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.

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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.”

 

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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.

 

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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:

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Rose-breasted Grosbeak

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

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Indigo Bunting

(You can find these throughout Virginia in most habitats)
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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.

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