Bird watchers flocking to the Mountain State - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Bird watchers flocking to the Mountain State

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Photo courtesy of CR Hays. Rachel Davis searches the tree tops from the Bill Thompson Jr. Memorial Gazebo at Wolf Creek Park in Fayette County. Photo courtesy of CR Hays. Rachel Davis searches the tree tops from the Bill Thompson Jr. Memorial Gazebo at Wolf Creek Park in Fayette County.
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By MARTA REE TANKERSLEY
For Country Roads Journal

West Virginia is well-known for its natural beauty and outdoor recreational activities like whitewater rafting, skiing, camping and off-road adventures. The state is gaining a reputation for birding. 

Our little sliver of Appalachia, where 317 species have been documented, has been called the Costa Rica of North America by birding expert and NPR's "All Things Considered" contributor Julie Zickefoose. She serves as a guide at the New River Birding and Nature Festival, staged each spring from Opossum Creek Retreat in Lansing. For many, the festival is on the short list of must-dos for birding enthusiasts "coast to coast, from Canada and South America," festival coordinator Rachel Davis said. 

Here's why. 

On their annual migration north each spring, neo-tropical species' first encounter with large stand hardwood forests is in West Virginia, Davis said. It's an essential stop for rest and food where the forest gives way to the edge, the shrub, and in turn, the wetland.

"In the early spring, as the sun warms the tops of the trees, insects begin to move and the birds come in to feed. Birders can watch the forest come to life. It's a beautiful thing to behold," she said.

The festival runs from April 28 – May 3 this year and attracts 150–200 birding enthusiasts on any given day, many staying the entire week, coordinator Keith Richardson said. 

"There are several outings planned each day with renowned guest guides and speakers as well as local guides," Richardson said. "Birding is family friendly, sort of a K through gray deal," Davis added.

Wolf Creek Park, one of the best local birding locations, is a 1,000-acre mixed-use business park just outside Fayetteville. There volunteers have built, with the help of the Boy Scouts of America, a handicapped accessible boardwalk into the 15-acre beaver-created natural wetland. Outdoor classrooms are conducted in the Bill Thompson Jr. Memorial Gazebo, named for the founder of Bird Watcher's Digest, which has been very supportive of the annual festival, now in its 14th year.

Susan Olcott, a district wildlife diversity biologist with the Farmington office of the Department of Natural Resources and a field guide at the Prickett's Fort State Park annual Bird Walk, said, "People need to feel more connected to their environment — with the natural world — and birding is a great way to accomplish that goal." 

She explained that humans are very visual creatures, and birding beginners most easily learn to identify species by sight. That's why spring, just as the trees begin to bud, is the best time to grab a field guide, some binoculars and get into nature. Prickett's Fort, in Fairmont, has a bird walk on three consecutive Saturdays each spring, each one offering more opportunity to spot different birds as they make the long trip north for summer mating.

The first to arrive are usually black- birds, ospreys, bald eagles, wood ducks, mallards and sandpipers. Later, the yellow warblers and bluebirds begin to nest. In May, Baltimore orioles, with their bright orange and black colors really put on a show, Olcott said.

"Peak migration is in May, but beginners can have sensory overload if they wait 'til then to start birding," Olcott said. "We really can't compare with the avian diversity in Costa Rica — although spring migration is pretty spectacular. The goal is to learn bird songs so that you can walk outside and identify your neighbors by sound even in mid-summer when the trees are fully leafed out and visual identification is almost impossible." 

The best way to keep up practice, said Richardson, is to set up a bird feeder and use a field guide to identify visitors. As a matter of fact, the festival's opening day, "Birding by Butt," is designed to mimic back porch birding and introduce novices.

"It's for any skill level," he said. "Whether you know what a cardinal is, or not, it doesn't matter. The week-long festival has something for everyone, even the most sophisticated birders who may opt to participate in the scientific data collection where birds are carefully captured and banded."

"Anyone can become involved with birding," Olcott said. "All it takes are eyes and ears to become connected with nature."

Get connected locally using the birding West Virginia guide published by the DNR, contact New River at birding-wv.com, Prickett's Fort at prickettsfortstatepark.com, or try a more personal approach with a private guide by contacting birdingpal.org.

Audubon offering ‘birding 101'

The Potomac Valley Audubon Society is accepting applications for its "Birding 101" course for beginning birders in April.

This will be the 29th year the Society has offered this course. The course will be taught by leading local bird experts. It will utilize both evening classroom sessions and daytime field trips. Participants will learn everything from bird identification to birding techniques and resources to field etiquette. It will focus on bird species that are found in the Eastern Panhandle area.

The evening classroom sessions will be from 7-9 p.m. April 3, 10, 17 and 24 at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center just north of Shepherdstown. The field trips will be held at various locations around the Panhandle from roughly 7 a.m. to noon on the Saturdays following the Thursday evening sessions. 

Tuition for the full course package of four classroom sessions and four field trips (a total of 28 hours of instruction) is $95. 

To register, contact Krista Hawley at 304-876-8471 or adultprograms@potomacaudubon.org.