Gordonsville, VA CBC 12/20/15

All photos are © Marshall Faintich

Scott Boven invited Walt Childs and me to help out with his section of the Gordonsville Christmas Bird Count as we did last year. Scott was especially interested in my capturing photos of any rare species that his group might see. Scott's area of coverage was basically both sides of Jack Jouett Road, both east and west of Route 15. Two Sandhill Cranes had been seen in this area during the past week, and we hoped that this rare (for this part of Virginia) species would stick around for the CBC.

It's an hour's drive to there from Nellysford, so we agreed to meet Scott and the rest of his team at the intersection of these two roads at 10:00 a.m., and knew that Scott and his team had started much earlier in the morning, and would continue after our planned departure time of 4:00 p.m.

We didn't see much on our first drive on Jack Jouett Road on our way to the other entrance to Bracketts Farm, but stopped along the way near that entrance where we observed a fair number of woodland birds. The most numerous species there was American Robin, and 30 to 40 of them were flying back and forth between the trees.

As we entered Bracketts Farm, we stopped when we spotted a Red-tailed Hawk. It's very bold and extensive markings may indicate that it was a member of the northern sub-species that winters in this area.


Red-tailed Hawk

Scott then said he wanted to go first to the "ice pond," a small, shallow pond down a different road on the farm, before going to the large lake on the farm. We had not gone to the ice pond last year, and didn't know what to expect. We stopped close to the pond when a raptor was spotted. It was a distant Bald Eagle, and then a second eagle was seen flying with it.


Bald Eagle

And then the fun began. A large, loose flock of Starlings flew into the area - perhaps 2,000+ in number. I took a few photos to document them, but the flock was so dispersed that I couldn't capture the entire flock in one frame.


Starlings


Starlings - full resolution sub-set of another photo of the flock

All of a sudden, the two Sandhill Cranes flew in from the southeast, and through the loose flock of Starlings going the other direction.


Sandhill Cranes


Sandhill Cranes


Sandhill Cranes


Sandhill Cranes

And then, all H**L seemed to break loose - the Starlings coalesced into a tight swarm, and I started taking photos - immediately, I saw a larger bird going after the swarm - a Cooper's Hawk. Perhaps the hawk was trying to pick off one of the Starlings for a meal, and the Starling formed the swarm as a defense mechanism? The hawk seems to have stayed in the same position relative to the flock over a sequence of photos, and it may be that the change of shape of the swarm was really our viewing it from different angles as the swarm turned to evade the hawk?? I donít know if the swarm was changing directions on its own to try to lose the hawk, or whether it was being pushed in different directions by the hawk approaching the swarm.

I have included only a few of the photos from this sequence. In the photos of the entire swarm, I have highlighted the Cooper's Hawk, and also included a full resolution inset of the hawk on some of them.


Cooper's Hawk and Starlings


Cooper's Hawk and Starlings


Cooper's Hawk and Starlings


Cooper's Hawk and Starlings


Cooper's Hawk and Starlings


Cooper's Hawk and Starlings


Cooper's Hawk and Starlings


Cooper's Hawk and Starlings


Cooper's Hawk and Starlings


Cooper's Hawk and Starlings


Cooper's Hawk and Starlings


Cooper's Hawk and Starlings


Cooper's Hawk and Starlings


Cooper's Hawk and Starlings


Cooper's Hawk and Starlings


Cooper's Hawk and Starlings

And then we turned our attention to another loose flock near the swarm. There were 1,000+ birds in this flock. They were a bit farther away, and seemed to be lighter in appearance. Some of the team thought they might have been Robins, but they looked more like Starlings to me, and my photos do not clearly show the birds well enough to identify the species.


Starlings?

Wow! We took a few minutes to digest what we had just witnessed, and then headed for the large lake on the farm. There was a large flock of Canada Geese, and quite a few ducks - 100+ Ring-necked, and a few Gadwalls, Mallards, and Hooded Mergansers. Most of the birds were at the far end of the lake. We also spotted a Belted Kingfisher and a Great Blue Heron.


Ring-necked Ducks


Ring-necked Ducks


Hooded Merganser and Ring-necked Duck


Gadwalls


Gadwall


Belted Kingfisher


Great Blue Heron

The best birds on the lake, however, were five Tundra Swans.


Tundra Swans


Tundra Swans


Tundra Swans


Tundra Swans

We continued birding near the lake, and added a few more birds to the CBC list.


Female Downy Woodpecker


Male Downy Woodpecker


Yellow-rumped Warbler

Our next stop was at the farm on the south side of Jack Jouett Road. The is a good site for Short-eared Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, and Northern Harriers. We didn't see any owls, and only one distant Northern Harrier, and one Red-tailed Hawk. We did see a few sparrow species, including a few Savannah Sparrows (a life bird for Scott).


Northern Harrier


Red-tailed Hawk


Savannah Sparrow

The last stop for Walt and me was at Hawkwood Farm. We saw quite a few birds there last year, but this time there were only a flock of Canada Geese, a Great Blue Heron, and a few other common woodland birds. A couple of the geese looked much smaller than the rest of them, but had the same bill shape, so they were most likely Lesser Canada Geese, and not Cackling Geese.


Great Blue Heron


Canada Geese

Walt and I headed for home, and Scott and the rest of his team continued looking for birds. At that point, Scott's team had seen 46 avian species.



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