Wednesday 9 November 2011

Boys' day out Pt. 2

The sun rose by 07.30 to find us (us being Mike, Dave and me) well on our way along Route 66 towards Shenandoah National Park. The snow and sleet front had passed over and the scenery along the route was stunning in the early morning light. We had thought it prudent to look at the website to check that the park would be open. It had been closed during the storm of the previous day and we were hoping for a prediction on its status for today. It was such a beautiful autumn morning that we could not resist driving down, despite there being no updated info on the website.

As we drew closer to Front Royal, the northern portal town for Shenandoah National Park, the snow became thicker and lay inches deep on parked cars. The glorious sunshine and the autumn colours in the trees were spectacularly enhanced by the blanket of snow, but it gave me twinges which were borne out when we came upon the barrier blocking the entrance to the park.
It was closed of course. A couple of miles upstream along the southern fork of the Shenandoah River is a high lookout which gives out across the river to another Appalachian ridge in the distance to the west. I believe this to be the George Washington National Forest. A chap looked incredulously from the frosted window of his canoe-hire centre when we pulled into his car park. When he realised that we were not planning to go tubing on the river he turned back to his heater as we took in the fabulous scenery and found our first few birds of the day.

A Pileated Woodpecker flew across the river and a Downy Woodpecker pulled into a tree close by.  The bright red of the Northern Cardinals in the car park impressed my companions who are not birders (yet). But this was not going to fill our day, so once again we repaired to a diner (the excellent Knotty Pine in Front Royal) to consider our options.
Asking at the local gas station threw up the name Raymond J “Andy” Guest Shenandoah River State Park. It was only a few miles along the road, south from Front Royal (at Google Earth ref; 35 50 35N 78 18 04W) and it seemed like a reasonable alternative. It was even said to occasionally harbour bears. Indeed there was a bear, “Stella”, stuffed and mounted in the visitor centre just beyond the entrance control post, but no live ones were found here. The State Park is many times smaller than the National Park and can easily be covered in a day.

A platform jutting from the hillside afforded a magnificent view across the snow-frosted valley. We chose to follow a couple of paths, namely the Cottonwood Trail which led us alongside the Shenandoah River and the Wildcat Ledge.
The snow on the boardwalk of the Cottonwood Trail was frozen and crunched loudly under our boots, so we turned off onto the Wildcat Ledge trail. Tufted Titmice had formed small foraging flocks with Carolina Chickadees and we watched four Bald Eagles in the meadow to the north from the lookout point at the end of the trail. Wildcat Ledge is a dead-ending trail, so we retraced our steps and gave the crunchy boardwalk another go. We could see the eagles in the air now, circling to gain some height.

There was a nice selection of birds found as the boardwalk looped around and back on itself. Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers and Yellow-rumped Warblers were seen on a few occasions with a Red-tailed Hawk sitting atop a leafless tree in the meadow. Singletons included White-breasted Nuthatch, Yellow-breasted Sapsucker and Carolina Wren.
Early in the afternoon, the sun had warmed the air sufficiently for us to remove jackets and hats. Perhaps Skyline Drive had been re-opened by now. Sadly it hadn’t. Perhaps it is still early in the season for snow. The trees still had plenty of leaves and the snow would have been laying heavy on them. Though it looked as if a man with a snowplough attached to the front of his truck could have it cleared in mere moments, we had not considered that the weight of the snow could have brought down a few trees as well.

So if you find yourself in Front Royal and the Shenandoah National Park is closed, do consider the Shenandoah River State Park. It may not have the scale and the bears, but it was a very pleasant place to enjoy some stunning scenery. My thanks go to Mike and Dave for being so understanding and proactive and for being such good company on a long day out.

We arrived back at the hotel to find the only bird of the day that actually sat for a photograph. A Northern Mockingbird perched in a tree adjacent to the entrance to the hotel.
Birds seen; 32
Great Blue Heron1, Turky Vulture 8, Black Vulture 1, Bald Eagle 4, Mourning Dove 6, Red-bellied Woodpecker 2, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1, Downy Woodpecker 3, Northern Flicker 4, Pileated Woodpecker 1, Cedar Waxwing 60, Carolins Wren 3, Northern Wren 1, Northern Mockingbird 1, American Robin 15, Hermit Thrush 2, Golden-crowned Kinglet 4, Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1, Carolina Chickadee 12, Tufted Titmouse 6, White-breasted Nuthatch 2, Blue Jay 15, American Crow 35, Common Starling 60, American Goldfinch 6, Yellow-rumped Warbler 8, Chipping Sparrow 3, Song Sparrow 4, White-throated Sparrow 15, Dark-eyed Junco 12, Northern Cardinal 8, Common Grackle 8.

The Boys' day out Part 1 can be found here.

Other posts from the area can be found by following the links below;

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada page for other North American posts

Shenandoah National Park, Shenandoah River State Park, IAD, Tyson's Corner, Washington.

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