There were 14 eager participants from Hyattsville, MD, Johnstown and North Wales, PA, Sterling, VA, Lakewood, OH and Wilmington, NC. They had heard about the Bird Discovery Weekend in a variety of ways. Some were very new birders and some were very knowledgeable, but everyone had something to offer.
The weekend began on Friday afternoon with Jan’s, “Birding Essentials” program.
After dinner that evening I presented a program called “Sparrows of West Virginia.” Sparrows can be confusing for lots of birders, but by the end of the evening, everyone seemed to have a better grasp on identifying them.
Early on Saturday morning we left for an all-day field trip along Stuart Memorial Drive near Elkins, WV. With its variety of elevations and habitats, we expected to encounter a wide variety of birds and we weren’t disappointed.
At our first stop, there were nesting Gray Catbirds and American Robins almost everywhere we looked. The males were singing their territorial songs from both sides of the road.
Although everyone was interested in birding, some were also quite interested in the botany of the area. As they say, “Look down, listen up!”
One plant they were particularly interested in was Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia). The winged stems were obvious and unusual.
Throughout the day I taught about and identified bird songs. We discussed what birds were singing and what those songs and calls represent.
We stopped at many places along Stuart Memorial Drive, but one, in particular, was perhaps the highlight of the day.
Blackwater Falls State Park Naturalist, Paulita Cousin, spotted an American Redstart who was building her nest. For a long time we watched the Redstart bring in nesting materials, fit them into the half-built nest, and then sit down to try out what she had built so far.
At another spot some of us climbed a hill through a grassy meadow to see the Field Sparrows and Indigo Buntings that we heard singing. The scenic view at the top of the hill was beautiful no matter which way we looked.
At the top of the ridge we heard a White-eyed Vireo singing and before long this usually difficult-to-find bird flew up into a dead tree and serenaded us for a long time.
Some of the group had stayed along the road and they were rewarded with great views of several warblers – Common Yellowthroat, Chestnut-sided and Hooded. They also found and were fascinated by a Gold-backed Snipe Fly.
At the Bickle Knob Observation Tower (elevation 4,003 ft.) there were two pairs of nesting Mourning Warblers, each male singing to protect his territory. They sang often, but we weren’t able to get a really good view of them. With all the birds we had already heard and seen, no one seemed too disappointed by not being able to see this warbler.
Some of us even took up the challenge to climb the Observation Tower and, with the wonderfully clear weather, we were rewarded with an amazing view.
After lunch we made several more stops in the more coniferous woods at the highest elevations of Stuart Memorial Drive. At our last stop everyone was able to get a great view of a male Scarlet Tanager. This brilliantly-colored bird is so good at hiding among the leaves at the tops of trees that we considered ourselves very lucky to have gotten such a good look at him.
After a long day of birding, Jan and I relaxed and had a delicious supper on the patio of the Smokehouse BBQ Restaurant at the Blackwater Falls State Park Lodge.
On Saturday evening I presented the program, “Eastern Screech-Owls”, based on my 28 years of research with this bird. Our group was fascinated by the scientific knowledge I had gained and the amazing photos I had taken of this owl that very few people know about.
On Sunday morning we were at it again – chasing birds and enjoying the beauty of West Virginia with the wonderful group of people. Our field trip was just a short drive away in Canaan Valley — our first stop was at the Freeland Trail boardwalk in the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. At the parking lot we were greeted by a field full of nesting Bobolinks. Many were hidden in the grass singing their bubbly songs, while others were easy to observe as they flew and landed on small bushes, fence posts and strands of barbed wire fence.
Another bird we heard at this stop was the Savannah Sparrow, but only one of us was actually able to catch a glimpse of it.
We also had good opportunities to see and hear Eastern Meadowlarks.
Across from the Bobolink field is the Freeland Trail boardwalk. We were able to watch and hear Willow and Alder Flycatchers at the same time. Since they look so similar, it is important to hear them for identification. The Willow and Alder Flycatchers really gave us a great opportunity to memorize their two songs.
Swamp Sparrows were singing in several areas of the wetland and Jan was able to make a video of one singing.
After we finished enjoying the boardwalk, we walked the lower part (elevation 3,100 ft) of Forest Service Road 80 looking and listening for birds.
From there, back in the cars, we stopped several times to listen and look for birds on our way to the top of the mountain (elevation 3,980 ft) where Forest Service Road 80 ends at the edge of the Dolly Sods Wilderness plateau.
The birds we found there were quite different than those we had encountered down in Canaan Valley. Where the road ended we were surrounded by high mountain trees and other more boreal plants. We enjoyed the birds, but also discovered some other interesting things.
I showed Nancy how to differentiate between Cinnamon and Interrupted ferns even if the fertile fronds were not present.
There was water in the low areas along both sides of the road and several people noticed the Predaceous Diving Beetle larvae swimming in many places.
Although half of our group had departed after we had finished the lower section of Forest Service Road 80, we did take a group photo of those remaining at the top. None of us wanted to leave — we wanted to keep exploring the road into Dolly Sods and the fields around it, but check-out times and other commitments were calling us.
My last official duty of the Mountain Bird Discovery Weekend was to save a snapping turtle from potential disaster. She was crossing the road on her way to find a suitable place to lay her eggs. As gently as possible, I moved the turtle off the road in the direction she had been traveling. I don’t think she really appreciated my help, but she didn’t know about car tires, and, hopefully, she never will.