The group walked softly and quietly along the river path, heads tilted to the side. One person nudged another, pointing slowly to a nearby tree and several sets of binoculars turned upwards, searching for the singer in the branches.
So far, we had counted cardinal, goldfinch, Carolina wren, several species of sparrow and numerous Canada goose.
It was a fine morning at the White House Farm and we gathered to learn more about our avian friends with Jack Price, Virginia Master Naturalist and ecologist.
“We create a cone of disturbance as a group,” he said. “It is best when bird watching to keep talking to a minimum and don’t make sudden movements. In about 15 to 20 minutes, if you are still, you become part of the environment and the songbirds resume.”
This is our goal: become part of the environment as we walk, breathing in the sweet smells of spring, appreciating the varied and lyrical songs of the winged ones, enjoying the company of fellow naturalists.
“The males are calling now, some at ground-level, some at mid-level, declaring territory and searching for a mate,” Mr. Price noted.
Suddenly, a loud thwak! disturbed the water in the Shenandoah.
“Did someone throw a rock?” one participant asked.
“It might have been a branch that fell off that sycamore,” another said.
All eyes turned to the water and we quickly figured out what had made the noise as a nose and large brown body floated in the current. The beaver eyed us suspiciously as it paddled, slowly floating downriver. Being part of the environment this morning included disturbing one plump aquatic mammal from its lodge.
Though our main focus was bird identification, our conversations rolled into discussions of wildflowers and bees, warm season grasses and fish habitat, trees and soil.
“Mitakuya oyasin,” said Mr. Price, “Everything is connected.” The phrase comes from the Lakota Sioux and is an ancient concept of the web of life. It means ‘all my relations’ or ‘for all my relations’ and serves as a prayer. It is used to open/close ceremonies and acknowledges that we are part of the whole. This simple, yet powerful, idea encourages taking care of all that we are related to including our animal kin, plants, trees, minerals, water… the environment of which we are intrinsically a part.
The spring ephemerals are blooming now in the Shenandoah Valley and the bluebells duplicate the color of the clear blue sky on the forest floor. Mr. Price pointed out the spicebush growing along the trail, noting that the seeds have the highest fat content of all the wild berries so are relished by birds. The Virginia beautyberry, has the lowest fat content so it is the last to be eaten.
“Hairy woodpecker!” exclaimed a participant. The large bird hopped around the trunk of one of the dead ailanthus snags looking for insects before flying off.
In the past, Scott Plein, owner of the White House Farm, had treated the foreign, invasive tree-of-heaven with the “hack and squirt” method by scoring the trunk with a hatchet and applying glyphosate in the fall when the tree is sending its energy down into the root system. The control proved effective and the dead snags became favorite perches for songbirds and hawks alike as vantage points and as favorite places to forage for insects.
As Mr. Price pointed out in a previous naturalist stroll along the river trail, bark becomes a micro-ecosystem for many forms of interconnected life. In particular, the deep fissures in the bark of the cottonwood tree, which grow along the river trail, harbor many types of lichen and mushrooms as well as spiders, beetles, crickets and other insects that become bird food.
One of the most dramatic things we saw on the walk was a black-crowned night heron flying over the riparian buffer with a fish in its beak, its strong wings taking it to a perch near the river. Before the group arrived, our resident bald eagle also made an appearance, scanning the water from a perch high in a sycamore tree next to Kauffmans Mill Road.
We appreciated the morning with Jack Price, our naturalist guide for this early Earth Day observance and look forward to his return soon to the White House Farm.
This is a list of the birds we saw:
- Barn Swallow
- Blue Gray Gnatcatcher*
- Canada Goose
- Carolina Wren
- Field Sparrow
- Hairy Woodpecker
- Great Crested Flycatcher*
- Louisiana Water Thrush*
- Mourning Dove
- Black-Crowned Night Heron
- Red bellied Woodpecker
- Song Sparrow
- Tufted Titmouse
- Turkey Vulture
- Wood Ducks
(* neotropical migratory birds)