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Pandemic Adventures Part 2: Spring/Summer 2020 Travel

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

Although local birding and working from home during the COVID pandemic (described in the Part 1 Blog) left little for me to complain about, cabin fever occasionally took hold during the spring and summer of 2020. As pretty much all of our wedding and vacation plans were scrapped, my wife and I made a number of socially distant day and overnight trips out of the house. This installment of my blog contains a bunch of mini-blogs for all of our adventures beyond a 1-hour radius between late March and early September, including 8 trips to the mountains, 6 to the sandhills, 4 to the coast, and 1 to the SC piedmont.


Mountains 1: Meadows of Dan 1

My first trip of the pandemic: on 3/26-3/27, I joined my dad and cousin at our family property in the mountains, just off the BRP in Meadows of Dan. I got there late at night, camped out, birded the property in the morning, then spent the day helping tear down a fairly large deck from the “new” log cabin. Camping was great, although the neighbor’s dog barked most of the night. Birding was good but not remarkable; it was a little early in the season for warblers except for a Pine Warbler and a Louisiana Waterthrush that I suspect breeds annually on the pond. Other birding highlights included a Wood Duck and two Blue-headed Vireos. The deck project went well and inspired me to do demo part of our deck at home a few weeks later. And, always good to see family.

 

Sandhills 1: Fort Bragg (All-American Trail)

On 4/5, my wife and I took a day trip down to the sandhills to bike part of the All-American Trail that encircles Fort Bragg. The trail was pretty rough, with deep sand in (many) places, but we covered about 6 miles in and 6 miles back. Long-leaf pine savannahs are hard to beat; it’s nice to see such a remarkably different ecosystem within only an hour’s drive. This wasn’t a bird-focused trip, but I couldn’t help but notice 5 Bachman’s Sparrows (one seen), a single Red-cockaded Woodpecker (heard), and a Blue-headed Vireo. Along the trail, we stopped at a pretty neat wetland at Rockfish Creek, which featured some nice native aquatics and azaleas.

 

Coast 1: Wrightsville/ Holly Shelter

We took a day trip to Wrightsville on 5/3, shortly after the beach reopened (for exercise only—no loitering!). Beach parking was still closed, so we biked over from the mainland and then hiked both ends of the beach, omitting the more populated middle segment. ­The heat was hot, but I’d rather be hot at the beach than at home. The breeding birds at both ends of Wrightsville were in full swing; it’s hard not to smile amidst scores of Least Terns (both ends) and Black Skimmers (south end). And a threesome of Red Knots was a nice surprise.

After eating take-out lunch somewhat awkwardly in an empty parking lot, we biked back to our car and drove over to Holly Shelter Gameland for another 8 miles or so of biking. There, the heat was REALLY hot, but the biking was great. I heard a few Bachman’s Sparrows and saw dozens of Palamedes Swallowtails, and my wife got a bee sting on her tongue! After 17 miles of biking and 7 of hiking, it was time to call it a day and head back home.

 

SC Piedmont 1: Van Wyck

For Mother’s Day weekend (5/9-5/10), we made an overnight trip to Charlotte to see my wife’s family. I was able to slip out first thing Saturday morning to do some birding on their family property in Van Wyck, SC, which includes managed wetlands and pristine hardwood forest along the Catawba River. The birding was excellent; I recorded 71 species, including 15 species of warblers, and the experience was very similar to the Haw River birding a week prior (described in Part 1). Two of the warblers—Canada Warbler and Blackpoll Warbler—were the first ever reported in Landcaster SC; the Canada was a great find, whereas the Blackpoll simply shows how underbirded this area is. Other good warblers included Bay-breasted and Yellow Warblers, plus tons of Black-throated Blue (x14) and Prothonotary (x13) Warblers. Other highlights included a Baltimore Oriole, Bald Eagle, Spotted Sandpiper, and a few Solitary Sandpipers. The gamebirds also made a strong showing, including a handful of (everpresent) Wood Ducks, a Mallard with duckling, a female Hooded Merganser (local breeder?), and a Wild Turkey hen with two barely-flying poults. I added 12 species to my SC list by the time my wife and brother-in-law showed up for a good, long, hike.

 

Coast 2: Emerald Isle/ Croatan NF

For Memorial Day weekend (5/24-5/25), we caught up with some good friends down at Emerald Isle for an overnight trip. This was our first purely social outing, and we did a pretty good job staying safe while enjoying ourselves. We decided that camping would be more prudent than staying overnight at our friends’ house. So, on the way in, we stopped at a couple places at the north end of Croatan NF, ostensibly to scope out campsites. A short hike and a few stops in the car yielded not only a suitable campsite but also some notable birds, including Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bachman’s Sparrow, Bobwhite Quail, and two heard-only Swainson’s Warblers. The non-birds were arguably even better, including: 4 species of frogs (including Southern Toad, a lifer); Spotted and Mud Turtles; an Eastern Kingsnake and a Black Racer; a juvenile Green Anole and a huge male Broad-headed Skink; a female Ebony Jewelwing and a male Bar-winged Skimmer (lifer dragonfly); some unremarkable butterflies; and a 3-inch long American Bird Locust (a truly massive cricket).

Wait, this was supposed to be a beach trip, right? After sitting in a long line of cars with similar ideas, we did eventually arrive at the beach, where we spent all afternoon hanging out with friends in the sun and in the surf. We even took my friend’s kayak out into the breakers (something I’d never tried before) as our significant others worried from shore. After we returned to the house, we hung out and shared a nice dinner before departing for our campsite.

Aided by satellite imagery alone, we called an en-route audible and ditched the previously-picked-out campsite, which was a good 45 minutes away. Instead, I found a much closer spot in the southern part of the forest. The nighttime birds there were excellent. On the drive in, we heard a Chuck-will’s-widow; a few hours later, a Great Horned Owl interrupted our sleep; and a little too early in the morning, a Common Nighthawk erupted overhead with booming displays. A Bachman’s Sparrow also put on a good dawn song right next to our tent. We took the scenic way (the only way) out of the forest. Along Millis Swamp, I heard a Black-throated Green Warbler singing, presumably one of a small disjunct population of this species that breeds in eastern NC swamp forests (as opposed to the mountains, where the rest of its kin breed). And that was that!


 

Mountains 2: Meadows of Dan 2 We headed back to the mountains on 6/5 to meet up with my parents at our property in Meadows of Dan. Two more nights of COVID camping (for my wife and I), while my parents enjoyed the luxury of a solid roof. Birding around our property was good as always (and better than March, above), with nesting House Wrens, more Gray Catbirds than you’ve ever seen, some good warblers, and at least a couple Green Herons on the pond. We got a lot of good family time in, save for Saturday morning, when my wife and I hiked the 10.7-mile Rocky Knob/Rock Castle Gorge loop. Great hike (our second time doing it). Also, great breeding birds—including 4 Cerulean Warblers (lifer, with one seen well), Worm-eating Warblers, Black-throated Blue and Green Warblers, Blue-headed Vireos, and huge numbers of Ovenbirds (x36), Redstarts (x28), Red-eyed Vireos (x41) and Acadian Flycatchers (x31). Good non-avian finds included a massive Black Ratsnake, 2 Pickerel Frogs, an American Toad, a Red Eft (young Eastern Newt) and—best for last—a Flat-headed Salamander, endemic to a small range on this part of the Blue Ridge. Lots of butterflies, too, but I didn’t have a chance to catalogue them.

 

Sandhills 2: Sandhills Gameland (Lake Bagget) On 6/14, we headed back to the sandhills for another day trip, this time to the Sandhills Gameland Block A in Richmond County (first time there). We biked 4 or 5 miles down to Lake Bagget, where we spent a couple hours hiking and picnicking. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers (x3) Bachman’s Sparrows (x4), and Northern Bobwhites (x5) were good birds, but the odes were the real highlight of the trip. I saw 11 species of dragonflies (including lifers Banded Pennant, Ornate Pennant, Little Blue Dragonlet, Golden-winged Skimmer, Yellow-sided Skimmer, and Elfin Skimmer) and 6 species of damselflies (including lifers Seepage Dancer, Lilypad Forktail, and Southern Sprite). The leps were’t too bad either; among 10 species, I got two lifers: King’s Hairstreak and Zarucco Duskywing. Last but not least, the herps: at least 9 Six-lined Racerunners (lifers), many Southern Cricket Frogs, a Southern Leopard Frog, a couple Green Frogs, a Painted Turtle, and some cooters. I love the sandhills!


 

Mountains 3: Black Balsam/ Henderson Our first mini-vacation this summer involved a three-night trip to the NC mountains from June 18-21. En route, we took a 28-minute detour to check out the continuing Scissor-tailed Flycatcher near Shelby, a state bird for me. This detour was just within my no-chasing-birds-father-than-30-minutes-away rule (self-imposed for sanity and marital bliss). And even my wife enjoyed seeing this spectacular bird, which happens to grace the cover of Wingspan, my favorite bird-themed board game. As we climbed the mountains and worked our way down the Blue Ridge, we passed within feet of a Ruffed Grouse on the side of the parkway (still alive, and the first adult I’d ever seen), followed by a Wild Turkey a mile further down the road—both good 45-mph birds. Upon arriving at the Black Balsam/Sam Knob trailhead just past Brevard, we hiked Sam Knob and looped back around Flat Laurel Creek, checking out potential campsites on the way. What a cool area! Last century’s logging left exposed, scrubby mountaintops that will be slow to transition back to forest; in the meantime, they’re quite beautiful in their own right. The birdlife along the trail was dominated by high-elevation species found in very few places in NC, including Alder Flycatcher (x4, lifers!), Black-capped Chickadee (x3, state bird), Veery, Hermit Thrush, Dark-eyed Junco, plus Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Green, and Canada Warblers. The mammals were perhaps even more exciting, including an Appalachian Cottontail (lifer) and a reasonably close, but still reasonably far away, Black Bear on the opposite side of the creek. Spring Peepers were still singing—a sound I hadn’t heard for months in the piedmont. The next morning, we departed our campsite for a longer hike along the semi-bald ridgeline of Black Balsam and Tennet Mountain to Ivestor Gap, then back to the trailhead along the more tree-covered Ivestor Gap trail. We had more great high-elevation birds, including 23(!) Chestnut-sided Warblers, a remarkable 12(!) Least Flycatchers (lifers), some Golden-crowned Kinglets, and a Red-breasted Nuthatch. Mammals included the same Appalachian Cottontail and a few Red Squirrels (first I’d seen in NC), but no more bears, and we added an Eastern Garter snake to our reptile list for the trip. As we began our vehicular descent, we stopped for a short afternoon hike to the spectacular waterfalls at Graveyard Fields. Next stop: Hendersonville. I’d never been to Hendersonville before, but I’d gladly return. We stayed at the Waverly Inn, which I would also highly recommend. We explored the charming downtown on foot. We ate well and drank well, including visits to a few local breweries, the coolest being Sideways Farm in Etowah. As far as nature/exercise goes, on Friday, we walked to Jackson Park, which wasn’t very birdy this time of year, but was loaded with Ebony Jewelwings. On Saturday, we hiked the Three Falls trail in Dupont State Forest, which was fantastic (if a bit crowded), and featured some interesting mid-elevation mountain species like Worm-eating Warbler and Scarlet Tanager. On Sunday, we hiked part of Rattlesnake Lodge Trail (off the parkway NE of Asheville) before heading home. The hike was slightly different than any of the others of this trip, and—most importantly—featured a few Cerulean Warblers, my fifth state bird of the trip! Now that I’ve seen most of our montane breeding birds, I’ll be hard pressed to ever see 5 state birds on a single outing, other than a spring/summer pelagic (deep sea birding) trip.


 

Sandhills 3: Fayetteville/ Carvers Creek SP (Longview Farm) On 6/27, my wife and I made our third day trip down to the sandhills for more biking and hiking. First was a 10-mile bike ride along the Cape Fear River Trail greenway, part of which parallels the river. It was somewhat crowded, but everyone was friendly, and I heard a Mississippi Kite, which was tight. After biking, we picked one million blueberries and then checked out downtown Fayetteville (we’re making an effort to see and support more of the smaller nearby cities/towns). The historic section was cooler than I’d expected. Our last stop was Carver’s Creek State Park (the Longview Farm portion), which was pretty great, despite the heat. Most importantly (for this blog), I got to scratch my nature itch. The best bird was a Common Nighthawk, the best Lep was a King’s Hairstreak, and I’ll split the best Ode designation between Spangled Skimmer and Blue-tipped Dancer, given that both were lifers. And it’s always fun to see Six-lined Racerunners.

 

Coast 3: Black River/ Waccamaw Paddle My wife and I decided to begin a four-day July 4th weekend with a single-night camping trip to eastern NC. That was the plan, at least. We started with one of our favorite paddling spots: a stretch of the Black River near Three Sisters Swamp, where the oldest trees east of the Mississippi (Baldcypress) preside over a mostly blackwater river and adjacent swamplands. Putting in at the 53/11 bridge (like normal), we decided to explore downstream (unlike normal). Birding highlights included a few Anhinga and two Swallow-tailed Kites (lifers!). The kites were my primary avian target for this trip. Their range has been expanding, and they now are known to breed in a few NC locations (including near where we saw these two—an adult and a juvenile). The kites put on quite the show directly overhead for a few minutes, including an on-the-wing meal of a baby woodpecker. Every time the sun popped out, odes blanketed the river, but this wasn’t an ode-centric paddle, so I let most go unidentified. After the morning paddle, we headed towards Whiteville to grab lunch at a well-reviewed restaurant my wife picked out. The restaurant was closed, a big setback. In my teenage and college years driving to Sunset Beach, we (my friends and I) often passed through/around Whiteville and never had many kind words to say about the town. Although my wife and I have been making an effort to explore and better appreciate many of NC’s small towns, I’m afraid my opinion of Whiteville hasn’t changed much. Next was our primary destination: Lake Waccamaw, a new State Park for both of us. It’s the largest of the Carolina bay lakes in the state—shallow, natural, sandy-bottomed lakes with some endemic species. I didn’t see any endemics, but the wildlife was abundant. Northern Bobwhite called from the park; a Mississippi Kite, 7 Wood Storks, and an Anhinga passed overhead; and a Swainson’s Warbler spent most of the afternoon singing 20 yards from our planned campsite. Six-lined Racerunners were everywhere, a Squirrel Treefrog posted up in a water fountain, Southern Cricket Frogs were quite vocal, and hundreds of baby toads (Southern Toads, I presume) blanketed the ground. The odes, like the toads, were prolific. Of the 13 species observed, both Big Bluet and Red-veined Pennant were lifers, and it’s always a treat to see Bar-winged and Golden-winged Skimmers and Little Blue Dragonlets. Accompanying all of these “good” animals were an unbelievable, and unbearable, assembly of “bad” ones: mosquitoes. The swampy lakeshore was the fourth most mosquito-infested place I’ve ever visited, falling just behind Snake Bight Trail (FL Everglades), Portsmouth village (NC OBX), and Santee Coastal Reserve (SC). The incessant swarm, combined with uncomfortably high temperatures, convinced us to abandon our camping plans. Instead, we spent a few hours paddling around the lake until just after sunset. The well-vegetated lake margins held a nice array of the aforementioned odes, more than a dozen Prothonotary Warblers, and 34 flyover Little Blue Herons. After a long and well-spent day, we headed home to enjoy the rest of the long weekend from the comfort of our porch.


 

Sandhills 4: Sandhills Gameland (Scotland Lake) On 7/12, before I embarked on a solo day trip to the sandhills, my wife and I went to the lakefront field across the street to do some stargazing. Although our view of the intended target (a comet) was obscured, we did get excellent views of Saturn (and its rings), Jupiter (and its moons), and Venus (partially eclipsed?) through my spotting scope. Ok, back to the main story: odes. As you may have noticed from this blog post, I’ve gotten pretty serious about learning to identify odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) this summer. The small, well-vegetated lakes in the sandhills are loaded with odes, and are probably my favorite spot for odeing (that’s a real word, like birding). This time I went to Scotland Lake in the Sandhills Gameland. The pennants were everywhere, and they were all copulating and ovipositing like crazy. This included >100 Ornate Pennants, >45 Banded Pennants and >25 Amanda’s Pennants (lifers). A few Elfin Skimmers and >40 Seepage Dancers were also good finds, hard to see elsewhere. In addition to the odes, I heard a Common Nighthawk and a single Bachman’s Sparrow, and heard and saw some frogs. A fun half-day trip!


 

Mountains 4: Shenandoah Mountains/ Valley From 7/17–7/20, our second “long vacation” of the pandemic again featured a mountain trip, this time to some new spots in the Shenandoah Valley in VA. This part of Virginia is gorgeous—a nice mix of mountains and well-maintained farmland. Woodchucks were everywhere. On the way up, we stopped at the very scenic Bold Rock cidery for some good food and drink. We spent Friday night camping at the Loft Mountain Campground in Shenandoah NP, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway (called “Skyline Drive” here for some reason). Our first venture involved a sweaty hike to the peaceful but somewhat underwhelming Doyle’s Falls. Along the hike, my wife and I were delighted to hear and see a juvenile Barred Owl screeching not far from the trail. The presumptive parents woke me up in the middle of the night; in the morning, two Least Flycatchers provided my dawn wakeup. (When camping, birdsong is probably more distracting for me than normal people, as my mind perks up every time I hear something interesting). Departing the campground, we next headed to Crabtree Falls—apparently the highest vertical drop waterfall east of the Mississippi. Definitely the coolest, and tallest, waterfall we’d ever seen. By the time we headed back, the place was swarming with people—hundreds—about half wearing masks. This made for a slow, painful descent. I hate being around so many people. On a lighter note, the drive both to and from the falls was terrific. Unmarked, largely untrafficked mountain roads are my absolute favorite, and Google placed one in our path: Cub Creek Rd. (680). Crabtree Falls Highway was also a nice drive. My wife was a good sport as I slung my car around the tight curves. After our adventures, we spent the rest of Saturday enjoying the finer things, including lunch in Lexington (a neat small town, home of VMI and W&M), a relaxing afternoon at our Airbnb near Fairfield (a cool converted barn), and a fun evening catching up with friends in Staunton (which has one of the coolest historic downtowns). Sunday started with a hike up a highly-recommended stretch of the AT culminating in The Priest, part of the George Washington National Forest. It’s aptly named; after the 3200 foot climb over 4 miles, many might need a priest to administer their final rights. In truth, the ascent was so steady it wasn’t particularly grueling, and the end featured spectacular views. And the wildlife didn’t disappoint either. The best encounter was a set of three Ruffed Grouse we flushed on the hike up, followed closely by a singing Cerulean Warbler. I also uncovered a Northern Spring Salamander (lifer) in a seep near the trailhead. After the big hike, we spent the afternoon relaxing on the rocks of the Maury River just downstream of Lexington. I got two lifer damselflies—Appalachian Jewelwing and Dusky Dancer—among other more common species. A handful of butterflies were there too, including a Silvery Checkerspot and Tawny Emperor. We hung out with a relatively cooperative Northern Watersnake, a Box Turtle, and hundreds of crayfish and snails in the crystal-clear water surrounding our rock garden. On our final day, we rented kayaks from Twin River Outfitters for a self-guided trip along 9 scenic miles of the Upper James River. Beautiful vistas, crystal clear water, and a few fun rapids made the trip memorable, worth repeating. The wildlife was equally exciting, especially the odes. I saw good numbers of what I believe were Allegheny River Cruisers (lifer), over two dozen Black-shouldered Spinylegs, a Comet Darner, many Calico Pennants, and 15 other species. I’m pretty sure I also saw an Eastern Giant Swallowtail (a would-be lifer butterfly) flying across the river, although I didn’t pay much attention to butterflies on this outing. The birding was decent, with a Great Egret being the most unexpected, along with other nice birds like Wood Ducks, a Spotted Sandpiper, a Green Heron, and Eastern Meadowlarks.


 

Mountains 5: Meadows of Dan 3 From 8/8-8/9, my wife and I joined many of my cousins at our family property in Meadows of Dan, VA for our first annual cousins weekend. It was a blast, and probably the biggest gathering we’d been to all summer (mostly outside and with lots of space to spread out). We camped out under the stars, our go-to this summer. The time spent catching up with my cousins (and their kids) was well-spent and long overdue, but that’s not what this blog is about. Our property—one of my favorite places on Earth—was a biodiverse as ever. Avian highlights included a Barred Owl in the middle of the night, an Eastern Screech-Owl the following morning, a Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, and Common Yellowthroats (all of which seem to breed here) singing, and, just before our departure, two Common Ravens circling overhead, new for the property. This trip was also the first time I’ve taken the time to survey our 2.5 acre “lake” for odonates. During a few hours of afternoon sunshine, the lake exploded with life! In addition to the hundreds of individuals of common species (Widow Skimmer, Slaty Skimmer, Blue Dasher, Eastern Amberwing, Variable Dancer were all seen by the dozens), I also found Slender Spreadwings (lifers), Eastern Forktails (lifers), and Banded Pennants, among others. While canoeing the lake, my cousin-in-law and I also found a beautiful and very cooperative Northern Watersnake resting in a pine branch overhanging the water. This proved a great educational opportunity as we led tours for a few of my cousins’ curious kids. Snakes are cool, not scary!


 

Mountains 6: Comers Rock Continuing the trend of low-humidity mountain weekends, I joined some close friends (and friends-of-friends) for a low-key bachelor party near Comers Rock, VA from 8/13-8/16. The trip was obviously not a nature-focused trip (more firearms than flycatchers—I won’t cover those details in this blog), but I couldn’t help but enjoy the wildlife on my friend’s brother’s farm. Among many great natural features, it included a small, well-vegetated pond with a nice array of odes, including Slender Spreadwings, Eastern Forktails, and a couple Twelve-spotted Skimmers. The trip was also notable in that my 70-300 f/5.6 lens stopped working, prompting me to finally upgrade to the 300 f/4 prime lens I’d been dreaming about for over a year.


 

Coast 4: Wilmington/ Fort Fisher Paddle With all the mountain action this summer, I’d been itching to get to the coast. On 8/22, my wife and I followed through on a last-minute plan to take a day trip to Fort Fisher, just south of Wrightsville. As I loaded the boats on the car in the pre-dawn hours, I heard the faint but distinctive whinny of an Eastern Screech Owl calling from somewhere to the east-southeast of our home. This new yard bird is only the second one I’ve heard in Chatham Co. What a way to start the day! After arriving at Fort Fisher, we paddled 5 or so miles around the marshes in the basin south of the fort, and eventually landed on Zeke’s Island for some R&R. Conditions were nearly perfect, with party cloudy skies and very little wind. The only thing that wasn’t perfect was the high tide, which covered up much of the interesting shorebird habitat; I’ll have to remember to time that better in the future. We saw a decent assortment of birds, including dozens of American Oystercatchers, a Whimbrel, and some other shorebirds and waders. But the highlight—by far—was a Peregrine Falcon that emerged over the marsh chasing two Short-billed Dowitchers before diverting course and making a beeline for my wife’s kayak, turning away at the last minute, maybe 5 yards away! We were both pretty stunned, and I didn’t manage to get my camera up until after it had passed by. The invertebrate action was pretty great, too. I didn’t keep track of the butterflies besides a few Salt Marsh Skippers (lifers). I was mainly focused on the odes, including at least 1, but maybe more like a dozen Regal Darners (lifers, and not previously reported in New Hanover County), a Four-spotted Pennant (new for my NC list), and over 500 Seaside Dragonlets (there must be tens of thousands in the marshes here). I had a lot of fun trying out my new 300 f/4 prime lens during this trip, and managed a few good photos. After the paddle, we headed into downtown Wilmington for a nice stroll and some food and drinks on the Cape Fear. Then, with another good day trip under our belt, we made the not-too-long trip back home.


 

Sandhills 5: Carvers Creek SP (Sandhills Access) On 8/28, my wife and I headed down to the sandhills once again for a bike trip, this time to the Carvers Creek SP Sandhills Access. The 10.5 miles we covered were a challenging mix of sand and hills, but these are by far the best bike trails we’ve done in the area—much less sandy than the All American Trail or Sandhills Gamelands, and a nice diversity of typical sandhills habitats. A couple small ponds held some interesting invertebrates, including two Swamp Spreadwings (lifers), an Amanda’s Pennant, lots of Little Blue Dragonlets, and—butterfly time—a Swarthy Skipper (lifer). After our ride, we headed into historic downtown Sanford for the first time. Sanford reminds me of Siler City. We were the only people to enjoy the fantastic beer at Hugger Mugger brewery, but far from alone by the time we ate lunch at Smoke and Barrel. We’d highly recommend both if you happen to be in the area.



 

Mountains 7: Beech Mountain

We headed up to Beech Mountain from 9/4‑9/7 to share a long Labor Day weekend with friends whose wedding plans were delayed by COVID. (I now get another year to prepare my best man speech). On the way up, we stopped at Julian Price Memorial Park for a couple quick hikes. First, a 2-mile hike around Green Knob, which featured a nice variety of creek, forest, and pasture. I saw my first Meadow Fritillary for NC and got some cell phone shots of a Clamp-tipped Emerald (lifer). Next, we took another 2-mile hike around the nearby Price Lake—it’s on our to-do list for kayaking. There, I saw a couple Spotted Sandpipers and a few odes, including my first Eastern Forktails in NC. Although I’ve done some lepping (butterfly watching) and odeing (dragonfly/damselfly watching) in the VA mountains, I haven’t done much in NC, so this trip filled some gaps in my NC state lists.

We arrived at our chalet in Beech Mountain in the late afternoon. At just over 5000 feet altitude, we weren’t on the top of the mountain, but we were close. We had a great view of the grassy ski slope, seasonally converted into a mountain bike and disc golf course, as well as the mountains many miles away. Before heading in for social hour(s), I heard a Common Nighthawk calling a few times. Sweet!

On Saturday, my wife and I peeled off first thing in the morning for a big hike. Unfortunately for me, a migraine started just after 7AM; fortunately for my wife, I soldiered on and didn’t let that ruin our morning. We drove over to the Yellow Mountain Gap trailhead (4200 ft elevation) and hiked and up to the Appalachian Trail, north to Little Hump Mountain (5454 ft) and back, for a total of 6 or so miles. The migraine made the hike a bit tougher than it should’ve been, but I only needed one 20-minute nap on the hike up, and it was worth it by the time we got to the ridge. This segment of the AT is really nice—it’s all high-elevation and features a good mix of forest and flower-filled meadows, offering spectacular views of both the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains (the AT more or less straddles the state line here). Given the wildflower showing, these high-elevation balds give the Black Balsam mountains a run for their money. I won’t pick favorites; both are among my favorite newly-discovered NC mountain areas. It was pretty quiet in terms of wildlife; we saw some deer, a single Common Buckeye, and fleeting looks at a Veery, but that was about it.

After the big hike, we joined the rest of our party for another hike in Beech Mountain. Well, the others hiked. I was too worn out from the migraine, so I took the opportunity to look for odes around Lake Coffey. This worked out perfectly; I got great looks at another Clamp-tipped Emerald, tons of Autumn Meadowhawks, and a very cooperative Shadow Darner (lifer).

After a long day outdoors, the rest of the afternoon was well-spent eating, drinking, and being merry at the chalet, where we had a small Kentucky Derby/ birthday party.

On Sunday, we enjoyed a low-key morning, with plans for a big afternoon floating the South Fork New River. As it turns out, the river put-in was about 10 minutes past this random place I’d been wanting to go to look for rare dragonflies: the Meat Camp Creek Environmental Studies Area. So, my wife and I took off a bit early and I spent an hour looking for odes in this interesting boggy fen wetland while my wife read a book. I was able to find a couple Band-winged Meadowhawks (lifers) as well as a lingering Ruby Meadowhawk (lifer), and not much else beyond a few common butterflies. After that, we joined everyone at the river for a leisurely 2.5-mi float down the river. This wasn’t a nature-focused outing, but I did manage to get some cell phone pics of a perched Arrow Clubtail (another lifer).

The nature highlight of Sunday night was a group of at least 14 Common Nighthawks foraging overhead near dusk at our Beech Mountain chalet. I’ve had some intimate experiences with nighthawks at the coast, and I’ve seen a few in the piedmont, but never have I witnessed such a large gathering before. So cool! Once the sun set, we spent our last night hanging out with good tunes and our first campfire of the season.

On the way home Monday morning, we stopped by Moses H. Cone Memorial Park for a hike up to the old manor before settling down for a picnic by the lake. I was able to hear, and later see, several Red Crossbills that had been hanging around the area for a week or two. State bird # 313 for me, and only the second time I’ve ever seen this species. Red-breasted Nuthatches were also everywhere; it’s apparently an irruptive year for them. The odonates on the lake were also great. In addition to more Autumn Meadowhawks, a Shadow Darner, and some Swamp Spreadwings, I was able to pick out a couple Lilypad Forktails on the countless lilies that blanketed acres of the lake surface.



 

Mountains 8: Meadows of Dan 4

On 9/11, my wife and I joined my parents for another relaxing overnight trip at our property in Meadows of Dan. The weather on Friday was nice, and I squeezed in some birding and odeing around the lake. Highlights included Red-breasted Nuthatches (new to my VA list), a handful of warblers, and some Autumn Meadowhawks and Swamp Spreadwings (both new odes for the pond). On a brief circuit of our meadows, I was also able to find a Peck’s Skipper (lifer) along with other typical species.

We then took a trip down to Fairystone State Park, which neither I nor my parents had visited before (a real surprise given how close it is to our much-frequented family property). It was impressive, with a large lake, nice trails, and lots of camping options. We hiked about 2 miles with my parents, then my wife and I tacked on another 5 before heading back to Meadows of Dan.

Friday night brought rain, and Saturday morning was all fog and drizzle, so we had a low-key morning. This gave me some time catch up on entries for this blog. The weather showed no signs of improving, so after working on a few projects around the property, my wife and I decided to leave early and head back home.


 

Sandhills 6: Lake McKinney Fish Hatchery Paddle

On 9/13 (the Sunday following our Meadows of Dan trip), sunny skies tempted me to take a short mid-day trip to look for odes in the Sandhills. This time, I brought my kayak to Lake McKinney, where I spent most of the day paddling around the margins (roughly 2 miles in total—bigger than the other sandhills lakes I’ve visited this year) before walking around some of the fish hatchery impoundments. The odeing was fantastic, in terms of both numbers (>503 individuals) and diversity (25 species). I saw at least 60 of my target species: Burgundy Bluet (lifer), along with other good odes like Lilypad Forktail (lots), Two-striped Forceptail, Dragonhunter (eating a Halloween Pennant, one of my faves!), Amanda’s Pennant (lots), Red-veined Pennant (one male), and Twelve-spotted Skimmer. I also saw a decent number of butterflies and heard a few birds, but this was decidedly an ode-focused trip.


After this trip, the weather abruptly shifted from summer to fall. Stay tuned for additional adventures in a separate blog installment. (Which, due to the colder weather, will undoubtedly contain less odonates, for better or worse, depending on your perspective...)

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