Some days are definitely diamonds

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Earlier this week I attended the New River Birding and Nature Festival in southern West Virginia as a speaker and guide.

Some years, birders get great looks at birds they’ve never seen before (birders call these “life birds”), and some years the highlights are great views of more familiar species. For me, this year fell into the latter category.

New River Gorge

I spent most of my outdoor time at Hawk’s Nest State Park, where the patio on the back deck provides an expansive view of the New River Gorge. It’s a great place to watch raptors soar overhead as thermal wind currents develop on warn sunny days. Several times black and turkey vultures sailed by enabling birders to compare the TV’s red head with the black’s dark gray head. In flight, the TV’s wings are held in a shallow “V” or dihedral, compared to the black vulture’s flatter wing profile. Later that day a mature bald eagle soared past the observation deck.

Rose-breasted grosbeak

Another highlight showed up at a feeder located along a bank of windows near the front desk. One day a newly arrived male rose-breasted grosbeak spent at least two hours on the feeder, which was only about 20 feet from the windows.

The next day a flock of pine siskins visited the feeders. These small, streaky brown finches have a sharp pointy bill and flashes of yellow on their wings and tail, so identification was easy.

Sounds fill the air

The highlight of my time at the festival came one morning during a pre-breakfast bird walk. Shortly after dawn, voices of all the usual suspects filled the air — robins, cardinals, blue jays, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, red-bellied woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, mourning doves and crows.

Most beginners know the songs of common species, but it’s always a challenge to keep new birders interested as they learn new sounds. When I was a beginning birder, I did not appreciate trip leaders who simply pointed to a song and named the singer without finding the bird. I need to hear a new song many times before it registers in my brain. Good trip leaders try to get everyone in the group to see as well as hear birds they encounter.

Warbler

Sometimes that’s easier said than done. Sounds can be loud and obvious, but the birds themselves can be elusive. On this morning, we were lucky. A song sparrow, a blue-headed vireo, and a yellow-throated warbler perched in view as they sang, and everyone got good looks. Seeing a bird sing its song helps me link the sound to the image. The warbler was a real treat because it was easy to spot and stayed in view for several minutes.

Woodpecker

As breakfast time approached, we were still in the parking lot, and the best was yet to come. Several members of the group gasped when a male pileated woodpecker landed on the base of a small tree about four feet above the ground. And it was only about forty feet away. Everyone scrambled to get a good look because the woodpecker could only be seen in a window between two parked cars. As the group studied the pileated with binoculars, another leader (Pat Sutton from Cape May, NJ) focused her spotting scope on the bird. Everyone waited patiently for a turn at the scope, which provided an amazing demonstration of the difference between 8-power binoculars and a 30-power scope. Surprisingly, amazingly, the pileated remained in the same spot for at least five minutes as it worked the trunk for grubs and ants. It was the best, extended look any of us had ever had of this magnificent woodpecker.

Northern Flicker

No sooner had the pileated departed than a northern flicker landed in another nearby tree. Pat got her scope on the flicker immediately. As if looking at a living field guide, the flicker’s brown barred back, spotted underparts, black crescent-shaped bib, and white rump were obvious. And again the flicker perched for several minutes as everyone enjoyed it through the scope.

A diamond

As John Denver once sang, “Some days are diamonds, some days are stones.” This was definitely a diamond day at the New River Birding Festival.

Information about next year’s Festival will soon be posted at www.birding-wv.com.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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