West Virginia Birding


(This column was first published in the May 23, 2004 issue of The Buffalo News.)


At the beginning of May I drove south against the tide of migrating birds. My destination: the New River Birding and Nature Festival in Oak Hill, West Virginia.


This trip gave me a wonderful opportunity to see birds that occur here in western New York only on rare overflights. Before I explain what is meant by overflights, I'll first describe a few of my experiences in West Virginia, one of the most attractive states I have ever visited.


Experience 1. I'm looking at a beautiful male scarlet tanager in a maple tree and am impressed once again with its gorgeous colors: its jet black wings and tail contrasting with its luminous red body. But then my host for the day, Joey Herron, tells me, "Look about ten feet higher." And there sits an equally gorgeous, all red summer tanager, only the second I have ever seen.


Experience 2. "Now look over in that other maple," Joey tells me and I easily find a third spectacular bird, the familiar orange and black Baltimore oriole at which he is pointing. Then at his direction I notice in the same binocular field a second oriole, this one with chestnut replacing the orange of the Baltimore. It is an orchard oriole, another species seldom seen in western New York.


Experience 3. On another day guide Paul Shaw hears a distinctive whistled call and leads me down a steep hillside toward the sound. A notorious skulker is calling from behind a dense rhododendron thicket. Despite that, I focus my binoculars on the hemlocks just beyond the shrubs and, much to my surprise, I locate the bird singing lustily. It is a Swainson's warbler, a species I have never before heard or seen.


Now about overflights: In springtime birds move north from the tropics where they have spent the winter. Their testosterone levels boiling over, these migrants - among them woodpeckers, flycatchers, swallows, thrushes, warblers and finches - are driven to get north as quickly as possible. They seek to establish territories and advertise for mates before competitors of the same species take over the best spots.


The result is like the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush.


Mixed in with these migrant flocks are many birds whose normal range is well south of us. A few of these birds are so eager that they fail to stop and we record them here on these overflights. Those three species - summer tanager, orchard oriole and Swainson's warbler - are among these overfliers. They rarely appear for more than a few days. I presume that, chagrined, they then retreat to their normal range to compete now as latecomers for those mates.


There is another way to see these local rarities. Simply go south into their normal range and that is what I did on this trip.


I found several other species there that occur in western New York on similar overflights: white-eyed vireo, yellow-throated and worm-eating warblers, and black vulture.


Of course, those weren't the only interesting birds I saw on this trip. Among the 106 species I listed was the Carolina chickadee, the replacement for our black-capped chickadee at lower elevations in the south and a species that has never been recorded in New York.


On the third day of this expedition I joined Sue Olcutt, a West Virginia Division of Natural Resources naturalist, and Kevin Dodge, a professor at Garrett Community College, on a visit to Cranesville Swamp, a site listed by the National Wildlife Federation as one of the hundred best birdwatching spots in North America.


Situated on the West Virginia-Maryland border, the geological history of this bog is different from those in western New York because it lies south of the glacial penetration of the Ice Ages. Despite that, I felt very much at home there. Its plants, mammals and birds duplicate those of our northern bogs.


So not everything is different in West Virginia. Their hospitality too is a match for the best we have to offer.-- Gerry Rising