Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Dreary Weather Yields Excitement On Shenandoah River

Monday, April 7th, seemed like an interminably long day at the office–the combination of a one-hour time change the day before, too little sleep the previous night, a lingering cold, and crappy weather. On the long drive from work, all I could think about was getting home so I could lie down and take a nap. But a voice in the back of my mind told me that the ground-soaking steady rain, overcast skies, and fog might act to "ground" migrants along the Shenandoah River corridor in Jefferson County, West Virginia.

As it turned out, the river provided almost more excitement than this old man's heart could stand, resulting in the sighting of four super birds for the Eastern Panhandle: COMMON LOON, CANVASBACK, BONAPARTE'S GULL, FORSTER'S TERN.

While crossing the Route 9 bridge, a TERN-like (!) bird flew across the road in front of me. Much to my chagrin, I lost sight of this bird when I made the turn onto Bloomery Road, thinking I would never see it again. I parked at Moulton Park, where I noted at least 2 Red-necked Grebes and several Double-crested Cormorants. I then noted what appeared to be a major passage of Tree and Northern Rough-winged swallows northward along the river. The birds seemed to be purposely moving downstream just above the surface of the water; there was very little of the milling, swarming, and twisting flight more typical of foraging flocks. I then determined to try to make a timed count of passing swallows. Almost immediately, the TERN appeared again right in front of me. It passed by my advantage point several times and even made a couple of plunge-dives. It was finally determined to be a FORSTER'S TERN by the combination of medium size, overall white appearance, bill orange-red at the base and dark at the tip, black cap (except for a white forehead), very light forewings on dorsal surface, and relatively long deeply-forked tail. While watching the FORSTER'S, two BONAPARTE'S GULLS flew by and landed on the river (a nice bonus).

At this point, Matt Orsie (who had arrived just in time to see the FORSTER'S) and I exchanged greetings and reflected on our uncommonly good luck. I then proceeded north on Bloomery Road toward the spillway. A half-mile from Moulton Park, a FORSTER'S TERN (presumably the same bird) was noted resting on a log with two BONAPARTE'S GULLS, making a nice comparison. A few seconds later, a COMMON LOON in full breeding plumage was sighted near the road, offering a very brief but unmistakable glimpse as it plunged into the water. This is a species I have been looking for on the Shenandoah for the better part of 10 years; perseverance pays off. And finally, a female-plumaged CANVASBACK was hidden in a large raft of Lesser Scaup, Ruddy Ducks, Buffleheads, and Ring-necked Ducks located about a half-mile further down-river, just above the rapids.

To the comprehensive list of 20 species of waterbirds posted to the West Virginia bird listserv last evening by Matt Orsie, I can add two more: Red-breasted Merganser (4) and Belted Kingfisher (1 heard). I left too early to witness the incredible raft of 142 BONAPARTE'S GULLS that Matt reported, but I did enjoy watching the Double-crested Cormorants fly in to their night-time tree roosts; I had a minimum count of 48 birds.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot. While watching the swallows skim the surface of the water, a larger, darker bird whizzed by heading north, also right on the deck. I at first thought that it was some species of shorebird, but soon determined that it was a Merlin. At one point it nearly collided (quite by accident, I believe) with a surprised swallow, but the swallow lived to fly another day.

In less than a half-hour, I had experienced perhaps my most exciting day of birding in West Virginia. Wow!


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