Tag Archives: birdwatching

The Wilder Side of Menokin

“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” – Aldo Leopold

GUEST BLOGGER: Maeve Charlesworth

Menokin is most recognized for its cultural and historic significance. What many people don’t know, however, is that this historic landmark is nestled within a pristine natural setting with so much to offer. The trails and kayak launch allow you to explore the property and experience the natural heritage in addition to its rich cultural heritage. And, the site is dog-friendly!

Connecting with this wild side of Menokin allows for a better understanding of what the site’s original owners witnessed on a daily basis.

On a morning in late June, my fiancé Joey and I, along with our beagle, Gypsy,  took one of our monthly birding trips to Menokin. As we entered the gate, Joey and I rolled down the windows to listen. Across the field and echoing from the trees beside us rang out the songs of Ovenbirds, Hooded Warblers, Yellow-throated Vireos, and Eastern Bluebirds. Up ahead over the trees we saw Turkey Vultures riding the thermals, getting their day off to a start.

At 9am, it was already warm, but nonetheless a beautiful day. We slowly made our way down the gravel road towards the visitor’s center, and on the way we saw a pair of Eastern Bluebirds taking food into the nest box behind the Menokin sign.

Juvenile Eastern Bluebird

We also heard the distinctive “bob-WHITE” call of a male Northern Quail bouncing off the trees from across the wheat field. Eager to hear what else was at Menokin today, we hurried to park the van.

At that point in June, bird migration was over, but that didn’t mean the birds that breed here were a disappointment! Our goal for the visit was to document as many confirmed breeders as we could.

Joey and I are active volunteers in the 2nd Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas. (More information can be found at http://amjv.org/vabba/the-atlas/). The Eastern Bluebirds were our first confirmation for the day. Carrying food into a cavity or nest box indicates there’s either an incubating female or chicks inside!

Right away we found our second confirmed breeder: Barn Swallows! Several nests were tucked up under the eaves of the building, and many swallows were seen and heard chittering over the cornfields as they swam through the air gulping bugs to bring back to their young. As we made our way past the office toward the tree line by the Remembrance Structure, Brown Thrashers, Chipping Sparrows, White-eyed Vireos, and Indigo Buntings sang from the small trees and corn. Once we hit the woods edge, we saw flashes of coral flying out over the corn as both Scarlet and Summer Tanagers were fly-catching insects in the sun.

Scarlet Tanager

As we made our way toward the overflow grass parking lot, we stopped to take in the change of landscape. We were about to enter old, mature hardwoods that stretch all the way down to Cat Point Creek. We heard Wood Thrushes, Eastern Wood-pewees, and Hooded Warblers down the gravel road.

A pair of Northern Cardinals was acting very strange; they moved around frequently, constantly vocalizing, and we heard what sounded like recently fledged young. We watched and waited, but unfortunately the vegetation was just too thick for us to know for sure. So on we went into the canopy of the towering hardwoods, on either side of us two male Hooded Warblers battling out the boundaries of their territories with their voracious songs.

On the edge of the road was a large patch of our native Spicebush shrubs, host plant of the Spicebush Swallowtail. We look for signs of munched on leaves, and rolled up leaves where caterpillars like to hide. We couldn’t find any, but maybe next time. 

Farther down the road we stopped at our favorite bench to just listen. Red-eyed vireos flitted amongst leave above us, a ruby-throated hummingbird whizzed by our heads, and in the road was a female Eastern Box Turtle.

Eastern Box Turtle

Females are differentiated by their brown eye, rather than the red eye of the male. We started the descent toward the creek, and above us sang Yellow-throated Warblers, Acadian Flycatchers, and

Eastern Wood PeeWee

Ovenbirds. When we reached the fork in the trail we stopped at thesecondbench for another listen. CarolinaChickadees chattered in the trees beside us, and way up in the canopy were Tufted Titmice flitting around erratically, accompanied by what we thought were fledglings, judging by the noises they made. Another confirmed breeder? Unfortunately they stayed too high to see and moved on from our location.

As we made our way toward the kayak launch, something hopped under Gypsy’s paws. What appeared to be a young Fowler’s Toad was in the middle of the trail measuring only about half an inch in size. We came across a few more on our way towards the water.

Fowlers Toad

Right at the parking lot we stopped to observe what could potentially be our native Turk’s Cap Lily! It was about 6 feet tall and the flower buds were still green; everything about it indicated that may be what we found. Neither of us have ever seen one outside a garden setting, so we made a mental note to plan our next visit to see it in bloom, to know for sure what species of lily we found.

On the edge of the water I heard what sounded like baby birds crying. We sat and waited patiently (Gypsy not so much), and soon enough a Chipping Sparrow appeared in a nearby tree with a mouth full of food. It looked around, checking for any threats, and flew into the pine tree when it felt the coast was clear. The begging babies got very loud, then suddenly silenced, and the adult left. Chipping Sparrow: confirmed!

Along the water’s edge we look to see what flowers we recognize. Swamp Milkweed, a host for the Monarch Butterfly, is growing in a small patch. No signs of caterpillars here. We need to make sure to check again in the fall when they’re migrating back through. A few young Pickerelweed plants are also sprouting. Hopefully next spring they will be mature enough to bloom their beautiful purple flower spikes. There’s only one way to find out for sure!

Gypsy and I head back up the road and take the trail that follows the creek. A nice hedgerow of Sweet Pepperbush lines the trail, and soon enough it will be blooming. A wide variety of pollinators love to visit this shrub. After meeting back up with Joey at the bench, he tells me he heard the loud rattling call of a Belted Kingfisher around the trees. We make our way up the hill and I catch movement in the huge Spicebush patch low to the ground. We stop, wait, and finally see movement again. It’s a Hooded Warbler – but not just one. Fledgling-type noises are coming from a few feet away. We watch and wait for about five minutes when we are finally rewarded with seeing not one, but two Hooded Warbler fledglings! It’s so exciting, especially because many birds are deceived by nest parasites like Brown-headed Cowbirds that lay their eggs in the nest of others. We had already seen several pairs of them flying around so we had to make sure.

Overall it has been a wonderful and successful birding trip to Menokin. There’s something about visiting that takes you back in time, aside from the historic structure. The natural heritage of the area is evident through the birds, animals, and plants that inhabit the fields, woods, and creek surrounding the home. Our native flora and fauna have been doing the same thing year after year long before the house was even built; breeding, raising young, blooming, bearing fruit. It’s important to step back and realize that there is more history to this place than the house alone. History is more than important dates, artifacts, and stories told from one generation to another. It’s seeing nature doing what it’s designed to do before we came along. We are lucky that a unique location like Menokin has so much to offer.

For a full list of the birds we observed and heard, follow this link: https://ebird.org/atlasva/view/checklist/S57534881

Killdeer Cam – The Final Episode

Update – July 11, 2013

Having consulted with Mama Killdeer, Alice and I settled on a quiet theme of Gravel with Scattered Leaves for the nursery. With all preparations done, we settled in to wait for the big arrival with Mama and Papa killdeer.

What a busy week we had!

On Monday, there were only three eggs in the nest. I assumed that my worst fear had come true, and a predator had stolen an egg. Both parents were highly agitated and we left them alone with their grief.

On Tuesday, Sarah and I were in Richmond at a meeting. Alice was holding down the fort with a visiting group of about 40 Master Naturalists here for a lecture about bats. Needless to say, the parking lot was buzzing and there were too many cars too close to the nest. But! With three eggs still in the nest, the MN reported that they had spotted a baby following the adults around. Whew. No snake.

On Wednesday, we had two more hatch. And while we never saw all three at one time, I did sit for awhile to watch the toddlers and saw at least two together.

That last egg still lay in the nest, and we wondered if and when it might join the brood. I had parked my car in such a way as to discourage foot and auto traffic from the area.

The Lone Ranger
The Lone Ranger

By this time, Mama and Papa had gotten pretty used to Alice and me. So when I packed up to leave yesterday evening, Mama was on the nest and didn’t budge when I started loading up my car. Just a few feet from the nest, and with my back to her, I quietly got my camera out of the bag, turned it on and got it all ready to go.

Mama gave me the stink eye, thought about it briefly, and decided she didn’t like it. Off she hopped, with two babies scuttling behind her. In the nest, snuggled together, were #3 AND #4, though at first it was hard to tell them apart. But when #3 ran off to join the family, #4 – obviously freshly hatched – remained in the nest.

Mama scolded from the grass a few yards away, but I did get a few great shots before leaving them alone.


So glad I did, because when I got to work this morning, I was alone. These birds had flown. (Sorry, sometimes I can’t help myself). The nest was empty and there was not a killdeer in sight. What fun we had having them here. Hopefully they’ll nest here again in 2014.

Update – June 26, 2013

Boy, are we ever lucky to have Hullie Moore on the Menokin Board of Trustees. Renowned landscape photographer of the Shenadoah National Park, Hullihen Williams Moore has turned his lens (along with myriad other talents) to Menokin.

Hullie was here for an Education Committee meeting yesterday and I introduced him to Mama and Papa Killdeer. While I stalked the nest, he took these gorgeous shots of their defense and distraction methods.

June 19, 2013

Late last week, I noticed a killdeer sitting in the gravel drive that circles in front of the Menokin Visitor’s Center. She wasn’t doing anything odd, but her stillness and lack of activity caught my attention.

The next morning, Alice and I drove in (same morning as the “turtle sighting“) and she was back. Different spot, but just sitting. I remembered back several years ago when one laid eggs right in the parking lot at Nunnally’s in Warsaw, and commented to Alice that I bet that bird was going to lay some eggs in our driveway.

I approached where she was sitting and she hopped up, scolding and dragging her wing in an effort to lead me away from her spot. Not fooled, I scanned the area closely to see if I could find a nest.


I was out of the office the next morning, but called Alice to check on the situation.  The killdeer was back again, same spot. Much to the bird’s annoyance, Alice approached to see if there was any activity. Eureka! Two eggs. Mama and Papa Killdeer scolded, limped and yelled, but brave Alice took a picture anyway.

Excited as two expecting moms, Alice and I went into supreme protective mode. Alice dragged two old pallets to block the nest from any vehicles and we started picking out names. (Iris and Rosalie.)

Day three, Alice and I were busy discussing nursery colors and preschools. I went outside to look in on our budding family. Hot tempered Mama (or Papa, as I soon learned) – still displeased with the interruptions – revealed a surprise. Another egg! Three! (New name – Susan.)

Iris, Rosalie and Susan
Iris, Rosalie and Susan
A Killdeer nest is a shallow depression scratched into the bare ground, typically 3-3.5 inches across. After egg-laying begins, Killdeer often add rocks, bits of shell, sticks, and trash to the nest. Curiously, these items tend to be light colored, and this tendency was confirmed in one experiment that gave Killdeer the choice between light and dark sticks.

By now, we have hooked Sarah in on the excitement. What in the world will we ever do with triplets? Too anxious to let a day go by without any news, I stopped yesterday to check on my girls. Mama KD rolled her eyes and obligingly hopped off the nest, too used to me by now to make much of a fuss. Or maybe she was tired from her night’s labors. Because where there once were three, are now four.

We are out of names. What will we do?

Thinking that surely we will have hatchlings by week’s end at the speed we are going, we Googled the gestation period of Killdeer eggs. Much to our disappointment, this part of the process is not speedy.

Baby birds that hatch with their running shoes on are called precocial. Precocial means “ripened beforehand.” (The word comes from the same Latin source as “precocious.”) Killdeer babies are precocial. They hatch with their eyes open, and as soon as their downy feathers dry, they start scurrying about, following their parents and searching the ground for something to eat.

And then there were four.
The parent killdeer start sitting on the eggs to incubate them as soon as all the eggs have been laid. The killdeer embryos inside the first-laid three eggs do not start developing while the eggs are sitting out in the cold. But when they feel the warmth of the parent killdeer, all four killdeer embryos start developing at the same time. So even though the first-laid egg spends a longer time in the shell than the last-laid, all the killdeer chicks have the same development period. It takes 24 to 28 days of incubating for the chicks to hatch.

So, while we wait for the babies to come, here are some stunning shots of Mama (or Papa) at work, making sure that we stay far enough away from the eggs.