The Birds of August

August is a notoriously bad time to go birding.  It's too late for most breeding birds, too early for most migrants, and it's always stinking hot, without the heat being in any way a novelty.  Yet for some reason, I always end up taking a good long birding session, either somewhere on the road or near home, smack in the middle of it.  Two years back (I think) my neighbor Shari and I went to Canaan Valley NWR in West Virginia on an unsuccessful quest to get me a life bird; last year I went to the low country of Georgia to poke around for a lifer, again in vain.

This year, however, I wasn't pushing for a lifer, so I was able to relax a little bit and enjoy the chance to wander up and down the section of the Rapidan River that borders Woodberry's campus. Accompanying me on this trip was Darcy Levitt of the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia; I'll be visiting the ASNV's December 4th meeting to do a reading and chew the fat with some of the members, so Darcy and I decided to do a little birding together before school started and my schedule became completely insane.

We picked a good morning--Saturday--with temperatures in the low 80s and the air moving at a friendly clip, even in the forest along the river. The greatest concentration of biomass seemed to be spiders, of which there were seemingly millions, most of them stringing webs across the trail. (At one point, my cap was wrapped in a decorative swatch of webbing that looked like something from an Indiana Jones movie.) We did spot a few other non-birds during our trek, though: a variety of small toads hopping about the trail... swallowtail butterflies flitting from leaf to leaf above us... two rusty young deer standing on a small green island in the middle of the river, staring at us... and a disturbed nest of snake eggs, all very close to hatching, judging by the nearly-perfect young snake I pulled out of one broken shell.

But we were there for birds, of course, and we were given what we came for:

*In one thick-foliaged sycamore, a handful of busy Blue-gray gnatcatchers kept us distracted from the tree's other denizens for nearly ten minutes, but we eventually spotted the telltale field marks of a male Summer Tanager, a female Baltimore Oriole, and several other unidentifiable warblery birds.

*We had a small nondescript seed-eater settle in a tree by the path for several minutes without ever yielding up a single useful field mark. It had a thick triangular bill, with a darker upper mandible, but the rest of the bird was pale brown without anything else to go by. No heavy streaking anywhere, no clear cap, no lines through eyes or on malar areas, no wing bars. The throat was perhaps a bit whiter than the breast, but not by much. It wasn't until I got home that I found (in the incredibly useful Field Guide Companion by Pete Dunne) that one bird's lack of distinguishing features is itself a distinguishing feature: the young and/or female Indigo Bunting. I checked out a few more field guides, and I'm convinced: it was too close and too nondescript to be anything else.

*A variety of flycatchers were about; we picked up both calls and some clear looks at Eastern Wood-Pewees, but there were calls from Acadian Flycatchers, too, and one Eastern Kingbird on a wire fence in one of the pastures uphill from the river. I'm not sure we didn't see a Least Flycatcher or two, but I'm not paid enough to stress out over Empidonax flycatchers when I've got them both on my life list already.

*We got a beautiful piece-by-piece I.D. that began in the middle of the river. While standing on some mid-river rocks to admire a couple of Belted Kingfishers, I spotted a slim brown bird arrowing across the river.  Darcy followed its flight back to the south side, where it skulked in the mid-storey foliage for a bit before returning to the north side. It was thrasher-sized, but it wasn't behaving like one at all, and I hadn't noticed any streaks underneath, and the wings (but not the tail) seemed rather rufous-colored... I began thinking it was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. But of course it wouldn't come out. We returned to the bank and began hearing a soft, dovelike call, sort of a cowlp cowlp cowlp, and an occasional brief rattling cluck.  Poring over my Sibley and National Geographic guides, I discovered that both of these were definitely cuckoo-like calls. The calls continued over the next ten minutes or so, and Darcy and I became convinced that it was in fact a cuckoo--the first I've seen on campus, and the first I've seen at all in some years.

*After we left the waterside and cut up through the pastures, the insect eaters appeared in force. We saw dozens of Eastern Bluebirds, some immature, pouncing on bugs from the low branches of some cherry trees, while above us swirled a near-cyclonic mass of Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, and Chimney Swifts. (It was 11:00 a.m. by this time, so the swifts were definitely off their usual schedule.) A few more gnatcatchers popped up, as did a few American Goldfinches, some Robins, and a Chipping Sparrow or three.

*On the way back to the car, we moved back into the riparian forest, where I got a brief look at a male Scarlet Tanager in a young paw-paw tree, and where a glowing blue-violet male Blue Grosbeak posed nicely for us at the edge of a meadow for several minutes.

All in all, we got nearly three dozen species, enjoyed a beautiful day on the river, and laid out the plans for December's Nature Night program.  I'm looking forward to it.  I'm also happy that when I get there, I will no longer have snake-egg yolk on my hands.  Ewwww.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on August 10, 2008 4:16 PM.

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