Saturday, June 16, 2007

West Virginia Bonanza, part 1

June 7,8, 2007

Ten minutes on the highway and I was in Kentucky, but I only stopped for coffee. I came into West Virginia near Williamson, and followed small state routes toward Huntington. Just sorta stopped wherever there was a small park or a nice looking stream crossing, and had some very birdy places. I'd particularly pay attention to Beech Fork State Park, where I've had two good stops at alternate ends. I was adding tics easily after my West Virginia curse finally lifted. Three times I'd passed through there intending to do serious birding, and twice was rained out and once snowed and iced. The weather this time was cooperative and I did way better than I'd hoped. I really liked birding in West Virginia, some was remote and beautiful, and most was lush. WV has one of the shortest state lists, just 346 species, but the West Virginia bird finding book, by the Brooks Bird Club, was really helpful in spite of its hard to decipher hand drawn maps. I ended up going from the banks of the Ohio River to the state high point at around 4500 ft.

North of Huntington, the book recommended a couple of sites in Green Bottoms WMA on the Ohio River. The first parking area led past some shallow pools and then through meadows with brushy tree-lines down to the river. Supposedly a good shorebird place, but I was a little late for that. If you went back on the highway a little ways nominally north, you came to a much more natural wetland, which may have been an old millpond, and had an observation tower as well. I went south from there by very indirect county roads back to the Interstate and into Coonskin Park in Charleston. Very good. It sits on an isolated hilltop above the river on the north end of town, mostly wooded, but a fair variety of habitats. One trail near the entrance followed both sides of a deep narrow creek drainage. Further on was a small pond with some waterfowl and good woodpeckers. The real score was a Swainson's Warbler in exactly the place the book said to look, but that required getting into deep brush. After Coonskin, which requires careful navigation for finding the entrance, I went on south to Kenewha State Forest, which was simply a knockout.

It's another place that takes some doing to get to. There are signs, small signs, lots of stop signs, lots of turn signs, and I probably would have been lost at least once but for the GPS. The park is a beautiful old CCC construction, great old buildings and pavilions, trails and fishing ponds, that sort of thing. Camping was $14/night. Showers were good. I stopped at a lot of places along the main road, especially the ponds (Cerulean Warbler, Barred Owl) and meadows where I could work the tree edges. Good for Orchard Orioles and Yellow-throated Warblers. But the best thing that happened was when I played my "chickadees mobbing a screech-owl" tape pointed at a small bush just down from my picnic table just after sundown. I sucked about eight species of warblers out of the woods, including Worm-eating. For the day in WV only, I had fifteen species of warbler. 68 overall. In the morning I followed another trail built by the CCC, and found Hooded Warblers, like the book said I would.

After a great stay at Kenewha, it was back to Charleston, grab some breakfast, and head northeast up the Interstate. I made a stop at Jackson's Mill, part of the Andrew Jackson history, and had good luck there, especially sparrows in the fields surrounding the airfield. I went over the place pretty thoroughly, checking out an abandoned farmstead and the buildings and pond at the conference center. Had a good talk with the guy who was running the blacksmith shop at the mill restoration. West from there though Buckhannon and Elkins (lousy traffic) on US 33, and then south onto dirt at Wymer. This is very remote country, with official Wilderness areas, and Spruce Mountain, the WV highpoint. I got my first Blackburnian of the trip along there. There are some sweet little campgrounds along the roads back in there, but I wanted to see a place called "the Sinks of Gandy". Took some serious effort to find it, it's not marked, the road just barely allows two vehicles to carefully pass, but when I found it, it was a large sinkhole area, maybe a hundred yards across, filled in with wetland and surrounded by a forest/grass mixture that was very birdy. There were some wet cedar glade areas just past there where I found Blackpoll Warblers, and a little farther on got my first Magnolia of the trip. This part of the state, and the adjacent parts of Maryland, are high and cool enough that they have a lot of breeding species that are typical of places three hundred miles further north.

I followed some National Forest (Monongahela) signs until I got to the top of Spruce Mountain. It was the verge of treeline, kind of heathery with stunted vegetation. There are breeding Yellow-rumped Warblers there. Just below the peak I found a Mourning Warbler, the book had said to look there, and I learned that low scrub was their preferred habitat. They like clear-cuts that are starting to grow back. Another interesting thing was a new species of Butterfly, newly identified in the literature, and shown to me by a guy with a net. It's a version of a Tiger Swallowtail, species designation is "appalachiensis". Actually not uncommon, but of restricted range in the highlands, and only recently given full species status. It's a long drive from there up to Canaan NWR near Davis. I made a couple of stops along there, but it was starting to rain. By the time I got to the grocery store in Davis it was torrential, the kind that soaks you to the skin running to the door of the store. And back. There's a little road (one of the worst paved roads in history) that runs past that store into a public use area where I've stayed before, in the rain. In two days in West Virginia I'd gone from 57 to 103 species on the state list, 85 seen in two days, 22 warblers.


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