Highland County, Virginia 3/18/15

All photos are Marshall Faintich

Walt Childs and I crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains and headed west into Highland County and into the Blue Grass Valley located near the West Virginia border. The Blue Grass Valley is a great place to see raptors, including Golden Eagles in the winter. These magnificent eagles usually stay around until early April, and we were hoping to get some more views of them before they headed north for the summer.

As soon as we crossed over into Highland County, we noticed a change - we saw Turkey Vultures, and this species isn't normally seen there in the winter. We stopped along the way from Monterey to Blue Grass to see some common species, and when we got to Blue Grass, we headed up Wimer Mountain Road, and saw some more common avian species.


Red-tailed Hawk


Red-winged Blackbird, Dark-eyed Junco, Mourning Dove, Song Sparrow


Immature male Red-winged Blackbird


Female American Kestrel


Female American Kestrel


Turkey Vultures


Wood Duck

We stopped at the top of Wimer Mountain Road, and thought perhaps we had missed the boat on this trip, as the only raptor other than vultures we had seen was a single Red-tailed Hawk on the way from Monterey. We decided to head back down and go west on Hardscrabble Road. We continued past Hevener Road, as a mile or so west of there were some areas where we had seen Bald Eagles on previous trips.

But we didn't see any eagles, so we turned the car around to go back to the east. Less than a minute after turning back, we saw our first Golden Eagle of this trip. It was a juvenile. The bright sunlight worked against us, as the Golden Eagle circled a few times in the direction of the sun, making viewing and photography difficult, and then it flew northeast toward Wimer Mountain Road.


Juvenile Golden Eagle


Juvenile Golden Eagle


Juvenile Golden Eagle


Juvenile Golden Eagle


Juvenile Golden Eagle


Juvenile Golden Eagle


Juvenile Golden Eagle


Juvenile Golden Eagle

We drove back to the top of Wimer Mountain Road, looking for the juvenile Golden Eagle along the way, but could not re-locate it. We agreed that seeing the Golden Eagle had made the long trip worthwhile, but we weren't done yet. We headed back down Wimer Mountain Road, and stopped when we saw four distant Turkey Vultures. At a distance, Golden Eagles and Turkey Vultures can look similar, so we checked them out. I saw that one of them was heading towards us, and it had a golden head! It was a sub-adult Golden Eagle. There was still a bit of white in its tail feathers.


Sub-adult Golden Eagle


Sub-adult Golden Eagle


Sub-adult Golden Eagle


Sub-adult Golden Eagle


Sub-adult Golden Eagle


Sub-adult Golden Eagle


Sub-adult Golden Eagle


Sub-adult Golden Eagle

This second Golden Eagle never got close to us before it circled and flew away. We decided to go back to Hardscrabble Road, and look for more eagles. Before we got to Hevener Road, we saw a small herd of cows tending to some calves at the bottom of one of the hills where a small creek goes under the road.


Cow and calf

All of a sudden, a male Northern Harrier flew up from that field and out of sight. It was a sub-adult "gray ghost" male, as its head was still dark with juvenile plumage. I wasn't able to get a good photo of this hawk.


Sub-adult, male Northern Harrier

A minute or so later, we saw our third Golden Eagle of the day - another juvenile. Note the different under wing pattern and outer wing feathers compared with the first juvenile Golden Eagle.


Sub-adult Golden Eagle


Sub-adult Golden Eagle


Sub-adult Golden Eagle


Sub-adult Golden Eagle


Sub-adult Golden Eagle

We left Highland County having seen 27 avian species there, and happy that we got to see three Golden Eagles. On the return trip, we drove along Bell's Lane in Staunton, and added at least six more species to the trip list. We had distant pond views of Canada Geese, Scaups, Canvasbacks, Green-winged Teals, and Northern Shovelers. We got a quick look at an interesting bird - almost certainly an Icterid, but not a good enough view to determine if it was a Red-winged Blackbird or an early season oriole.


Icterid



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