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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Maryland and West Virginia: Birding the American Civil War

Gettysburg, Antietam, and the Appalachians

2017 Narrative


 Our tour this year visited three Civil War battlefields, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Harper’s Ferry, the latter also famous for John Brown’s raid in October 1859.  While we birded at the battlefields and nearby, our primary birding was done in the Appalachians of West Virginia.  In all we noted 28 species of wood warblers, including Worm-eating, Mourning, Kentucky, Cerulean, and Swainson’s, plus Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes. Also noted were many Ruby-throatd Hummingbirs, Common Nighthawk, Eastern Whip-poor-will (good views), seven species of woodpeckers,  Olive-sided, Acadian, Alder, Willow, and Least Flycatchers, Summer Tanager (two adult males in Charleston), Henslow’s and Grasshopper Sparrows, Red Crossbills, and numerous Yellow-billed Cuckoos and Winter Wrens, the latter mainly just heard.  The Pink-edged Sulphurs at Dolly Sods were also stunning.

 Our tour began with an evening greeting in our first night hotel followed by dinner.  The following morning we headed around Baltimore and headed northwest towards Gettysburg following the route of the Union army in June of 1863, initially led by Joseph Hooker who was replaced by Gordon Meade shortly before the battle.  As we passed through the small towns (Westminster, Mount Pleasant, and Union Mills) along state routes 140 and 97, we saw lots of Chimney Swifts and compared Black and Turkey Vultures.  A Brown Thrasher and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo flew across the road and later we noted more Yellow-billed Cuckoos at Gettysburg.  In fact we saw lots of Yellow-billed Cuckoos nearly throughout our week, more than on previous tours, including one fairly high in the Appalachians of West Virginia, a location where it should have been a Black-billed.  We missed Black-billed entirely and it appears to me that this species is in a steep decline.

 We arrived at the Gettysburg Visitor Center and made our plans for the day.  Basically we organized our day around the various ranger programs at the battlefield sites. These rangers are carefully screened before they are hired and without exception I have found them well-informed on all of the intricacies of the overall battle and the specific action they are discussing. We knew a weather front was going to hit in the afternoon with thunderstorms and heavy rain, so we tried to maximize our time in the morning.  We started at the Peace Monument to the northwest of Gettysburg.  From this high view ranger Philip Brown gazed west to where the battle started early on the morning of July 1st, 1863 when Henry Heth’s forces first encountered Buford’s Union Calvary that had dismounted and spread out in a broad line.  Carefully Philip worked us around from the west of our viewpoint to the north, northeast and then the southwest, as the battle raged through the day, ultimately resulting in the Confederates forcing the Union army in a hasty retreat back through Gettysburg and up to Cemetery and Culp’s Hill to the east and down south along Cemetery Ridge. 

 After some question and answer we took leave and told Philip we were on our way to the next talk at Little Round Top, one of focuses of day 2 of the battle.  Philip smiled and said you will hear my wife’s perspective.  And indeed we did, Ranger Caitlin Brown described the entire battle on and all around Little Round Top beginning with dawn reconnaissance.  The report relayed back to Lee would influence the entire day’s course of the battle.  At one point during her talk a vocal Common Raven flew by.  This species has been gradually expanding its range outside of its core eastern range in the boreal north and the Appalachian Mountains. 

 After Caitlin’s talk and a quick lunch we had intended to listen to John Holenbeck’s talk about Day 3 of the battle and the climatic action, known by most as Pickett’s Charge. As we assembled and John started his talk, the clouds started to gesticulate and the first claps of thunder were heard.  The talk was over but he offered to give the remainder back at the visitor’s center.  So, we ventured there, found John, and heard him give the remainder of his talk.  Basically, day 1 was a taken by the Confederates, day 2 was a “near miss” for the Confederacy, but by the end of day 2, things had come down to a stalemate with entrenched well-fortified positions.  For, Lee, he should have been looking for extraction and repositioning his force.  But Lee wanted results here at Gettysburg, hence the action taken at “Pickett’s Charge.” Of all people Lee should have known better.  He had been at Fredericksburg when Burnside hurled attacks at the Stall Wall eleven times, all had been failures. Perhaps Lee just felt his superbly trained army could work a miracle.  Lee took all the blame on himself and that evening planned out his retreat back across the Potomac to Virginia.  He was successful in this and of course the war dragged on nearly two more years.  Later that afternoon we went to Culp’s Hill at the north end of the battlefield, but it was still raining and no ranger appeared.  Earlier we spent an hour in the vast museum which details much about the battle and of the Civil War in general.  Our visit to Gettysburg culminated with the film and the view of the restored Gettysburg Cyclorama, painstakingly done by the French artist, Paul Philippoteaux.  It represents the “high water” mark of the Confederacy taken at the culmination and forward advance of “Pickett’s Charge.” With regret, we left the Gettysburg battlefield and headed south to Maryland, following much the route of Lee’s retreat in the days that followed 3 July 1863.  One can spend multiple days at Gettysburg.  Some spend a week and we hardly had time to even discuss Eisenhower’s time at Gettysburg, as an officer in the influenza outbreak of 1918 and later as a resident.  His house is also a place where many visit.  For us we headed back across the state line and had dinner in Thurmont, Maryland where the soft shell crabs were superb!

 The following morning we headed west and then south to Antietam, the site where on 17 September 1862, more casualties occurred than on any other single day in the Civil War.  This was Lee’s first foray north, and like his trip nearly a year later, it did not end well.  Of course having his orders (Secret Special Order No. 191) dropped (wrapped in three cigars) and intercepted by the Union army did not help.  With McClellan having his plans in advance, Lee’s smaller army should have been smashed, but McClellan was a ditherer and Lee knew his McClellan.  He survived to fight another day, barely, bailed out at the end of the day by A.P. Hill, pushing northwest from Harpers Ferry.  We followed the day’s events from north to south culminating at the beautiful restored Burnside Bridge near the south end of the battlefield.  We had a few birds on the battlefield, notably a Grasshopper Sparrow at the visitor’s center,a singing male Prairie Warbler and multiple Field Sparrows.  We also birded a bit along the B & O Canal (Lock 38) on the Maryland side of Shepherdstown.  Acadian Flycatcher and Yellow-throated Warbler were well seen and Prothonotary Warbler was heard.  We also had superb views of a stunning Zebra Swallowtail.  We had a delicious lunch in Shepherdstown. 

 Later in the afternoon we headed downriver to Harpers Ferry where we had just a bit of time before the exhibits closed.  The famous armory was located here and it was the site of John Brown’s raid in 1859.  Armed forces were summoned to capture Brown, the forces being led by no other than Robert E. Lee, still then a loyal officer.  Nearly three years later Harpers Ferry would figure prominently again when Lee decided to capture the garrison on his way north into Union territory.  Stonewall Jackson was given this task, and after taking the hills overlooking it, it was just a matter of time.  Over 10,000 Union soldiers surrendered, the largest mass surrender in U.S. history until the Philippines in early 1942.  Jackson and later A.P. Hill then bolted to the northwest to Sharpsburg and Antietam Creek, arriving just in time to save Lee.  Now it is just a restored and beautiful small town lying at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. 

 From Harpers Ferry we headed west to Martinsburg where Matt Orsie joined us.  We had dinner at a fine Mexican restaurant there.  After dinner we headed to Sleepy Creek W.M.A. where we had decent views of a singing Eastern Whip-poor-will.  Two others were heard.  Later we heard both Eastern Screech and Barred Owls.    

 The next morning we birded around the Blue Ridge Environmental Stewardship Center where we saw Green Heron and Kentucky Warblers and Yellow-breasted Chats; most saw a male Blue-winged Warbler, our only one of the trip.  Along the Shenandoah River in West Virginia we had more Yellow-billed Cuckoos and Green Herons as well as two Ospreys, Belted Kingfisher, Great Crested Flycatcher and multiple Warbling Vireos.  We also had stunning views of a male Prothonotary Warbler and both Orchard and Baltimore Orioles. After lunch, at Sleepy Creek W.M.A. we found Scarlet Tanagers and Eastern Towhees and had good views of Worm-eating, Pine and Cerulean Warblers.  Later at Kimsey Lake two Broad-winged Hawks were seen and near here we saw our only Red-headed Woodpecker of the trip. From there we headed straight west to the Canaan Valley. That evening after dinner we tried without success for American Bittern at the beaver dam area and one participant found two Common Nighthawks over the river. 

 It rained overnight and showers were still coming through when we headed to the Fairfax Stone.  We did see a female Turkey with recently hatched young and heard a Swamp Sparrow singing, a species that we eventually saw well.  Our main goal was Henslow’s Sparrow and after the rains stopped we headed out into the grasslands where we had excellent views of a singing bird as well as a couple of Grasshopper Sparrows.  Nearby we found Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Chestnut-sided and Hooded Warblers. Later after lunch we headed east to Dolly Sods.  This was a beautiful place with Canada and Magnolia Warblers and elusive Veeries and Northern Waterthrushes.  Along the crest we had several Pink-edged Sulphurs and just over the crest we saw multiple Black-throated Blue Warblers. Sadly, a Timber Rattlesnake had been run over along the road.  Just before dinner we went down to the Canaan Valley N.W.R. along Freeland Road where we saw Bobolinks, Savannah and Swamp Sparrows, Alder and Willow Flycatchers, Yellow Warbler (with a drab accompanying juvenile) and Bobolinks.  A Merlin, a recent colonist to the Canaan Valley, hurtled by. That evening we were successful in locating two Common Nighthawks near Davis. 

 It rained overnight (moisture from tropical system Cindy) and so we had a leisurely buffet breakfast while watching the rain come down.  Eventually we loaded our van and headed south to the Stuart Memorial Highway (Fire Road 91). Despite the rain, this was an excellent highway to bird from.  We had more Veeries (mostly heard) and saw Canada and Black-throated Blue Warblers. Some seven Winter Wrens were heard singing and two were glimpsed.  Two Blackburnian Warblers were seen well as was a female type Purple Finch. At Bickel Knob we watched a male Mourning Warbler. Near here we met a local who showed us either Great or Lesser-fringed Purple Orchids (a rare flower). Later, after lunch at Elkins we looked for Golden-winged Warbler at Bucks Run Road near Hillsboro, home of the famous writer, Pearl Buck. A female Golden-winged was only briefly seen, but a White-eyed Vireo was well seen. Nearby, a Louisiana Waterthrush was watched as it foraged along the stream on wet rocks.  Just to the south was Droop Mountain, a Civil War battlefield late in 1863, the site of a Union victory.  Here we had good looks at a male Northern Parula.  Then it was on to Lewisburg where we spent the night. 

 The next morning we retraced our steps to Bucks Run Road and tried to see a Golden-winged.  This time it was the male that was glimpsed.  We headed to the visitor center for Cranberry Glades where Red Crossbills were present along with an adult male Purple Finch and many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at the feeders.  The boardwalk at Cranberry Glades was beautiful.  Our main highlight was an Olive-sided Flycatcher.  This population is an outlier here as the next closest breeding population is hundreds of miles to the north. Other species noted included Least Flycatcher, Northern Waterthrush (heard), and the higher elevation (from Carolina) Black-capped Chickadee. We watched a foraging family of Golden-crowned Kinglets and I learned for the first time that the juvenal plumage lacks all yellow (or the red of the male) on the crown.  Later at Black Mountain at 4500’ we heard and glimpsed a Swainson’s Thrush and Matt found an Aphrodite Fritillary with the more numerous Atlantis Fritillaries.  From here we headed south for Fayetteville stopping at the Endless Wall, where we had excellent views (our best ever) of Swainson’s Warbler, here at the northern end of the breeding range.  We also had an Ovenbird and heard a Barred Owl calling close-by.  Later at the New River Birding and Nature Center we had an adult Red-shouldered Hawk fly-over and added a few new butterflies, notably Dun and Pepper and Salt Skippers. 

 On our final morning we descended into the New River Gorge, A drop of nine hundred feet.  We heard Hooded Warbler on the way down and at the bottom  had nice views of Broad-winged Hawk and Yellow-throated and Black-and-white Warblers.  A Louisiana Waterthrush was also seen fleetingly and two adult male Scarlet Tanagers were sitting close together near us. Later along the highway, Matt rescued an Eastern Box Turtle.  From Fayetteville we headed west to Charleston where at Coonskin Park we located two adult male Summer Tanagers that had been found earlier.  We also saw a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and listened to Wood Thrushes sing in the woods.  Matt heard a Cerulean Warbler singing. An Osprey was seen nearby.  Then it was off to the airport where we concluded our tour.    


Jon Dunn 2017

Created: 13 July 2017