July 3, 2016
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.
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.
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.