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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Maryland and West Virginia

Birding the American Civil War: Gettysburg, Antietam, and the Appalachians

2021 Narrative

In Brief: Our trip in mid-June to Maryland and West Virginia experienced delightful and unseasonal cool temperatures. The heavy rains that had fallen in advance of the tour had ended and the weather did not factor much in our birding or in our touring of the Civil War battlefields, notably Gettysburg, Antietam (Sharpsburg), and Harpers Ferry. We recorded 113 species, including 25 species of warblers, missing only Blue-winged and Pine. These included excellent views of Worm-eating, Kentucky, Blackburnian and Cerulean, plus our best ever views of Swainson’s. We watched one forage for an extended period at close range. Other highlights included side-by-side comparisons of calling Alder and Willow Flycatchers, a pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers, singing Eastern Whip-poor-wills, and nesting Peregrine Falcons at Harpers Ferry, the first nesting there in over a half century. Rarities included an adult Mississippi Kite near Harpers Ferry (in Maryland) and a territorial Sedge Wren in Canaan Valley, West Virginia. A beautiful Baltimore Checkerspot was also seen very well. 

In Detail: Our tour began with a gathering at the Country Inn & Suites near Baltimore followed by dinner at Chili’s.

We left after breakfast the next morning for Gettysburg. Our route was just to the east of the route that the Army of the Potomac took on the way to this pivotal and determinative place after the decisive Union defeat at Chancellorsville, VA, in early May of 1863. Joseph Hooker initially led the army but was replaced by Gordon Meade just four days before the battle began. Along the way we noted several Black Vultures and Chimney Swifts in the small towns we passed through. Covid had led to a later opening of the visitor’s center, so we did a bit of birding around the entrance, noting Pileated Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, House Wrens, Gray Catbird, and Field Sparrow. A Wood Thrush serenaded us. Our time at the vast battlefield of Gettysburg is always somewhat abbreviated, divided between driving the battlefield and attending the informative ranger talks. We had time to drive west of Gettysburg where the battle started on the morning of 1 July 1863 and saw the terrain where the battle raged throughout the day in a counter clockwise fashion, eventually resulting in a hasty and disorganized retreat by the Union Army to the east. They formed a new line of defense centered on Cemetery Ridge. Returning to the visitor’s center we caught up with ranger Dan Welch for a walk out to Cemetery Ridge. This gave us a good view of the battlefield overall, particularly the climatic events in the mid-afternoon of 3 July with Lee’s failure with Pickett’s charge. During the walk our only Yellow-throated Vireo appeared and sang above the group. While a few of us noted it, it seemed rude to interrupt the ranger to point out a passerine. We had lunch at the visitor’s center, and then headed to Little Round Top for another ranger talk by Andrew Frantz. Here, heavy fighting occurred on day two of the battle (July 2nd). Some consider the hastily organized Union defense by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and others to have been the key to the Union victory at Gettysburg. Others believe its importance has been exaggerated. The debate continues to this day. Returning to the visitor’s center, we returned to the visitor’s center for the film, the spectacular Gettysburg Cyclorama (painted by Paul Philippoteaux), and the extensive museum. Most of us visited the large bookstore. Once things closed up at Gettysburg we drove south to Frederick in Maryland.

The next morning we drove west to Antietam (Sharpsburg). Here on 17 September 1862, the most deadly day of fighting occurred, nearly a year before Gettysburg. The Union commander, McClellan, actually had (by accident) Lee’s battle plans in advance on his northern campaign and should have been able to destroy Lee’s army. But typical of McClellan, he dithered, long enough for Lee to reorganize and survive to fight another day, barely. That said, it looked like the Union army was victorious late in the day until the timely arrival of A.P. Hill’s forces from Harpers Ferry. The day ended in stalemate and shortly afterwards Lee withdrew south across the Potomac. McClellan did not pursue Lee back into Virginia and this resulted in Lincoln’s famous line to McClellan, that ‘if he was not going to use his army, could (Lincoln) borrow it.” McClellan was replaced shortly afterwards. On our way to Antietam, we had excellent views of an adult Mississippi Kite just across the Potomac and near Harpers Ferry (in Maryland). This species has been spreading north over the last the last two decades. We visited various spots on the battlefield (much more confined than Gettysburg) noting various birds of interest: Wild Turkey, Red-bellied Woodpecker, a nesting Eastern Kingbird, Warbling Vireos, Cliff and Northern Rough-winged swallows, Eastern Bluebirds, Grasshopper Sparrow (3), Eastern Meadowlarks, Orchard and Baltimore orioles and a colorful male Prothonotary Warbler. An adult male Blue Grosbeak at Burnside’s Bridge was our most unusual sighting. An adult Bald Eagle, our only one, was seen briefly. A Hackberry Emperor, several spectacular Zebra Swallowtails, and a Woodchuck were also seen.

After a delicious lunch at the Blue Moon Café in Shepherdstown, WV, we continued on to Harpers Ferry for an early check-in followed by a visit to the historic section of Harpers Ferry at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. This was our armory in the 19th century. Merriweather Louis outfitted his expedition here prior to his epic journey early in the century. In October 1859 John Brown led his failed raid here. His band was attacked by U.S. forces, led by Robert E. Lee. A year and a half later, Lee would resign his commission with the U.S. army and became an officer with the Confederate army. John Brown was hanged in December 1859. Harpers Ferry was pivotal during the Civil War, and changed hands many times, most famously in September 1862, when a large Union force was captured by Stonewall Jackson, just before the battle of Antietam. Picturesque, and also birdy, we watched swallows and Double-crested Cormorants over and in the Potomac and studied Peregrine Falcons at an eyrie across the river. This is the first nesting here in well over half a century. One of the fledged juveniles flew across the river and headed up the Shenandoah. Ospreys were nesting here too and a Great Egret flew over. Late in the afternoon we headed west for Martinsburg where we met Jane and Matt Orsie. Matt would be the co-leader for the rest of the tour. After dinner we ventured farther west to Sleepy Creek WMA. In the failing light we observed a singing male Scarlet Tanager and as darkness arrived heard several Eastern Whip-poor-wills. The birds were close and one was glimpsed as it flew over several times.

The next morning we visited the Blue Ridge Environmental Center in Loudoun County, Virginia. Here we had a variety of species including Yellow-billed Cuckoo (heard), Green Heron, Red-shouldered Hawk, Eastern Wood Pewee, Carolina Chickadee, Prothonotary Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat. Most notable was a singing male Kentucky Warbler, our only one of the tour. After breakfast at our hotel with various hikers (the hotel is nearly on the Appalachian Trail), we briefly checked the Shenandoah River where we noted a group of Common Mergansers, then headed west back towards Sleepy Creek. We picked up sandwiches to go at Subway and noted there several calling Fish Crows, our only ones of the trip. At Sleepy Creek WMA we saw a variety of warblers including Ovenbird, Cerulean (at least six), American Redstart, and Worm-eating (heard and glimpsed). Eastern Wood Pewees, Eastern Towhees, and Indigo Buntings were fairly numerous and our only Acadian Flycatcher of the trip was noted. Great Spangled Fritillaries were numerous. Nearby we saw our only Prairie Warbler and at another place a pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers, a very uncommon and local species in West Virginia. Later in the afternoon we headed west to the cool Canaan Valley just west of the crest of the Appalachians. After dinner we drove down to a nearby spot where a Sedge Wren had been recently found. This species is quite rare in West Virginia. Although we heard it sing, we did not see it. Several Swamp Sparrows and a single Savannah were seen. Two young Black Bears were seen crossing the road. We presumably just missed the mother that had crossed before. This is the first time we’ve seen bears on this tour.

After breakfast the next morning we headed back for the Sedge Wren and managed to get excellent views of it. We then headed to Blackwater Falls and the closed lodge. Blue-headed Vireos and a Red-breasted Nuthatch were seen. On Freeland Road we noted several singing Bobolinks and then walked the boardwalk noting Black-capped Chickadees, Swamp Sparrows and Yellow Warblers. Particularly noteworthy were the nearly side-by-side views of calling Alder and Willow Flycatchers. Their appearance was very close, but fortunately the call notes easily identified them. A spectacular Baltimore Checkerspot was back in the parking lot on our return. Common Ravens were here and elsewhere. In the afternoon we ventured up to Dolly Sods where we took a short, but notable walk on the boardwalk. Canada Warbler and Dark-eyed Juncos (endemic Appalachian subspecies, carolinensis) were noted. Up at the crest we had superb views of a male Eastern Towhee and heard Winter Wren singing. Several Pink-edged Sulphurs were noted.

The next morning we headed south to the Stuart Memorial Highway for a beautiful exploration of heavily forested habitats. Blue-headed Vireos and a variety of warbler species were noted: Black-throated Blue, Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Green and Canada were numerous. A single male Blackburnian was well seen and a Mourning was heard. A Winter Wren perched for a lengthy time for superb studies, our best ever. At Bickle Knob we noted a few raptors including Osprey and an adult Broad-winged Hawk. Other things of note included Pipevine Swallowtails, a Pearl Crescent, and an Eastern Garter Snake. After lunch in Elkins and checking in to our motel in Marlinton, we headed up the north side of the Scenic Highway where we had excellent studies of two male Mourning Warblers. Along a slow moving stretch of the Williams River below we watched a group of very young Common Mergansers accompanying their mother, one climbing up on her back for an easier ride.

The next morning we drove south to Bucks Run Road where we were again fortunate to find a male Golden-winged Warbler, a decreasing species. Here we also saw a White-eyed Vireo and noted Bobolinks on the way in. We returned to Marlinton for breakfast and a male Northern Parula, and then headed up the Scenic Highway where we glimpsed a Swainson’s Thrush, here at the southern end of their breeding range, and also had good studies of two male Blackburnian Warblers. Heading down to the visitor’s center near Cranberry Glades we saw numerous Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and had good studies of Purple Finches at the feeders. Two Pine Siskins and two Red Crossbills were briefly seen. At the Cranberry Glades we saw our only Yellow-rumped (“Myrtle”) Warbler as well as a Northern Waterthrush. Just to the west at a large swampy pond we re-found a brood of Hooded Mergansers that Matt had found earlier in the month. On the side of the road a Question Mark and an Atlantis Fritillary were noted along with numerous Silver-spotted Skippers. We concluded our birding near Fayetteville at the Great Western Wall in the newly established New River Gorge National Park. Here we obtained some of our best views ever of a Swainson’s Warbler both singing and foraging on the ground – a sort of shuffle/walk. A male Hooded Warbler was also seen here.

On our last morning we headed down to the very steep hill to the bottom of the gorge. Matt heard a Worm-eating singing on the way down and we were able to find and see it well. Numerous Wood Thrushes were singing and one was seen briefly. At the bottom and then on the way back up we saw two Louisiana Waterthrushes. Although we heard a Yellow-throated Warbler singing, we were unable to see it. Later at the New River Birding and Nature Center two White-eyed Vireos were seen along with our only Black-and-white Warbler, a male. From here we headed west to Charleston where our tour concluded at Chuck Yeager Airport near noon. Most of the group rented cars and continued on their exploration of the Appalachians.

I thank Matt for his attentive leadership and locating many of the species we encountered on the trip. His careful scouting in advance was hugely beneficial to our success. 

-          Jon Dunn

Updated: July 2021