April 2010 Issue
Spring migration brings even more wild and wonderful reasons to visit the Mountain State.
Officially, January 1 marks the beginning of a new calendar year. But for birders, at least in this part of the country, the proverbial ball drops at the end of this month, when the first feathered travelers begin to reappear after a long winter of world traveling.
“For me, spring migration is like welcoming back friends,” says Dave Pollard, a self-proclaimed “bird nerd” and one of the organizers of the annual New River Birding and Nature Festival in Fayette County, West Virginia. “To go from seeing only a few species for the past six months to suddenly dozens and dozens, it’s an exciting time,” he says.
As the third most wooded state in the U.S., West Virginia is particularly well suited for attracting wildlife and its watchers, especially in spring. “We are one of the few areas left on the East Coast that is predominantly woodland,” Pollard says, explaining that the state’s topography attracts an impressive flock of neotropical migrant birds — songbird species including warblers and tanagers that overwinter in tropical regions such as Central and South America. These species often travel thousands of miles — some without stopping — to return north to breed and raise young. In the area surrounding the New River Gorge, says Pollard, it’s not uncommon to see 28 to 32 species of warblers, not to mention waterfowl, tanagers and eagles, among others, as spring migration heats up.
“Because of the steepness of the gorge, the diversity of species you’ll see is really phenomenal,” says Pollard. “You’ll find waterfowl and Orioles down at the bottom, and Black-throated blues [warblers] up top.” According to the festival’s Web site, this area is the heart of the upland, hardwood forests identified by Cornell Lab of Ornithology as a crucial stopover habitat for the continued survival of warbler species such as Golden-winged, Blue-winged and Swainson’s, as well as the Scarlet Tanager. Pollard says the once nearly obsolete bald eagle population has also made a strong comeback here, and sightings of this national symbol are as possible as they are exciting.
Rodney Bartgis, the state director of The Nature Conservancy’s West Virginia chapter in Elkins, says the presence of Swainson’s warbler is one of the highlights of birding in the New River region, since the species is generally found in the South, but occasionally turns up in local rhododendron thickets.
Bartgis, who has been with the Conservancy since 1994 and has birded “all over the U.S.,” says the nearby Treetops Canopy Tour is among his favorite ways to welcome warblers and their fellow spring migrants. “On the ziplines and skywalks, you’re eye to eye or sometimes even looking down on them,” he says. Bartgis adds that, while the tours aren’t specifically designed for bird-watching, some of the company’s guides (a large man nicknamed “Tiny” was specifically mentioned by several sources) are avid birders. Let them know that you’re interested in birding when you make your reservation, and they’ll do their best to accommodate you with a bird-savvy guide.
Of course, in a state whose tagline is “wild and wonderful,” opportunities for bird-watching can be found throughout. Both Bartgis and Pollard tout the Monongahela National Forest in the eastern part of the state as a go-to spot for nature viewing. Here, you’ll find some of the most abundant and significant parts of West Virginia’s natural legacy, including Dolly Sods, the Canaan Valley — home to the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge — and Cranberry Glades. “Cranberry Glades is a great place for nature in general,” says Bartgis. “It’s a bog complex in Pocahontas County, and it’s a good spot for viewing northern species such as Swainson’s thrush and Canada warbler.”
“For me, it’s the Red Crossbills,” says Pollard. “There’s just one tiny spot in West Virginia that they come to, and that spot is Cranberry.” These petite birds, so named because their beaks cross at the tips, feed on the seeds of the area’s abundant conifers, and stay here through the summer to nest.
The short list of birding hot spots from these two experts includes the hawk-watch station at Peter’s Mountain in Monroe County and the dry, high peaks of North Fork Mountain (in the Monongahela National Forest), where you’ll see Worm-eating warblers and the occasional Peregrine Falcon early in the season.
“Peregrines were extirpated from the East due to DDT and shooting,” says Bartgis. The birds have since been reintroduced, he explains, and are occasionally seen migrating along the mountain. “There is a hope that they will someday start nesting here again,” he says, adding that the mountain is also one of the best places in the East to see Golden Eagles.
If you can’t grab your binoculars and take a road trip to West Virginia this season, all is not lost. “Our fall raptor migration is also spectacular,” Bartgis says.
For more information about places to bird in West Virginia, visit wvdnr.gov
Bird's the Word
Immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of nature at these statewide birding events.
Spring Migration Bird Walk, April 24
Early Summer Bird Walk, May 29
Learn about common species and listen for calls on these guided bird hikes, hosted by Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Events begin at 7 a.m. fws.gov/canaanvalley
New River Birding and Nature Festival, April 26–May 1
Set in and around the New River Gorge National River, see and hear more than 100 species and enjoy guided birding excursions including birding by boat, hands-on bird banding and backcountry birding on foot, plus expert speakers, field guides and a back-porch atmosphere unmatched by any other festival. 304/574-4258. birding-wv.com
Southern Boreal Bird Festival, June 4–6
Take in the spectacular scenery of the Allegheny Highlands and learn about the region’s diversity of breeding birds and their habitats, including Golden-winged, Cerulean and Mourning warblers. You might see and/or hear nearly 100 different species during the three-day event. 304/866-3858. fws.gov/canaanvalley
Berkeley Springs Fall Birding Festival, Sept. 24–25
Three days of lectures, workshops and birding outings for beginners, intermediates and families, plus presentations from noted birding expert and columnist, Dr. Scott Shalaway. 304/258-0992. potomacaudubon.org