Montpelier was home to James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” and the fourth president of the United States. His wife, Dolly Madison, was extremely popular and inspired the term “first lady” which has been used ever since. Subsequent owners have expanded this modest home considerably over the years, but the forest behind the house has remained unblemished by time. A visit to Montpelier should start at the house and spiral outward to the grounds. Birds to look for in the open include northern mockingbirds hanging out in the small trees and shrubs and American robins and cedar waxwings lining the treetops.
The highlight of the grounds for the wildlife enthusiast is the James Madison Landmark Forest. This 200-acre tract holds some of the best old growth forest left in Virginia. This becomes apparent as soon as you enter the forest when the calls of five species of woodpeckers greet you. These start with northern flickers hopping along the ground overturning small twigs and leaves, then the subtly different metallic chirps of hairy and downy woodpeckers, to the raucous rattle of the red-bellied woodpecker. With patience, a mighty pileated woodpecker is also likely to show itself as it flaps crow-like into the canopy.
The thick leaf litter lining the forest floor is also alive with creatures; by walking slowly and listening carefully, the sound of rustling leaves will often reveal their presence. With practice, you can learn the different patterns of rustling, such as the random searching and hopping of a Swainson’s thrush to the slow deliberate rustle of an eastern box turtle to the startled flurry of a pair of white-tailed deer darting off with their tails, like white flags, held high. In these old woods, the birds move around in flocks, often punctuating minutes of quiet with a burst of activity. Of course northern cardinals and blue jays are found in abundance but surprises like white-breasted nuthatches, red-eyed vireos, blue-gray gnatcatchers and migrant warblers (like a black-throated blue) may turn up at any time of year. Return to the bright open space of the grounds and check the blooms in the formal garden for bright orange question marks and variegated fritillaries, or the deep purple and black coloring of red-spotted purples and black swallowtails. Pay special attention to the farm pond on the northwest corner if your interest is dragonflies and damselflies.
From I-64 east of Charlottesville, take Exit #136 and go north on US 15 for 16.0 miles through Gordonsville to Rt. 639/Chicken Mountain Road. Turn left (west) and continue 3.6 miles to SR 20/Constitution Highway. Turn right (east) and go 0.8 miles to the site.