On Wednesday, November 16, Jo King led a field trip to McCormick's Farm, along with five other members of the Augusta Bird Club. The weather was comfortable for a fall morning with no wind. Although our species count was slim with 28 species, we were rewarded with several unusual observations. Namely, 45-plus Eastern Meadowlarks were found in tree, in the field, and at the edge of the pond, bathing and drinking along with a Wilson's Snipe in all his glory. Other highlights included a small flock of Cedar Waxwings, several American Goldfinches, various Woodpeckers, and a Red-tailed Hawk. After the field trip disbanded, Elaine Carwile and Liz Reed discovered a Barred Owl across the road from McCormick's. Some members later drove to nearby Willow Lake, where four Ruddy Ducks and one Ring-necked Duck were seen, along with 30 or more Canada Geese.
At the Augusta Bird Club meeting on Monday, November 14, Prof. Dick Rowe (who teaches at Virginia Military Institute) talked about migrating and overwintering waterfowl -- ducks, geese, and swans -- in the Shenandoah Valley area. He explained the various habitat preferences of diving ducks and dabbling ducks, and how the range of some species may be shifting as a side-effect of climate change. His presentation featured many of the excellent photos he has taken in Rockbridge County and elsewhere.
One of the more awe-inspiring sights for birders is when a Northern Harrier passes by, just a few feet off the ground as they hunt for their prey. Some of these ominous raptors have been seen around Bell's Lane on the edge of Staunton, and parts of Augusta County recently. They typically stay in our area during the winter months, and then head north again in the spring. Watch out!
Early on Friday, October 21, Allen Larner led a field trip along the Greenway Trail which parallels the South River in Waynesboro. This was a public event, in coordination with the Waynesboro Dept. of Parks and Recreation. A total of 32 species of birds were identified by sight or sound, including the ones in the photo montage below. Later in the morning, club members were invited to inspect the proposed Sunset Park, which will occupy the hill on the east side of town where the landfill was formerly located. This area features a combination of woodlands and open areas that seem to be ideal habitat for various kinds of birds.
At the October 10 meeting, Dr. Ashley Peele gave a thorough presentation on the 2nd Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas (a.k.a. "VABBA2"), of which she is the state coordinator. This "citizen science" project is a five-year effort to document the distribution and breeding status of all birds spending the summer in Virginia. An ornithologist at Virginia Tech, Dr. Peele emphasized how environmental conservation efforts rely increasingly on the help of volunteers to understand where and why changes occur in wildlife populations. She described what a breeding bird atlas is all about, how it differs from other types of bird surveys, and how folks of all experience levels can engage and contribute to the project. Additionally, Ashley shared some of the exciting findings from the first Atlas season this past summer, and discussed why Augusta County is an important hotspot for understanding Virginia's bird diversity and breeding populations.
Unlike some past years, the weather was bright and beautiful on Saturday morning, October 15, as folks who participated in the Augusta Bird Club's annual bird seed sale picked up their bags of seeds. As usual, it took place in the Augusta County Government Center in Verona. Many thanks to everyone who placed orders in our annual bird seed sale, which is the main fund-raising source for the many educational and conservation endeavors to which the Augusta Bird Club is committed. In particular, we provide scholarships to area youth to attend Nature Camp in Vesuvius, which teaches natural history and environmental science.
On the morning of October 8, seven members and friends of the Augusta Bird Club spent several hours in the drizzle and rain exploring parts of the Lofton Lake area. Although it was not the best of weather, we had fun and managed to get a nice smattering of birds. Highlights included: Wild Turkeys, Eastern Phoebe, Swainson's Thrush, Brown Thrasher, Tennessee Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Cape May Warblers, White-throated Sparrow, and Eastern Towhee. Thanks to everyone who participated and thanks to our hosts, Kathy and Joe. We will look forward to returning there for more birding!!
In contrast to last year, when the event was canceled due to bad weather, the 2016 Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch Open House ("A Day at the Hawk Watch!") took place under sunny skies, with large crowds of visitors of all ages in attendance. Guests were treated to grilled hot dogs and other snacks, and a large number of nature-oriented organizations had displays. We had a fantastic turnout, with over 145 visitors. There were many families with kids who were really enjoyed the hands-on displays. Attractions included: displays by local bird clubs, owl pellet dissections, Master Naturalist bluebird trail display, mounted raptor displays and museum specimens to examine, up-close displays of raptor feathers/eggs/beaks/talons, Raptor migrations exibits, a display and presentation on the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas by Ashley Peele, a live raptor (Red-tailed Hawk) presentation by Amanda Nicholson from the Wildlife Center of Virginia, a raptor identification workshop by Brenda Tekin, and lots more!
Ironically, the nice weather did not provide ideal conditions for migrating birds, so it was a little slow, raptor-wise. However, another Mississippi Kite (sub-adult) showed up at 2:12, following three Kites yesterday and one on August 14, a total of five for the season now. This kite was spotted by Rose to our northeast, and moved in closer to circle overhead multiple times giving great looks and lots of photo opps! An unaged Bald Eagle moved through at 1:36.
As part of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Augusta Bird Club, several of our members put together a display at the Staunton public library. It featured descriptions of the club's various activities, photos of birds and birders, field guides, a bluebird box, birding paraphernalia, as well as nests and bird specimens graciously loaned for this purpose by the Biology Department at Mary Baldwin College. It remained open to public viewing until the end of August. Those who missed it can take a look at the online preview.
Outgoing club president Penny Warren has reported seeing multiple Green Herons in the Bell's Lane area on a few occasions this summer, and last week she saw several Green Heron fledglings -- proof of successful breeding within the Staunton city limits! They are located in the ravine near the north end of Bell's Lane, next to the entrance to the Days Inn motel. It has become flooded over the last several months thanks to a beaver dam.
As the summer advances, we keep getting reports of rare or uncommon birds in Augusta County and elsewhere in the Shenandoah Valley. Shorebirds and marsh-dwelling birds are most conspicuous this time of year, and it always pays to keep your eyes open for something you don't expect! Whether you are a member of the Augusta Bird Club or someone in general public, please direct any reports of unusual birds to Allen Larner, who is in charge of local bird alerts; see the Contact page. We appreciate all such reports!
Earlier in July, a family of Soras was reported in the Nazarene Church Road wetlands, on the southwestern edge of Rockingham County. According to Birds of Augusta County (2008), there is only one nesting record of Soras in this county, in 1973, and that nest was abandoned before the eggs hatched. More recently, a family of Virginia Rails was observed in the same location on Nazarene Church Road. (One of the latter species made a brief visit to Bell's Lane last February.)
A pair of Sandhill Cranes has been visiting the area north of Fishersville off and on since early June, or perhaps earlier. This species breeds primarily in the northern latitudes (Great Lakes, Rocky Mountains, and Canada), although some of them breed in Florida and along the Gulf Coast. There have been two sightings of Sandhill Cranes in Augusta County during the summer months (2002 and 2004), but there are no records of breeding.
UPDATE: There have been additional reports of the Sandhill Cranes in the same area, as recently as the end of July. There is no indication as to whether breeding has occurred, however.
Faye Cooper had organized a botany filed trip for May 10th and asked if I could come along to add a birding component. A couple of highlights were two Common Loons at Braley Pond, and then at Elkhorn Lake we had a Caspian Tern. Most of the group were not birders but watching this Caspian fly and dive captured everyone's attention. The tern had a fish in its beak and would drop it and then catch in midair and he did this over and over. Great fun to watch but after about 15 or 20 minutes of this antic, one member in the group finally said sarcastically, "just eat the damn fish!!!" Then, when we thought the show was over, who swoops in but a Bald Eagle and he seemed to try to shoo away the tern so he had solo rights to fishing and he dove down, caught a fish and off he went. We were about to leave when a hummingbird darted by... a perfect, petite counterpart ending to the eagle sighting! I notified Dan Perkuchin of the Caspian Tern sighting and it broke the late spring extreme date of May 6, 1978.
The June 19 issue of the News Leader (published in Staunton) had a front-page story about the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Augusta Bird Club in 1966, describing its origins. John Mehner, a professor at Mary Baldwin College, taught an ornithology course that was audited by YuLee Larner and Isabel Obenschain, who became two of the club's charter members. (More information is contained on our Welcome / About Us page.) The article went on to profile outgoing club president Penny Warren and the survey work she is doing (along with fellow club member Diane Holsinger) for the Virginia Working Landscapes Grassland Bird Survey with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
On a related note, Penny is stepping down from the office of president, which she has held for the past five years. Augusta Bird Club members are deeply grateful to Penny for all the hard work and creative energy she has contributed to making our club more active and more effective in fulfilling its basic scientific and educational mission as far as the study of birds, and the conservation of bird life in Virginia. Penny will be replaced by Peter Van Acker, who was elected by club members in April.
Summer is upon us, which means that there won't be as many opportunities for birding ventures during the next couple months. So, it's an appropriate time to look back at some of our club's birding expeditions from the past several weeks.
On Saturday, June 4, Allen Larner led the Augusta Bird Club's annual late spring / early summer field trip to Highland County, and fortunately the weather was better than had been forecast. It was the first time the group visited Sapling Ridge, a high-elevation location where we soon spotted a Mourning Warbler, one of our "target species." Higher up, we saw several different species of warblers, most notably Blackburnians and a Magnolia. At the Straight Fork meadow, we heard both Alder and Least Flycatchers, and eventually saw one of the former. Later on we went to the home of the late Margaret O'Bryan* in search of Golden-winged Warblers, and we did identify it, but only by sound, not sight. Then we went to other locations where Golden-winged Warblers are known to breed, but without success. Between the towns of Blue Grass and New Hampden, we saw a Bald Eagle perched in a tree While at the summer home of John Spahr we were waiting we were able to see a lot of birds in the back yard, most notably a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
* Members of the Augusta Bird Club were saddened to hear that Margaret O'Bryan had passed away earlier this spring. Year after year, she had graciously welcomed our group to her home along the West Virginia border in Highland County, and we will miss her.
On May 25, Jo King and five other members of the Augusta Bird Club conducted a field trip to McCormick's Mill, on the southern edge of Augusta County. The morning was pleasantly warm, a lovely day after the many days of rain. The group counted 37 species, of which the highlights were: Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Wood-Pewees, Purple Martin, Cedar Waxwings, Eastern Towhees, and Baltimore Oriole. Jo plans to resume birding trips to McCormick's Mill in late August or September, and hopefully your faithful Web site editor will make sure to attend and get some good photos.
After rain forced a three-day postponement, on May 20 the Augusta Bird Club had a field trip to Reddish Knob, with Andrew Clem, Peter Van Acker, and Ed Lawler as participants. At Briery Branch Reservoir we had some dramatic close encounters with a male Indigo Bunting and an aggressive (presumably young) male Black-and-White Warbler. Next we drove along Route 257 upward into the mountains and stopped at two places with a mixture of shrubs and burnt-out trees, and soon saw the first of many Chestnut-sided Warblers, as well as a Blackburnian Warbler and a Scarlet Tanager. After that we stopped at the main intersection at the summit, where we eventually saw a family of Red Crossbills -- one of our main "target species." Then we headed north for about a half mile along the gravel road which follows the crest of the mountain ridge. We saw some species that only breed in the highlands at this latitude, such as Juncos and Yellow-rumped Warblers, as well as some that are more often associated with lowlands: Bluebirds and Brown Thrashers. On the way back down we were fortunate to see a Ruffed Grouse perched on a fallen log, and as an added bonus, we saw one of the babies as well. Next we drove southward along the ridge crest, and saw Black-throated Blue Warbler, a family of Canada Warblers, and a Black-throated Green Warbler. On the way back to Staunton, we saw a female Wood Duck with several youngsters in a pond in the town of Mount Solon. We racked up a a grand total of 57 species altogether.
On Monday, May 2, Penny Warren led a field trip to Bell's Lane. There had been reports of Golden-winged Warblers and Blue-winged Warblers there, but alas they had already left. We did see some unusual migrating species, most notably the White-eyed Vireo seen below. Also, a Baltimore Oriole was in the tree tops. Afterwards, most of us went over to Betsy Bell Hill, where we heard a Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, and other migrating species, but didn't see much other than a Scarlet Tanager or two.
In conjunction with this year's Earth Day activities in Staunton, the "Kites and Critters" event was held Sunday, April 17th at the Moore Farm on Bell's Lane. Once again, the weather was very cooperative. As usual, there were a variety of displays and guided tours centered on the main theme of environmentally-conscious landscaping and natural conservation in general. Darrell Schwalm was in charge of the Augusta Bird Club display, shown below.
In the Sunday News Leader, Bruce Dorries noted that even though the "real" Earth Day is April 22, here in Staunton it will be celebrated on Saturday, April 16th. Activities begin at 9 A.M., at the pavilion next to Sunspots Studios, downtown Staunton, and will last until noon. For more information, see earthdaystaunton.org or the April edition of the Augusta Bird Club Newsletter.
On February 19, Gabriel Mapel and Allen Larner spotted a rare Virginia Rail foraging in a stream along Bell's Lane in Staunton, promptly sharing the good news with other local birders. As of the publication of Birds of Augusta County in 2008, there had only been two spring records and five fall records of this species, so this seems to be the first-ever winter record in the county. Virginia Rails nest in the northern states and Canada, and they winter in the southeast, so they aren't seen in Virginia very often, mostly during the spring and fall migration seasons.
On Saturday January 16, Allen Larner led the Augusta Bird Club's semi-annual field trip to Highland County. The weather was chilly and breezy, with occasional sleet or drizzle, frequently shifting between overcast and partly sunny skies. Those rough conditions probably accounted for the absence of any hoped-for Golden Eagles, although we did come across many Ravens and Juncos in several locations, as well as a nice mixture of songbirds at various backyard feeders. Overall, however, it was a big disappointment.
So, late in the morning we gave up on Highland County and headed south to Bath County, where things immediately got busy. At some ponds along Route 220, we saw several Hooded Merganser and about 100 Ring-necked Ducks, along with several other species. Driving along Back Creek toward the reservoir, we finally saw some Bald Eagles. Approaching Lake Moomaw, we were startled by a Ruffed Grouse which flushed just a few feet away from the car. Once we arrived at the lake, we were even more surprised to see a Double-crested Cormorant, far from its normal wintering grounds along the Atlantic coast. Along the upstream portion of the lake we saw two groups of Common Mergansers, numbering eleven altogether. There were quite a few woodpeckers and songbirds in the trees and bushes in that area, most notably a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a Fox Sparrow. All those sightings made the venture quite worthwhile.
On the way back to Staunton, we checked out the Swoope area, hoping (in vain) to find some Short-eared Owls. We did see a pair of Bald Eagles near Smith Pond, however, presumably the same ones which have raised young ones there in recent years.
Altogether, 44 species were counted, four of which were heard only. Many thanks to Allen Larner for leading this trip!
At the January meeting, local artist Peg Sheridan gave a talk on how she paints wild birds, with a live demonstration of painting a Great Horned Owl. She uses watercolor, and does various wildlife and scenic paintings in addition to wild birds. After the meeting, her original paintings and greeting card print packages were available for sale.