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Sunbird – Itinerary

Maryland and West Virginia: Birding the American Civil War

Gettysburg, Antietam, and the Appalachians

Sunday 13 June to Sunday 20 June 2021
with Jon Dunn and Matt Orsie as leaders

Maximum group size: 6 with 2 leaders

2021 Tour Price : £2,550

  • Single Room Supplement : £390
  • Plus flights estimated at : £700

As beautiful as it is scarce, Cerulean Warbler is just one of the 25 or more species of breeding parulids we could see in the Appalachian forests. Photo: Giff Beaton

General Robert E. Lee made two forays north into Union territory, the first in September 1862 and the other in late June of the following year. Lee had multiple reasons for both invasions, but a primary goal was to relieve pressure on the beleaguered South. The resulting battles were both tactical defeats for Lee. The first, at Antietam, Maryland, resulted in the highest number of casualties on any day of the entire war. Less than a year later, the three-day battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was the costliest of the war, the “highwater mark of the Confederacy.” The South would never again be able to mount a sustained offensive, and its eventual defeat nearly two years later was ordained here at Gettysburg.

Our tour takes us to both of these famous battlefields and to Harpers Ferry, where John Brown’s famous October 1859 raid was soundly repulsed by US forces—under Robert E. Lee. 

We’ll spend some time birding around Frederick, Maryland, and around Gettysburg, but the bulk of our birding will be in West Virginia, from just west of Winchester to the high Appalachians and the dramatic New River Gorge near Charleston. In the Appalachians, bird and song activity should still be high, and wildflowers will be at their peak. In the course of the tour we can anticipate seeing 25 or more species of warbler, including Cerulean, Mourning, Louisiana and Northern Waterthrushes, and possibly Golden-winged and Swainson’s, as well as Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos, Acadian and Alder Flycatchers, and Henslow’s Sparrow.

Day 1: The tour begins with dinner in Baltimore, Maryland, followed by Giff’s illustrated presentation on the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. Night in Baltimore.  

Day 2: We’ll leave this morning for Gettysburg, the small southern Pennsylvania town where the climactic battle of the Civil War was fought in the first days of July 1863. General Robert E. Lee had invaded the North a few weeks before, after his decisive May victory at Chancellorsville; the incursion was partially motivated by the need to relieve Union pressure on Vicksburg and other strategic sites in the deep South. The Army of the Potomac responded, engaging Lee here at Gettysburg. For three full days the battle raged, climaxing in Pickett’s Charge at Cemetery Ridge, although tactically the battle had already been decided by the end of day two with the heroics of Chamberlain and the 20th Maine at Little Round Top and the First Minnesotan closer to Cemetery Ridge. Claiming more than 50,000 casualties, Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the war and a decisive defeat for Lee, who would henceforth be on the defensive: the war dragged on for nearly two more years, but Lee’s fate and the fate of the South were sealed here. 

We’ll spend the entire day visiting the major sites of the battle and the new visitor’s center where we’ll see a film in the recently restored Cyclorama which portrays the events on day three of the battle. Birds in evidence on the open farmlands and in the oak woods should include Red-headed Woodpecker and Carolina Chickadee, and there is at least a chance at Loggerhead Shrike, now only an irregular breeder here. Night in Frederick.

This tour could not have been better planned and executed! As close to flawless as possible. Jon’s and Giff’s knowledge of both the Civil War historical sites and the birds is encyclopedic. We return home with a fat bird-list and haunting memories of Gettysburg and Antietam and the thousands who perished there.

Peter and Ellen Derven, June 2011

Day 3: We’ll do some early morning birding south of Frederick, possibly to Lily Pons and the nearby fields.  In 2011 we had a territorial Dickcissel (rare this far east) and a pair of Blue Grosbeaks. Lily Pons has had breeding Least Bitterns occasionally in the past.This morning we’ll visit Antietam, where the fighting of September 17, 1862, resulted in 23,000 casualties—more than on any other single day of the Civil War. Lee faced George McClellan, whose army not only outnumbered the southern forces but had also come into possession of Lee’s war plans, which had been dropped along the road and retrieved by a Union soldier. In spite of this, the battle was not decisive, though it did result in Lee’s retreating back into Virginia, providing the Union a strategic victory. But, had McClellan not dithered for over a day and engaged his entire force, there is little question that Lee’s Army would have been smashed.  This would have possibly led to an early end of the Civil War and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. McClellan’s inability to achieve a definitive victory and his reluctance to pursue Lee’s retreating army convinced Lincoln that the Army of the Potomac would soon need a new leader.  At Antietam, grassland sparrows such as Grasshopper, Field, and Vesper should be much in evidence as they sing from the restored Civil War era picket fences.  Overhead there should be Black and Turkey Vultures and we’ll check the crows carefully for the hoarser sounding Fish Crows.

Later in the afternoon we’ll visit Harpers Ferry, the site of John Brown’s famous raid of October 16-18, 1859. Brown was an ardent abolitionist, and it was his Kansas exploits a few years earlier that gave that territory the name “Bloody Kansas.” The federal forces sent to retake the armory at Harpers Ferry were led—ironically—by Robert E. Lee; the armory was ultimately retaken, and John Brown and others were hanged by the end of the year.  It would also figure prominently in the action at Antietam.  The fall of Harper’s Ferry and all of the armaments to Confederate forces, allowed Hill to march quickly back to Antietam in time to relieve Lee’s forces at the south end of the Antietam battlefield.

After checking in to our hotel in Charles Town, we’ll have an early dinner and if there is interest a bit of evening birding around Sleepy Creek WMA about 45 minutes to the west; we’ll be in search of Eastern Whip-poor-will and perhaps Barred Owl or Eastern Screech-Owl. Night in Charles Town.

Day 4: We’ll leave early to bird briefly in Loudoun County, Virginia, and along the Shenandoah River, West Virginia where we’ll have our best chance at Prothonotary Warbler; we should also see Kentucky, Yellow-throated Warbler, Northern Parula and possibly Cerulean. Warbling Vireos (larger eastern subspecies, a likely split from the smaller western birds that sing quite differently) should be much in evidence in the tall trees along the Shenandoah.  Some fields near Charles Town in 2011 attracted nesting Loggerhead Shrikes and two singing Dickcissels and we’ll again look for them if they are present.  Moving on to eastern Berkeley County, West Virginia, we’ll bird second-growth woodland for White-eyed Vireo, Prairie Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat. Then we’ll return to Sleepy Creek, one of the best forests in eastern West Virginia for breeding warblers. Here we’ll hope to see the threatened Cerulean Warbler, a small population of which nests here. Other warblers we can hope to see include Prairie, Black-and-white, Worm-eating, American Redstart, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Ovenbird. Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Acadian Flycatcher should also be present, along with a wide variety of other deci duous-forest passerines. We’ll check the numerous Turkey Vultures overhead for a Black Vulture or a Broad-winged Hawk.

Later we’ll head west, leaving the hot eastern lowlands for the cool and lushly wooded Appalachian Mountains. Night at the lodge in Canaan Valley State Park.

Day 5: The mixed deciduous and spruce forest of the high Appalachians at Canaan Valley State Park and nearby Dolly Sods Scenic Area should be full of warblers; some of them, like Nashville (scarce and very local), Yellow-rumped, and Magnolia are near the southern end of their breeding ranges here. Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, and Blackburnian Warblers should be numerous. We’ll search the bogs for Northern Waterthrushes and Alder Flycatchers (side by side with Willow Flycatcher in the Canaan Valley), and in the secondary edge forest we might find Golden-winged Warbler. In the dense spruce we should find Winter Wren, Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush and Purple Finch (eastern subspecies). To the north, near the Maryland border, there are some reclaimed strip mines where we stand a decent chance of finding the always local, and usually scarce, Henslow’s Sparrow. Black-billed Cuckoos are sometimes fairly common, and there’s always the chance of running into a Ruffed Grouse (two family groups were seen minutes apart in 2011). Night in Canaan Valley State Park.

Day 6: This morning we’ll head south to Fire Road 91 in Randolph County. This ten-mile stretch of road ranges in elevation from 1,500 to 4,000 feet, offering a great diversity of habitats with a resultant wide variety of species. Many will be repeats from Canaan Valley, but some will likely be new, including our two primary targets: Golden-winged and Mourning Warblers. Both are scarce, and golden-wings are decreasing sharply over much of their range, but we’ll search carefully for both. We should also see Least Flycatcher, and both Swainson’s Thrush and Veery occur here. Later we’ll drive down to the Cranberry Glades area of southwestern Pocahontas County, 750 acres of peat bogs resembling those typically found 500 miles farther north in Canada. If conditions are right in the evening, we may try for Northern Saw-whet Owl, a few of which nest nearby. Night near Marlinton.

Day 7: We’ll use this morning to look carefully for any species we might have missed in the mountains, especially Golden-winged and Mourning Warblers and maybe the notoriously nomadic Red Crossbill. Time permitting, and depending on our ornithological success, we may visit Droop Mountain Battlefield, where on November 6, 1863, a Union force led by Brigadier General W. W. Averell defeated a smaller force under Confederate Brigadier General John Echols. Union forces had been attempting to disrupt the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad line. Not only was this one of the largest engagements in West Virginia, it was also the last. Later in the afternoon we’ll drive west to Fayetteville.  Night in Fayetteville.

Day 8: We’ll bird the splendid New River Gorge in south-central West Virginia in hopes of seeing Swainson’s Warbler. A few of this often reclusive species breed here and we may as well encounter Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Blue-winged and Yellow-throated Warblers, and Louisiana Waterthrush.  We’ll depart mid-morning for Charleston and the airport, where at 12 noon the tour will conclude.

Updated: 23 June 2020