2 down, 2 to go! My brother Andrew successfully graduated from West Virginia University in December, and he made plans to walk at the ceremony this May. We’ve somehow become a Mountaineer family, with Kate due to graduate a year from now and Brigid choosing to follow their footsteps to WVU in the fall. When I received my diploma from Cornell in 2010, my parents rented a house on Seneca Lake where family and friends could stay without having to worry about hotel rooms for the weekend. They continued that tradition this year, reserving a property on the shores of Deep Creek Lake in McHenry, Maryland, about an hour from the university in Morgantown. We all made the journey down in shifts, heading down south once we were done with the week’s responsibilities. I was feeling a bit under the weather on Friday, but I wasn’t going to miss the festivities and celebration of my brother’s achievement! Andrew and I made great time on the journey down from New York, and a bunch of his college buddies were waiting for us when we arrived.
I found some free time between meals and drinks to get out and do some exploration nearby. Despite visiting Morgantown several times during Andrew’s years at WVU, I’ve never been birding in the area. Checking out the eBird data from Monongalia County revealed that there was a promising spot less than half an hour from the heart of town, Little Indian Creek Wildlife Management Area. I discovered that most of the habitat at this hotspot is brushy thicket atop a hill, the result of natural regrowth at a reclaimed mining site. This kind of open space is a specialty of the southern states, and it is home to a variety of cool birds. Field Sparrows and Prairie Warblers were omnipresent, singing loudly from all directions. I also found good numbers of Indigo Buntings and White-eyed Vireos, and spotted Pileated Woodpeckers and a Wild Turkey at the edge of the woods. New year birds included Scarlet Tanager, Cliff Swallow, Cerulean Warbler, and Grasshopper Sparrow.
My primary target on this outing was the Yellow-breasted Chat, a species which has joined the ranks of my absolute favorite birds. They’re just so weird, and I’ve got a healthy appreciation for the strange and unusual. I’d been talking about this species with some fellow birders recently while discussing the upcoming American Ornithological Society votes on research proposals. The annual reshuffling of taxonomy is scheduled for July, and one of this year’s offerings advocates placing the chat in its own family due to its genetic, morphological, and behavioral distinctiveness. When I was expressing my support for this long overdue decision, it occurred to me that I had never satisfactorily photographed a chat. Due to their rarity in my neck of the woods and their skulking habits, this was not a surprise, but I still wanted to remedy the absence of pictures posthaste. I knew that the family trip to Appalachia was a prime opportunity, since chats are far more common down south and are relatively conspicuous on their breeding grounds.
The overgrown scrub at Little Indian Creek looked like prime chat habitat, and eBird promised me that this was a traditional location for this species. I didn’t get far from the parking area before hearing my first chat calls, a unique, high-pitched note that sounds a bit like the twanging of a guitar string. A few individuals offered glimpses as they fluttered from bush to bush, but the views were brief and distant. Continuing down the path, I found myself surrounded by chats singing from all directions. Growls, hoots, and chuckles echoed from the shrubberies as the males staked their territories and advertised to potential mates. I followed a side trail towards some vocalizing birds that sounded quite close, but they went silent when I approached. After waiting patiently and quietly for a few minutes, I was rewarded when a chat hopped up onto an exposed branch, perfectly visible through a small opening in the dense cover. I was treated to close, crippling views as the bird moved through the thicket, and I managed to snag some acceptable photos. I even got to record his song and observe his flight display, a bizarre performance where the bird launches into the air with a burst of wild noises and exaggerated flaps. For such a sneaky, secretive species, Yellow-breasted Chats certainly have a flair for the dramatic!
Most of the weekend was spent relaxing at the lakefront property, and there was no shortage of food and drink to enjoy. It was a full house, and it was a damn good time with family and friends alike. It was nice that Andrew got a chance to partake in the formal walk, and I was glad that I was there to see it, too. We made plenty of memories and stories over the course of the weekend that I’ll always treasure, even though they aren’t relevant to the context of this blog!
I slept in on Sunday after a busy night of making merry. Before heading back north, I wanted to get out and enjoy some more of the local color. eBird has made it possible to gather regional intel quickly and easily, so I checked out a few options before driving off towards Chestnut Grove Road. Due to my limited time and the lack of pullovers, this outing was a largely ears-only tour of the roadside. Fortunately, there was lots of excitement and activity along the backroads. The general atmosphere on this stretch of pavement reminded me of Sterling Forest and Doodletown Road in New York. City and Island birders have to visit the southern tier of the upstate for a taste of Appalachian flora and fauna, but on this morning I was smack dab in the heart of the habitat.
I heard large numbers of buntings, vireos, and warblers as I made my way down Chestnut Grove Road. A loud Acadian Flycatcher was a nice addition after a silent Empidonax individual frustrated me at Little Indian Creek. At one point I heard a Blue-winged Warbler type song, but this area is apparently part of the hybrid zone with Golden-winged Warblers, just like Sterling Forest. I couldn’t be sure that the bird I heard wasn’t an intergrade or confused Golden-wing without visual confirmation. On the other hand, there was no mistaking the ringing song of a Kentucky Warbler emanating from a shaded stream through the woods. This is another species that is notably uncommon up my way, and when a second individual started singing in the opposite direction I realized it was the first time I’d ever been in their proper range. A scenic overlook revealed Jennings Randolph Lake, a nice turnaround point for my little adventure. I bid farewell to the swooping swallows and nearby family of bluebirds and started back towards the house.
I spotted a young Bald Eagle circling over Deep Creek Lake when I pulled up to the drive. I crossed the threshold to find my friends starting to pack their things, even though my immediate family was staying behind an extra day. No one was particularly happy about the prospect of returning to reality after such a fun weekend, but it was hard to be disappointed with the awesome time we had. I said my goodbyes, packed up some leftover food, and loaded into Jamie’s truck with Matt and Alexei. Country roads, take me home!
Year List Update, May 14 – 281 Species (+ Scarlet Tanager, Grasshopper Sparrow, Cliff Swallow, Yellow-breasted Chat, Cerulean Warbler, Acadian Flycatcher, Kentucky Warbler)