Thursday, June 16, 2011

Birding Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in West Virginia

Thoughts from the Canaan Valley Birding Festival

Canaan Valley State Park

By the first week of June the songbird migration is wrapping up across most of the Great Lakes region where we happen to make our home. The birding festivals have mostly come and gone. Famous migrant-traps like Magee Marsh in Ohio have a scattering of nesting Yellow and Prothonotary Warblers where just two weeks earlier there had been 20 or more species of warblers cavorting along every hundred yards of the boardwalk. Having not had enough birds or birding yet, Sarah and I stuffed the Prius full of gear and headed to West Virginia for the Canaan Valley Birding Festival.

I guess this fest used to be called the Southern Boreal Birding Festival, but changed its name this year. I like the new name better as it's more representative of the area. The Canaan Valley is one of those spots that defies description with mere words. Just north of the highest peaks in West Virginia, there's a flat plain nestled between Canaan Mountain to the west and Cabin Mountain to the east. This is Canaan Valley (pronounced ka-NANE). In this region of the Appalachians, the mountains are long ridges running north/south with various peaks and saddles. Elevations of the ridges are roughly 4,000ft, give or take a few hundred. The valley floor is about 3,200ft.

Canaan mountain from the Canaan Valley floor

We pulled into Canaan Valley State Park and were immediately offered an auspicious sight: a gorgeous Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) sitting beside the park road. We'd go out the next morning and get to watch him hunt over an open field for a while before a couple crows drove him off. The festival began in earnest the afternoon of Friday, June 3rd, so we took the opportunity of a morning off to head north 10 or 12 miles to Blackwater Falls State Park. The scenery was stunning as usual. The dead and dying hemlocks a sad sight, the birding difficult. Having just watched the spectacle that is May migration, it's tough to start looking for warblers hiding on territory in dense deciduous vegetation. Nevertheless, we did get a great sighting of a Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) that posed for us under a red spruce near Blackwater Falls.

Blackwater Falls, Blackwater Falls State Park

Friday's afternoon walk back at Canaan netted another awesome Blue-headed Vireo as well as a Black-billed Cuckoo. All the other usual suspects were present, including birds we in Michigan consider northern species like Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hymenlais). After watching the Juncos move north out of lower Michigan in April, it was weird to drive south to West Virginia and find them nesting. That's the beauty of a varied elevation. We also got to spot some nice fern diversity in the forests on the plain of the valley.

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hymenalis)

Saturday morning's excursion took us to the Stuart Recreation Area of Monongahela National Forest. (That's ma-NON-ga-HEY-la, a really beautiful word to say once you get used to it!) We climbed up to about 4,400 feet and heard many warblers, but had trouble actually spotting any. There was great open habitat for Golden-winged Warblers on the side of the mountain, but we only heard them and failed to see them. A beautiful Chestnut-sided Warbler did show himself, as did a nice Brown Thrasher and Scarlet Tanager. We heard a Blue-winged Warbler as well, but failed to find him - what would have been a lifer for Sarah and me as we count only birds that are visually confirmed. At the very top of the mountain, I did get a fleeting glimpse of a Mourning Warbler and managed a long look at a Red-eyed Vireo while waiting for the warbler to reappear. On the way down the mountain we saw the day's first Cerulean Warbler after hearing several as we went along. Frustration at hearing so many fine birds and seeing so few was setting in, but the view from the mountaintop and the glory of being deep in the Appalachian woods more than made up for it. (I mentioned too many birds in this paragraph to insert the scientific names of each one without making difficult to read. Ditto for the rest of the post. Forgive me!)

Climbing up the Stuart Rec Area

Birders search in vain for a singing Golden-winged Warbler

As afternoon rolled around, we were back in the valley to find some grassland birds. We toured a couple sites in the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge where Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Vesper Sparrows were common. The Henslow's Sparrow eluded us. After this tour we struck out on our own to see what we could see. Dinner was the first stop, but my delicious roast beef at Big John's Family Fixin's was interrupted by Sarah yelling that a Bittern was outside the window. Sure enough, an American Bittern had landed at the pond behind the restaurant and was commencing to hunt for whatever fish or frogs might be in there. Rejuvenated by the bittern and the roast beef, we headed back to a spot we'd spent only a minute or two at during the afternoon tour. This turned out to be our favorite spot of the trip, an iconic location in the Canaan Valley (in our opinion), and a candidate for being one of those places where your natural spirit knows it's found holy ground.

Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge - The Freeland Tract: A Very Special Place

Freeland Tract - Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge

The Freeland Tract of Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge is specially designated to be managed for the benefit of American Woodcock. While June is not a good time to find woodcock, we did see plenty of grassland birds, as well as a conglomeration of others among some withered pines surrounding some natural springs and pools. Cedar Waxwings adorned virtually every branch of some of the skeletal pines. Eastern Kingbirds and Willow Flycatchers flitted among the waxwings and the occasional Yellow Warbler made an appearance to sing about how sweet something was. We ended up seeing 16 species from one spot in the last hour before sunset.

Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus)

Sunday morning found me riding a chairlift to the top of Cabin Mountain, eyes tightly closed as I battled my rather severe acrophobia. It was raining and glorious atop the mountain as we walked the saddle over to a peak known as Bald Knob. (There's another Bald Knob, the second highest point in WV, but this is a different one.) After looking out over the Canaan Valley, we descended by foot, counting birdsong as we went. As had been the trend all weekend in the woods, many were heard, few were seen.

All-in-all it was a wonderful trip, as any trip to the highlands of West Virginia usually is. If you're content with hearing a lot more than you see, the Canaan Valley Birding Festival is worth a visit. We met some great birders from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and California. And even if you didn't see or hear a single bird, how can you not enjoy a view like this:

Freeland Tract - Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge

As with any post, click on the photos to see a larger size.