Virginia is for bird lovers

Shenandoah NP

How many warblers were hiding out in Shenandoah National Park in mid-October? Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Nov. 1, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Virginia is for bird lovers, but also makes Wyoming birder think about home”

By Barb Gorges

The greater sage-grouse could be the expected topic for this column, another in the flurry of opinions published since September about its non-listing as an endangered species.

We should be happy it wasn’t listed. A lot of hard work went into compromises and new concepts in cooperation, worked out between industry, government agencies and environmental organizations.

But there are biologists afraid the compromises are not enough to keep sage-grouse populations from continuing to fall. There will be more legal battles ahead, from both industry and environmental groups.

What I really wanted to talk about was exploring the birds of Virginia in mid-October. Our older son and his wife moved there last winter and Mark and I birded with them recently, attending the Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival.

Birding back east is often about birding by ear, especially with leaves still on the trees. I soon learned to appreciate the Carolina chickadee’s call—just like our mountain chickadee’s—but as if it had drunk too much coffee.

Small birds in autumn don’t sing much and their call notes are hard to distinguish. Who knows how many warblers we missed? Identifying them visually is difficult because they have molted out of their more identifiable spring plumage. Maybe that’s why I liked the black-throated blue warblers we saw—males have solid blue backs, white bellies, and black faces and throats year round. But, oh the “warbler-neck” pain from looking up into extremely tall trees of the deciduous forest.

Our daughter-in-law was hired this last summer to help The Nature Conservancy with bird surveys in the Allegheny Highlands in western Virginia, to see if the fire management plan for the rare montane pine barrens will give songbirds like the golden-winged warbler what they need.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the golden-winged as “near threatened.” It has declined in population 76 percent since 1966, and 95 percent in its historic range in Appalachia for a variety of reasons, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

We didn’t get up to TNC’s Warm Springs Mountain Preserve to see this warbler this time, but Mark and I did accumulate a nice list of birds in our numerous walks. To name a few, we walked about the grounds of Monticello, on a bit of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park, through woods and meadows at the U.S. National Arboretum; across the swamp at Historic Jamestowne, and in the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge.

My favorite birds (maybe because they were easy to see) were the gulls on one of the islands along the 20-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which is a combination of bridges and tunnels. Where one of the bridges ends and one of the tunnels begins on a manmade island, there is a scenic view pullout. Gulls paraded around, posing for cameras and expecting tips—food scraps.

I liked the view of open water. It’s like home, where so much is out in the open, though much also goes on below the surface.

I thought about the difference between saving sage-grouse and saving golden-winged warblers.

I thought about how easy it is to count football-sized sage-grouse compared to surveying for 5-inch birds that play hide and seek in leaves that are bigger than they are.

I thought about our large tracts of public and private land in Wyoming that seem to be endless and changeless, compared to the eastern forest constantly under attack by invading plants and subdivisions. Use Google Earth to trace the path of our flight from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta, and trace the endless curlicues of brand new roads. It would be difficult to insert fire as a management tool outside of a remote, unfragmented place like the Allegheny Highlands.

Acres in Wyoming are not untrammeled. As a range management student at the University of Wyoming 35 years ago, I learned that sagebrush needed to be eradicated to increase cattle productivity. Land managers, especially in the livestock industry, took action.

And now we see the error: that for a few more pounds of beef we may have jeopardized not only the sagebrush, but the sage-grouse and the whole sagebrush community, above and below the soil surface.

In turn, that could jeopardize future kinds of agricultural and wildlife productivity (such as hunting) which we put dollar values on. Energy developers, whether mineral or alternative, despite reclamation and mitigation claims, have the same problem.

I think we are on the right track though, segregating incompatible land uses, just as we zone areas of a city. It’s a matter of figuring out, before it’s too late, how to have our sage-grouse, and energy too.

Gee, it’s great to be home.

Ring-billed gulls

Ring-billed Gulls visit on top of a barrier on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge – Tunnel in mid-October. Photo by Barb Gorges.