Monday 18 July 2011

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, IAD

I have been humming John Denver songs ever since I discovered that the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah National Park are only a one hour drive from our slip hotel in Tyson’s Corner. On an IAD itinerary, I found myself with a day off and a companion in the shape of AM. We had a car and a tent and were out of the hotel by 05.00.

After stopping for provisions, we made it to the park entrance at Front Royal (Google Earth ref; 38 54’ 11”N 78 14’ 33”W) by 06.30. Immediately we found our first White-tailed Deer and very shortly after that, our first Black Bear. We had stopped at the visitor centre at Dickey Ridge (Google Earth ref; 38 52’ 18”N 78 12’ 17”W) and were taking an exploratory walk around.

American Goldfinches were common and Eastern Towhees were calling from the trees. We had moved onto a short circular road (which I think was intended as an overflow car park) to get a better look at a Red-bellied Woodpecker when AM noticed something moving in the weeds by the road and as we watched, a small bear’s head popped out. It must have been as surprised as we were for it darted back into cover with a little yelp. We quickly withdrew as its mother was almost certainly close by and might have reacted badly to the cub’s scare. We returned a few moments later, safe in the car, but the bear had moved on. 
I must commend AM for her reaction to the bear and for showing no qualms about taking another walk further down the road which brought Worm-eating Warbler, Tufted Titmouse and the ubiquitous Chipping Sparrow. We were still on a bit of a high when we saw our second bear of the morning. This one was moving through the woods by the side of the road, feeding and snuffling through the roots and leaf litter. We watched for a while until it came down into the roadside weeds and then out onto the tarmac, crossing the road right in front of us. AM felt the urge to get out of the car, but thankfully resisted.

We were on Skyline Drive which runs for 105 miles north and south through the park. There are plenty of pull-ins, viewpoints and often there is enough room on the shoulder to pull over to look at something exciting. Park regulations require that you pull completely off the road if stopped. Maps, details of facilities and charges can be found at the National Parks Service website for Shenandoah.

Surely we had used up all our luck after we found a third bear which gave us a desultory look before continuing on its way through the woods. We had set out with a philosophy that you don’t see bears if you don’t go down to the woods, but had been realistic about our chances of actually finding one. To find three was way beyond what we had expected.

At Elk Wallow (Google earth ref; 38 44’ 20”N 78 18’ 36”W), we stopped for a breakfast burrito and a chat with a fine chap named Russ. He gave us a tip which was to wear a sheet of Bounce (the fabric conditioning sheet) inside our hats to keep the insects away. We weren’t sure if he was setting us up, and suspected a conspiracy to take the rise out of English people when someone repeated the same advice to us later on.

At Big Meadow (38 31’ 42”N 78 26’ 14”W), we paid the $20, pitched camp, brewed up and then took a short walk along the legendary Appalachian Trail. It was a non-descript forest path for the stretch that we walked, but it runs for more than 2000 miles from Georgia in the south to Maine in the north and was brought to the attention of the non-hiking public by Bill Bryson in his 1997 book, ‘A Walk in the Woods.’ White-tailed Deer were seen in the gloom along The Trail as well as White-breasted Nuthatch, Wood Thrush and Northern Cardinal.

An evening ranger walk from the visitors' centre at Big Meadow was not what we had expected, but was interesting in its own quirky way. More importantly, Northern Bobwhites were calling from the meadow which gave us (well, me) a focus for the next morning.

There are stories about AM and what an important part tea plays in her morning regimen, but she agreed to have a walk out across the meadow to find the bobwhite before breakfast. I shall put our stroke of luck down to AM’s self-sacrificing attitude, because I don’t usually deserve such good fortune.

A Northern Bobwhite was calling just a few meters from where we parked the car and allowed us a very close approach while putting all his effort into his characteristic and emphatic “Bob, Bob White.”

There were plenty of deer around the campsite as well as Eastern Chipmunk and a Grey Catbird that came onto our pitch to serenade AM.

We de-camped and began our journey home, stopping occasionally at lookout points and finding Indigo Bunting, Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Common Yellowthroat. The bunting proved elusive and would not sit still long enough for me to get a good focus. I had missed a few of them on the first day as they fed from thistles with American Goldfinches at the pull-ins. I would have given some good stuff for that picture.

At the Elk Wallow picnic area, we took our last walk into the woods and added Pileated Woodpecker to our list after reaching as far as the AT again. We had warmed to Russ on the outbound journey and dropped in to the service area to see him again. He told us that 3 or 4 bear sightings in a day was about the norm, but let’s not forget that this was also the man who had us wearing fabric conditioning sheets to ward off the insects, so it was hard to know how much credence to give him.

Whether you use Bounce sheets or proper repellent, you will need something if you visit the mountains in July. We used liberal amounts of repellent as well as the fabric conditioning sheets and were still pestered by tiny flying insects. Bites though, were mercifully very few.

We rounded off the trip with a final (fourth, so below par for 2 days according to Russ) bear sighting as the weather began to close in and we headed for the park gate to drive the 60 miles back along Route 66 to Tyson’s Corner.

Here is a tip for anyone hiring a car from IAD, Washington Dulles Airport; have some quarters to hand. Toll roads from the airport demand exact change. The toll on Route 267 East is 75 cents and you pay twice, so will need 6 quarters. I felt very foolish blocking the toll gate and having to walk back along the line begging for change. Twice.

Another tip for walking in bear country is to make a noise so that the bears know that you are coming. Seasoned walkers often use bells attached to their hiking sticks to alert the animals to their approach. Remember that a surprised bear is a dangerous bear and use your common sense; do not approach bears and do not leave food out.

Birds seen; 28

Turkey Vulture 9, Northern Bobwhite 1, Mourning Dove 4, Chimney Swift 6, Ruby-throated Hummingbird 4, Red-bellied Woodpecker 2, Pileated Woodpecker 2, Eastern Phoebe 2, Barn Swallow 32, Cedar Waxwing 10, Brown Thrasher 4, American Robin 14, Wood Thrush 1, Tufted Titmouse 19, White-breasted Nuthatch 4, Blue Jay 4, American Crow 21, Common Raven 4, House Sparrow 12, American Goldfinch 40, Black and white Warbler 2, Worm-eating Warbler 1, Common Yellowthroat 1, Eastern Towhee 17, Chipping Sparrow 65, Northern Cardinal 4, Indigo Bunting 7, Brown-headed Cowbird.

Mammals seen; 4

Black Bear 4, Eastern Chipmunk 6, White-tailed Deer, Grey Squirrel 25.

Other posts from this destination can be found at the links below;

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada page for other posts from the region.

Chipping Sparrow
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, IAD

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