pond south of Stuarts Draft, and was surprised to see a Double-crested Cormorant about 150 yards away. After a while, it apparently got nervous by my presence and made a "running start" along the water to get airborne, after which it climbed in a circular pattern and then resumed its northbound migration. Very impressive! There were also a couple dozen Ring-necked Ducks on the other side of the pond.

New bird photo gallery

Even though I haven't had any blog posts about birds this month, I have been regularly posting photos of birds on Facebook and on my Web site. In addition to the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery, which includes all decent-quality bird photos I have taken over the past several years, I have created a new bird photo gallery: Wild Birds species list, with the best photo I have taken for 183 species. Right now, it includes only birds found in Augusta County (with one exception), but in due course I intend to add to it birds photographed in western states or Latin America. I still need to fill in the missing information on when and where each photo was taken. Enjoy!

February 24, 2014 [LINK / comment]

Red-breasted Mergansers!

This winter is once again proving to be lucky in terms of unusual bird sightings. In response to an e-mail report from Greg Moyers, I drove up to Lake Shenandoah (east of Harrisonburg) on Sunday afternoon, and sure enough, I spotted several Red-breasted Mergansers soon after I arrived. (At first I thought they were Common Mergansers, and Gabriel Mapel -- the youngest member of the Augusta Bird Club! -- corrected me on Facebook.) To get in good position for a photograph, I had to exit the parking lot and drive around the southern end of the lake, and fortunately the colorful ducks didn't mind as I cautiously approached. There was one adult male in near-breeding plumage, plus two females and three probable young males. (The latter looked like females but with black eye "masks.")

Common Merganser, male

Red-breasted Merganser, male. Roll your mouse over the image to see a female. (Feb. 23)

While I was taking photos, a Great Blue Heron flew right up to the shore, only about 30 feet away from me. As soon as I stepped out from behind the tree to get a better picture, it flew away. Also seen while I was at Lake Shenandoah: American Coot, Pied-bill Grebe, four Red-necked Grebes, a Kingfisher, Mallards, and Canada Geese.

I recently learned that all visitors to Lake Shenandoah, not just people who go fishing, need an access permit. They are available at stores catering to hunters and fishermen, or online at Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries. An annual permit valid at all Virginia fishing lakes and wildlife management areas costs only $23, which for me was well worth the cost!

Great Blue Heron closeup

Great Blue Heron, closeup. (Feb. 23)

Because of the recent heavy snow, the ground has been too wet to do much hiking in the woods lately, so my birding activities have been curtailed. Nonetheless, I did have some luck while stopping at the Ruritan Park just north of Nellysford last Thursday:


Yellow-rumped Warbler, Nellysford Ruritan Park. (Feb. 20)

These photos, and several more, can be seen on the Wild birds yearly photo gallery page.

February 15, 2014 [LINK / comment]

Life bird: Long-tailed Duck

This winter is turning out to be very rewarding in terms of unusual birds showing up in our area. The unusually harsh weather ("Polar Vortex") may have something to do with it, forcing birds that usually winter on Lake Erie, which is frozen over, to seek refuge further south. Already this year, I have seen two life birds: a Snowy Owl and a White-winged Scoter. (Three of the latter, actually.) Responding to an e-mail alert, last Monday I drove down to Willow Lake (located just south of Raphine, in Rockbridge County), and almost immediately spotted a beautiful male Long-tailed Duck in the middle of the lake. I was astonished and delighted by this very unusual-looking duck. That made my third life bird of this year, and my 411th overall.

At first, I had a hard time getting any good photos, because it kept diving into the water before I could get the camera aimed and focused. The Long-tailed Duck was at least 150 yards away at first, and I was very lucky that it started swimming in my direction. So, I cautiously approached the shoreline, and was able to take several photos from a range of only about 20 yards. I would have been satisfied just with a recognizable image for identification purposes, but this image far surpassed what I was hoping for:

Long-tailed Duck

Long-tailed Duck (male), on Willow Lake, February 10.

It was one of my most satisfying bird sightings in a long time. As I was about two leave, two other prominent area birders showed up: Marshall Faintich and Walter Childs, both from Nelson County. Walt pointed out a young male White-winged Scoter that I had overlooked while aiming my camera at the Long-tailed Duck.

Snowy Owl leaves D.C.

One of the many Snowy Owls that have migrated south of their normal range this winter took up residence in McPherson Square, in Washington, D.C. Apparently, the pigeons and rats provided an ample supply of food. It was quite a sensation among local folks, but late last month the owl was struck by a bus and then rescued by police officers. It was taken to City Wildlife, a clinic at the National Zoo, and was gradually nursed back to health. Tests showed that it was a female. Last Sunday, the staff people took it (her) from Washington to an "unnamed facility" with a large cage for practicing flying. (Not the Wildlife Center of Virginia, I am told.) Chances are very good that the owl will be released back into the wild before long. See

February 7, 2014 [LINK / comment]

Life bird: White-winged Scoter!

Last week I saw my 410th life bird, a White-winged Scoter. Scoters are diving ducks with large bills. They breed in Canada and Alaska, and winter along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. About two weeks ago, the Wildlife Center of Virginia admitted two male White-winged Scoters that had become "stranded" on land, because they can only take off from water. (The harsh winter storms of January apparently threw them off their usual migration patterns.) That prompted local birders to look for more of this species, and before long, several had been located in this part of the Shenandoah Valley.

On January 31, after birding in the Harrisonburg area (see below), I went to a large pond inside an abandoned rock quarry in Fishersville. It didn't take long before I spotted the female White-winged Scoter, part of a mixed flock of Canada Geese, Coots, Redheads, and other waterfowl nearly 200 yards away. I was lucky that the female White-winged Scoter started swimming in my direction, enabling me to get a decent photo of it.

On Wednesday I went to the pond near the Eagle's Nest airport in Waynesboro, where a male White-winged Scoter had been reported by Mary Vermeulen and Allen Larner. Fortunately, the sun had pierced through the morning fog, so I was able to get several good photos of that rare bird. It was only about 50 yards away, I estimated. As an added bonus, I also saw and photographed a Greater Scaup and a Bufflehead (a small black-and-white duck), both males. That was a very lucky day!

White-winged Scoter

White-winged Scoter (male), in Waynesboro, on February 5. Roll your mouse over the image to see the female which I saw on January 31.

Other recent birds

In other news, I made two more attempts to find the Snowy Owls, on January 15 and 31, but without success either time. (Other people have seen one of those owls this month, however, and the News Leader had a front-page article about that.) Both times, I went to nearby Silver Lake and saw pretty much the same ducks there as before, and got a few good pictures. On the latter date, I saw Fenton Day (a prominent Virginia birder) at Silver Lake, and he gave me some tips on how to get to the quarry pond in Fishersville, where the White-winged Scoter was.

Wigeon, Redheads

American Wigeon (front) and two Redheads, on Silver Lake near Dayton, January 31.

These photos, and several 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