Monday, May 24, 2010


If you’re a nature watcher, everything depends upon the weather. I made plans months ago to spend a few days in the mountains of Highland County (west of Staunton) during the second week of May, with dreams of seeing new kinds of butterflies and maybe dragonflies that we don’t see in the Tidewater area, and to catch some of the bird migration. May is the most exciting time of year to see new spring arrivals, but it is also one of the most temperamental months weather-wise. It’s a roll of the dice and a prayer to make plans before you have a weather forecast in your hands.

This was definitely a “good news/bad news” trip. By the time I got to the mountains on Saturday, it was getting cold and the winds were picking up with gusto. Sunday was ridiculous; winds were steady and ferocious and there was frost on my windshield in the morning. Monday it started raining, and Tuesday it started pouring; I cursed my bad luck in choice of vacation days, and drove home a day early, defeated.

That was the bad news, but there was good news too. Although I obviously did not see any insect life as I had hoped, I saw many birds that I haven’t seen in a while, and reconnected with my first love, which was birdwatching (or as we like to call it, “birding” – a less nerdy-sounding word). Birds are very energized in the spring, either migrating to points further north, or beginning their breeding activity here, and unlike the insects, they don’t mind a bit of cold weather.

While you can see signs of songbird migration almost anywhere in Virginia, it is especially exciting and concentrated along the Blue Ridge and Appalachian flyways. The mountains are a natural visual and navigational route, and birds funnel along this corridor in larger numbers than they do in more open habitats. And a wider variety of songbirds breed in the Piedmont and higher altitudes than in the hot and oppressive lowlands of Tidewater.

Almost any birder will tell you that if he must pick a favorite family of songbirds, he will pick the wood warblers. Warblers are truly the jewels of the bird kingdom, tiny little bursts of vivid color and song that occur only in the New World. I mean no disrespect to other kinds of songbirds, but I often gauge the success of a birding trip by the number of warbler species that I saw or heard. Birders boast about those special times when weather conditions were just right and produced “25-warbler days.” On this trip, I managed to see 18 kinds of warblers in the mountains, and this was definitely a highlight. The picture at the beginning of this entry is of a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a plentiful breeding species in our high altitudes; this one was singing vociferously at Paddy’s Knob. Let me introduce you to a few more that I was able to capture with my camera:

The only reliable place in all of Virginia to see Golden-winged Warblers (above) is in the Blue Grass Valley in Highland County. They breed on the property of someone who happens to be a birder and knew what these birds were when she saw them. She has been kind enough to share this information with the rest of us, and most of the birders in Virginia make an annual pilgrimage to the Blue Grass Valley just to see these birds in the spring and summer.


Unlike most other warblers, the Ovenbird (above) is a ground-dweller. It forages on the ground, whereas most other warblers remain high in the treetops. It also builds its nest on the ground; the nest looks like a tiny Dutch oven built of grasses, in the shape of a dome with a side entrance, thus the name “Ovenbird.”


Probably the most common warbler in the mountains is the American Redstart (above). I remember talking with a birder years ago who saw one of these beauties and proclaimed it to be “JUST a Redstart.” Since they are relatively common, they are sometimes considered to be not as “exciting” as other warblers. But look at this jewel! I am happy to see one anytime, and will never call it “just” a Redstart.


Our Virginia mountains are also full of Black-throated Green Warblers. They are another high-elevation bird, but there is also an uncommon race of this warbler called the “Wayne’s Warbler” that is restricted to the South Atlantic coastal plain from southeastern Virginia to South Carolina, and it breeds in the Dismal Swamp.

Here are some other “non-warbler” birds I saw that you might recognize:

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

(Some migrate through Tidewater but they do not breed here)

Indigo Bunting

(You can find these throughout Virginia in most habitats)

American Goldfinch (female)

> Blue-headed Vireo
(a mountain breeder that sometimes winters in Tidewater)

5 useful books for birding in The Blue Ridge and Highland County:

Birder’s Guide to Virginia by David W. Johnston (Indispensable, and the only book currently in print about where to bird in Virginia. Chesapeake Public Library has ordered some copies)

Discover Our Wild Side: Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail by the Virginia Department of Games and Inland Fisheries (This was published in 3 regional guides: Virginia’s Coastal Areas, the Piedmont, and the Mountains. A terrific resource for learning where to find Virginia wildlife; available at the library)

Virginia Atlas & Gazetteer by DeLorme (You need a good topographic map to travel some of the back roads in Highland County)

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America by David Sibley. (The Sibley bird field guides and the National Geographic guides are my favorites).

Birds of Shenandoah National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A Field Guide by Ernest Preston Edwards.

Monday, May 3, 2010


It is hard to get a good picture of a bird at The Dismal Swamp. The place is full of birds and bird song right now, as spring migration is in full swing. The place is also full of bird watchers! The Dismal Swamp is known nationally as a prime birding place, and people come from all over Virginia and other states to add different bird species to their “life lists” and their “year lists.”

But if you’re going to bird at The Swamp, you must learn the songs of the different birds, because you will hear far more birds than you will see. The Swamp is so dense with trees, swamps, shrubs and other foliage that most birds remain well hidden from view. I was very lucky to get the photo (above) of the White-eyed Vireo.

Bird watchers adding birds to their lists learn the birds’ songs before they ever go out into the field, and are able to recognize and “count” far more birds by voice than by sight. There are plenty of excellent tapes and CDs available on the market to help one learn bird songs; some include narrators giving helpful instruction to help you to distinguish one song from another. My favorites have always been the Peterson “Birding by Ear” and “More Birding by Ear” sets (Eastern editions); these really helped me when I moved to the east coast.

The birds are definitely there now to listen to, but since I can’t get many pictures, I will show you some of the other life that I’ve seen this month in The Swamp that’s easier to photograph!

I’ve indentified three different kinds of turtles this spring at The Swamp. The photo above is of a Yellow-bellied Slider; below are an Eastern Painted Turtle (note the red stripes on the legs; this is diagnostic), and a Spotted Turtle. This one is lightly spotted; some are much more striking.

As you know, I love getting a good picture of a dragonfly! This one is called a Painted Skimmer. Their bright gold coloring is absolutely striking against the green darkness of The Swamp.

And I can't resist sharing one more picture of a Harlequin Darner, up close and personal. This is still by far the most common dragonfly in The Swamp right now.

Of the butterflies, the large swallowtails are the ones that most people notice. They are showy, colorful, and become active once temperatures reach about 70 degrees. One of everybody’s favorites is the gorgeous Zebra Swallowtail. They lay their eggs on the leaves of the Pawpaw tree, which is the sole food source of the caterpillar, and there are plenty of those in The Swamp.

Palamedes Swallowtails (below) are very common now, and will continue to be throughout the summer. Their main host plants are Red Bay and Sweet Bay Magnolia, which are also plentiful in The Swamp. I’ve planted these plants in my own yard to attract them, and have successfully raised their caterpillars.

Less showy is the Carolina Satyr, which is numerous now. This is a butterfly that you would never notice unless you were looking for it; they’re a small, brownish, plain-looking butterfly that stays close to the ground, but take a look at it up close; spectacular!

I end this entry with the humble Dung Beetle; actually it’s also called the Tumblebug or the Scarab Beetle. Much nicer names, so I think I’ll use Tumblebug. If you live somewhere near plentiful supplies of dung, you’ve probably seen thousand of these, but this weekend was my first opportunity to see them at work, rolling this huge ball of manure (huge compared to their own size).

It was fascinating to watch! These guys can roll up to 50 times their weight. I learned that female adults lay a single egg in each ball, then bury the ball so the egg can incubate. When the larva emerges from its egg, it eats its dung abode. The male helps the female in this whole process, and this is the only known case among insects where the male aids in providing for the young.

If you’re like me and want to put a name to everything, you need a field guide or other picture books to refer to, and the library is the place to start. Many of the animal books are in the Children’s Library, but don’t let that dissuade you from checking them out; children’s books are usually more visual, with more pictures, and provide good basic information that’s easy to grasp.

Next week I’m off to the mountains for a few days, and I hope I come back with some more photos to share with you!