Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Sweet Birding on Sugar Creek

Tuesday, June 11, 2013
A vista along Sugar Creek Road, Fayette County, WV.

Among the many trips I've lead over the past ten springs at The New River Birding and Nature Festival, the one we call Sugar Creek is right at the top of the list. There are three warbler species that are the most sought-after birds at this annual West Virginia birding event: cerulean warbler, Swainson's warbler, and golden-winged warbler. Sugar Creek has many breeding pairs of the first two species, which makes it a sell-out trip most every year.

In this post I'm going to take you along on our Sugar Creek field trip from this spring.

 Sugar Creek Road has some big timber. The road itself is about 1.5 car-widths wide and gravel. It is cut into a steep mountainside and at places the road is so narrow that the school bus driver and the folks who drive the vans and buses during the white-water rafting season call out their positions and progress on CB radios to reduce the chance of a head-on collision on a blind curve—of which there are many.

The severity of the landscape is what makes this road special for cerulean warblers. And it's one of the few places where you can see tree-top-loving warblers (like the cerulean) in the tops of the trees BELOW you on the mountain.
Looking down on a flitting warbler.
My strategy for Sugar Creek is to walk the roadway as much as possible. Birds we are seeking are often heard before they are seen, so we ask our bus driver (usually Hank, a veteran driver on this road) to drop us at the top and meet us at various spots as we walk down the mountain toward the bottom where the Gauley River rages.


This past spring I got to guide the Sugar Creek trip with New River Birding Festival co-founder Geoff Heeter. Guiding with Geoff is always fun and rewarding for a number of reasons:

1. He speaks the native tongue.
2. He knows where the birds are each year.
3. He's mighty handy in a pinch.
4. He cracks a good joke.
5. He always dresses for birding success:

Fresh off the runway from the birding fashion show: Geoff "Hotlegs" Heeter.

This year my Sugar Creek trip also had Katie Fallon along. Katie is the world's most passionate fan of cerulean warblers. In fact, she wrote a really great book about them called Cerulean Blues. You should buy and read this book immediately—especially if you love warblers and appreciate good writing.
Geoff Heeter (in plaid Bermuda shorts) points out a treetop cerulean warbler for Katie Fallon.

Male cerulean warbler.

 One of our two primary target birds on the Sugar Creek trip: the singing male cerulean warbler. We found at least a dozen territorial male ceruleans along the route.

Female American redstart nest building.

We also saw lots of nest-building activity during the field trip from a variety of species including American robin, American redstart (above), blue-headed vireo, wood thrush, and worm-eating warbler.

There are other glorious things to see along the way. Hooded warblers are thick in the roadside woods.

We found some morels right along the road as we neared the bottom, but we left them in place for the local folks to harvest if they wanted to...

Ernesto Carman (in the orange hat above) was super fast at finding birds in his scope. He's had years of practice birding in the rainforest of Costa Rica and it shows. He generated a LOT of smiles with his scope-wielding talent.

  Down at the bottom of the mountain, Sugar Creek Road goes through a scattering of small houses and takes a sharp bend to the left when it reaches the Gauley River. This area is owned by one of the rafting companies, so it's not normally open to the public. And this is where we get our very best looks at the Swainson's warbler!

As I got off the bus along the river trail, I heard a Swainson's singing and, after getting everyone else off the bus and ready, I slowly walked forward to see if I could spot where the male was perched. It's always best to find birds doing their thing naturally, without having to resort to song playback, pishing, or bushwhacking to find them.

And there he was, left of the trail, about 35 feet up in a tree. Singing. Preening. Oblivious to the 35 gasping bird watchers who were focusing about $20,000 worth of optics on him.

Male Swainson's warbler.

After a session with the Swainson's, we headed to the end of the trail and had a picnic lunch, followed by a stroll back out to a spot in the river where a collection of giant boulders makes a perfect setting for a photo.

The Sugar Creek Birders along the Gauley River.
A big thank you to my expert fellow guides! I'm already counting down the days until next year!

L to R: Ernesto Carman, BT3, Katie Fallon, Geoff Heeter.