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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Maryland and West Virginia: Birding the American Civil War

Gettysburg, Antietam, and the Appalachians

2011 Narrative

Our tour to the Civil War battlefields (Gettysburg, Antietam, and Harper’s Ferry) and then on to West Virginia was blessed with unseasonably cool weather.  Highs seldom exceeded the low 80’s with low humidity. Most of our birding was in West Virginia, from the eastern lowlands to the high Appalachians.  We found most eastern woodland species breeding in the state.  Highlights, apart from the gorgeous scenery of West Virginia, included 27 of 29 breeding species of wood warblers, including Golden-winged, Cerulean, Swainson’s and Mourning, two broods of Ruffed Grouse along with good views of a singing Northern Bobwhite, Black-billed Cuckoo, Red-headed Woodpecker (at Gettysburg), side-by-side views of territorial Willow and Alder Flycatchers,  a family group of Loggerhead Shrikes, singing Winter Wrens, Grasshopper, Vesper, and Henslow’s Sparrows, and several Red Crossbills.

Day one began with an early morning drive under overcast skies from Baltimore to Gettysburg.  Eventually we would get some light rain, but temperatures never became too warm. Or for that matter on any day of the tour, it never hit 90 degrees, and most days, especially in the mountains it was always much cooler.  It could, of course, been otherwise. 

Of all of the Civil War battlefields, Gettysburg is the best known and probably the most visited.  We spent most of our day there, starting to the west of town where Giff expertly worked us through the first day’s action of the conflict.  Here, more aggressive and coordinated action by the Confederate commander, Harry Heth, could have been decisive.  Equally as important were the rear guard actions carried out by the Union army that in the end prevented the Confederates from gaining the high-ground.  After lunch, we worked through the famous locations on day two of the conflict, the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den and ultimately Little Round Top where Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s desperate charge prevented the Alabamans from gaining that all important position, although even their commander doubts he could have ultimately have held it. That and the actions from the First Minnesotan closer to Cemetery Ridge, were arguably the pivotal events of the battle.  The battlefield had many monuments, some of them, funded by the states, the most garish ones by the North.  The monument to the 20th of Maine was smaller and was tucked into the woods at the south base of Little Round Top.  At least for me, the most moving part of the day was the note written in calligraphy and held in place at the base of the monument by wire and a small rock.  It read “To the brave sons of the Pine Tree State who gallantly fought and died here so very long ago.  You are not forgotten by the students of Riley School, Rockport, Maine.”

We spent a fair amount of time at the new visitor center watching the film and saw the newly restored Cyclorama which portrays day three of the battle.  Our visit to Cemetery Ridge and the site of Pickett’s Charge was brief, by then the battle had been decided.  Why Lee decided on that course of action after he had witnessed first hand (at Fredericksburg) the folly of frontal charge against entrenched positions is a question that has been debated ever since. Lee would never again have the momentum, and although the war would drag on for nearly two more years, the South’s fate was sealed. We spent most of our time locating a singing Grasshopper Sparrow there.  Earlier in the day we had seen an Orchard Oriole.  Two Red-headed Woodpeckers were our only sighting of that species during the tour.

Later we headed south to Maryland with our overnight stay in Federick.  The next morning we visited the area of Lilypons where a singing Dickcissel had previously been seen.  We located it, had excellent views and also saw a pair of Blue Grosbeaks.  We continued on to Antietam, the sight of the greatest loss of life on any day in the Civil War.  This was Lee’s first invasion of the north and like Gettysburg, it ended badly.  Here, his battle plans fell into the hands of the North.  Despite this McClellan managed to snatch a draw from the jaws of almost certain victory.  Lee deployed his many fewer troops to their best advantage and held on until Hill’s arrival from Harper’s Ferry which saved the day for Lee’s army.  For the North, a good portion, of the Army of the Potomac never saw combat.  Had McClellan not dithered and used his troops their best advantage, Lee could well have been crushed and the war may well have ended shortly thereafter, an event which would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.  It was no wonder that Lincoln replaced McClellan by year’s end. 

We visited all of the major sites of the battle, basically going from north to south, finishing at Burnside’s Bridge.  Like Gettysburg, Antietam was quite birdy, especially for grassland sparrows.  We had excellent views of multiple Grasshopper and Vesper Sparrows as they sang from the Civil War era picket fences.

Eventually we headed to Harper’s Ferry, a site which changed hands multiple times during the War.  Giff quoted Stonewall Jackson who said that he would rather be assigned to having to take Harper’s Ferry twenty times, rather than defend it once.  A look at its geographic position quickly revealed why.  The rest of our day was spent birding along the Shenandoah River, West Virginia.  With the end or our day, the history portion of our tour was concluded.

The next morning we ventured east into Virginia where we had a variety of woodland species, including both Blue-winged, Cerulean and Kentucky Warblers and Acadian Flycatcher.  Along the Shenandoah we tracked down Warbling Vireo, Northern Parula, a nest of Great Crested Flycatchers, plus an adult Bald Eagle flew over. Near Charles Town, we watched a family group of Loggerhead Shrikes, a rare species over much of the East these days.  A Grasshopper Sparrow and two Dickcissels were especially notable on this day.  Later and farther west we heard two Northern Bobwhites, eventually locating one for good scope views.  This species is almost extirpated in West Virginia and declining nearly everywhere in its previous range.  We finished the day climbing high into the cool Canaan Valley of the high Appalachians.  Here we would stay for the next two nights.

The birding in Canaan Valley was excellent, we started by targeting Golden-winged Warbler, eventually finding a male.  But a variety of warbler species (Magnolia, Cerulean, Yellow-rumped, and Canada) were present.  The Veeries serenaded us at Dolly Sods.  Later after lunch we had Bobolinks and side-by-side views of Alder and Willow Flycatchers.  Some of us ventured north after dinner to a large meadow area near the Maryland line where we located Henslow’s Sparrows.  A few miles north is the monument for the headwaters of the North Fork of the Potomac.  It was here that George Washington stood on the surveying expedition in 1746.  He was only fourteen.

The next morning we headed south after a morning visit to Blackwater Falls State Park where we found Golden-crowned Kinglets, a Brown Creeper, Purple Finches and a scarce (for summer) Pine Siskin.  On in to the day we played cat and mouse with singing Winter Wrens and saw numerous Canada and Black-throated Blue Warblers in the rhododendron thickets.  Later we found our first Mourning Warblers.  At Black Mountain we located several Red Crossbills and Swainson’s Thrushes, the latter species at the south end of its breeding range in the East.

The following day we headed up to Cranberry Glades Botanical Area and like Dolly Sods there is a boardwalk that wanders through this beautiful area.  We had another pair of Red Crossbills and finally saw a fine male Blackburnian Warbler.  Later along the Williams River we saw the Black-billed Cuckoo which had been found the day before along with multiple Least Flycatchers.  Then while driving along the drainage we found two separate broods (with attendant females) of Ruffed Grouse.  Late in the day near Fayetteville we had superb views of a Swainson’s Warbler, here at the north end of its range in the Appalachians.  A Hooded Warbler was close by.  It was our 27th species of warbler. 

The following morning it was foggy, but the scenery along the New River Gorge was outstanding and still spectacular.  Our trip down the gorge was interrupted as a tree had fallen across the road, but our time was not wasted as a crew cleaned up the debris, we saw Yellow-throated Warblers, a Louisiana Waterthrush and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  A freshly fledged (but full grown) Hooded Merganser was a surprise.  Later we headed on to the airport in Charleston, where the tour concluded.

Jon Dunn - 

Created: 21 September 2011