Kurt Gaskill, an excellent birder and one of our volunteers for Loudoun Bird Atlas, sent over a great write-up from his 4th of July birding survey. It’s like going for a bird walk along with him as he explores the wild nature of Loudoun. 🙂 With his permission, I’m posting it here for you:
It’s the morning of the fourth of July and I am driving down Rt 743 to my eastern starting point in the block known as Bluemont 5. It looks like yet another great day to do the Loudoun Bird Atlas. I took Rt 50 to get out here, turning north on St Louis Rd. Earlier, when I went through Middleburg, there is this pond on the west side of town. I have only seen American Robins around it. Today, there is a female Wood Duck on it. It’s a new species for the Middleburg 1 block so I make a note and continue on.
The previously rain-rutted gravel Rt 743 is now smooth. I am hoping the Kentucky Warbler Dave Boltz and I found here June 20 will say or do something. Despite arriving at 7am, no warbler calls out. Instead, the local Red-shouldered Hawks are making a commotion. I suspect a fledged bird may be about, but cannot see or hear it. I continue down the road upgrading various species. Nearby, an American Crow family group appears and this becomes a good breeding confirmation. Two weeks earlier, there was a Fish Crow family group in this area. The real bonus was a Hairy Woodpecker adult with fledgling – a good confirm as Hairy Woodpeckers have been a premium in the blocks I have been atlasing.
I turn north on Rt 630 and stop hoping to find evidence for Common Yellowthroats or Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Both were here on the last visit. I hear and then follow the call notes of a Blue-gray but I spot only a single bird working the tree canopy over my head. Nearby, a Common Yellowthroat is singing. Along the road edge I hear a tick sound and so I naturally pish. Out pops a very young Common Yellowthroat! The little bird was clearly starting down the Independence path, foraging for its food despite still wearing the yellow-white gape that says “fledgling”.
Further down the road I find fledgling House Wrens. Along a stretch with open fields I see one Red-headed Woodpecker in a snag letting an adult Red-shouldered know exactly what’s on its mind. I hear more of the same woodpeckers in nearby woods. Overhead, a loud smacking call causes me to look up – it’s a juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird begging its “mama” Northern Cardinal for food. Two males and female cowbird fly nearby making me think that they monitor the areas they parasitize, looking for results. Near some trees I see Cedar Waxwings flying about – I think they are inspecting possible nest sites. But, time is getting short – my day cannot go past 11am due to Independence Day activities at home. I turn about and head for Willisville Rd.
The weather is, once again, superb. I makes me wish I could put in a longer day, but holiday gatherings have been planned. Still, I cannot help thinking that what we think is good weather, causes problems much further to the north as the cold summer in the taiga has resulted in extremely poor productivity for waterfowl and shorebirds. Has this weather also impacted our local nesters? I am not sure, we have few local baselines to compare and much of our data is best considered on a longer term basis. Perhaps this atlas can shed light upon it?
Hearing Eastern Towhees, I stop the car hoping to find evidence of breeding. In this forested edge location I hear a Wood Thrush make its “gurgle”, Acadian Flycatcher call out and several Brown-headed Cowbirds in a tree. All in an area no bigger than 20 yards across. Hmm… could the cowbirds be looking for a juvenile? I spot the Wood Thrush – one calling and the other silently following, a hint of fledgling gape still visible. I get out and walk a few yards into the forest. The flycatcher still calls, and male and female Towhee call almost continually. But, no breeding signs for those last two. Before leaving I look about and find a round, grass woven nest in a sapling between a twisted vine, about 1.5 meters off the ground. It has rough edges but is very smooth and round inside. It fits images of Wood Thrush nests that you can find on Google. Nice.
I give up on the towhees and flycatcher – I don’t want to poke around further as it would probably be intrusive to the towhees (given their calls, a nest may be nearby?). Heading north I go to a nice spot where a Willow Flycatcher was noted last week and the week before. And still there today. I have to wait 5 minutes before the bird shows itself. It softly calls, hunts a little, then perches in various places. No sign of a mate, although the soft calling I believe is indicative that one is hidden nearby. The local Song Sparrows are singing, finally one flies off to a bush with 3 more following – fledged birds!
There are several species in this area such as the Grasshopper Sparrow. It sits pretty much in this one bit of vegetation in the field each time I visit. It still sings. I wait for it to do something, wait for the Willow Flycatcher to do something. Then a Blue Grosbeak sings out. It’s a new species to the block. After 15 minutes, I must leave.
Now comes the fun part of today’s trip. I am visiting a site in the Blue Ridge Mountains that is part of the block known as Ashby Gap 6; it’s adjacent to the west of Bluemont 5. The Blue Ridge promises a new mix of species and I am looking forward to it. I have some concern about the date as it’s getting late in the breeding season and many species cannot be confirmed, at least easily. I head to an area that is accessed by a public road (it goes to a parcel that is currently for sale). I have learned a bit since today’s visit – there are many areas that are potentially accessible from this road that used to be the main road from the ridge line to Paris. This road has been basically abandoned by the county since 1944, yet locals have kept it navigable. Obviously, access would be of great value for the atlas.
I enter a fine area of forest with reasonably mature trees (over 60 yrs old I am told) and a nice understory. I don’t see much sign of Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), the exotic invasive that can be found in many of our forests in the piedmont or coastal zone. This plant can reproduce in the low light levels of forests, covering the forest floor in a habitat that may not be conducive to ground nesters such as Ovenbird. It is an annual, and the seeds can bank in the soil for years. It is unclear how to best combat it.
I drive about a half mile to the road’s end (at a gate) and get out of the car. Within minutes I am in the battle ground between two Acadian Flycatchers chasing each other over a territory dispute. This is new to me – I have never thought that Acadians were so aggressive! At Mason Neck NWR and SP, Acadian Flycatchers are very common, with estimated density of between 10 and 20 acres per breeding pair. My initial count at this Blue Ridge site suggests 6 singing males in the area I surveyed, which I estimate at about 60 acres given the half mile road and estimated 150 yd listening distance. This would suggest a breeding density similar to Mason Neck. Most impressive!
I was able to confirm the Acadian Flycatcher with one bird calling with a nice green worm in its bill.
Other species with good numbers were Red-eyed Vireo, Wood Thrush, Eastern Towhee, and Scarlet Tanager. But the biggest payoff were the other species. Two dueling Hooded Warblers (with some territory incursions), 2 Ovenbirds, a couple of American Redstarts, some Eastern Wood Pewees and a singing Cerulean Warbler! Yet there was one other species of interest at this site.
I was attracted to what sounded like chip notes. They were somewhat continuous, but were NOT chipmunk in origination! These notes attracted other birds such as a pair of Scarlet Tanagers, redstarts, titmice and chickadees. And up with the tanagers, the squeaky gym-shoe on the basketball court call note of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak! Now I have encountered this species a couple of times throughout the years along the ridge road at Thomson WMA, which lies a few miles to the south in Fauquier County. Yet, there are few summer records of Rose-breasted Grosbeak in Loudoun County, so this bird was certainly unusual.
Are there more up on the ridge? Or other species not yet documented? Probably. Looking over some of the old Virginia Bird Atlas data, I see Rose-breasted Grosbeak is marked as a probable breeder near to this area. To fully determine the extent of breeding, it will take help from a few property owners to access areas along the Loudoun County ridge line and a few years of dedicated atlasing to sort out the possibilities. But the really interesting thing is, anyone who wants to do it, can do it. And there are thousands of acres up there to explore!
But, time was up for me today – the picnic beckoned. So I headed home after a fine visit to an area seldom birded. I hope to get up there one more time this season.