By Eric Wallace
Four months ago, Natural Tunnel State Park chief ranger of visitor experience, Rachel Blevins, knew little about the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas—much less that its follow-up was about to enter the fourth of its five seasons.
“A colleague had mentioned the VABBA2 and said it was an important citizen science initiative, but that was basically the extent of my knowledge,” says Blevins. The 26-year-old Michigan transplant was transitioning into a demanding new leadership role at the park. She’d only been birding for a few years. “This region has so many beautiful areas and amazing birds, it’s inspired me to fall in love with the activity,” she continues. “I had it on my to-do list to check out [the Atlas], but things just kept coming up—it kept getting put on the backburner.”
A winter email from project director Ashley Peele, Ph.D., was well timed. In it, she inquired about partnering with the park to throw a 2019 Weekend Blockbusting Rally.
“My first response was excitement; this was definitely something I wanted to pursue,” says Blevins. Reading about the VABBA2 online amplified the effect. “I was blown away. From a conservation standpoint, the significance of [the Atlas] was clear. … I responded to Ashley’s email with an emphatic yes.”
Blevins is now seeking to incorporate Atlasing into park programming and thereby promote public awareness. She’s worked with Peele to plan what will be the final Blockbusting Rally of 2019. Held on June 28-30, the two hope the event will be one of the season’s most productive.
In terms of Atlasing impact, the park’s location is ideal. Comprised of 100 pristine mountainous acres in far southwestern Virginia, Natural Tunnel lies at the heart of the VABBA2’s most under-birded region. To date, more than 75 percent of priority blocks in counties like Wythe, Smyth, Washington, Russel, Wise, Lee, and Scott remain un-surveyed. (A map of under-birded counties can be found HERE.)
To maximize coverage, participants will break into small groups led by Peele and experienced regional birders. Venturing into hotspots in and around the park may yield glimpses of species ranging from more than a dozen warblers—including Black-and-White, Magnolia, Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Tennessee, and Kentucky Warbler—to Golden-crowned Kinglet, Blue Grosbeak, Purple Martin, Dark-eyed Junco, Winter Wren, Great Blue Heron, and more.
With two campgrounds and 14 affordable climate-controlled cabins, Natural Tunnel makes a great basecamp for Atlasing. Better still, it’s family-friendly. Kids can enjoy a ski resort style chairlift, water-slide-equipped swimming area, wading in Stock Creek, canoeing and kayaking on the Clinch River—not to mention exploring the 10-story-high, 850-foot-long natural limestone tunnel that has been used by trains since 1894. Saturday night will find Atlasers converging upon the rooved beer garden of Gateway City’s Busted Still Brewery for local tunes and a celebratory feast.
“The goal is to get a bunch of people down there, have an awesome time birding together, and knockout as many of these blocks as possible,” says Peele. “We’re hoping to wrap our summer Blockbusting Series with a major success.”
The park’s notorious beauty and reputation for avian diversity should make that easier.
NATURAL TUNNEL STATE PARK HOTSPOTS
Spending your days in one of Virginia’s most scenic state parks has its perks: Rachel Blevins says she’s become intimately familiar with habitats in and around Natural Tunnel. To give VABBA2ers a feel for what to expect, here’s three of her favorite trails, replete with birding insights.
Birding and Wildlife Loop Trail, 1.2 miles —The name says it all: This is the park’s go-to birding loop. Habitat varies tremendously. Climb through forested areas and open meadows with tons of shrubby edge—much of it managed by avian-friendly prescribed burning. At the top, a large field is centered by a gazebo offering 180-plus-degree views to the North. From the nearly 2,000-foot overlook, you’ll see the small community of Rye Cove and, on a clear day, High Knob. With the tunnel located on the other side of the park, visitors tend to be sparse.
Stock Creek Trail, 1.03 miles —This popular route follows a 20-foot-wide creek through a deep gorge, then into and around the park’s namesake tunnel. Pass through dense, creekside forests of sycamore, poplar, buckeye and cedar catching views of 400-foot limestone cliffs. Opportunities for warbler, Heron, and Kingfisher abound. Near the tunnel, look for roosting ravens along the rocky escarpment.
For a list of birds spotted along the trail, click HERE.
Purchase Ridge Trail, 2.07 miles — Hike along forested switchbacks to a ridgeline of mature maple, oak and beech studded with intermittent views of Stock Creek Gorge and the tunnel below. This is by far the park’s most isolated walk. Tack on the Lover’s Leap and Gorge Ridge trails—.36 and .27 miles, respectively—for greater distances and additional views.
A map with a complete list of NTSP trails can be found HERE.