[va-bird] Highland County -- January 15

Fourteen members of the Augusta Bird Club made an annual pilgrimage to our 
neighboring county in search of those few special winter birds that can often 
be found here.  Although a bit cold (26-33 degrees F), the day was otherwise 
splendid with partly cloudy to clear skies and little or no wind.  A perfect 
day to roam the back roads of this breathtaking and bucolic place.  To top it 
off, many of our target birds were found.  
Near the top of the list for all was Golden Eagle, of which we had 4 sightings. 
 Three sightings were of adult birds, with two of these in the Blue Grass 
Valley along 644 (most likely the same individual), and the third in the 
southern part of the county south of Mill Gap.  The latter was flying south 
over the Alleghany Ridge about 19 linear miles south of our first two 
sightings. This was a life bird for a number of individuals in our group. The 
fourth sighting was a brief silhouette/profile view as we descended Monterey 
Mountain on US 250 east. We could not distinguish any field marks to determine 
age.  My guess is that we saw at least two different birds, possibly three.  
During a scouting run on 9 January, my wife and I had two sightings of juvenile 
Golden Eagles in the upper Blue Grass Valley.  So this species seems to be well 
represented this winter.  

Speaking of eagles, we also saw two adult Bald Eagles.  One was along 642 
between Forks of Water and Blue Grass along the south branch of the Potomac 
River. The other was on 644 near the one Golden Eagle sighting.  

Rough-legged Hawk is the other major target species, which we indeed saw as 
well, again along 644 near Blue Grass.  If I remember the field marks correctly 
as I now review my field guides, I believe that the first bird that we saw in 
flight was a light morph female and the second (perched and in flight) a 
juvenile light morph. Other birders have been out here recently and it would be 
interesting to know what ages, sexes and morphs have been seen (and when and 
where).

To complete the raptor list, we also saw one high soaring Sharp-shinned Hawk, 5 
American Kestrels and at least as many Red-tailed Hawks. While viewing our 
first Bald Eagle, Brenda Tekin spotted a large bird flying into the forest 
canopy.  This proved to be one of two Red-tailed hawks in a stick nest. It 
seemed as if they were re-arranging the nest materials. The breeding season for 
this species is not for another few months, so I'm not sure what this behavior 
was all about unless it is pair bonding activity.  The nest was along 642 about 
1 mile west of Forks of Water and on the south side of the Potomac River in 
case anyone wants to check it out and report any follow-up activity.

Other birds of interest:

Wild Turkey -- seen by Josephine King, Marietta Beverage and Beth and Harry 
Lumadue along north US 220 not far from the fish hatchery.
Red-headed Woodpecker (2) -- first spotted by Jim Reed along 640 north of Blue 
Grass.  There are lots of locust trees clustered in small open groves along 
here. A Hairy Woodpecker also showed up while we were stopped.  Of the other 
expected woodpeckers we saw all but sapsucker and flicker (to our chagrin and 
surprise).
Black-capped Chickadee -- The default chickadee in this county, first heard at 
the top of Shenandoah Mtn at the Confederate Breastworks.
Purple Finch -- Brenda and Grant Simmons had a small flock near Blue Grass, 
while the rest of the group failed to see this.  However, we all saw one female 
at the Beverages feeder in Monterey.  Incidentally, this feeder as well as the 
ones in McDowell were very inactive (as they were during my visit on 9 Jan).
Common Raven -- a few here and there.

Birds hope for but not encountered:

Red-crossbills -- We're never as lucky as some who get out of their vehicles 
and instantly hear and then see a flock fly overhead or find them "graveling" 
along the shoulder of US 250 on the west slope of Shenandoah Mtn.  
Evening Grosbeaks -- No reports of this species from this or any western county 
to my knowledge.  Same for Redpolls. 
Loggerhead Shrike -- I know there's one or more out here.  There's just a lot 
of open territory and roadless habitat for them to stay out of sight of 
visiting birders.
Open field birds such as Horned Larks, pipits, Snow Buntings -- these too can 
be difficult to spot even if present unless a flock flies. The ground was not 
show covered. 
Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren or grouse -- This is not 
unexpected as we did all or our birding roadside and did not wander into the 
woods.   
American Tree Sparrow -- Not this trip!

In addition to the splendid views of the raptors and other birds, the group 
also enjoyed an excellent lunch at the Stone Hearth Restaurant, a fine recent 
addition to those long established eating establishments in Monterey.  We hope 
that others visit Highland County this winter. When you visit don't pack a 
lunch but eat at the  few restaurants in the Monterey area and get to know some 
of the local residents.  Also, please report your sightings to the rest of us.

John Spahr

  

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