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Mountains Manned

October 7, 2008

With fall migration in full swing across many parts of the country there are times it seems as though most of the birds have already punched their tickets for tropical climes. Add that to some really serious energy issues that have hit the southeast in the wake of Hurricane Ike limiting my excursions beyond the immediate area, and I was beginning to think that the fall was going to pass me by.

Well, the energy issues have begun to abate, and with a couple more weeks of fall migration in front of me I took the opportunity to head west to the Blue Ridge Parkway to see if I could pick up any of those holes that have thus far plagued my year list. Fortunately, the mountains aren’t that far away, and by 9 AM I was pulling on to the Parkway with windows open listening for any sign of migrating birds.

It wasn’t long before I found my first group of chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches, and in that group, my first warblers, some Black and Whites, my first Yellow-rumped of the season and a sharp Bay-breasted Warbler. It was the first of what would be nearly 50 Bays I’d see throughout the day, they must have recently made a seriously push through the area. Nearly every single group of birds I found had at least one, and several many more. It’s strange, then, that I’ve never seen this bird in its spring finery, only in the fall. One of these days, right?

I followed a path to a waterfall and along the way ran into a couple more groups of migrating birds. Tennessee Warblers were nearly as thick as the Bays, and a few Orange-crowns made sure to keep the identifications a little tricksy. Among the groups were pairs of Swainson’s Thrushes, small groups of Blue-headed Vireos, and several Black-throated Blue Warblers, one of my absolute favorites. It was actually a really good morning for birds, and even with a latish start it felt like I was really in the middle of it.

I had a theory for finding birds. It involved driving the Parkway with all my windows open slow enough so that I could hear birds, usually chickadees and nuthatches, calling. At that point I’d pull over, jump out, and look for birds. This turned out to be a pretty successful plan, and every time I pulled off I added another species of warbler to my day list. A Black-throated Green here, a couple Magnolias there, a Chestnut-sided and a Blackburnian at the next stop, and finally, a pair of Cape May Warblers, another warbler I’ve only ever seen in the fall and a new bird for the year.

My secret for this wealth of warblers was the old Screech Owl whistle, a trick taught to me by my dad. Every time I pulled it out it would bring in the Chickadees and Juncos like gangbusters, and usually, right after the initial rush, the warblers would slide in to investigate. Nearly every warbler I got was a direct result of the alternating Screech Owl/pishing strategy. Why it worked so well yesterday I don’t know, but I suspect it had something to do with the fact that the majority of birds in the field were first years and therefore, not quite up to distinguishing a legitimate Screech Owl from a whistling dude.

It must have been a fairly good imitation though, because at one spot I didn’t only bring in some warblers, but I also goaded an real live Eastern Screech-Owl into calling a bit in the middle of the day. So that, thankfully, reduces the need to cruise the forested backroads of Durham County later in the year.

I spent a couple more hours on the Parkway, finding more individuals of birds I’d already seen, but nothing new. I had hoped that a couple more warblers, Nashville and Golden-winged specifically, might be in the cards but twas not to be. I may still find them around here, fingers crossed and all, and 300 still looks like a reasonable expectation.

In the end it was just a nice fall day in the mountains, and you can’t beat that.


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