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New River, West Virginia - be there!

It's about 17 degrees here in central Ohio, with snow flurries. The weather was rough enough early this morning that I had to turn back from a planned trip to Cincinnati, due to road conditions. Winter is OK, sometimes, but as the days lengthen, my thoughts turn increasingly towards spring and the return of migrant birds, plants erupting from slumber, and warmer weather.

A New Year has dawned, and even though we may yet be in winter's icy clutches, it's high time to begin planning the Big Trips for 2011. And one that I HIGHLY recommend is the New River Birding & Nature Festival. This week-long immersion in natural history takes place in the heart of one of eastern North America's most scenic and biologically rich areas, the mountains of southeastern West Virginia.

You needn't stay the entire week - shorter options are available - but many do. Once bitten by the charms of the Mountaineer State's rugged country, some of us can't get enough. This festival also benefits greatly from an extreme team of leadership - some of the finest guides to be found. The event is also run like a well-oiled machine. Believe me, you won't be disappointed should you decide to join us somewhere between May 2 and 7. The complete scoop can be found HERE.

This'll be my fifth year at New River, and it's a highlight of the year. Over my half decade of visits, I've amassed a fair number of photos, and present a few of those below, so you can see for yourself some of West Virginia's wonders and what we see and do during the festival.

Our base camp is the lovely Opossum Creek Retreat, nestled deep in remote woods. One would never have to leave this place to compile an impressive bird list - and plant list.

Always popular are the banding demonstrations conducted by Bill Hilton.

Bill's specialty is hummingbirds, especially the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, seen here with gorget flashing. You're about guaranteed to see some of these sprites up close and personal - both free-flying and in Bill's hand - and learn lots of hummingbird factoids.

Various trips head out bright and early each morning, to visit the best habitats in West Virginia. Birds are always prioritized, but we look at anything and everything of interest. This was one of last year's expeditions, of which I was a co-leader, and everyone was enjoying extended scope views of a nicely teed up Great Crested Flycatcher.

A cooperative Blue-headed Vireo watches us watching him. The higher elevations of these mountains support many species of northern breeders that range southward along the crests of the mountains. Some of them include Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Hermit Thrush, Winter Wren, and Red-breasted Nuthatch. In a turnabout, a southerner near its northern limits here is the Swainson's Warbler - one of the festival's great specialty birds.

The third biggest single span arch bridge in the world is a prominent feature of the area, and you'll definitely see it if you visit. Located just outside of Fayetteville, it is over 3,000 feet in length and the deck is nearly 900 feet above the New River.

The New River is legendary for its whitewater rafting, and we send crews out to do battle with the stream. Our routes are on quiet water, though - the better to observe wildlife. The raft trips often rack up an impressive species list, in addition to other interesting animals. Plants, too - if I am along, I usually cause at least one detour to the bank to look at some odd or rare plant.

A true field of dreams, this is the legendary Bobolink field. Located high on a knob, sporting amazing miles-long vistas, the grassy lea is sometimes full of the musical R2-D2-like gurglings of exuberant male Bobolinks. Savannah Sparrows utter their two-toned buzzy trills from the meadow, and there are breeding Chestnut-sided Warblers around.

On the Muddlety excursion, we always make the trek to admire the largest known Tulip Tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, in West Virginia. This place is deep in the boondocks, and we always accumulate an amazing list of flora and fauna on this foray.

The trip up Sugar Mountain produces insane birding, including exceptional studies of Cerulean, Kentucky, and Worm-eating warblers, as well as many others. The problem here is distractions. That's Keith Richardson kneeling by the side of the road, admiring the gorgeous Nodding Mandarin, Prosartes maculatum, an unusual Appalachian lily. These mountain slopes are an absolute riot of wildflowers in early May.

This charming little orchid grows right along the driveway to Opossum Creek. It's Showy Orchis, Galearis spectabilis, and it was a "life orchid" for many last year. If you want to see it, we'll show it to you.

We always have one dinner at Smokey's on the Gorge, a beautiful restaurant perched on the rim of the New River. In addition to a scrumptious buffet, we hear some great speaker talking about some interesting subject. A few years ago, we emerged from Smokey's to hear the curious explosive rasps of the strange Cope's Gray Treefrog, and were able to track one of the singers down. There are cool things everywhere one goes in the New River region.

Outbound field trips meet in the pre-dawn hours at Burnwood, a park along the river. You'll arrive to a bountiful breakfast spread and plenty of hot coffee, which greatly atones for the early hour. Plus, you'll get to admire - dare I go here - one of the most studied outhouses in eastern North America. This john is illuminated by night lights, and by the time we arrive in the morning the exterior is carpeted with a great diversity of interesting moths, sometimes including jumbo lime-green Lunas. This one is the outrageously colored Rosy Maple Moth, and I guarantee you'll see it there.

The moths' dayflying counterparts, butterflies, are also abundant, and one of the most frequent are these Pipevine Swallowtails. One of their favored host plants, the high-climbing Pipevine, Aristolochia tomentosa, is common. The plant is a treat in its own right, and our festival coincides with its blooming. The flowers are fleshy purplish structures that resemble a Dutchman's pipe.

This is one of the trip leaders, Julie Zickefoose, and you'd be excused for thinking that she's on her knees in the muck to photograph that stupendous display of Marsh-marigolds, Caltha palustris. No, she's turning her lens to something far rarer. This spot is in the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, and one of our party spotted an interesting little butterfly that zipped down to nectar at the Marsh-marigold. It turned out to be a White-M Hairstreak, and it was a life butterfly for all, your blogger included. White-M's are rather rare and sporadic in occurrence, but now that we know a spot for them, we hope to duplicate this luck again. You can read more about that discovery RIGHT HERE.

For me, a trip to the Cranberry Glades is the highlight of the New River Birding & Nature Festival. This high elevation bowl is essentially a bog, and is filled with rare and wonderful flora. Dominating the foreground of this photo is Mountain Serviceberry, Amelancher bartramiana, one of the area specialties. Cranberry cloaks the spongy ground, and sweet-scented stands of Red Spruce, Picea rubra, lend a very Canadian feel. Birds abound, including a great many northern species that are at or near the very southern limits of their breeding range, such as Canada and Blackburnian warblers, and even the Appalachian "type" of Red Crossbill.

Come on down to the festival if you can. I'll promise that you'll not be disappointed.


√Črable said…
The Rosy Maple Moth just drew my breath away, just its huge tuff of back hair. Looks so cute, fluffy... I'd touch if I weren't afraid of hurting its delicate beautiful wings.
Heather said…
I cannot WAIT to head to New River this spring!
Jim McCormac said…
Yes, the Rosy Maple Moth is wuite the charmer and delights all who encounter it.

Glad you can make the gig this year, Heather - you'll love it!

Hope everyone else who reads this can sign on and be part of the scene, too!
dAwN said…
Thanks for this post..I cant wait to go to New River! I am bummed that both Cranberry Glade trips are full..Oh well..I am sure it will be a blast no matter what.
Look forward to meeting you. See you there!
Heather said…
Dawn, you're going to New River?! How awesome! I can't wait to finally meet you! Yet another great aspect of birding festivals - friendship! -Heather (of the Hills)
dAwN said…
Howdee Heather.Cant wait to meet you too!..hee hee..Hi Jim..hope you don't mind we have taken over you comment section here.:)
Jim McCormac said…
Not at all - you can use this is a bulletin board :-) And pass the word about the festival!
Keith said…
Can't wait. It's always an adventure!
Mary Ann said…
I'm all signed up and beyond excited to finally get to experience what I've heard so much about. This post was just what I needed to see on this cold wintry day! C'mon Spring!

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