May 31, 2013 [LINK / comment]

R.I.P. YuLee Larner (1923-2013)

YuLee Larner

I took this photo of YuLee at the dedication of the trail named in her honor in Montgomery Hall Park, in conjunction with the Augusta Bird Club annual picnic in May 2005.

My former good neighbor and renowned local birding authority YuLee Larner passed away last month at the age of 89. She was a founding member of the Augusta Bird Club in the 1960s, and for the rest of her life worked tirelessly to promote public understanding and appreciation for wild birds. She also served as president of the Virginia Society of Ornithology, a tribute to her remarkable accomplishments as a self-taught bird expert. Most people in Staunton knew her from the weekly columns she wrote for the News Leader going back to the 1970s. Far fewer people knew about her accomplishments as a musician: she played the organ at Covenant Presbyterian Church for many years.

I first got to know YuLee via e-mail about 12 years ago. My wife and I were moving from Blacksburg to Staunton, and I sent a general inquiry to a Virginia-wide birding e-mail list about where to go bird watching in the Staunton area. To my surprise, I received multiple replies, and among the people who were kind enough to give me tips were Allen Larner and YuLee Larner. I assumed they were either a married couple or part of the same household, but I guessed wrong, and that led to an amusing bit of awkwardness after I responded to them. But the truly serendipitous part about getting to know YuLee was that it turned out she lived in the very same apartment complex to which my wife and I were moving into! As next-door neighbors, we became good friends as well as fellow bird enthusiasts.

Two years after arriving in Staunton (March 2004), I made a stupendous discovery of a rare bird on our back porch: It was the first Western Tanager ever seen in the Shenandoah Valley! I announced it to other birders via e-mail, and dozens of people from near and far soon came to our neighborhood just to see that bird. YuLee was disappointed that didn't see it the first day, but she finally did get a good view of it the next day. I accompanied her on occasional bird-watching walks along Bell's Lane and the trail behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad.* In conversations with YuLee, I learned about the hardships she endured as a young girl in Sangerville, in the north part of Augusta County. Her father died when she was young, and the surviving family members had to scrimp and work extremely hard. But she was a person of deep faith with a desire to learn, and those character traits paid off when she married Mathias "Sy" Larner, and raised a family of her own.

As YuLee got along in years, she found it necessary to move to the assisted living facility at Baldwin Park. As her health declined in recent years, she stopped attending the Augusta Bird Club meetings, and her absence was sad. In March she was admitted to the hospital, and I visited her there on March 30, the day before Easter. I gave her a batch of photographs I had recently taken with my new Canon digital camera, and she really appreciated that. As I left, I told her I would make sure and pay her another visit at Baldwin Park after she recuperated. Less than two weeks later, however, I was stunned to learn that she had passed away.

I attended the memorial service for YuLee at Covenant Presbyterian Church on April 12. (By remarkable coincidence, it was on the same day that I attended a tribute to a former professor at the University of Virginia: Kenneth W. Thompson.) Well over a hundred people were there to pay honors to YuLee, and it was a real joy to meet (or get reacquainted with) so many of them, especially her daughters. YuLee had an enormous impact on the community, and was cherished and admired by countless numbers of people. Hers was truly a life well led. See the obituary and opinion piece about YuLee that were published in the News Leader.

Covenant Presbyterian Church

Covenant Presbyterian Church, where YuLee played the organ for many years, and where the memorial service for her was held. It is also the current meeting place of the Augusta Bird Club.

Spring migration comes to an end

I was eagerly anticipating the arrival of warblers and other neotropical migrants this year, since I bought my new Canon PowerShot SX50 digital camera. Ironically, I have become so wrapped up in taking bird photos over the past six weeks that I have not even had the time to post anything about it in my blog. I did upload many photos to my Web site [see the Wild birds yearly photo gallery], and brought them to the attention of other bird club members via Facebook, but I just could not devote enough time and energy to write text descriptions of what I have been seeing and photographing. You might say that I have reached the point of "singularity," [a term coined by author Ray Kurzweil]where the speed of change accelerates to such a high speed that human awareness and response to such change essentially collapses. So, what follows is a belated attempt to get caught up, with a brief summary of the most important bird outings I have been on, and the best of the photos that I have taken since the middle of April.

Blue Ridge, April 18 & 25

It didn't take long before I got to see several species of warblers, my favorite group of birds. I took the long way home from CVCC in Lynchburg on April 18, and spotted three species for the first time this year: Prairie Warbler (at Piney River), Palm Warbler (at the Rockfish Valley Trail, in Nelson County), and a male American Redstart (at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway). I even got decent photos of all three. One week later (April 25), I headed west from Amherst on Route 60, and heard two Hooded Warblers singing near the Appalachian Trail. After some patient stalking, I finally got excellent closeup pictures of one.

Hooded Warbler

Hooded Warbler (male), on the Appalachian Trail, in Amherst County. (April 25)

I made a couple other trips to the Blue Ridge Parkway, including an Augusta Bird Club field trip on May 2, but there just weren't many birds on those days.

Big Spring Day, May 5

I was under a severe time constraint from having to grade exams, but I still managed to spend a few hours helping with the annual "Big Spring Day" bird census. I covered Barren Ridge Road, Sanger's Lane, Betsy Bell Hill, and the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad trail in Staunton. *(As mentioned above, I used to go birding on that trail at least once a week, but its condition has deteriorated so much over the years that it is hardly worth the effort to traverse it any more.) The main focal point of my route was the rookery of Great Blue Heron nests on Sanger's Lane. I estimated about two dozen adults and nestlings, but it's hard to tell from over a quarter mile away. But the most satisfying part of the day was getting to photograph this superb and colorful vocalist:


Baltimore Oriole (male), on Barren Ridge Road. (May 5)

Bell's Lane, May 8

After finishing spring semester duties, I was free to bird as much as I wanted to. I got into the habit of driving through Bell's Lane every other day or so, and it really paid off on one occasion, when I saw two adult male Common Yellowthroats squabbling over territorial rights. Here is one of them:

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat (male), on Bell's Lane. (May 8)

Montgomery Hall Park

It seemed to me that the Indigo Buntings arrived later than usual this year, and I didn't even see one until May 12, in Montgomery Hall Park. I'm pretty sure that is the latest first-of-year sighting of that species for me since I began keeping records in 1997. But when I finally did see one, I was able to get some good photos:

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting (male), in Montgomery Hall Park. (May 12)

Swoope, etc. - May 15

I wanted to check on the Bald Eagle nest in Swoope, and to my surprise there was a Bald Eagle on the ground eating a fish, less than 50 yards from the side of the road! I took a photo of the nest, but the youngsters were taking a nap, and thus hard to see. They will probably fledge some time in June, and I would dearly love to be there when it happens.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle, in Swoope. (May 15)

As if that wasn't enough, I took a back road known as Old Parkersburg Turnpike, where I came upon a pair of Blue-headed Vireos and (about a mile after that) a female Scarlet Tanager. In both cases, I got excellent photos once again.

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue-headed Vireo, on Old Parkersburg Turnpike. (May 15) Roll mouse over the image to see the original, unedited version.

ABC picnic, May 18

This year, the Augusta Bird Club picnic was held a little later than usual, May 18. Like last year, it was in Ridgeview Park. Also like last year, the weather was less than ideal -- overcast and drizzly. Perhaps not surprisingly, we didn't see many birds while walking along the trails. After the picnic, however, we did finally spot some Blackpoll Warblers high in the trees, along with some late-lingering Yellow-rumped Warblers. For some reason, the Blackpoll Warblers seem unusually scarce this spirng. In almost every year that I can remember, the trees all around town are filled with their high-pitched "tsee--tsee-tsee" song, but I have hardly heard any of them this year. I hope that's not a sign of a decline in population.

Bell's Lane, May 23

After multiple attempts, on May 23 I finally got lucky in photographing a Yellow Warbler. Likewise, with Willow Flycatchers and Grasshopper Sparrows, both of which are common in that very specific open grassland habitat, but are uncommon elsewhere.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler (male), on Bell's Lane. (May 23)

Big Levels, May 26

It had been a long time since I had been to the Big Levels area, and my visit there paid off almost immediately, as I heard the "k-k-kh-kh-kow-kow-kowp" call of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. After a while I finally got a good angle for taking photos:

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, in the Big Levels area. (May 26) Roll mouse over the image to see the original, unedited version.

I also heard what I believe was a Black-billed Cuckoo (with a "KOO-ooh, KOO-ooh, KOO-ooh" call), and some Pine Warblers in that area, but didn't see any. I also came across a "Do Not Enter" sign where the road to Coles Run Dam is located. They are in the process of draining that reservoir, in preparation for rebuilding the dam to meet modern safety regulations, so that birding hotspot will be closed for at least another year, unfortunately.

Reddish Knob, May 30

Yesterday, I joined Penny Warren and Allen Larner for a trip to the top of Reddish Knob, a scenic overlook which serves as the habitat for a number of very special birds. First among them are the Red Crossbills, a species which I had only glimpsed before. This time I finally got lucky, as we heard and soon saw one singing in a tree right above the road. I think I'll count that as my first "life bird" of the year.

Red Crossbill

Red Crossbill, north of Reddish Knob. (May 30)

Besides the aforementioned trips, I also visited the South River Preserve west of Stuarts Draft, where I took a fine photo of a Cedar Waxwing. Now I am officially caught up with wild bird blogging!