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New River Birding & Nature Festival recap

The New River bridge at Fayetteville, West Virginia, as seen yesterday from Long Point. The rich Appalachian forests that buffer the New River are truly North American rain forests, and harbor a fantastic array of biodiversity.

I just returned from a week of leading field trips, giving a presentation, and otherwise participating in the New River Birding & Nature Festival. This year marked the festival's tenth year of doing business, and it was the best ever - at least of the six that I've been a part of. A big thanks to Dave Pollard, Geoff Heeter, Keith Richardson, Rachel Davis and everyone else who has a hand in organizing the NRBNF. If you haven't been to this event, put it on the calendar for next year, and if you have been, we'll hope to see you back.

Rhododendrons are a big part of the mountain flora of this region, and the Catawba rosebay, Rhododendron catawbiense, was looking good. Extensive snarls of great rhododendron, R. maximum, are abundant and support specialized bird life, perhaps most notably Black-throated Blue and Swainson's warblers.

The mountains of southern West Virginia harbor all manner of cool plants, and plants that occur in only a few counties in the state can be found at several of our field trip sites. This is the stunning flame azalea, Rhododendron calendulaceum, which occurs somewhat sparingly in the mountains. An especially showy patch of the plants brought our bus to a standstill, and many photos were made. While snapping pictures, we were serenaded by Blue-headed Vireos, Hooded Warblers, Wood Thrushes, and many other birds.

The New River and its tributaries, especially the Gauley River, are famous for their whitewater. I caught this kayaker just as he launched off an old mill dam on Glade Creek in Babcock State Park. He had just run through far more challenging rapids, at the top of the photo.

The habitats along this creek are sublime. We saw or heard many interesting birds here, observed lots of noteworthy plants, and a special treat were the bizarre and primitive lampshade weaver spiders that spin their tangled webs in alcoves of adjacent sandstone cliffs.

This overlook offered commanding views of the New River, which is thought to be the second oldest river in the world. We stopped to gaze at a pair of Bald Eagles and their nest, but also tallied many other species of birds, including a Scarlet Tanager that sang nearly overhead. This trip was the all day High Country expedition, and we had 78 or so bird species recorded by day's end.

Birds are always prioritized on field trips - they can quickly fly away, after all - but we certainly don't shun other interesting animals. Box turtles, such as this old boy, abound. We moved him from the roadway he was crossing - something you should ALWAYS do if at all possible. And always put them off to the side of the road that they are heading for - not back from where they came.

Just as in Ohio and seemingly everywhere in the eastern U.S., red admiral butterflies were thick. I think I saw 4.3 million in my week in West Virginia. This particularly pugnacious specimen liked Mary Ann a lot. As the weather was largely dry and often sunny for much of the week, there were butterflies galore. We saw many different species, and especially noteworthy were six or eight cloudless sulphurs migrating across the high mountains near Cranberry Glades.

Our group of last Friday traverses the boardwalk at the amazing Cranberry Glades Botanical Area high in the Monongahela National Forest. A stroll around the 1/2 mile long planking can take hours, as the bird life is so rich. Among other species, we saw and/or heard Blackburnian, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Canada, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Nashville, and Yellow-rumped warblers, and Northern Waterthrush. All of them breed here. Scores of other bird species were seen, including a good number of Red Crossbills. The crossbills put on a heckuva show for the group, and I have great photos of the birds. That'll be a separate post. In all, the group found 89 species of birds on this day.

No, William did not have an accident - his nametag provides scale to this very fresh pile of black bear scat. The bear was probably only a short distance ahead of us on the Cranberry Glades boardwalk, ambling along and snacking on the leaves of skunk-cabbage. The foul smelling foliage is apparently coveted by bears, and some say that it helps dissolve the hard anal plug that a bear forms during its hibernation. Our bus driver, Lyle, who remained in the parking lot with the vehicle, saw the bear trot across the road right in front of him as he sat in the bus. Wished we had seen it.

A special treat of this year's festival was the presence of Seabrooke Leckie, far right. She is coauthor of the brand spanking new Peterson Field Guide to Moths, and what a stunner of a book this is. Even if you're not into moths, you'll enjoy exploring the beautiful insects in the book, which can be had RIGHT HERE. Seabrooke set up her moth traps on two different evenings, and thus was able to offer us good up close looks at many species of these interesting insects.

Another treat was Katie Fallon, author of another great new book, Cerulean Blues, which is all about the Cerulean Warbler. It is a MUST-READ for birders; GET IT HERE. I got to co-lead a trip with Katie and Paul Shaw to a mountaintop rich in Cerulean Warblers. We saw or heard 20 or so birds, including good looks at the elusive females, and fabulous studies of the sky-blue males BELOW our eye level and at close range.

This is an Abbot's sphinx, Sphecodina abbotti, one of numerous cool moths trapped by Seabrooke.

We had the great fortune of observing a singing Mourning Warbler along the wood's edge behind this happy group. For most in this group, the green, yellow, and gray warbler was a life bird. And everyone got to see it well. With a bit of perseverance and the help of a green laser pointer, great looks were had as the bird sang its way around its territory.

Scores of "life" birds were seen during the festival, not too mention all of the other new flora and fauna that people saw. I've been to a fair number of birding events, and one would be hard pressed to find a friendlier, more productive and better run show than the New River Birding & Nature Festival. Visit their website and you can learn more about the festival.


A.L. Gibson said…
we missed you at Flora-Quest but clearly you're having an alright time down there as well!

what was the state of the flora at the Cranberry Glades? I'm thinking of making a trip down to botanize within the next week or so. major reason is Corallorhiza trifida which is seen there. any help or notes would be appreciated (you can facebook me or email if you'd prefer!) thanks, Jim and hope you had a blast!
Mary Ann said…
Nice! I love the photo of "my" Red Admiral. It's a much better use of my nametag than throwing it next to a pile of scat would have been. See, I think ahead.
Katie said…
Thanks for mentioning me, Jim! I had a great time at the festival, and a great time co-leading the cerulean walk with you. Thanks for identifying all the plants and butterflies for me. Since then I've found myself saying things like, "Let's work this beautiful animal." =)
Wes Hatch said…
Hey Jim,

Your pictures are absolutely amazing. I was wondering if you did talks and if there was another way to contact you? You can contact me at

Wes Hatch
Jim McCormac said…
Thanks for the comments, everyone, and it was great hanging with you, Katie and Mary Ann! And MA, you still owe me... :-)

Wes, feel free to email me:
Mrs. Green Toes said…
Awesome. I love reading your blog. I learn so much from it. :)

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