Mountain Birding

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring — these are some of the rewards of the simple life.

~John Burroughs

A few short days after the Ohio birding trip, I joined a museum-sponsored trip to our mountains to look for birds. I had gone as an assistant on this trip 4 years ago, but was a participant this time (Melissa was helping out and driving the museum bus). This trip, Mountain Birding, fills every spring, with many people going multiple times over the years. It is greatly enhanced by the presence of one or two of the museum’s ornithologists and their extraordinary knowledge of the birds of our state and their birding skills in the field.

Bobolink pasture

Bobolink meadow (click photos to enlarge)

As on my previous trip, the first stop was a meadow not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Several years ago, a flock of bobolinks was documented using this field. The farmer was approached and a deal struck to have him delay mowing the pasture until the birds had finished nesting. That deal has proven favorable to the birds and they have been a regular fixture here since. As we walked up to view the field below, we could see several males giving chase to one of the duller-colored females.

Bobolink

Male bobolink surveying his domain

The males like to sit atop prominent perches, singing, and on the lookout for females and rival males. Male bobolinks are boldly patterned in black and white with a half-tone straw-colored head during the breeding season. The Cornell web site suggests some observers describe the males as a bird wearing a tuxedo, but backwards. By fall, the males will molt to more closely resemble the females. These birds nest in the tall grasses, much like their cousins, the red-winged blackbirds, that were also abundant here.

Bobolink in flihgt

He takes flight to chase a female

We watched them for well over a half hour as they chased, sang, and hid in the grasses. An Eastern meadowlark with a nearby nest provided another observation challenge during this time, as she brought a large clump of food (a grub perhaps?) to her nestlings.

warbler neck

Warbler neck is a common affliction in our mountains

The next morning we were up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, near Boone, on a trail around Trout Lake, scanning the trees for warblers. Warbler neck is much more of a hazard in our mountains while warbler watching than it was on our Ohio birding trip. I carried my 500mm lens, but wasn’t expecting much that could compete with the success of the Ohio outing (with a smaller lens). At day’s end, I was pleasantly surprised at a few of the portraits…

Black-thrpoated blue warbler

Black-throated blue warbler

Chestnut-sided warbler singing in NC 1

Chestnut-sided warbler singing

American redtstart female on nest

Female American redstart forming nest

We soon spotted an American redstart building its nest in a rhododendron next to the road. The museum ornithologists recorded the location as there is little known about this species nesting habits in our state. The nest looked to be about 10 feet high in an upright fork of the thick vegetation of a shrub, making a photo very challenging.

Wild geranium

Wild geranium

We moved at a slow pace, taking time to listen and look for birds. That also gave me time to look around and appreciate some of the other beauties along the trails.

mating ladybugs

Mating ladybug beetles

moth in pileated feeding area

A moth looks like a hole in some exposed wood

On a short walk after lunch, we discovered a nest of an Eastern phoebe under a foot bridge (one of their favorite nesting locations is on the supports of bridges and roof beams of outdoor buildings). Walking through a rhododendron thicket proved a nice bit of post-lunch exercise, but not too productive for birds. But, there was a snag that had been riddled by pileated woodpeckers digging for insects. As I looked over the damage, I noticed what looked like an unusual hole in the exposed wood. It turned out to be the dark shape of a moth – one of the bark mimic zale moths I think.

solitary sandpiper

Solitary sandpiper

cedar waxwing 1

Cedar waxwing eating aphids

That afternoon, we drove down to the picturesque area known as Valle Crucis, and walked along a trail at their community park. The name of the town is Latin for “Vale of the Cross,” a reference to a valley in the area where three streams converge to form a shape similar to a cross. The park provides a variety of habitats from grasses, to woodland edges, to a marshy pool , all situated along the Watauga River. Highlights included plenty of red-winged blackbirds, tree and barn swallows, a yellow warbler, cedar waxwings, a lone solitary sandpiper (I know, redundant), and nests of a Baltimore oriole and a least flycatcher.

sunset on BR Parkway

Sunset on the Parkway

sunset on BR Parkway pano

A view looking east at sunset

After dinner, we drove back up on the Parkway to enjoy a splendid sunset.

Rich Mountaoin Gap

Rich Mountain Gap

Our final morning proved to be my favorite. This is my third visit to the area around Elk Knob State Park, and it is proving to be a place I want to return to again and again. The peaks here are geologically different than most in the rest of the state, being composed of amphibolite. The unique geology weathers to a more basic soil which gives the region an unusual blend of plant communities. But, the birds quickly grabbed our attention when we got off the bus at Rich Mountain Gap.

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

American goldfinches were flitting back and forth across the gravel road, perching in prominent spots for a nice photo op.

Song sparrow with food

Song sparrow taking food to its nestlings

A snog sparrow ferried food to a hidden nest in the grasses not far from the road.

Song sparrow with food close up

Beak-full of bugs for hungry mouths

On one trip, her beak was crammed with what looked like a family of true bug nymphs plucked from a nearby leaf.

Raven

Raven fly-by

A group of three ravens winged their way by us, causing everyone to look up to observe their distinctive flight patterns and croaks.

Pine siskin singing

Pine siskin singing

A lone pine siskin made an appearance in a nearby buckeye tree, and was soon joined by a species we all sought…

Golden-winged warbler

The elusive golden-winged warbler

This area around Elk Knob is one of the last strongholds in our state for a tiny beauty, the golden-winged warbler. These diminutive ground-nesters have suffered one of the steepest declines of any songbird in the last 50 years. This has prompted researchers and conservationists to increase efforts to learn more about this species and develop plans for reversing this declining population trend.

Golden-winged warbler singing

Golden-winged warbler singing with a field sparrow apparently listening

This male gave our group plenty of great looks, including some singing, before disappearing into the thickets.

Large-flowered trillium

Large-flowered trillium

Bluets

A sea of bluets

Our lunch break was at nearby Elk Knob State Park and included time to appreciate some of the beautiful wild flowers in bloom.

Veery

Veery

We also got great views of a veery and a rose-breasted grosbeak in the picnic area.

Blue-hesded vireo at nest

Blue-headed vireo at its nest

My favorite find at Elk Knob was a nest under construction by a pair of blue-headed vireos at the start of the backpackers trail. We heard one singing, and then followed it as it flew into an overhanging sapling adjacent to the trail head. I quickly discovered it was building a nest, a most unusual-looking one. In between visits by the pair of birds we crept in and got a closer look. The nest included  a substantial amount of discarded tissue paper. Hopefully, it won’t disintegrate in the rains this week.

Blue-hesded vireo

Pair of blue-headed vireos working on their tp nest

Formerly part of a complex of birds known as the solitary vireo, it has since been split into three separate species, with blue-headed vireos being the one found in the East. The group walked on down the trail and I hung around next to a nearby tree trunk to photograph the birds as they went back and forth bringing in new nest material, mostly lichens, a few bark strips, and some unidentifiable fluff. With each visit, the bird would place the item onto the nest, pull and tug to secure it, and often push down with its body to help form the cup. As with most vireos, the nest was suspended from a fork in a branch, and probably attached with spider web silk.

Blue-hesded vireo 2

Sizing me up

After a couple of minutes, one of the birds came close to investigate me, and, after it left, I moved on, not wanting to alarm them. From a distance, I could see them busily continuing their work after I left. Here’s hoping their proximity to the trail causes them no undue disturbance in the coming weeks. It was a great trip, with lots of sightings, good people, and new knowledge. I can see why it is so popular.

Walking with Warblers

From those tall hemlocks proceeds a very fine insect-like warble, and occasionally I see a spray tremble, or catch the flit of a wing. I watch and watch till my head grows dizzy and my neck is in danger of permanent displacement, and still do not get a good view.

~John Burroughs, on trying to observe warblers in the woods, from In the Hemlocks, 1910

Most of us can relate to what naturalist John Burroughs had to say about trying to observe warblers. Birders typically hear them before seeing them, then strain for a glimpse, often looking straight up into the tall trees, trying to catch enough of a view of the flitting creature to confirm an identity. It can lead to the malady known as warbler neck, and can be frustrating . But, when it pays off, it can pay off big, as these tiny songsters are among our most beautiful birds.

Black-throated blue warbler male 2

Black-throated blue warbler (click photos to enlarge)

Spring is warbler time as they migrate from their wintering areas to their breeding grounds dressed in their finest. While we do have several species that nest here in the Piedmont, many others are passing through, on their way to higher elevations or latitudes to breed and raise their young. But, there is a place where warblers are incredibly abundant during spring migration, or at least that is what I had read. That place is the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area on the south shore of Lake Erie.

Trail entrance Magee Marsh

West entrance to Magee Marsh (click photos to enlarge)

It is a 2000+ acre state wildlife management area, adjacent to Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, and is home to the famed Magee Marsh boardwalk, which regularly appears on lists of the top birding spots in America. It is also home to The Biggest Week in American Birding festival for ten days each May, around the peak of the spring migration.

Magee Marsh boardwalk 1

Birders line the boardwalk at Magee Marsh

The boardwalk is just under one mile in length, but is the destination for thousands of birders each spring due to the amazing number and variety of birds that tend to pile up here, waiting for the right conditions to fly across Lake Erie as they migrate north. I was a bit hesitant to visit such a potentially crowded area, but really wanted to see this spectacle, so we decided to arrive on the last day of the festival and spend a day or two birding, hoping the crowds might thin. When I made my lodging reservations, it was apparent we would not have had any choice anyway, as every lodging I could find in the area (it is in rural farmland about 30 minutes from Toledo) was booked through the festival. Birders are obviously good for business. Arriving on Sunday afternoon, we avoided the crowds, and spent a couple of productive hours on Wildlife Drive at nearby Ottawa NWR. The next morning, we arrived at Magee Marsh a little after sunrise, with only a dozen or so cars as company. This is a good start, I thought. It turns out, weather this year had delayed the migration a bit, and the weather last Monday (chilly, with winds out of the north) is the perfect set up for keeping the birds in place, and low, making them much more visible. It would be one of those days to remember…

Missed shot

I have way too many shots like this, or with just twigs where the warbler had been

Based on some tips about birding the area I read online, I was carrying my 300mm telephoto, a flash, and my tripod onto the boardwalk. After walking about 50 feet and already seeing several warblers, and viewing the conditions (thick vegetation and close proximity to birds), I carried the tripod back to the car. This is a place for quick photos, maneuverability, and reasonable focal lengths (plus, the tripod is difficult to use when the boardwalk is crowded). Birds were everywhere! And close! As we made our way down the boardwalk, more and more birders started to arrive. But, in spite of the developing crowds (and this is the day AFTER the festival), you could always just walk a few feet and have a bird to yourself. It turned out to be an incredible day, a tiring day, but a really rewarding one. The hype is for real…this is an incredible place to bird. Below are some portraits of some of the 22 species of warblers we observed at Magee Marsh in our day and a half of birding. In addition to these 18 that are represented in photos, we had 4 others – yellow-rumped warbler, prothonotary warbler, worm-eating warbler (heard), and ovenbird (heard). The official checklist for the ten day festival period this year had 34 species of warblers viewed by the throngs.

Tennessee warbler

Tennessee warbler

Canada warbler

Canada warbler, one of the toughest to get a good look at, as they tended to stay hidden in the low shrubs

Wilson's warbler

Wilson’s warbler, another skulker that was rarely far from a thick tangle of twigs

Chestnut-sided warbler 2

Chestnut-sided warbler

Northern parula warbler male 1

Northern parula warbler

Magnolia warbler 1

Magnolia warbler

Bay-breasted warbler

Bay-breasted warbler – it took me most of the day to finally get a clear shot

Black-throated green warbler

Black-throated green warbler

Blackburnian warbler

Blackburnian warbler

Northern waterthrush

Northern waterthrush

common yellowthroat

Common yellowthroat male

Black-and-white warbler

Black-and-white warbler

Blackpoll warbler

Blackpoll warbler

 

Palm warbler

Palm warbler

American redstart male

American redstart

Black-throated blue warbler male

Black-throated blue warbler

Yellow warbler male

Yellow warbler

Cape May warbler 1

Cape May warbler

There were a few species we saw that I never managed to get a clear photo of, but, as you can see, it was an amazing day for warbler portraits. The other thing I loved was having the time to watch these beautiful birds do their thing, and to be close enough to observe some of the details of what they were doing. I spent about ten minutes with this Cape May warbler, watching it probe among the flowers on just one branch of this shrub (some type of gooseberry or currant??).

Cape May warbler 26

Probing for…?

Cape May warbler

Warblers are great arboreal acrobats

It almost looked as if it was drinking nectar from the flowers, but, after looking at zoomed-in images of this behavior, I think it was meticulously gleaning aphids from the the petioles and flowers.

Northern parula foraging

Northern parula doing a head-stand while foraging

While we were there on Monday, most of the birds were busy foraging in the thick vegetation bordering the boardwalk. On calm days, or when there are southerly winds, many of the birds will be higher in the trees feeding.

Cape May warbler foraging on tree trunk 1

Cape May foraging on tree trunk with a midge taking flight just above the bird

A couple of species (Cape May and Chestnut-sided warblers, in particular), often moved along tree trunks, picking off midges and other tiny insects from the furrows of the bark.

Black-and-white warbler 2

Black-and-white warbler forages much like a nuthatch

Of course, that is the primary feeding strategy of a species like the black-and-white warbler, although it seems to spend more time spinning around branches than it does creeping up trunks.

Chestnut-sided warbler with fish fly

Chestnut-sided warbler with a huge meal

While most of the warblers were feeding on small insects, like midges, one lucky guy managed to snag a beak-full. A chestnut-sided male grabbed a huge winged critter (I think it is a male fishfly), and after struggling to subdue it, dropping it, and recapturing it on the wing…

chesnut-sided warbler gulping down meal

Going, going, …

managed to gulp it down.

American redstart male singing

American redstart singing

The other prime activity seemed to be singing. And what a treat, especially for a guy that is losing some of his high frequency hearing, to be so close to so many species of songsters.

Chestnut-sided warbler singing

Chestnut-sided warbler singing

Northern parula warbler male singing

Northern parula belting it out

It was a fulfilling day of low level warbler-watching. After spending over 12 hours on the boardwalk, we were both pretty tired. I even had my first-ever photo-blisters from gripping and maneuvering a heavy camera rig all day. That night, as predicted, the winds shifted, creating favorable conditions for a flight over the lake (most warblers migrate at night). Many of the birds must have taken advantage of the winds, as the next morning was noticeably different. It was still great, but the birds tended to be higher up in the trees, and, they just were not quite as abundant. Experienced birders recommend spending a few days in the area for this very reason, since conditions can vary considerably from day to day with changes in weather.

Blackpoll warbler 1

The blackpoll warbler is a

When you stop to appreciate what these tiny birds have gone through to make it this far, it is humbling…the blackpoll warbler, for instance, winters in Brazil and migrates almost 5000 miles to its nesting grounds in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. During the fall migration, this species takes a more easterly route that includes flying out over the Atlantic Ocean for distances up to 2100 miles non-stop (a flight that has been recorded to take up to 88 hours). The phenomenon of bird migration is one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world, and Magee Marsh is certainly one of the most remarkable places to witness it in spring. I’m glad we were fortunate, on our first visit, to experience it at its best.