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By Cynthia Donaldson

Our group of 19 birders enjoyed listening to the birds along the Elk Run Trail. Our training sessions of “birding by ear” had begun!

After an early morning on Sunday, May 19, and a three-hour drive from Winston-Salem, we were ready to hike the Elk Run Trail.  From the trailhead behind the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we hiked the .8 mile loop trail through a pleasant mountain woods.  A Louisiana Waterthrush, foraging along the babbling brook, gave us quick looks as it flew from log to log and then perched on a low branch.   Redstarts, vireos, and Ovenbirds entertained from the forest foliage.  This “concert” was the necessary communication of birds busy defending territories and attracting mates.  Their musical songs, “teacher-teacher-teacher,” “get up – get up – get out of bed,” “drink-your-tea,” “chick-burr,” and many more played in our ears as we enjoyed the not-so-quiet woods.  As typical, birding fully leafed–out trees is difficult.  When one can’t “see” the birds, the sense of hearing becomes the tool for identification.  By the end of the trip, most people on the trip became adept at recognizing Ovenbird, Cerulean Warbler, Eastern Wood-Pewee, American Redstart, Indigo Bunting, and Hooded Warbler.  Some even could identify the nuances between the Red-eyed and Blue-headed Vireo!

We had our lunch at the picnic area, binoculars close by just in case. After lunch, we went to the Flat Top parking area between MM 84 – 83 and with the help of Bill, found the Cerulean Warbler immediately.  The Hooded Warbler, singing his “get up – get up – get out of bed,” was not so accommodating, but we all would get a look at one before the trip was over. 

This is an Eastern Phoebe nest located in the visitor center breezeway. Apparently, she constructed this nest this spring. All the moss and leaves seemed to be of the same age – newly gathered! We had never seen a nest this tall before!
We didn’t hurry back to the lodge to get checked in because they were without electrical power.  The generators were servicing most of the lodge and rooms, but the kitchen was not able to prepare their usual dinner menu items. 

After a lovely meet-and-greet time on the beautiful lawn overlooking  Abbot Lake and Sharp Top Mountain, we enjoyed the soup and salad bar.  Then, a few of us walked around Abbott Lake as the beautiful day turned to dusk.

We departed the parking lot around 7:00 AM on Monday morning and drove to Sunset Fields at MM 78.4. We enjoyed the trees and the lookout and then walked up Radar Road.  It is a special day when one gets great looks at three vireos: Red-eyed, Yellow-throated, and Blue-headed.  Several sightings of Scarlet Tanagers along this road and Warbler Road also thrilled us!

Jean got photos of all three vireos: Yellow-throated and Red-eyed above, Blue-headed below.

Each of us enjoyed birding along Radar Road. It was a lovely morning walk, and we saw and heard many resident species. The chronic malady, “warbler-neck,” spread quickly through the group, but nothing could stop us from searching the topmost branches for those birds!

By the time we walked down Warbler Road, we were pretty comfortable identifying these mountain birds, so as we walked we had a great time testing our skills by identifying the birds by ear!  Then we heard one that we hadn’t heard so far! We followed the buzzy, high-pitched song and were delighted to a Worm-eating Warbler, head tilted back, singing his song!  Some of the birders in our group had lost the ability to hear that pitch, so we were so glad we got to see it.

Worm-eating Warbler by Jean.

After a return to Peaks of Otter Lodge and another picnic lunch, we headed south to Harvey’s Knob at MM 95.3.  Harvey’s Knob is a fall hotspot for migrating raptors and dragonflies.  It wasn’t the right time of the year to see Broad-winged Hawks, but two Common Ravens greeted us and flew down the knob into the trees below.  There were also many male Indigo Buntings here singing their three-part song. 

We enjoyed a walk on the Appalachian Trail!

It was not very birdy along the trail, but we all know that birders default to another natural wonder: plants!   

Pink Lady’s Slippers
Rhododendron in bloom!
We visited several  overlooks on our way back to the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center.
Two Common Raven circled right above us here. We saw a Red-tailed Hawk here as well. Photo by Ga.
Thunder Ridge overlooking Arnold Valley!

After dinner, we tallied up all the birds we saw and heard! The total was 59 species with Orchard Oriole and Cedar Waxwing to be added the next morning!

Eastern Wood-Pewee photo by Jean.

Bright and early on Tuesday morning, we met behind the main lodge for a bird walk on the Johnson Farm Loop Trail (which was not really a loop, as we found out).  The scenery of this hike was gorgeous. We saw many American Redstarts, Scarlet Tanagers, and vireos.

The Johnson Farm Trail
Johnson Farm. Right behind this house, a Chickadee was busily tending to her young in an old fence post.

Once we returned to the trailhead, everyone went their own ways. Some got breakfast, but most packed up for the journey back home. It was sad to say goodbyes because we had enjoyed such a great time together!

The view of the Peaks of Otter Lodge from the top of Sharp Top Mountain.

It was hard to leave the Peaks of Otter area on such a beautiful day, so Tim, Brenda, Becky and I continued our birding trip by hiking to the top of Sharp Top Mountain. Even though it was a strenuous hike, the woods were very pleasant. Cerulean, Black-and-white, and Hooded Warblers delayed us several times because we couldn’t pass up a chance to see these gems of the forest. After lunch at the top, we hiked down, again stopping for birds, of course. We got to study a Gray-cheeked Thrush as he foraged right below us on the downward slope. We found Red-eyed Vireo and American Redstart nests. Mrs. Black-and-white Warbler, gathering nesting material, was being quite picky about the pieces she chose and ended up flying away instead of carrying her items to a nest. The last treat was a female Blackburnian Warbler in a low shrub! Another bird gathering nesting material!

Deirdre captured the sunrise on Sharp Top Mountain!

I sincerely want to thank each of the trip members for coming on this trip! It felt like a “family” vacation as we enjoyed the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain birds together! Good job to you for learning the musical melodies of these birds… and hopefully we will remember their songs and calls next spring!

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