Birding Burke's Garden in Winter

Great horned owl photo by Adrianna Nelson

Great horned owl photo by Adrianna Nelson

The cold wind brought a bite to the air while our group huddled on the porch of Mattie’s Place to plan the day of birding in Virginia’s highest valley on February 9th. Members of the group had driven as far away as Boone, NC, to have the opportunity to bird this amazing spot. The combination of open fields, large white oak trees, spring-fed streams, and high sandstone ridges attracts a wonderful assemblage of wintering birds to Burke’s Garden. Because the valley is so inviting to birds, it also attracts birders. BRDC has been leading trips to the valley over the last 8 years and this year 25 folks joined us for the trip. In addition to the usual wintering song birds, the valley usually provides opportunities for wintering waterfowl (including tundra swans) and a broad array of raptors: bald eagles, golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, American kestrels, the occasional rough-legged hawk, and the potential for several owl species.

Wilson’s snipe photo by Adrianna Nelson

Wilson’s snipe photo by Adrianna Nelson

After loading up in the vehicles, we took our time checking ponds and wetlands for waterfowl. Following the waterfowl search, we paused to take a closer look at two adult bald eagles perched near their nest on a large white oak in the valley. We were able to get some great views with the spotting scopes without disturbing the birds. From there we search the northwestern corner of the valley for golden eagle and other raptors. Along the way we stopped to watch a flock of mallards actively bathing in a small pond and spotted several Wilson’s snipe. These shorebirds are hard to spot while sitting still along the wetland margins that they search for food. Luckily we had some keen eyes in the group who spotted the well-camouflaged species. While walking back to the vehicles, some of the group were able to get a fleeting glimpse of a golden eagle as it soared out of sight. After returning to Mattie’s Place for bowls of homemade chicken noodle soup and sandwiches on freshly-made sourdough, we continued our search of the rest of the valley.

Eastern meadowlark photo by Adrianna Nelson

Eastern meadowlark photo by Adrianna Nelson

As we wound our way around the valley, we spotted many of the typical wintering birds of the area as well as several American kestrels, ravens, red-tailed hawks, Eastern meadowlarks, and we even got a wonderful view of a great-horned owl roosting in a white pine. As the daylight and our energy was waning, we found ourselves drawn back to Mattie’s Place for homemade cream-filled doughnut holes and the softest glazed doughnuts that we’d ever tasted. While climbing out of the valley in the BRDC van, we discussed various theories as to why this valley is so great for winter birding. We all decided that whatever the combination of reasons, the trip is well worth it!