Natural Tunnel Rally Highlights

By Ashley Peele July 12, 2019
Natural Tunnel Blockbusting Crew 2019

An interest in birds is often the gateway or companion to a fascination with all facets of the natural world.  While many VA Breeding Bird Atlas volunteers would describe themselves as primarily birders, others find an equal fascination for flowering plants, insects, reptiles/amphibians, or even geology.  Whatever your specific interests, a decided perk of participating in the fourth summer Atlas rally was the chance to explore a far-flung corner of the Commonwealth with fascinating geological formations, as well as a beautiful landscape and habitats.

On the last Friday in June, volunteers gathered at Natural Tunnel State Park for the final weekend in our summer blockbusting series.  Despite being a long journey for most participants, this was our most well-attended rally and included volunteers who traveled from Maryland and North Carolina, as well as from all parts of the Commonwealth.  Many volunteers opted to stay in the extremely nice Cove Ridge Center lodge, housing donated by Natural Tunnel State Park for this event.  Others camped within the beautiful grounds of the state park, an 850-acre property known most famously for the roughly one-million-year-old cave for which the park is named.

Logan Anderson and John Coe birding Keokee SE (CO Logan Anderson)

Saturday morning found volunteer groups dispersing out to priority blocks north, south, and west of Natural Tunnel.  Very few priority blocks in this sparsely populated region of Virginia received data prior to this weekend’s visit, meaning that volunteer observations were entirely new data for most of the assigned blocks.  Habitats ranged from rolling grasslands of the long valleys to mature, high-elevation forests with a couple small wetland pockets and riparian corridors thrown into the mix.

Picking just a few highlights proved difficult for this rally, because volunteers observed (and confirmed) so many cool species over the two days of Atlasing.  Since this was the last rally of the season, let’s look at the block highlights from each of our teams…

Appalachia SE Priority Block (PB).  Guy and Susan Babineau (Charlottesville), along with Kathy Richardson (Richmond), cranked out 12+ hours in this block, logging 67 species and knocking out 21 confirmations! Interesting species included a Worm-eating Warbler delivering food, a Barred Owl, and Magnolia Warbler.

Keokee SE and Pennington Gap SE PBs.  Logan Anderson (VA Tech), a field technician on the VABBA2 Point-count project and Atlasing veteran, along with John and Caroline Coe (Richmond), blitzed to log 71 and 69 species, respectively, to these blocks. While they found many great species, the most unique for the region had to be the Virginia Rail, calling from a small wetland in the Pennington Gap block!  This has turned out to be an interesting year for rails in southwest VA, as Sora’s bred in Burke’s Garden this summer and Virginia Rail’s also turned up in Saltville!

Duffield SE and Plum Grove NE PBs.  Dynamic duo, Rollie Lawless (Charlottesville) and Guy McCrane (our NC volunteer!) worked on these two border blocks, accruing 23 breeding confirmations.  After chatting with a landowner about a strangely harsh call that she’d been hearing near her woods, they decided it must be an owl.  On Saturday night, they went back to her farm (at her invitation) and sure enough, they managed to record a fledgling Great-horned Owl hooting from the woods.

Rolling valley meadows of Fort Blackmore SE (CO Brent Slaughter)

Big Stone Gap SE and Fort Blackmore SE PBs. Brent and Laura Slaughter (Pulaski) took on the only block (Big Stone Gap) which was entirely covered in mature forest and required a 4×4 vehicle.  Their species lists for the day included many high-elevation breeders, like Dark-eyed Junco, Veery and Black-throated Blue Warbler.  Their second day was spent helping to survey Fort Blackmore SE, a block with great riparian habitat along the Clinch river. Highlights included a flock of geese with many young fledglings, as well as a female Acadian Flycatcher delivering food to her nestlings.

Acadian Flycatcher feeding chicks (CO Brent Slaughter)

Ben Hur SE and Kyles Ford NE PBs.  Julie Maynard and Scott Edie, our intrepid Maryland volunteers, took on two border blocks dominated by the long valleys and ridges characteristic of southwest VA.  These blocks were untouched prior to Julie and Scott’s visits, during which they logged 28 breeding confirmations and 67 total breeding species.  Notable birds included Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue Grosbeak, and perhaps most exciting, Northern Bobwhite in both blocks!

Gate City SE and Kingsport NE.  Three more of the New River Valley birders, Mike Schultz, Doug and Sally Pfeiffer, logged 15+ breeding confirmations, including the ever-elusive nest of Ruby-throated Hummingbird and recently fledged  Louisiana Waterthrush!

Hubbard Springs SE.  Our solo-Atlaser for the weekend, Andrew Rapp, surveyed Hubbard Springs SE with some exciting results.  Reporting 65+ species, including 15 new breeding confirmations, he managed to find many of our target open-habitat species, including Dickcissel(!), Yellow-breasted Chat, Prairie Warbler, and Blue Grosbeak.  We should note that Andrew is also a technician on the VA BBA Point-count project.  He and Andrew volunteered their last weekend in SW VA to help lead groups and collect data for this event, so a special thanks to them both!

Natural Tunnel at dusk (CO A. Peele)

Overall, volunteers managed to find most of the target species for the open habitats of the valley bottoms, as well as high-elevation breeders along the forested ridgelines.  Summary statistics for the weekend included:

  • 81 hours of diurnal effort
  • 107 total species
  • 168 new breeding confirmations
  • 15 high-value priority blocks visited

To cap off this last, highly successful Atlas weekend, volunteers hiked down to check out the lighting of Natural Tunnel on Saturday evening.  Between the swallows flying into their nighttime rocky roosts, a few bats circling above, and the fireflies appearing around the walls and floor of the cavern, it was a spectacular sight.

Many, many thanks to all of the volunteers who participated in each of the rallies this summer!  We hope you enjoyed yourselves, while you were making this huge contribution to the project.  Each rally added excellent breeding data to previously un-surveyed blocks, as well as significantly boosted the overall data coverage for both the south-central Piedmont and southwestern mountain-valley region.

Stay tuned in early Autumn for stories of blockbusting efforts by our solo-busters this summer!

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