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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Maryland and West Virginia: Birding the American Civil War

Gettysburg, Antietam, and the Appalachians

2015 Tour Narrative

In Brief: This year’s Civil War tour to the battlefields of Gettysburg, Antietam, and Harpers Ferry enjoyed relatively moderate weather, with the rains holding off during our time at the sites, and the temperatures not unduly hot.  We had over 130 species of birds including 28 wood warblers, including Louisiana and Northern Waterthrushes, and Swainson’s, Mourning, Prothonotary, Blue-winged and Golden-winged, Cerulean, and Mourning Warblers.  Other notable species included Red-headed Woodpecker, Olive-sided, Acadian, Alder and Willow Flycatchers, Blue Grosbeak, Grasshopper and Henslow’s Sparrows, Red Crossbill, and Purple Finch.  Butterflies were exceptional with 26 species including such notables as Appalachian Tiger, Banded Hairstreak, Pink-edged Sulphur, Baltimore Checkerspot, and Diana Fritillary.  Overall we were fortunate that the heavier than normal rainfall held off for the much of the time we were out birding, with the heaviest rains coming at night.

In Detail: Our first evening began with a short walk from our hotel to Cantina Mama Lucia for a wonderful Italian dinner.  On our return to the hotel we studied a pair of Eastern Kingbirds and listened to the Fish Crows that were about. 

The following morning we departed immediately after breakfast and drove northwest towards Gettysburg, much the same direction the Army of the Potomac headed in following Lee’s army in late June of 1863.  Upon arrival we checked in at the Visitor’s Center and received our tickets for the film and museum, plus the schedule of events for that day.  We chose to attend four Ranger Talks, three of which followed the three days of the battle:  Day 1 at McPherson Ridge near where the first shots were fired on July 1st, and where much of the action that day occurred; Day 2 at the Peach Orchard where Longstreet shattered Sickles misplaced forces; and Day 3 at the Soldiers’ National Monument near where Pickett’s Charge culminated, a complete disaster for the Army of Northern Virginia.  Each of these talks was approximately an hour and nicely summarized each day’s events.  Our first talk was near Culps Hill where we had nice views of a Red-headed Woodpecker while waiting for the ranger to begin his talk.  Here and elsewhere on the battlefield we had nice studies of numerous Gray Catbirds and Field Sparrows and compared the differences of the few Black Vultures present with the more numerous Turkey Vultures.   Upon leaving Culps Hill we wandered over to Rock Creek and learned the importance of an army controlling a water source, not only for themselves and their many horses, but we also learned that artillery pieces need a pale of water after each shot is fired (to cool the barrel).  At the close of our day we headed south to Maryland and our hotel.

On our second morning we drove to Lilypons where we studied a female Blue Grosbeak and a stunning male Prothonotary Warbler.  We then headed west to Antietam, stopping in at the Visitor’s Center for a program, and afterwards headed to Shepherdstown for a delicious lunch at the Blue Moon Café, returning in the afternoon to the battlefield.  We started at the north end of Antietam where Hooker’s forces first engaged Lee’s forces (actually Jackson), and worked south, much the same way the battle proceeded, culminating at Burnside’s Bridge in light rain, approximately where the battle ended, when A.P. Hill’s forces arrived to drive Burnside’s forces back across Antietam Creek.  Antietam was the most deadly single day of the American Civil War with over 4000 killed, yet at the end it was a draw with the battle lines being almost the same.  After a day of waiting, Lee successfully retreated across the Potomac and into Virginia, barely averting (at Antietam) the destruction of his army.  We did see a few species of interest, notably a pair of Acadian Flycatchers at Burnside Bridge.  Here we also heard both Warbling and Yellow-throated Vireos.  To the north at the Cornfield we had excellent views of our only Vesper Sparrows (becoming increasingly scarce in the East) of the trip.  Later in the afternoon we continued to Harpers Ferry where we met our local guide and had a delicious dinner at the Anvil Restaurant.  Owling that evening in the increasingly heavy rain was not productive.

Day three began with us venturing out in cloudy and wet conditions to the Blue Ridge Center in Virginia.  Here we had excellent views of a male Kentucky Warbler along with a White-eyed Vireo and Brown Thrasher.  We then headed over to Schoolhouse Ridge west of Harpers Ferry where Jackson engaged Union forces prior to Antietam.  The action here, combined with artillery shelling at Maryland and Loudon Heights, forced the Union forces (some 12,500 troops) to surrender on 15 September 1862.  It was the largest Federal surrender of troops until 1942 at Bataan in the Philippines.  Jackson famously said that he would rather be given the task 100 times of having to take Harpers Ferry then to defend it once!  The birding at Schoolhouse Ridge was excellent with a singing adult male Blue Grosbeak (scarce in West Virginia) and several Grasshopper Sparrows, including a fledged juvenile.  A pair of Bobolinks, the male singing and in display flight, was (according to our local guide) most unusual in the Panhandle of West Virginia for this time of year.  From our motel, we drove to the National Park center at Harpers Ferry where we boarded the shuttle bus to the old town located at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.  Here we learned about John Brown’s famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) raid on 16 October 1859 and toured various exhibits in the buildings that have been preserved.  A stunning Zebra Swallowtail was flying about on the muddy shores of the Potomac, providing us with excellent views.  After lunch we headed west towards the Appalachian Mountains stopping at Sleepy Creek WMA where we had nice views of Cerulean and Pine Warblers.  Most of us got at least brief views of a Worm-eating Warbler and everyone had good studies of several Banded Hairstreaks.  On the dead snags at Kimsey Run Lake we had good studies of a Red-headed Woodpecker, a scarce species in West Virginia.  Later, on Houglin Road in Grant County we had excellent looks at a singing male Prairie Warbler, our only encounter with this species on the trip.  Later that evening we enjoyed dinner at the Front Porch Café with a lovely view of Seneca Rocks at sunset.  After dinner we carried on to Canaan Valley Resort where we would spend the next two nights.  Late that night a thunderstorm with strong winds, lightning and heavy rain hit the area.

We woke the next morning to find it cloudy and damp, but no longer raining.  From our hotel we drove northwest to Fairfax Stone, the headwaters of the Potomac and where Washington surveyed the vast Fairfax land holdings some 270 years ago.  As we were hiking to the meadows, we flushed a Ruffed Grouse. Unfortunately it flushed just as we passed, hearing the wing noise more that seeing it.  Our main goal on this hike today was the Henslow’s Sparrow which we eventually had good scope views of along with hearing it sing.  Territorial Yellow-rumped (“Myrtle”) Warblers were present here and on our return to the parking area we had a perched adult Broad-winged Hawk.  After breakfast at Canaan Valley Resort we headed south, then east, to fire roads 19 and 75 then up and over Dolly Sods, stopping briefly to study a pair of Acadian Flycatchers.  On the back side of Dolly Sods we found a variety of warblers; Ovenbird, Black-and-white, American Redstart, Cerulean, Chestnut-sided, and Black-throated Blue.  Later, on the ridge of Dolly Sods we studied the endemic Appalachian subspecies of Dark-eyed (“Slate-colored”) Junco (carolinensis).  On our return hike along South Prong Trail and down through a bog we saw several Magnolia Warblers as well as a Northern Waterthrush that was singing.  Several Appalachian Tigers (a newly recognized species by most from Eastern Tiger Swallowtail) were present along with a few Atlantis Fritillaries.  That evening after an early dinner we visited the national wildlife refuge near the resort.  As the skies darkened to the west we had views of both Willow and Alder Flycatchers along with Swamp and Savannah Sparrows.  It was our hope to take an evening walk to some beaver ponds near Davis where American Bittern had been heard singing, but the skies opened up and the rain put an end to that expedition. 

The next morning after breakfast we drove south along the Stuart Memorial Highway, which was an excellent road with little traffic.  Along the highway and in the rhododendron thickets we had excellent views of Veery along with Black-throated Blue and Canada Warblers.  A stunning male Blackburnian Warbler was well-studied just off this road along with a male Purple Finch.  Later at the fire tower at Pickle Knob we had stunning views of the Appalachians to the east and the lower foothills of the Ohio Valley to the west.  Just below and around the tower and were two singing male Mourning Warblers as well as several Chestnut-sided Warblers along with a Least Flycatcher, plus I also heard a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  The day before one of our group had seen one in the parking lot of the Canaan Valley Resort.  Just before we reached Elkins for lunch we stopped along a river where we obtained superb views of a Louisiana Waterthrush.  After lunch we continued south to Droop Mountain south of Hillsboro. This was another battlefield site (November 1863) that resulted in a significant Union victory, and was the last major engagement in this part of West Virginia.  West Virginia had become a separate state (from Virginia) just months before (20 June 1863).  Hillsboro was the birthplace of Pearl Buck, and her home has been restored, and is sometimes open for visits.   We also spent a bit of time birding along Buck Run road where a Wood Thrush serenaded us and we viewed two Willow Flycatchers.  After dinner at Marlinton Inn, some of us hoped to head up to Black Mountain to try for Northern Saw-whet Owls, but the remnants of Tropical Storm Bill arrived with steady rain we were again washed out.

After breakfast the next morning, we headed back to Buck Run Road.  Here we located a singing male Golden-winged Warbler and eventually got good views.  (This species is becoming increasingly scarce in the Appalachians.)  At the Cranberry Glades visitor center, we spent a good deal of time enjoying the numerous Ruby-throated Hummingbirds visiting their feeders. At the seed feeder, we were surprised to see two Red Crossbills who spent a considerable amount of time fattening up.  Red Crossbills are an uncommon resident species in the Appalachians, but as with all crossbills, always unpredictable.  Before walking through the beautiful Cranberry Glades, we drove up Black Mountain (4545’, our highest elevation of the trip) where we eventually located a Swainson’s Thrush, who was at the southern end of the breeding range.  Numerous Atlantis Fritillaries were present along with a Long Dash.  Later at Cranberry Glades we listened to the singing Northern Waterthrushes and located an Olive-sided Flycatcher on territory.  A pair has been present now for several years, an isolated outpost; their normal breeding range starting hundreds of miles to the north.  Also notable was a beautiful Baltimore Checkerspot, that spent time alighting on the shoes of our group.  After a relaxed afternoon lunch at Mumsey’s Iron Skillet along the riverside in Richfield, we continued south to Fayetteville.  North of Fayetteville, we stopped and birded along the Endless Wall Trail off the Edmun’s-Lansing Road in the breathtaking New River Gorge.  Here, most of us saw a Swainson’s Warbler and all of us had good views of Hooded Warbler.  A very cooperative Zebra Swallowtail was also in the parking lot.

On our last morning and before he headed to Charleston airport we drove down into the New River Gorge where we found several Yellow-throated Warblers.  Later, we briefly visited a new area (for us), the nearby New River Birding and Nature Center off route 16.  Here were lots of birds which included a Black-and-white Warbler, and most notably a male Blue-winged Warbler, our first and only one for the trip.  Just as notable for some of us were the two male Diana Fritillaries, (a declining and now near Appalachian endemic) it is felt by many to be one of the most beautiful eastern butterflies.  We stopped at another Swainson’s Warbler spot along route 612, unfortunately we didn’t hear anything, but we did see an adult Broad-winged Hawk circling overhead.  Later, after grabbing lunch, we continued on to the Charleston airport, where the tour concluded about noon. 

Jon Dunn - 

Updated: July 2015