Rockfish Valley Trail 12/13/12

All photos are Marshall Faintich

Some birding days start off slow and end with a bang. Today was one of those days.

I arrived at the trail around 9:15, and headed downstream. It was sunny and bright, but quite chilly with temperatures in the low 30s, and there was still frost on parts of the trail that were in shadow. It was fairly quiet for a nice morning - perhaps it was the Red-tailed Hawk that I saw as soon as I headed downstream? This hawk took off as soon as it saw me.


Red-tailed Hawk

I hiked through the bog area and back around it, and having only seen 16 avian species at this point, was a bit disappointed.


Carolina Wren


Belted Kingfisher

As I headed west on the downstream trail back to where I had parked my car at the main kiosk, I saw two birds heading my way from the west side of route 251. From their size and the way they were flying, I thought, "Kestrels," and focused my camera on the closest one. After taking a series of shots, I looked for the second bird, but could not locate it. From what I saw through my camera lens and then on the camera viewfinder, I then thought the first bird was not a Kestrel, but a Sharp-shinned Hawk, based on its size, squared-off tail, and the way it was flying. However, after post-processing the photos, I can clearly see a gray cheek and nape, making it a small adult Cooper's Hawk.


Cooper's Hawk


Cooper's Hawk


Cooper's Hawk


Cooper's Hawk


Cooper's Hawk


Cooper's Hawk

Okay, now I had 17 species in about 45 minutes. As I walked under the route 151 bridge and up to the kiosk, I saw a second Red-tailed Hawk through the trees. It quickly saw me as well, and started to fly, but not away from me, but rather low and almost directly over my head, and then it circled above me.


Red-tailed Hawk


Red-tailed Hawk


Red-tailed Hawk


Red-tailed Hawk


Red-tailed Hawk


Red-tailed Hawk


Red-tailed Hawk


Red-tailed Hawk

I headed upstream to the park benches, adding a Downy Woodpecker to my morning list, and decided that it was so quiet on the trail that I would have to be satisfied with 18 species in one hour. I got into my car and headed toward home, but changed my mind and decided to turn onto Glenthorne Loop Road (route 627). Along the way I saw a male American Kestrel (#19), but I was looking directly into the sun. Now I wondered if I really had seen a Kestrel on the downstream trail, and it had been chasing the hawk. At this point, my typical drive would be to take 627 all the way around to route 151 where it meets up with route 664, and then head home on route 151. But at the last minute I decided to turn back and pull off route 627 at the south end of the trail, and see if I could find my 20th species on the trail this morning. Sure enough, there was a Tufted Titmouse (#20) in a tree near my car.


Male American Kestrel

As I got back into my car, I decided to go back north on 627. If that male Kestrel was still there, I might be able to get a photo of it with the sun at my back. As I drove past the first wooden bridge, I saw a female kestrel sitting on a power line.


Female American Kestrel

And then lightning struck twice. I had been trying to find and photograph a "Gray Ghost," a male Northern Harrier for three years now, and yesterday afternoon I was finally successful with this goal when I saw one about 50 miles from here off of E. Jack Jouett Road near Zion Crossroads. Now I was driving on route 627, and through my windshield I saw something that I couldn't believe. Was it another Gray Ghost at the far end of the field? It sure looked like a Northern Harrier, and it looked gray at that distance, but I knew that lighting can play tricks with color.


Northern Harrier

I pulled over to the side of the road and marched through the tall vegetation in the field as the Harrier flew farther and farther away from me, but I got off a few shots - YES!! My second Gray Ghost in less than 24 hours.


Northern Harrier


Northern Harrier

After losing the Gray Ghost to the south, I returned to my car. As I turned the bend on 627 at the Elk Hill Baptist Church, I saw the male American Kestrel perching in a distant tree. And I saw the Gray Ghost fly from the field along the Spruce Creek trail over the trees that border Spruce Creek and out of view. When I got out of my car again, the Kestrel put on an aerial acrobatics display for me.


Male American Kestrel


Male American Kestrel


Male American Kestrel


Male American Kestrel


Male American Kestrel

This morning's RV Trail list (21 species):

Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Blue Jay
Eastern Bluebird
Carolina Wren
Belted Kingfisher
Tufted Titmouse
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Cardinal
Northern Mockingbird
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
American Kestrel
Turkey Vulture
Black Vulture
American Crow


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