Blue Ridge Parkway, VA, 5/19/16

All photos are Marshall Faintich

I'm going to get back onto my ranting soapbox in this report. You might want to just look at the pictures.

The morning was heavily overcast, but I had other commitments that kept me from morning birding, anyway. By noon, the skies were starting to clear, so I decided to check out my favorite warbler sites on the first 14 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I entered the parkway at Reids Gap (mm 14), and headed straight to my #1 site, Hickory Springs Overlook (mm 12). I sometimes make a quick stop at 3 Ridges Overlook (mm 13), but didn't even bother this time. A few weeks ago, all of the brush and many of the trees, that sometimes provide habitat for Hooded Warblers and Common Yellowthroats, had been cut down. The scenic view was a lot prettier after all the cutting, but the birds were gone.

As I approached Hickory Springs Overlook with my car windows down, I could hear lots of birds on the south side of the overlook. This was a bit unusual, as most of the birds, especially nesting American Redstarts and Cerulean Warblers, are just to the north of the overlook. I parked my car at the overlook and walked south. There were birds everywhere in this wooded area - several Cerulean and Black&White Warblers, and American Redstarts. I thought I heard another warbler's song, perhaps a Blackpoll, but couldn't locate it. After getting lots of photos of warblers and other avian species, I walked up the parkway past the north end of the overlook.


American Redstart


Immature male American Redstart


Cerulean Warbler


Cerulean Warbler


Cerulean Warbler


Cerulean Warbler doing some pull-ups


Cedar Waxwing


Hairy Woodpecker


Eastern Towhee


Eastern Phoebe enjoying a meal

For those of you not familiar with the first 14 miles of the parkway, there are lots of not-too-densely wooded tree areas, and every so often, especially at the overlooks where trees had been cut down years ago, there are large sloping areas of dense ground vegetation, sometimes with a few trees. The birds love to forage for insects in this dense vegetation, and perhaps this is why breeding warblers tend to nest close by.

I was unhappy to see that most of this dense ground vegetation had been cut down, just as I had seen at the Rockfish Gap Overlook (mm 2) and reported in my posting 10 days ago. I suppose that the cutting might be necessary to prevent forest fires, but why can't it be done after fall migration, or staggered so that some foraging areas are left for the nesting birds? The U.S. Forest Service has had a program since 2007 to conserve habitat for Cerulean Warblers, and at the same time is destroying the primary foraging sites for this species.

I saw heard and saw very few birds to the north of the overlook, where there used to be a very good foraging area in the ground vegetation. I might have heard an Ovenbird up the wooded slope but couldn't tell for sure, and I heard at least one Wood Thrush singing, but couldn't locate it.

As I was getting ready to move on, a Red-tailed Hawk flew up near the overlook. All of a sudden, a Broad-winged Hawk came out of nowhere and chased the Red-tailed Hawk away. I had seen a Broad-winged Hawk there several times this spring, and perhaps it was protecting its territory. As I got into my car, I did a count of the avian species I had either seen or positively identified by song (only the Wood Thrush), and I had 20 avian species at that stop.


Red-tailed Hawk


Broad-winged Hawk


Broad-winged Hawk chasing the Red-tailed Hawk

My next stop was at the large cirque between mm 7 and mm 8. There is a huge granite outcropping in the middle of the cirque, and lots of warblers can usually be found either at the higher south end and/or the lower north end. Canada Warblers usually spend a few weeks in May right at the curved road sign at the upper end (where I saw and reported one ten days ago). To my dismay, all of the dense ground vegetation had been cut down all along the cirque, and even closer to the ground than at Hickory Springs Overlook. There were very few birds there. I heard one Cerulean Warbler and a couple of American Redstarts. I did locate one Ovenbird in the wooded area just to the south of the cirque.


Ovenbird


Ovenbird

I was really upset about all the habitat loss. I decided to leave the parkway at mm 4.5 where I could get onto Route 610 that runs parallel and close to the parkway. Although there aren't any cleared tree areas for scenic views, I quite often find birds along there. I stopped when I heard lots of birds near to the parkway overlook at mm 3. There were more American Redstarts, Cerulean Warblers, and Black&White Warblers, as well as other species, and I add four more avian species to my parkway list for the afternoon.


Black&White Warbler


Black&White Warbler


Downy Woodpecker


Red-eyed Vireo

I heard a pair of Wood Thrushes singing on both sides and close to Route 610. Although I have heard Wood Thrushes many times, I have only seen (and photographed) this species three times in the nine years I have been birding. This time I got lucky.


Wood Thrush


Wood Thrush


Wood Thrush


Wood Thrush


Wood Thrushes

I re-entered the parkway at mm 2.5, and made a stop at the Rockfish Valley Overlook (mm 2) to see if the Kentucky and Cerulean Warblers had returned to their usual nesting sites after all the cutting of the ground vegetation on the eastern downslope of the overlook. All I found there were two Indigo Buntings.

It is clear to me that the right hand of the Forest Service has no clue as to what their left hand is doing. I am not a "tree hugger," but after 5+ years of being the birding activity manager for the Rockfish Valley Trail, and seeing the catastrophic loss of number and species of birds after changes in habitat on adjacent parcels of land, I have become keenly aware of the effects of habitiat change on wildlife. And it really bothers me. Prior to moving to central Virginia 10 years ago, I spent 2 years on the Loudoun County (Virginia) Economic Development Council right at the peak of the "slow-growth, fast-growth" controversy there, and after unsuccessfully trying to get both sides to agree to a "managed growth" policy, I gave up. Also note that the proposed route for the Dominion Power Atlantic Coast Pipeline crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway near Hickory Springs Overlook. Even if they tunnel underneath the parkway, there will have to be lots of blasting, and noisy and heavy equipment will be parked at the overlooks. There was a considerable loss of warbler activity along the first 14 miles of the parkway a few years ago when the road was being re-surfaced, and the avian population is just starting to recover there. End of my soapbox rant - at least until next time.



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