The sighting of Snowy Owls near Harrisonburg in late November was one of the biggest pieces of birding news in years. During December, more such sightings were made in various locations.
On Friday, September 13, five members of the Augusta Bird Club went on a field trip to Sweet Briar College, located in Amherst County. They were given a guided tour of the college's nature trails, courtesy of Prof. Michael Hayslett, the Naturalist-in-Residence who runs a special "vernal pools" conservation research program (www.virginiavernalpools.org) and other environmental endeavors at the college. They first inspected the grassland area of the campus, spotting many Killdeers, Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows, and Phoebes. They then took a series of short walks to the lakes, hardwood forest, and a wetlands area that has a boardwalk. The highlights in those areas were a Common Yellowthroat, a Magnolia Warbler, and a Chestnut-sided Warbler, as well as a House Wren, some Brown Thrashers, the usual woodpeckers, etc. One rather special sighting was a Queen Snake (about three feet long) on a low-hanging tree branch. If there is sufficient interest, we may do another such field trip next spring.
The 2013 Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch had a terrific Open House on Saturday, September 14. The turnout was incredible with over 130 visitors of all ages who braved the chilly, windy but sunny weather! Everyone had a terrific time eating hotdogs, learning about raptors and migration, viewing up-close raptor specimens and watching more than 300 migrating raptors!
Photos from our open house and other days at Rockfish Gap can be viewed at: smugmug.com
Kristin Twiford, a reporter from Channel 29 in Charlottesville, did a story on the Rockfish Gap hawk watch, broadcast on Sunday September 1. Gabriel Mapel and Vic Laubach were each interviewed, and Vic mentioned the Open House that will be held on Afton Mountain on September 14. It was great publicity for this very worthy endeavor. To watch the video clip, go to nbc29.com
As the fall migration season gets underway, casual birders may get confused by the difference in feathers that some bird species undergo twice each year. Most warblers fit into this category, hence the expression "confusing fall warblers." Likewise for shorebirds, ducks, loons, etc.
Most people know that bird watching slows down during the "summer doldrums," as most birds have finished breeding and are now in a "molting phase," during which they have low energy. For example, the male Indigo Buntings, which fill the countryside with their zestful songs from mid-May until early August, have pretty much "closed up shop" for the season. That doesn't mean there's nothing to be seen, however. Some bird species, such as Goldfinches, typically breed later in the summer, so they remain very active through August.
In any case, the doldrums are almost over, and many shorebird species have already begun their migration toward the southern latitudes. You might see one or more Sandpiper species at a pond near where you live this time of year. Soon there will be Nighthawks flying over treetops around dusk, and many of the Warblers and other migratory birds that passed through our area en route to New England or Canada three months ago will pass through again in September. Speaking of which, the Rockfish Gap hawk watch is gearing up for another exciting fall season, supervised by Brenda Tekin and Vic Laubach. A new explanatory reference sign has been placed at the Afton Inn, where the hawk watch is conducted, so that visitors may gain a better understanding of the project. Stop by some time for some avian excitement!
On Saturday, June 29, four members of the Augusta Bird Club led by Allen Larner went for a hike to the top of Elliott's Knob, a mountain peak located a few miles north of Augusta Springs. The objective was to find evidence of bird breeding in remote wilderness habitats that are normally inaccessible to human beings. The group started where Hite Hollow Road crosses North Mountain Trail, about 3,150 feet elevation. Almost immediately, three Ruffed Grouse flushed, less than 20 yards away. Photo op!
The trail, which gradually ascends along the crest of Great North Mountain, was obstructed by thick vegetation in places, but the temperature was pleasantly cool at the high altitude. Along the way there were various vireos announcing their presence, as well as Black & White Warblers, American Redstarts, Worm-eating Warblers, Ovenbirds, and a Black-throated Blue Warbler. Bear scat and big footprints were seen, but no actual bears. After hiking for about three miles, the group came across an open area where several Chestnut-sided Warblers and Canada Warblers were singing and flying around. A Broad-winged Hawk flew very close by at one point. In another semi-open area nearby, there were a large number of wildflowers and butterflies. Penny Warren later identified one of the wildflowers as a Purple Fringed Orchid.
At the summit of Elliott's Knob (elevation of about 4,460 feet), the group rested and had lunch in the shade of a grove of Red Spruce trees, where some Golden-crowned Kinglets and Cedar Waxwings were flittering about in the upper branches. Many Dark-eyed Juncos and Yellow-rumped Warblers were seen in that area as well.
After an hour or so, the four hikers began the long, difficult descent back toward Route 42, along a gravel fire road with almost no shade. We saw several Towhees and Indigo Buntings on the way down, as well as a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and a Phoebe. There were quite a number of butterflies, and an amusing pair of Dung Beetles.
In mid-afternoon, the group finally reached the trail head next to Route 42, about 2,100 feet in elevation, having hiked about seven miles altogether. After making a return trip up Hite Hollow Road to retrieve one of the automobiles, a female Scarlet Tanager was seen. On the way back down, a Barred Owl was seen perched in a tree not far away, but it flew away before it could be photographed. Allen Larner compiled a complete list, and tallied 46 species of birds for the day. Eleven Ruffed Grouse were seen or heard, almost equalling the previous peak count of thirteen. It was, to say the least, a very good day for birding!
One of the Augusta Bird Club's founding members, YuLee Larner, passed away at the age of 89 on April 9, just a few days after returning home from Augusta Health. Until recently, she had remained active in writing her regular column on birds in the Staunton News Leader, retiring from those duties in March. (See newsleader.com for an article about YuLee's column.)
Ever since helping to found the Augusta Bird Club in the 1960s, YuLee 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. For years, she also taught Introduction to Birding courses for the Staunton Parks and Recreation Department. Far fewer people knew about her accomplishments as a musician: she played the organ at Covenant Presbyterian Church for many years.
A memorial service for YuLee was held on Friday, April 12th at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Staunton. For a full obituary, see newsleader.com. 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.
John Spahr wrote a lengthy tribute to YuLee for the May edition of the club Newsletter. I wrote a tribute to her with some personal recollections on my blog recently. Other club members are invited to submit their own memories of YuLee, which will be posted on this Web site in the weeks to come. Just send an e-mail message to the Web site Editor, Andrew Clem, at agclem_AT_comcast.net (Change the "_AT_" to "@".)
The club has had several very productive field trips this spring, but the annual picnic was plagued once again by wet weather. Like last year, it was held in Waynesboro's Ridgeview Park, but other than a few Blackpoll Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers, there wasn't much bird activity. Still, the food and companionship made for a nice morning.
Jo King led a fun field trip to McCormicks Mill on May 22. The highlight was seeing a pair of Warbling Vireos busily constructing a nest in a big sycamore tree right next to the parking lot.
On May 30, Allen Larner led an "impromptu" field trip to Reddish Knob, on the northern edge of Augusta County, along the West Virginia state line. One of the target birds popped into view almost as soon as the group arrived at the top of the mountain ridge:
The prolonged heavy rains of May 6-8 had one nice side effect: a "fallout" of rare birds such as Red-necked Phalaropes, seen at the Stuarts Draft waste treatment plant, among other places.
With the encouragement and support of Eve Gaige, Mary Mapel, and other local (adult) birders, a number of teenagers and pre-teens in Augusta and Albemarle Counties have organized themselves as the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club. Gabriel Mapel was elected as club President, and Warwick Dutnell was elected as Vice President. The club has just put out the first issue of their club newsletter, available on their Web site: blueridgeyoungbirders.org. In January, they held a Bird Challenge to see how many species each member could spot during the month. They tallied 139 species total, helping to raise money for the club. The Augusta Bird Club is proud to encourage and support the Blue Ridge Young Birders, and other programs that stimulate youth interest in nature.
The following photos were taken by Mary Mapel during recent BRYBC field trips:
One sign of the imminent change of season is the appearance of nomadic migrating birds, such as this exquisitely-plumaged Cedar Waxwing. A few Tree Swallows and even a Brown Thrasher have also shown up in our area lately, and many other migrants who spent their winters in the tropics can be expected here very soon! (Believe it or not.)
Allen Larner and others have reported seeing Short-eared Owls near the intersection of Livick Road and Cattleman's Road in the Swoope area recently. That species is considered "Primarily a rare and local winter and spring visitor" to Augusta County. Some years yes, some years no. Some Northern Harriers have also been regular visitors to the Swoope area recently, including one or two male "gray ghosts."
At the January meeting, our own Ed Lawler shared photographs and memories of the trip he and Nancy took to northern Tanzania, in February and March, 2009. In only two weeks, they covered several kinds of habitat, from the Serengeti plains to the Olduvai Gorge to volcanic lakes. The club members deeply enjoyed the vicarious adventure into what used to be called the "Dark Continent."
On January 6, Allen Larner led the Augusta Bird Club's annual winter field trip to Highland County. At bird feeders in Monterey there were a few Pine Siskins, several Goldfinches, and many Juncos, among other species. Heading north to Snowy Mountain, an immature Golden Eagle was spotted flying high, and two or three others were seen a short while later, after the group met up with John Spahr and Patti Reum. Along Route 643 John Spahr found a red-phase Screech Owl in a hole in a large snag, plus more Juncos. On Route 642 a Wilson Snipe was seen feeding in the spill-over of a spring-fed pond. (The bird has a broken wing, unfortunately.) Also on Route 642 we had our only Bald Eagle (immature) for the day, plus more Juncos. Back on Route 637 a couple of miles from Route 250 John found another red-phase Screech Owl, and more Juncos. In spite of persistent searching, no Rough-legged Hawks were to be found anywhere in the Blue Grass Valley, but we did see a Northern Harrier. At some feeders in New Hampden we had White-breasted Nuthatches, a Black-capped Chickadee, Titmice, Song Sparrows, Goldfinches, House Finches, and more Juncos. On our way home we stopped again in McDowell and finally saw a Purple Finch (male). The cloudy, chilly weather pattern might have had something to do with not seeing some of the target birds such as Rough-legged Hawk, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. But it was a nice day to look at all the Juncos in the snow-covered valley of Blue Grass.
[Excerpted from Allen Larner's e-mail report of the trip.]
The 2012 Augusta County CBC was held on Sunday, December 16, with about 30 members from the Augusta Bird Club taking part, overseen by Allen Larner. The count circle was divided into 8 sectors. In the preliminary tally, a total of 76 species seen. Among the highlights were: Tundra Swan, American Pipit, Rusty Blackbird (130 +), Brewers Blackbirds (5), all seven species of woodpecker, six species of Hawks, three species of owls, with four being Barn Owls, eight species of sparrows, and six species of Blackbirds. Among the big misses were: Bobwhite, several duck species, Killdeer, Wilson Snipe, Fox Sparrow, Purple Finch, and Short-eared Owl. Club president Penny Warren hosted the CBC participants in a party afterwards.
This season's Waynesboro Christmas Bird Count was organized by Crista Cabe, and held on Saturday, January 5. Details to follow...
The Christmas Bird Count is conducted under the auspices of the Audubon Society.