By Ashley Peele
Best described as our most ‘rustic’ event of the summer, the Staunton River Blockbusting Rally included tent camping, a cedar bunkhouse, campfires, a darn good buffet dinner, and best of all, lots of breeding birds in priority blocks!
Each rally of the 2019 season has been unique, characterized by the state park we used as our headquarters. Staunton River State Park is a dark-sky park, which sits at the confluence of the Dan and Roanoke rivers. While it is relatively small and located at the end of the long, winding road from Scottsburg, VA, the park has a beautiful setting with a surprisingly diverse range of habitats represented. Red-headed Woodpeckers nested in stands of pine adjacent to early successional fields full of Yellow-Breasted Chat, Blue Grosbeak, and Prairie Warblers. The woodlands are full of Summer Tanagers, Ovenbirds, Wood Thrush, and Vireos, while the river creates habitat for less common species like Prothonotary Warblers.
Most of our volunteers opted to stay in or camp outside the rustic bunkhouse, which Staunton River SP kindly donated for our use, during this event. Several of us chose to use the event as an excuse to break out our tents. On my first night, I was rewarded with a pair of Eastern Screech-Owl talking to one another an hour after sundown. The rest of the group were treated to chatty Barred Owls and Whip-poor-wills the next evening. An abundance of early successional patches intermingling fields and woodlands creates a haven for the nightjars and many volunteers found many, during nighttime atlasing in the area.
Overall, volunteers blitzed to log hours in 15 priority blocks, radiating out to the north, west, and south of Staunton River State Park. This is the highest number of priority blocks yet for a given rally and our effort totaled over 70 hours amongst four groups! Overall, we identified 91 breeding species, logging 700+ breeding codes and adding many new breeding confirmations to each block. Exciting finds included Prothonotary Warbler and Cliff Swallow fledglings in the Buffalo Springs priority block, an Osprey nest atop a barn silo, a Red-Tailed Hawk fledgling in Alton CE, Prairie Warblers carrying food in Conner Lake SE, and Grasshopper Sparrow fledglings.
On Saturday evening, we all gathered at Ernie’s, a well-known local eatery. Later that evening, sitting around the campfire at the bunkhouse, our resident Screech Owls began to talk it up to one another, giving a nice demo of the contact squeal. While these weekends are all too short, they have each yielded fantastic new data for high priority habitats and regions, as well as affording volunteers the chance to hang out with their fellow Atlasers.
We started this field season with the goal of significantly boosting survey coverage in the southern Piedmont and southwestern mountain-valley region. Between Atlas rallies and the efforts of individual blockbusters working around the state, we are well on our way to meeting that goal! This weekend will mark the final state-level blockbusting rally of the field season, but we encourage folks to continue their individual and small group efforts. While July always begins to feel like the ‘slow’ time of year, the birds are still working away at raising those chicks and there is plenty of breeding data just waiting to be collected.
Thanks again to all of those contributing to various Atlas efforts around the state, especially those helping to make the Atlas rallies and blockbusting efforts a success! Looking forward to seeing many of you at Natural Tunnel State Park this evening.