Birding Valhalla with Julie Zickefoose

In August 2014, I traveled to West Virginia to attend a Bird Watcher’s Digest Reader Rendezvous weekend called “Birding Valhalla with Julie Zickefoose.” Julie, of course, is a gifted wildlife artist, writer, and naturalist. Her two books, Letters From Eden and The Bluebird Effect, are wonderful stories about birds lavishly illustrated with watercolors and field sketches. Her husband, Bill Thompson III, is Editor and Co-publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest.

North Bend State Park is less than three hours from Pittsburgh, so it’s especially good for a weekend getaway. As I opened the door to my room at the lodge that Friday afternoon, I saw that the opposite “wall” was a very large picture window that bumped against the forest canopy. Something small was flitting about in the branches. I grabbed my binoculars and inched forward to see a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at close quarters. A Blue-winged Warbler suddenly came into view, making its way through the treetops. Other woodland birds came and went, including a Pine Warbler and an Eastern Wood-Pewee.

After a couple of hours of birding from the bed, I took my binoculars next door to the deck of the lodge where the social hour for the Birding Valhalla was just getting started. For birders who have never been to a birding event, especially novices, I highly recommend the experience. Don’t be shy about traveling by yourself. It’s impossible to stand anywhere watching birds without falling into conversation with the people around you.

After a picnic dinner on the deck, we moved inside to hear Julie speak on “Situational Awareness, or the Art of Paying Attention to Your Surroundings.” She urged us to be more alert when we’re outdoors and try to figure out what is really going on around us and why.

Sometimes you find magic. Bill Thompson III and Wendy Clark then joined Julie with their guitar and keyboard. They are part of a band called The Rain Crows, and it was a delight to listen to them sing traditional and original songs.

On Saturday morning, we carpooled to the Coakley Boat House just down the road. We divided into three groups, some to kayak and canoe, others to walk the trails, and a third to travel by pontoon. I was in the pontoon group and was pleased to see that Bill of the Birds and Wendy were our guides. Captain Doug had trouble getting the engine started, and finally gave up and operated the battery by foot power. We didn’t travel as far, but we traveled quietly. Because the lake is fairly shallow, averaging about 12 feet deep, only engines of 10 horsepower or less are allowed. This makes for a quiet, peaceful environment. Well, not that peaceful − a baby Red-tailed Hawk was screaming for attention as we left the dock.

So why was this weekend billed as a Birding Valhalla? Red-headed Woodpeckers. Lots and lots of Red-headed Woodpeckers! The park was established in 1951, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the North Fork of the Hughes River was dammed, creating a 304-acre lake. Since the valley was heavily forested, the trees drowned and became, as Julie says, a nursery for cavity-loving birds, not just woodpeckers, but swallows, flycatchers, bluebirds, and kestrels. This Valhalla will be short-lived, of course, as the snags rot and fall into the water.

As we drifted along, listening to bird songs and calls, we were soon surrounded by our target bird, some of them quite young. It appears that Red-headed Woodpeckers are double- and perhaps triple-brooding every year. We were out for three hours, and in that time, counted at least 34 Red-headed Woodpeckers. Red-bellied, Downy, and Hairy Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers were also flying about. A Great Blue Heron still with its breeding plumes let us get quite close. A flock of about 30 birds passed overhead, and Bill identified them as migrating Eastern Kingbirds. As they travel south, they attract more kingbirds and the flock keeps growing.

That evening, Julie talked more about her experiences as a wild bird rehabilitator and showed slides of some of her former patients. A video of three baby bluebirds learning to pick up mealworms at their feet had everyone laughing as the babies were a bit slow to get the idea. Cute cat videos, look out!

On Sunday morning, Bill of the Birds led another pontoon ride. A Spotted Sandpiper foraged on the shore and we watched a Green Heron fly in. A disturbance in the water proved to be two large snapping turtles squaring off. It’s a bit disconcerting to see a snapper at close quarters open his mouth and lunge. They continued their fighting under water and we moved off. Bill suddenly shouted “Rain crows!” and pointed toward the shore. Two Yellow-billed Cuckoos were bouncing around in the trees and we got good looks at both of them. Another mystery solved.

Leaving the Lodge at North Bend State Park on an old country road, I almost ran over a box turtle. One of the songs we heard over the weekend was one Julie wrote, which she called “Little Soldier,” about 22 box turtles she once came across while she was driving to Memphis. She was able to save only two of them. I pulled over and was out of the car when another vehicle came down the road, fortunately also missing the turtle. The driver may have been trying to avoid the crazy lady waving her arms. I ran over, picked it up, and carried it across the road. Maybe this turtle would live to a ripe old age.

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