Springtime Birding on the Rappahannock.
by Joella Killian, Professor-Biological Sciences, University of Mary Washington
Birding is just one of the many opportunities for enjoyable activities that the Rappahannock affords us. This article addresses specifically springtime birding on the Rappahannock, but you can, of course, go birding anytime! And, while you don’t necessarily have to have any equipment for a pleasurable walk along the river, a pair of binoculars and a good field guide can certainly enrich your experience. There are a lot of good field guides on the market, including: Peterson’s classic A Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America (5th ed.), the relatively new Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, and the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (5th ed.).
If you’re a birding novice, you’ll want to start slowly. That can be a real challenge, however, in the spring when—with an influx of Neotropical migrants—one may be quickly overwhelmed by the diversity of bird species. “Neotropical migrants” are songbirds that fly northward in the spring from their wintering grounds (regions of Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean), to their breeding grounds in the United States and Canada. They represent over 50% of North American bird species. When you start birding, focus on just a few species that you will likely see, read up on them before you head out (perhaps keep a written record of diagnostic field marks), and especially keep in mind what kinds of birds are found in various habitats.
If you make the FOR headquarters your starting point for a leisurely birding hike along the river, think about the kinds of birds found in two types of habitats: woodlands and, of course, wetlands. Check in with the FOR office before your outing and pick up a copy of A Checklist for the Birds of the Fredericksburg Canal Path.
Also, pay attention to bird vocalizations. Most people aware of birds will recognize the songs of many birds around them—robins, chickadees, blue jays, mockingbirds, cardinals and titmice, to name a few. Learning to recognize the more common species by ear provides a basis from which to expand. As with your visual identification of birds, start slowly. Listen for the sounds you know and pick out any unfamiliar ones. Try and track down and identify the singer, remembering that where a bird sings from will often help with its identification. There are a wide variety of birdsong recordings available to help you with your vocalization identifications—my personal favorite is Birding by Ear: Eastern and Central North America (Peterson Field Guides).
On your way to the river, look for these common woodland species:
• Northern Cardinal. Why not start with a species you very likely already know? A permanent resident throughout its range, the cardinal lends color and enjoyment to any trip afield. It’s also Virginia’s State Bird!
• Carolina Wren. Little bird, big mouth. This small energetic brown bird is a year-round resident and easily identified by its cocked tail and white eyebrow stripe. The adults typically forage in pairs and may sing “duets” at any season.
• Carolina Chickadee. The chick-a-dee-dee call of this little urban and woodland species signifies its presence usually before it’s seen. In fact, the inquisitive nature of the chickadee will often result in it finding you, rather than you finding it! Another permanent resident, the Carolina Chickadee is distinctively patterned with a combination of black cap and bib, and white cheeks.
• Downy Woodpecker. This, our smallest North American woodpecker, is common and widespread in deciduous woodlands year-round. Its small size makes it versatile, and it can forage for insects on trunks and large limbs as well as minor branches and twigs.
• Red-bellied Woodpecker. This noisy woodpecker makes its presence known throughout the day with noisy calls and persistent drumming. Of all the woodpeckers, the Red-bellied is one of the tamest around humans. The zebra-striped back and red patch on the head distinguish this bird. Interestingly, the reddish tinge on the belly that gives the Red-bellied its name is usually difficult to see in the field.
• Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. The tiny (smaller than a chickadee) Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is one of our earliest returning summer residents. It’s an active bird that cocks and flicks its long black and white tail as it moves through the trees. Its call may be described as a nasal pzzzz and easily identifies the bird.
• Northern Parula Warbler. One of the smallest and most attractive of North American warblers, the Northern Parula is another early-arriving summer resident. As warbler songs go, the Parula’s song—a high-pitched, wiry buzz that rises and ends abruptly—is fairly easy to learn.
Red-eyed Vireo. The Red-eyed Vireo is yet another migrant that makes its home here in the summer. Olive green above and white below, this vireo’s best field mark is the black-bordered white stripe over its ruby-red eye. It sings See me? Here I am! Over here! in ceaseless repetition, and unlike most birds, it continues to sing throughout the nesting season and during the hottest of summer days!
Red-eyed Vireo (Diane Pierce, FL BBA)
• Great-crested Flycatcher. Another summer resident, this fairly large Flycatcher is common in the woods along the River but often stays out of sight in the canopy where it can best be detected by its call—loud bickering chatters and an ascending, emphatic whistled wheerp!
• American Goldfinch. The common name “wild canary” is certainly appropriate for the American Goldfinch, for it looks like a canary and sings like one. The male in his breeding plumage is yellow with black wings—easily one of the country’s most colorful birds!
Once you’ve gotten to the river, look for these species:
• Bald Eagle. In 1782, the Bald Eagle won the contest (in competition with the Wild Turkey!) to
become the National Bird of the United States. The lower Rappahannock is home to quite a few
breeding pairs of eagles, and they may be seen locally any time of the year.
• Osprey. Unlike the Bald Eagle, for which it is sometimes mistaken, the Osprey is strictly a summer
resident. Watch for the Osprey diving feet-first into the water, coming up with a fish and carrying it
off aligned head first, in its talons. The head is largely white, like that of the Bald Eagle, but the
Osprey has a broad black cheek patch. Also, the Osprey is brown above and white below (the
Eagle is a black bird with a white head and a white tail.)
• Canada Goose. Loud and ubiquitous. Enough said.
• Mallard. The most widespread and familiar duck in the Northern Hemisphere, the Mallard can be
found on the Rappahannock and the Canal Path year-round. The typical male Mallard has a glossy-
green head with a white neck-ring and mahogany breast. Females are dull and mottled like most
female dabbling ducks.
• Wood Duck. You’re a little more likely to see this duck along the Canal Path, where it’s afforded
more protection, than on the river itself. The ornate male is unmistakable for much of the year, but
it’s with the dull-colored female that you’ll find the chicks!
• Great Blue Heron. A conspicuous (because it’s so large) and widespread wading bird, this heron
can be seen any time of the year, but it’s especially common during the shad/herring run on the
Rappahannock when practically every rock above the Fall Line is occupied by one of these superb
fishers. In the air, the Great Blue looks like an escapee from Jurassic Park with its slow, deep wing-
• Ring-billed Gull. If you see a gull, it will most likely be a Ring-bill (so-called because of the black
ring on its yellow bill). The Ring-billed Gull is perhaps the most common and widespread gull in
North America; flocks are often seen resting in parking lots or scavenging scraps around fast-food
restaurants (as well as along or on the river.)
• Belted Kingfisher. The wild rattling call of the Kingfisher is a distinctive sound and will attract your
attention to a medium-sized blue-gray (above) bird with a large, bushy head and stout, pointed bill.
Interestingly, the female is more colorful than the male. She has a rusty band below the gray band
situated on her otherwise white breast; the male lacks the rusty breastband.
• Double-crested Cormorant. This dark, long-bodied bird floats low in the water with its thin neck
and bill raised. While not particularly common, I have seen groups (five to twelve or so) of these
diving birds in the spring—perched in a large sycamore on the Stafford side of the Rappahannock
with their wings half-spread to dry. When present, the Cormorant will be noticed!
Enjoy your River and happy birding!
On the Wings of Birds
Birds have seemed to me the most
vivid expression of life…
Many times I wished that I could fly
like the birds and be free.
The mere glimpse of a bird would change
my listlessness to fierce intensity.
My interest was neither thoughtful nor
academic—it was so spontaneous
that I could not control it..
Youngsters of any age—from eight to
eighty—find release on the wings of birds.
Birds are an affirmation of life.
—Roger Tory Peterson