Shenandoah Valley, VA 12/27/13

All photos are Marshall Faintich

Prior commitments meant that today's birding trip would most likely be my last one until after the new year. My original thoughts were to head up to the Bridgewater/Harrisonburg areas to look for ducks in the ponds and lakes, and perhaps get lucky to spot the Snowy Owl that had been reported off and on in that area since November 21st. But I didn't feel very strong about going there, as in more than a week, there had been only one report of a Snowl Owl photo taken somewhere near there, or perhaps the photo was taken in West Virginia. I had already searched the previous Snowy Owl site locations three times with Walt Childs, and once on my own with no success.

Walt met me at my house, and we headed off towards the Shenandoah Valley, but still hadn't decided where exactly to go birding. On route 151 in the Rockfish Valley, we spotted a pair of Red-tailed Hawks perched in a tree. Seeing a lone Red-tailed Hawk in the valley is common, but seeing a pair together is uncommon. Most of the hawks I see in the Rockfish Valley are Red-shouldered, but many of the Red-tailed Hawks that reside in the adjacent Blue Ridge Mountains come down into the valley during winter months where food is more abundant. Perhaps seeing the two hawks was a harbinger of good birding for the day?

As we got onto I-64 west at Afton Mountain, I asked Walt where he wanted to go. Walt suggested driving through Stuart's Draft to see if the large and mixed flock of geese were still on the large pond along route 340, and then head over to McCormick's Mill and then to Willow Lake in Raphine. Sounded good to me.

The geese were gone and most of the pond was frozen, but we did see a Red-shouldered Hawk and another Red-tailed Hawk in Stuart's Draft on Hall School Road.


Red-shouldered Hawk (left); Red-tailed Hawk (right)

There were a few Gadwalls and Mallards in the small pond at McCormick's Mill, and three barnyard Greylag Geese in the adjacent field.


Male and female Gadwalls


Greylag Geese

Willow Lake was only a few miles from the mill, and there we saw 100+ Canada Geese, a few Buffleheads, Mallards, Ruddy Ducks, and a Hooded Merganser. We did not see the Long-tailed Duck or Tundra Swan that I photographed there last week.


Bufflehead (left); Hooded Merganser (right)


Male and female Mallards

It was now 11:30 in the morning, and Walt asked me if I wanted to head up to the Bridgewater/Harrisonburg area. That would have been about a 45 minute drive along I-81, with nothing to see but big trucks and heavy Friday traffic until we got there, so I suggested going on back roads to Swoope. We took Raphine Road (606) all the way to Brownsburg Turnpike (252) and headed north, following directions from my car GPS. Along the way we saw two Cooper's Hawks, and lots of Kestrels. One of the female Kestrels had just caught her lunch. At one point we saw 1000+ Starlings, and they landed in multiple trees on both sides of the road.


Female American Kestrel


Female American Kestrel


Female American Kestrel


Male American Kestrel


Cooper's Hawk


Starlings

We turned off of route 252 at Shemariah Road, and then onto Summerdean Road (602) for Swoope. I am not sure where along this route we saw the following. As we were driving up a small hill, a raptor flew along the left side of the car and over the ridge. Both Walt and I thought Northern Harrier because it was low to the ground, had a wide wing-span, and a clear white rump patch. We stopped the car and got out at the bottom of the hill after crossing the hill top. I didn't see the Northern Harrier, but I did see two Red-tailed Hawks - one was an adult and the other a juvenile. Both were flying low to the ground. The juvenile took off to my left and out of view, and the adult followed a minute later.

The adult Red-tailed Hawk was almost completely white on its underside - no dark belly bands, just the hint of a few underside streaks, had rufous instead of black patagial marks on its wings, and a broad white stripe on its upper tail feathers. This bird looked a lot like a Krider's sub-species, except that it had a mostly dark head, and the red on its tail was too bold. I suspect that it was a hybrid between the Krider's and Eastern Red-tailed Hawk subspecies. The juvenile hawk looked much more like an Eastern sub-species juvenile, but it did have a pale buffy head. Perhaps the juvenile was the off-spring of the Krider's hybrid and an Eastern??


Krider's x Eastern Red-tailed Hawk


Krider's x Eastern Red-tailed Hawk


Krider's x Eastern Red-tailed Hawk


Krider's x Eastern Red-tailed Hawk


Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

When we got to Smith Lake in Swoope, we saw a few woodland birds, and a small flock of Canada Geese and Mallards. I thought I got a glimpse of a Downy Woodpecker, but it was clearly a Hairy Woodpecker after looking at the photos.


Hairy Woodpecker

The best birds at Smith Lake were the pair of resident Bald Eagles. One of them took off and flew across the lake, and then circled back to join up with its mate as they flew together and then landed in a distant tree.


Bald Eagle


Bald Eagle


Bald Eagles


Bald Eagles


Bald Eagles


Bald Eagles


Bald Eagles


Bald Eagles

We decided to go from there to the Augusta Springs Wetlands. On the narrow Hewitt Road just before Route 42, we stopped when we saw a Pileated Woodpecker eating berries from a tree just off the road to my left. I unrolled the car window and took lots of close-up photos. The woodpecker was much more interested in the berries than noticing me.


Pileated Woodpecker


Pileated Woodpecker

There wasn't much to see at Augusta Springs Wetlands, so we headed home after seeing 30+ species for the trip. The raptors were a real treat to see on the trip.

A little after 4:00 in the afternoon, I turned on my computer to read e-mail and search the local list-server postings. Vic Laubach posted that he saw a Snowy Owl at one of the previous sites in Bridgewater at 12:15, and it was there all afternoon - drats! We would have been there at 12:15 had I not picked Swoope.

I called Walt and he asked if I wanted to go there in the morning (12/28) to look for the Snowy Owl. I said that I had things to do, wanted to get these photos processed, and thought that it wouldn't still be there anyway. As I type these words, I just read that it is still there, but I have other commitments for the day. Oh well, perhaps in 2014.



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