The swish of the tall grass against our pants legs actually sounded
loud against the hush of the early morning. We walked through the riparian area, a band of mist rising off the Shenandoah River and hovering in a wide swath above the trees.
“Yellow warbler,” said Ed Trelawny softly as he jotted the name in his small notebook. “They are one of the neotropical migrants.”
We paused for a moment, binoculars raised, searching midlevel in the sycamore for the small yellow singer.
The morning was vibrantly alive with numerous avian choruses welcoming the sun. A symphony was underway with multilevel cheeps and warbles, little squeaks and melodies. The numerous choirs were constantly changing location, adding to the myriad combination of crescendos and solo performances. There were as many songs this morning as shades of green in the field and forests.
Joe Lehnen, Page County’s area forester, had invited Ed to come to the White House Farm to conduct a bird survey. The White House Farm Foundation is very interested in gathering baseline data on our birds populations, pollinators, insects, etc in order to track the benefits of our conservation efforts (i.e how do you know where to go if you don’t know where you are).
“Do you hear those field sparrows out there? They have a rise at the end of their song,” said Ed. He then pointed out a bluebird and a male goldfinch perched on stalks of mullein forty feet away.
“There went a chimney swift. They are easy to identify – they look like a cigar with wings,” said Joe.
Ed explained that the neotropical species were migrating through the Shenandoah Valley. In fact, we were at the tail end with the main migration occurring from mid-April to mid-May. The meadow was so alive with song because the birds were serenading one another, seeking mates. In another month, the mornings would be much quieter, as precious eggs would be resting in carefully hidden nests and the birds would not want to highlight the attention of predators or draw attention to their nests.
“Cowbird,” said Ed, again adding a name to his growing list. For one week in May, Ed sets a goal of identifying 100 species of birds , taking time off from work to walk through dew-laden fields, search trees and listen to the morning chatter for a song he has not previously heard and recorded.
He explained that the cowbird lays her eggs in other bird’s nests. They used to follow the bison and did not have time to build their own nests so would drop an egg wherever they found a suitable site. That was the extent of their rearing. To the dismay of the unconsulted foster mother, the cowbird baby sometimes pushes the legitimate chicks out of the nest. Life can be tough in bird circles.
Another adaption is the loggerhead shrike which impales its prey on the barbs of the honey locust tree. I am waiting to see this in the riparian area as we have a lot of honey locust coming up, a scourge to farmers since the briars can flatten tractor tires.
A pileated woodpecker announced his presence loudly as he navigated up the river corridor, as if he was echolocating between the osage orange and sycamores lining the river banks.
We came to the end of the riparian area and heard the distinctive call of a red tailed hawk. It took the same route up the river as the woodpecker had flown down, veering off to circle over the field in search of a hapless mouse. We came across evidence of someone’s meal in the bluff across from Kauffmans Mill Road, a small scattered pile of feathers in the grass.
I asked Joe and Ed what we could do to help our native avian friends on the farm besides planting more native trees, shrubs and flowers.
They agreed that providing more edge habitat would be beneficial, particularly between the riparian area and the upper agricultural fields, a plan that landowner Scott Plein had mentioned wanting to do several weeks ago.
“There is a lot happening at the edge. The edge between the field and the river is where we have seen the most species this morning,” Joe pointed out. “Sometimes edge habitats may look nondescript but they are very important.”
Edge habitats – a line of trees and shrubs between fields or other distinctive landscapes– become travel lanes for birds. Leaving the dead snags in place is also valuable. Several years ago, the ailanthus in the riparian area had been killed but left in place. The upper branches did seem a favorite vantage point of many of the birds we had seen.
The research that Chris Philips is conducting at the farm as
part of his PH.D dissertation at Virginia Tech will yield valuable information on habitat as well. Chris is studying the differences between native warm season grasses and cool season grasses, determining insect populations in each and how these support native birds species. For more information on this project go to www.whfarmfoundation.org/projects/virginiatech.
The White House Farm Foundation is also participating in the Smithsonian’s Virginia Working Landscapes Project, comparing the maintenance measures of various habitats and how these affect native pollinators and plants. Go to www.vaworkinglandscapes.org for more information.
“There! Grasshopper sparrow! Did you hear it?” asked Joe, stopping abruptly and listening. We waited for a moment and then heard a short, loud, staccato call in the grass.
Ed jotted another name. In all he counted about 40 species. Check back as we will post the names of the birds that he identified.
This auditory tour added a whole new level of awareness to life on the farm and serves to remind us that sometimes, it is good to slow down and just listen to the gentle melodies of nature around us.