Nine young birders attended the July club meeting today. We planned lots of field trips for this fall, so be sure to look for an email soon with important details so we can finalize the trips. Mary Mapel led a bird trivia game, in which we split into three teams and competed to identify models of bird skulls, feathers, feet and eggs. Trying to identify birds from parts that we don’t usually pay much attention to was both fun challenging, and I think we all gained a greater appreciation of the importance of these lesser known field marks. After the meeting, we held the traditional ten-minute challenge; two teams competed to find the most bird species in ten minutes at Ivy Creek Natural Area.
By Ezra Staengl
We parked at Dutch Gap Conservation Area across the street from an observation platform overlooking the marsh. Northern Shovelers, Ring-necked Ducks, Gadwall, Wood Ducks, American Wigeons, and American Coots were abundant. A couple Blue-winged Teals were a very nice bird for the winter time. I found a furtive Brown Thrasher in some nearby brush, but the bird vanished shortly after the others arrived to see it.
Ducks constantly flew in and out of the dense, brush-covered wetlands. We found some Northern Pintails, American Black Ducks, Mallard X American Black Ducks, and a Hooded Merganser. We reached the end of the wetlands and walked out onto a newly built boardwalk through cattails. I imagined how much easier it would be to see Least Bitterns here now; I still needed them for my life list.
After walking the boardwalk, we continued past Henricus Park and arrived at the overlook of the James River. It was quiet, aside from a few distant Ring-billed Gulls and Double-crested Cormorants. After waiting for a few minutes, we heard the sounds of chaotic honking in the distance: geese. We made out long, faint lines over the tree-line across the river. The several thousand Canada Geese approached, slowly becoming louder and louder. We scanned for rarities, finding two Snow Geese mixed in: a very nice bird for the area. Not everyone saw the bird, but the flock fortunately reappeared a few minutes later, and everyone got their eyes on it the second time.
We walked down to the retention pond, finding some Bufflehead and Canvasback.
Our next stop was City Point in Hopewell, where we were hoping to see Orange-crowned Warblers. We arrived and found essentially nothing other than some Bald Eagles.
We set off for our final planned birding location of the day: the Gullmart. As we approached the renown gull Mecca, I noticed two large corvids with nicely-wedged tails: ravens. They were a nice rarity for the location. I had broken my previous record for easternmost raven in Virginia only hours after setting it.
We arrived at the Colonial Heights Ponds and began to scan. We worked our way around the pond to get a better vantage point of the thousands of Ring-billed Gulls and hundreds of Herring Gulls, finding a good number of Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the process. As we were completing the scan, a stunning Iceland Gull was spotted on the hillside overlooking the pond. A lifer for several, we enjoyed the white-winged beauty before the flock flushed.
We returned to a parking lot laden with gulls.
By Max Nootbaar
We stood at the intersection of Briery Branch Road and 85, near the summit of Reddish Knob, watching and listening to the red crossbills feeding all around us. Crossbill flocks roved about the mountaintop, chattering and singing constantly. Some birds dangled from the cones of table mountain and pitch pines, using their long, sturdy, crossed bills to pry the seeds out from deep within the cones. Other crossbill flocks gathered in the dirt road not more than five feet in front of us, squabbling and moving constantly as they ingested little bits of gravel to aid in their digestion.
On December 30th Logan Anderson led a winter field trip to northern Virginia. Despite the bitter cold, we had a good turn out of 7 young birders. The trip started at Dyke Marsh, where we scanned the Potomac River and walked a few trails, finding fourteen species of waterfowl, including 3 long-tailed ducks and over forty common mergansers. Another highlight was an orange-crowned warbler. We proceeded to the Laurel Hill Equestrian Area, where we successfully chased a continuing clay-colored sparrow. We re-found a male Eurasian wigeon amidst a flock of five-hundred ducks at Pohick Bay Regional Park. We ended the day by standing on top of the parking garage at Dulles Airport, looking for snowy and short-eared owls. We soon found the snowy perched on top of an airport terminal, and as it got darker the short-eared owls began to fly about on the runways as well.
Here are links to two young birder blog posts from the trip:
The Blue Ridge Young Birders met at the Great Valu in Crozet at 7:30 am, and carpooled to Albemarle County Community Park. The Park is situated in the Old Trail neighboorhood, but is fairly underbirded compared to the nearby Old Trail Golf Course area.
We parked and walked down the hill into the park, hearing Golden-crowned Kinglets and White-throated Sparrows singing. Shortly, we walked into a sizeable sparrow flock, dominated by Song Sparrows and Field Sparrows. We also found a good number of White-crowned Sparrows singing, and were able to get fleeting views of the striking plumage of adult birds. Several minutes were spent checking every sparrow, until a Lincoln’s was found foraging a few feet away, right below our noses. The bird offered great views, and was a long awaited Albemarle County Lifer for Baxter.
We continued on towards the marsh, where we hoped to find Marsh Wrens. We arrived, and after pishing and playback, none responded. The trail led into thick grasses and brambles, and many Swamp Sparrows were calling, occasionally seen as they flew into cover.
We came into a clearing, and walked the edge towards a second marsh, where the ones who were smart enough to bring boots walked in. The sneaker-wearers watched from dry ground, waiting for Marsh Wrens to show themselves. With no luck, we continued down the edge, stopping briefly to enjoy the fruit of a persimmon tree.
The White-crowned Sparrows were even more abundant at the end of the trail, and many of the juveniles were brave enough to watch us from the tops of the brambles. We saw a rather light-lored and orange-billed White-crowned Sparrow, possibly the rare western gambelli subspecies?
After finishing up at the park, we drove to the main Old Trail to find that it was pretty quiet. The sparrows were few and far between, so we turned around to head back. As we walked the trail, we spotted a dragonfly hovering low over some grasses, and watched it perch, hanging from the blade of grass. A Shadow Darner, a fairly common species that always found flying and rarely lands. A special treat for the dragonfly enthusiasts in the group!
We checked the pond, looking once again for Marsh Wrens, but only found a tame little Pied-billed Grebe. As we returned to the car, we noticed a flock of late Tree Swallows. We got in the car, drove to the nearest gas station, and treated ourselves to honey buns, skittles, and other snacks.
We then drove 20 minutes north to Innisfree Village, where a Loggerhead Shrike had recently been seen. We had instructions from other birders who had gone to see this rarity, and learned that it had also been seen earlier in the morning, so our chances of seeing it looked promising. We arrived at the spot and admired the gorgeous scenery: rolling pastures dotted with cedars and oaks, with boggy areas nestled in between the hills, all right up against the mountains.
After about ten minutes of searching, the bird was found sitting on top of an oak in field. We all enjoyed the bird and viewed it through the scope. We also noticed several insects skewered onto the barbwire fence we stood along—evidence of the shrike’s presence.
We watched the bird chase a Blue Jay around, later a Yellow-rumped Warbler. It finally came a bit closer and perched on a nearby cedar. How can a bird be so cute yet so menacing at the same time?
We followed the bird around for another hour, enjoying the views, sometimes waiting for him to return from hunting. We departed, satisfied with a good morning of birding.
By Max Nootbaar
by Charlotte Clements
Awesome trip! Although we came later in the day than we probably should have, we had a great time. We had a try at slower-paced birdwatching- instead of just adding to our life list, we took time to observe bird behavior, flight and calls. Just after we first arrived we heard a kingfisher, but all we found was a veery in a tangle of roots next to the water. We had hoped for some waterfowl, but somehow they sensed that there were birders in the area, and we saw not one duck. As the day went on, we observed carolina wrens, white-throated sparrows, and even
least expected them, and we watched them search for food. They seemed to be after some sort of berry. Though we didn’t see any birds after the butter-butt pair, we tried our hand at entomology, luring yellowjackets with apple cider and catching them in pistachio shells- hint- do not do this at home. I am probably one of the few people to have ever been bitten, and not stung, by a wasp.
We also observed buckeye butterflies coming through the area.
As we drove up the long, winding road to the Rockfish Gap hawk watch, the barely risen sun revealed a striking scene in the valley below us. We looked down on a solid layer of dark, heavy clouds. The gap of clear air that we were driving through quickly gave way to more clouds above us, obscuring the taller mountain peaks. A light drizzle filled the cool air as we reached the parking lot of the Inn at Afton, where the hawk watch is located, and where we planned to meet for the day's field trip. My plan today was to bird the Rockfish Valley Trail, a local hotspot in Nelson County, and than head back up into the mountains and bird the road known as State Route 610, or the Swannanoa road.
When I got out of the car, I heard the flight call of several warblers. Dylan, who just recently started birding with the club, quickly joined my brother and me. He pointed to a dilapidated, old road sign above our heads, and said he had seen birds in it. The sign had once read "The Inn at Afton," but the front had long since fallen off, revealing the sign's bright interior lights, shining like a beacon to migrating birds. When I raised my binoculars, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. More than 20 wood warblers sat on and near the sign's lights. Occasionally, another would drop out of the sky and join them, explaining the chips I had heard earlier. Just than, the rest of the trip's participants pulled up and joined us, making seven young birders total. We found blackpoll, bay-breasted, black-throated blue, Tennessee, chestnut-sided, yellow-rumped, and black-throated green warblers, northern parulas, and common yellowthroats. We even found a Nashville warbler in the sign.
We were excited by what this abundance could mean for the rest of our day. If so many warblers were in such a small area, in such strange conditions, maybe today would be a fallout. Fallout is a condition where due to sudden, severe weather, large numbers of birds migrating at night are forced down in a small area. Fallouts are highly sought-after events for birders, as they can result in rare species and unusual numbers of birds.
As the sun rose, the light revealed a more gruesome scene. Little bodies of black-throated blue warblers and common yellowthroats littered the parking lot, a sad reminder of the many dangers birds face on migration. These birds were probably attracted to the bright light of the sign and the Inn, and met their death by flying headfirst into these obstructions.
The thick cloud-cover had not thinned out much as we pulled into the parking lot at the Rockfish Valley Trail, a good sign for songbird activity. We walked under Route 151 towards the Glenthorne Loop trail, which is usually more productive for sparrows. When we arrived at the field I had seen two marsh wrens at the day before, I was disappointed to see that most of the sparrows were gone, and the marsh wrens were no longer present. Even so, we quickly found some swamp sparrows, and two gorgeous white-crowned sparrows. I walked ahead of the main group, and was relieved to have a Lincoln's sparrow, one of my favorite sparrows, hop out on a branch in front of me. Its gray face, buffy malar and crisp black streaking is so beautiful. I called to the rest of the group, and was very frustrated when it flew off before any of them could get on it. Luckily, we soon found a few more in with a sparrow flock on the Spruce Creek side, and we all had fantastic views. As we were wrapping up at the Rockfish Valley Trail, I spotted a small, dark falcon flying quickly overhead. It turned out to be a merlin, which was the first one seen in Nelson County that year, according to eBird. The merlin circled once, giving us a fabulous view, before it shot off down the ridge.
As we drove back toward Swannanoa road and the hawk watch, we felt like we were racing against time. The clouds were finally beginning to give way, and blue holes were appearing everywhere. It was also slowly getting warmer. When we got out of the car at the end of the Swannanoa road, it seemed our fears had been confirmed. The beautiful Fall foliage was silent. A turkey vulture soared lazily overhead. However, a closer inspection revealed ours fears that the birds would no longer be active were unfounded. Warblers slowly foraged nearly every tree, and many were surprisingly close to the road. We quickly found blackpoll, black-throated green, Tennessee, and Cape-may warblers, as well as unseasonably large numbers of black-throated blue warblers. As we walked farther down the road, we saw more and more birds. Late wood thrushes feasted alongside more seasonally common Swainson's thrushes in thick tangles of summer grape vines, laden with purple fruit. We found a late black-and-white warbler and an American redstart. Scarlet tanagers swooped over the road, and black-throated blue warblers chipped over our heads. We eventually also found magnolia, palm, pine, and yellow-rumped warblers.
Our final destination for the day was a golf course in the Old Trail neighborhood of Crozet, where someone had seen a clay-colored sparrow the day before. We had directions to the clump of pokeweed he had been in, and we soon found it. As we arrived, Baxter saw the bird hop down into the dense brush. We waited several anxious minutes for it to return, but we needn't have worried. It soon returned and sat preening itself on a poke stem while we watched. The clay-colored sparrow was an Albemarle lifer for everybody, and a lifer for Max and Drew.
When I totaled up our day list that evening, I found we had seen 72 species. We had experienced a late Fall migration fallout, and we enjoyed ourselves very much. What an incredible day of local birding!
By Ezra Staengl
The Blue Ridge Young Birders October meeting had good turnout, with more than 11 young birders, including two new kids. Many club members attended the first Saturday bird walk with the Monticello Bird Club which preceded our meeting, as it does every month. We saw some nice late migrants such as blackpoll and Tennessee warblers, and some winter birds, like yellow-bellied sapsucker and golden-crowned kinglet. Some members of our club also saw a red headed woodpecker fly over the field. At 9:30 we returned to the Ivy Creek Natural Area education building, where we had our meeting. We planned and talked about upcoming field trips and club events. Then Charlotte gave a presentation on her birding trip to Charleston, South Carolina. After the meeting, all the young birders participated in the traditional ten-minute birding blitz, a friendly competition to see the most species in ten minutes. Suddenly, as we were getting ready to leave, a gorgeous adult peregrine falcon flew over the building, with its powerful, seemingly effortless flight. What a fantastic end to a great morning!
On September 30th, Baxter Beamer led the first ever Blue Ridge Young Birder Club field trip to Pocosin Cabin in Shenandoah National Park. The trip was well attended, with 11 young birder participants. As we drove up the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, numerous species of blue and white asters bloomed by the roadside. When we got out of the car at the Pocosin Cabin Fire Road, the air felt cool and crisp. Around us, the black gums were already starting to change color, while many of the other tree species remained green. We encountered our first mixed species flock just after we passed the clearing containing Pocosin Cabin. Swainson’s and wood thrushes were everywhere, but try as we might, we could not find a gray-cheeked. Later season warblers foraged in the canopy around us, with Tennessee, blackpoll, and bay-breasted warblers being the most common species. We also saw blackburnian, black-throated-green, and black-throated-blue warblers, as well as northern parula. Good bird activity continued down the trail, and just as we were talking about how great a Philadelphia Vireo would be, Max called from up ahead that he had one. We all rushed to him, but by the time we got there, the bird had disappeared. Panicked, we started thoroughly searching the amazingly abundant blue-headed vireos for the vanished Philadelphia. Finally, the bird was re-found, and everybody had fabulous views as it foraged in a shrub directly above our heads. We walked back up the fire road at a more leisurely pace, stopping periodically to look for salamanders under rocks and in the little creeks that crossed the path. Aside from many common red-backed salamanders, Carson and Robert were able to turn up a southern two-lined salamander, and some monstrously sized northern dusky salamanders.
By Ezra Staengl
Six current members of the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club participated on September 23 in the Kiptopeke Challenge (KC), a Big Day in the Coastal Plain of Virginia. The Blue Ridge Great Horns, consisting of club president Baxter Beamer, former Club President Gabriel Mapel, and Club Vice President Max Nootbaar, won this years KC with 132 species. Team Turnstone, composed of Tucker Beamer, Theo Staengl, and Ezra Staengl, finished with 107 species. This is a post from my personal blog of our (Team Turnstone's) experience on the KC.
I felt completely awake despite it being two hours before dawn from the anxiousness and excitement churning inside me. My brother Theo, our friend Tucker Beamer, and I stood in the high grass of the salt marsh at Pleasure House Point Natural Area in Virginia Beach. The sounds of the high buzzy chip notes of migrating warblers occasionally pierced the quiet as they flew overhead. We were competing in a birding big day known as the Kiptopeke Challenge (KC) in order to see as many species as we could in a twenty four hour day, and raise money for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory (CVWO), an important conservation and field research organization in the area. We had registered ourselves as Team Turnstone.
Over the past month, we had meticulously planned a birding route up the Eastern Shore of Virginia from Pleasure House Point, and we were thrilled to finally be putting our plan into action. Suddenly, we heard the hoarse croak of a yellow-crowned night-heron as it flushed out of the grass somewhere off to our right. The first identified species of the day! The low grunting of resting mallard ducks drifted to us on the still night air from the water. The raucous repeated "kek" calls of a clapper rail erupted out of the marsh and then died back. We hurried back to the car, and drove to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT).
At 5:25 AM we pulled into the deserted parking lot of the first CBBT island, a famous birding spot, but not one I had high hopes for in the dark. In the dim light of street lamps, we spotted the blobs of two sleeping shorebirds on the rocks in the surf below. Closer inspection showed a ruddy turnstone and a sanderling, as well as two more juvenile yellow-crowned night-herons.
We were particularly excited for our next stop, a small section of bay-side beachfront in southern Northampton County called Sunset Beach. We had heard that hundreds of warblers that had overshot during the night and found themselves on the edge of the difficult to cross Chesapeake Bay flew back up the peninsula of the Eastern Shore at dawn every day. We found a Wilson's warbler foraging in the brush, but not yet much else. We arrived just as the sun was rising, and as we waited for more warblers, we birded along the beach in the half light. We saw common gulls, pelicans, and cormorant for the first time that day.
Coming back to the small woodlot near where we had parked, we saw that other Kiptopeke Challenge teams had gathered in expectation of the great flight. Among them was the Blue Ridge Great Horns, the other youth team. They were Tucker's older brother, Baxter Beamer, Gabriel Mapel, and Max Nootbaar. They jauntily approached us and asked how we were doing. We asked them the same question instead of answering. Baxter told us that they had done more pre-dawn birding than us, and as a result had some birds that we didn't, like bobolink, Swainson's thrush, and northern harrier. They didn't have Wilson's warbler though. All further talking was interrupted by a barrage of warbler flight calls. We hurried to take up our position with the rest of the teams as 20 warblers streaked low over head and disappeared into the dense pines. Over the next hour, we watched more than 600 warblers of almost 20 different species zip over the gap and up the peninsula. It was hard to identify them from so brief a look, and to compound the problem, by KC rules, everyone in the team has to see a bird for it to be countable on the team's list. Even so, I enjoyed the challenge and the feeling of wonder at the sheer amount of birds.
When the constant stream of warblers finally began to die down, we had around 60 species for the day, and it was only 7:40 AM. We said goodbye to the Great Horns, and headed to our next stop, the Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR. We hoped the other teams wouldn't stop here, and we might be able to get some birds back on them. We saw a beautiful American kestrel as we drove in to the refuge. Other notable birds at Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR included sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawk, a late eastern kingbird, and house finch, supposedly a difficult bird on the Eastern Shore. At the Kiptopeke Hawk Platform, we were surprised by how close the migrating raptors were. At the Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch in Augusta, the raptors appear as little specks in the sky, but at Kiptopeke most birds are low. We saw our first confirmed merlin, as well as a tufted titmouse, a sometimes difficult species in Northampton. We drove to Magotha Road, where we hoped to see Eurasian collared dove and marsh wren. Sadly, the only new birds we added were peregrine falcon, least sandpiper, great egret, foresters tern, and eastern bluebird. As we were about to leave, the Great Horns drove up again. They asked us how we were doing again. When they learned that we were quickly catching up to them, they left in a hurry. We continued on to Cape Charles Beach, where we hoped to pick up the other tern species. The sea oats on the dunes blew lazily in the midday wind. I was beginning to feel the strain of such an intense schedule, but the terns flying by quickly distracted me. We were only able to pick out royal and sandwich terns here, leaving us to hope we could get caspian and common at Chincoteague later in the day. At the town of Willis Wharf's lovely scented boatyard, (the freshest air in the place was the abandoned porta potty), we once again saw our mascot bird, the ruddy turnstone, perched atop a mountain of oyster shells.
Next we had a long time in the car, as we drove all the way up to Saxis Wildlife Management Area in the most northern part of Virginia's portion of the Delmarva Peninsula. Seemingly endless plains of salt marsh stretched out from the road in all directions. We got out of the car, feeling the hot sun beating down on us, and "pished" at the grass. A seaside sparrow flew up and further away from us. We clapped half-heartedly, hoping to coax a Virginia rail into responding, but since it was literally the middle of the day, we didn't have much hope. After about a minute, some Virginia rail, somewhere way out in the marsh, decided it just wanted us to shut-up and let it rest. The grunting call of the rail was barely perceptible to us, but we could count the bird.
Now we could continue to our last stop, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. We had planned on spending most of the afternoon at Chincoteague, which proved to be a mistake, as Chincoteague just isn't that good in the Fall. We should have spent more time birding sites in Northampton County. But Chincoteague is always pretty good, and we weren't entirely disappointed. We were disappointed by the number of people using the beach. Why on earth does every beachgoer in the world have to decide to come out to a wildlife refuge when they could literally choose any other spot of sand?! The beach was so crowded, you could hardly see the ocean from behind the lines of sunbathers. We hurried past, toward the Tom's Cove mudflats where we hoped for shorebirds. One of the first birds we spotted was my Virginia lifer piping plover. Shortly afterward, we found a sandpiper flock, with some semipalmated sandpipers, sanderling, and semipalmated plovers. There was also a least sandpiper, and many black-bellied plovers. These were all new birds for the day, except the least.
As we continued down the beach, we were surprised by the lack of willits and marbled godwits, which should have been common. Up ahead, we saw a giant flock of gulls and terns and decided to scan it. They were mostly great-black backed, herring, ring-billed and laughing gulls and royal terns, but we were able to find caspian and common terns mixed in as well. Suddenly, a flock of 31 red knots flew in from the ocean side, and landed nearby. This was a day-bird and Virginia lifer for me. We birded around Chincoteague for the rest of the day. Highlights included an adult Lincoln's sparrow, a bird never before seen on the Kiptopeke Challenge, that we spotted on the Black Duck Trail.
As the sun was setting, we hurried back out to the beach to give willits and marbled godwits another shot. As we walked down the now empty beach, massive flocks of willits and red knots were everywhere. We were able to pick out four marbled godwits in a flock of over 50 willits. Thank goodness we eventually got those birds! After dinner, we came back out to the refuge to try for owls and nocturnal migrants, but we came up with nothing new. We had planned on listening for more nocturnal migrants back at our hotel, but I guess the beds just looked too good. It was 10:30 PM, and we had been up since 4:00 AM. We went to bed. Our total for the day was 107 species, perhaps not as good as we hoped, but still a fairly solid number, and we'll be back next year to do better.
by Ezra Staengl
Young Birder's Blog
BRYBC members take turns sharing field trip reports, musings about their bird encounters, meeting highlights and club history.