Sunday, May 3, 2015

New River Birding & Nature Festival

I'm just back from eight (8!) days of nonstop immersion into Nature. Sorry if I've not responded to emails etc. but I've mostly been off the grid or too busy to deal with the usual stuff. First up was a day and a half at the Ohio Ornithological Society's annual conference at Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio. That was a great time, and thanks to Julie Davis, all of the speakers and guides, and everyone else who made that conference a success. Be sure to attend next year.
Then it was straight off to southern West Virginia and the New River Birding & Nature Festival. I think this was the 10th year I've helped to lead trips at this event, and it is always an excellent time. The return rate of attendees speaks for itself - 52% of this year's people had been before, and a much larger percentage of total festival attendees over the years have been back multiple times. As always, event coordinators Rachel Davis, Keith Richardson, and Geoff Heeter bent over backwards to make things flow smoothly and ensure that everyone had a good time. CLICK HERE for complete festival information.

This action took place high up on Sugar Creek Mountain, an incredibly birdy locale. The group stares slack-jawed at a stunning male Blue-winged Warbler. The bird was singing away as he foraged in small trees at close range and near eye level. At one point, it plucked and ate four caterpillars in about two minutes. We challenged co-leader Keith Richardson (back, orange cap) to find just one caterpillar. In ten minutes of searching the same type of foliage, Keith came up empty-handed, and he has extremely sharp eyes. That's one reason we're not birds, I suppose. We'd starve.

I'm not quite sure how they do it, but the NRBNF organizers lure some incredible talent as guides (present company excluded from that boast!). Here, Mark Garland of Cape May, New Jersey briefly explains bog ecology in the big meadow at Cranberry Glades Botanical Area. Mark is a walking encyclopedia of natural history knowledge. Also in just this one group as leaders is Connie Toops and Jim Rapp, both of whom excel at natural history guiding. CLICK HERE for a complete rundown of NRBNF talent.

Red eyes aglow, our largest and showiest sparrow tees up. Eastern Towhees are certainly not rare in this part of West Virginia, but we enjoy looking at them just the same. A big part of the field trip experiences is learning about common species, not just the rare.

The "& Nature" is in the event's name for a reason. The mountains of Fayette County, the slopes of the New River, and surrounding areas harbor some of the richest biodiversity in the eastern United States. We never shun an opportunity to inspect something cool, whether it be an interesting plant, snake, millipede, or this outlandish Rosy Maple Moth.

This is a rarity, and a major target bird for festival participants. It is a Swainson's Warbler, a denizen of the shady understory of rhododendron thickets buffering mountain streams. While the animal may appear rather plain, at least insofar as warblers go, it compensates with a rich whistled song reminiscent of a Louisiana Waterthrush.

Illustrating the quirks of human behavior, the aforementioned Swainson's Warbler really gets the birder's blood boiling. Yet colorful gems such as this male Black-throated Blue Warbler nearly always are a companion species. Despite this animal's rich coloration, it is the comparatively drab Swainson's Warbler that garners the lion's share of attention, because it is far scarcer.

After the festival concluded, I awoke early this morning and headed back to a particularly charming mountain cove. This site has a clear stream, the banks of which are clouded by snarls of Great Rhododendron, Rhododendron maximum. The airy boughs of Eastern Hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, provide canopy cover, and continuing upslope the forest grades into birch, oaks, hickories and many other species of deciduous trees.

The local Swainson's Warbler's clear forceful whistles punctuated the air as soon as I exited the vehicle. As always, I took time to orient to the sounds around me, and figure out the patterns of the singers. The short snappy warbles of this Canada Warbler came from an especially dense rhododendron tangle not far from the singing Swainson's Warbler. By largely remaining still, silent, and in one spot, in two hours time I had made passable images of the three warblers in the latter three photos. Without using recordings.

In addition to (usually) being a solo activity, bird photography requires some patience. Charging from the vehicle and immediately blasting back the calls of the singers from an I-pod is a mistake. These new and unexpected sounds throw an element of chaos into the situation. It may work briefly, but the artificial sounds upset the normal behavior of the birds that one might wish to photograph, and puts an unnecessary element of stress on them. Two hours in a gorgeous haunt was hardly an ordeal, and ultimately the photos ops are better by remaining still and silent. One learns the patterns of the singers, and it becomes easy to predict their movements. The Swainson's Warbler had a favorite sapling as a singing perch, and it was out in the open. I set up nearby, and it wasn't long before the bird dropped in and teed up beautifully. The little Canada Warbler was harder, but great fun to watch as it fluttered and fly-catched in the shady gloom of the rhododendrons. Finally, as if wondering who the large biped was, it popped out on a sunlit limb and regarded me with curiosity, and I got some shots. The Black-throated Blue Warbler did much the same.

I can't remember next year's dates for the NRBNF, but I'm sure it'll be posted on their website before long, RIGHT HERE.


Sue said...

What a great trip you had and such beautiful photos.
I love the moth--how unusual!

Auralee said...

Jim--thanks for everything! You and all of the other guides and organizers make this a rich and wonderful experience. My "life" winter wren (singing!) was unforgettable.

Here is a link to the interesting article that The Economist published last November (you were discussing this with my husband Jim), on the digestive capabilities of vultures.