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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Maryland and West Virginia: Birding the American Civil War

Gettysburg, Antietam, and the Appalachians

2019 Narrative

In Brief:

This year’s tour encountered nice weather at the start of the tour where we toured the battlefields. Philip Brown gave another outstanding battlefield talk at Little Round Top. Temperatures were below average and the humidity wasn’t too high. Later we encountered rain in the Appalachians at times but still had good birding during dryer periods. Highlights included 26 species of wood warblers including Golden-winged (pair), Worm-eating, Mourning, Swainson’s, and Cerulean, and we heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl on Black Mountain. A Blue Grosbeak, Black-billed Cuckoo, four Red Crossbills (type 1),  and two family groups of Common Mergansers rounded out the ornithological highlights and we also had prolonged studies of a Copperhead on the road one damp evening.  The scenery high in the Appalachians was always breathtaking.

In Detail:

On our first day we tracked northwest from Baltimore to Gettysburg, much as Hooker, then Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac did 156 years ago. The battle itself lasted three days from 1-3 July 1863 and was the deadliest battle of the Civil War. We arrived in the morning and arranged our itinerary roughly following the three days of this most well-known battle of the civil war.  We arranged to hear the various rangers who mostly gave superb talks in the field at the various action sites. We were fortunate to have Philip Brown give his talk at Little Round Top on the afternoon of day 2 of the battle. From my experience he is the best informed and gives the best talks; but, all of the rangers are carefully selected and each has their own perspective to add. Philip (his wife is also a ranger here and we have heard her in past years) questioned Joshua Chamberlin’s account of his own heroics there at the Little Round Top, and believes the account may be embellished to some degree. Later in the day we looked at the vast fields for Picket’s (and 5000 others) Charge and visited the museum exhibits and saw the program covering the three day battle followed by a view of the Gettysburg Cyclorama, a 360 degree painting done by the Frenchman Paul Philippoteaux in the 1880’s. It covers the climax of Picket’s Charge late on the afternoon of day three of the battle. We did see a few birds today including a Black Vulture, a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Chimney Swifts, Purple Martins, Wood Thrushes, Field Sparrows and Indigo Buntings and heard an Eastern Wood Pewee.  We also saw a Woodchuck (Groundhog).  Late in the day we headed southwest following Lee’s retreat back to Virginia after the battle. We dined at Shamrock Restaurant in Thurmont, Maryland. We overnighted in Frederick, Maryland.

We were greeted the next morning by several Red-shouldered Hawks (longer winged eastern lineatus subspecies).  Today we headed west towards Antietam, a one day battle (17 September 1862) that had the highest casualties for a single day in the Civil War. Had General McClellan had his act together after receiving Lee’s accidentally discarded battle plans, the war might well have effectively ended on that day, but typically McClellan dithered, and the delay allowed Lee to gather his forces (numbering far fewer than McClellan’s) and mount a defense. The battle itself was very bloody, and as the day wore on it generally went from north to south, culminating at an eventual successful crossing by the Union Army at Burnside Bridge, followed by a westward push to Sharpsburg. Lee was on the verge of being cut off and having his army destroyed, but A.P. Hill’s late arrival (from Harpers Ferry) saved the Confederate Army and allowed Lee to withdraw back into Virginia. McClellan did not pursue and this resulted in Lincoln firing him. The war would drag on for another 2 ½ years.  The Antietam battlefield had lots of birds and these included a couple of Grasshopper Sparrows along with Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Warbling Vireo (heard), Horned Lark, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Cliff Swallow (nesting at Burnside Bridge), Carolina Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch (eastern carolinensis subspecies), Eastern Bluebird, and Carolina Wren.  We were greeted at the visitor center by a Great Crested Flycatcher that had built its nest in a canon barrel! Butterflies were numerous too and we tallied some ten Hackberry Emperors and three stunning Zebra Swallowtails. We had an excellent lunch at Blue Moon Café in Sheperdstown, West Virginia. From here we went to Harpers Ferry, located at the junction of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. This site repeatedly changed hands during the Civil War, and Jackson’s attack and subsequent surrender of 1000’s of Union trips along with the armory was one of the great disasters of the war for the North. Jackson famously said that he’s rather attack Harpers Ferry a hundred times rather than defend it once. Jackson took the hilltops overlooking the city and set up artillery. Once that was done the battle was decided. Jackson left A.P. Hill to negotiate the surrender terms and then headed northwest to join Lee at Antietam. A. P. Hill later left on a rapid march to Antietam on the 17th arriving in time to save Lee’s army. Harpers Ferry has been restored to the mid-19th century and we spent a few hours touring the old part of town at the junction of the rivers. We also saw the armory and listened to the history of John Brown’s famous raid in October 1859. Federal troops surrounded the armory and eventually seized it. Robert E. Lee headed up the Federal response. Times and loyalties would soon be tested for many. We did see a few Baltimore Orioles at Harpers Ferry. This ended the historical part of our tour. After checking in we headed west where we joined our co-leader, Matt Orsie, and his wife Jane. After a delicious Mexican dinner we headed west to Sleepy Creek WMA. Unfortunately a light rain arrived so we heard no Eastern Whip-poor-wills, nor any other night birds. We did see a “Northern” Copperhead and it remained in the road in a still position (with head raised) for a long time. This was a new snake for me, at least in life (had seen several road kills previously). An American Toad was also seen.   

We started the next morning at the Blue Ridge Environmental Center in Virginia where we saw a variety of woodland and edge birds, notably White-eyed Vireo, Yellow-breasted Chat, a singing male Kentucky Warbler and an immature male Blue Grosbeak. Nearby along the Shenandoah River (West Virginia) we saw a large family (or several families) of Common Mergansers, a rather rare West Virginia species, particularly in summer, but their breeding range has spread southwards a bit. Here we also had excellent views of Prothonotary Warbler. Other species noted included Fish Crows, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Northern Parula, and Orchard and Baltimore Orioles. From here we tracked west, stopping again at Sleepy Creek WMA and other locations. We had good views of Worm-eating, Pine, Prairie and Cerulean Warblers along with American Redstart and Scarlet Tanager. We arrived high in the Appalachians late in the day and had time to see several Bobolinks and Swamp Sparrows at the National Wildlife Refuge there.  Three Mink were also seen.

The next day we encountered on and off rain much of the day. We first visited Fairfax Stone, the headwaters of the Potomac and where George Washington surveyed over 270 years ago. In the very wet grass we failed to see or hear Henslow’s Sparrow but did have excellent views of a somewhat out-of-place Black-billed Cuckoo, a declining species and our only one of the trip. Species seen in and around the Canaan Valley and at Dolly Sods included Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Willow Flycatcher, Blue-headed Vireo, Black-capped Chickadee, Winter Wren (heard), Veery, Hermit Thrush, Louisiana Waterthrush (briefly), Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, and Canada Warblers, Dark-eyed Junco (endemic Appalachian carolinensis “Slate-colored” subspecies), Eastern Towhee and Scarlet Tanager. Butterflies were numerous and included numerous European Skippers, Long Dash, Peck Skipper, and Harris’s Checkerspot.   Wood Ducks were viewable on the grounds.

It was rainy and raining the next morning with some wind and fog at higher elevations. So, the Stuart highway in the Monongahela National Forest, was a bit of a struggle at times. Still we had excellent views of Least Flycatcher, Blue-headed Vireo, Winter Wren, Veery, and a variety of warblers: Black-throated Blue, Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, and Canada. After lunch we headed south and checked into our motel in Marlinton where a singing male Orchard Oriole was present, then continued south into Pocahontas County and Bucks Run Road. Here we found nice weather and a pair of Golden-winged Warblers, one of the rarest wood warblers in West Virginia. Butterflies were numerous and included five Eastern Commas and two Dun Skippers. Back in Marlinton we also found a group of Common Mergansers along the river. That evening some of us went up to the top of Black Mountain at over 4600’. It was perfectly calm. As dusk approached we heard and saw Swainson’s Thrush, here at the southern end of their breeding range.  Once it got dark we also heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl, the first time we have found this enigmatic nesting species.

The next morning we visited Cranberry Glades and returned to Black Mountain to get the others who had missed the previous evening’s outing on a Swainson’s Thrush. On Black Mountain we had no trouble finding Mourning Warbler and saw a male very well. Rose-breasted Grosbeak was also seen. Warblers noted there and at Cranberry Glades included Magnolia, Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, Canada, and Northern Waterthrush.  At Cranberry Glades we saw over 50 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at the feeders and also noted eastern Purple Finches (purpureus) and four Red Crossbills, no doubt type 1, the “Appalachian Crossbill.” The recent split of the Cassia Crossbill (originally termed type 9) is just one of ten that might be separate species and that’s just in North America! The Red Crossbill complex from the Old World (Eurasia, Canary Islands, North Africa, Himalaya, Vietnam and the Philippines) and New World (including Hispaniola) might number 25 or more species.  From here we drove south to Fayetteville and checked the Endless Wall Trail where we found both Hooded and Swainson’s Warblers, the former near the northern end of their breeding range.  We had a nice last dinner at The Station in Fayetteville.

The next morning we dropped into New River Gorge for breathtaking scenery and a few birds, notably Yellow-throated Warbler and two Louisiana Waterthrushes.  At the New River Birding and Nature Center we had a Broad-winged Hawk and a Horace’s Duskywing.  Later we drove on the short distance to the airport at Charleston, the state capital of West Virginia, where our tour concluded.

-Jon Dunn

Created: 13 January 2020