Birdwatching at the Basin

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Avid birders Pete Myers and Janet Paisley gaze across Lickinghole Basin in Crozet at two giant egrets and a great blue heron. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Are you in need of a new pandemic hobby? Have you ever considered taking up birdwatching? If so, you’re in the right place: the Lickinghole Basin behind Western Ridge, accessible from the Crozet Connector Trail along Lickinghole Creek, is often considered the #1 birding hotspot in Albemarle County. So grab a pair of binoculars, download the Merlin bird identification app, get a good bird guide—Sibley’s Guide to Birds comes highly recommended—and head out on the trail! The fall migration is starting now, so it’s an ideal time. Other prime spots in Crozet for birding include Mint Springs Park, Beaver Creek Park, King Family Vineyards (permission required), the Old Trail ponds, and the wetland in the future Western Park in Old Trail. You might even want to join the Monticello Bird Club, which—in normal times—holds regular educational meetings and field trips (www.monticellobirdclub.org), and/or create an account on eBird.org, a website managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which allows you to create checklists and share your bird sightings. Ebird is among the world’s largest biodiversity-related science projects, with more than 100 million bird sightings contributed each year by eBirders around the world. Another great resource  is the American Birding Association (www.aba.org).

The Crozet Connector Trail leads from Crozet Park, behind Westhall and Western Ridge, to the Lickinghole Basin. This is about a two-mile walk; watch for the sign near Western Ridge directing you to the Basin, or else you end up walking upstream, away from the basin. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

You would be joining many experienced and accomplished birders in the Crozet and Charlottesville communities. “Birding provides me the joy and beauty of the awesome sights and sounds of the birds, the thrill of finding them, and being a part of a community that loves and works hard to protect them,” said Paisley, a licensed social worker who lives in Charlottesville. She goes out birdwatching daily, usually at first light. “Birding is life-long learning. Birds are a strand in the web of life that is rapidly unraveling. Understanding the web is key to saving it. Birding is a mindfulness practice, a crucial foundation to my life and never needed more than now.” She has been birding for 11 years. “I took a Field Ornithology class from Dan Bieker at PVCC and it changed my life. I’ve been hooked ever since.” 

Janet Paisley and Pete Myers, frequent visitors to Lickinghole Basin, here use the blind built by Johnny Martin as his Eagle Scout project. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

We recently visited Lickinghole Basin with Paisley and Pete Myers, whom she credits as her mentor. As we perched between alders at the water’s edge, across the still, glassy water we saw two giant egrets and a great blue heron stalking fish. Both birders had the foresight to wear rubber wading boots so the marshy edges didn’t deter them. During our mere 15-minute stay at this spot, these two experienced birders identified—by sight or call—a yellow-billed cuckoo, a chimney swift, a pileated woodpecker, a barn swallow, and a tree sparrow. “The variety of habitats at Lickinghole Basin is what makes it a hotspot that attracts such a wide array of birds,” explained Paisley. “There is a forest fragment, forest edge, field, and water habitat—both in creek and pond form. There are marshes, mud flats, and a flood plain. We are situated along the mountain flyway. The walk from the Basin along Lickinghole Creek into Crozet yields great birds on migration as well. They use these as stopover places to feed and rest during migration.”  Both regularly post their sightings on eBird.

Pete Myers. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Pete Myers is not your average birdwatcher. Besides being an art wildlife photographer who has exhibited at the Mudhouse, at UVA hospital, and in major cities, he is the chief scientist for Environmental Health Sciences in downtown Charlottesville, which studies how chemicals affect human health. He has been publishing the EHN and Daily Climate online newsletters for 20 years. In 1985 he founded the Western Hemisphere Shore Bird Reserve Network, which now protects 100 sites from Southern Argentina to Alaska, encompassing 30 million acres. In 2017, he received the only environmental science award ever given by the Trump administration, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of this organization. He captures his gorgeous, close-up bird photographs through “stealth and guile” rather than with a zoom lens. He lives in White Hall and has been birding since he was four years old! 

Janet Paisley. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

“The peninsula at the east end of the Lickinghole Basin is one of the best spots to find shorebirds in the county,” Myers explained. “We once saw a pectoral sandpiper from Alaska there. In the winter, you will find many species of duck. The two rarest birds that have been observed there are a sandhill crane and a tri-colored heron [which has a red neck and white underbelly], also a black tern. We are currently seeking a Nelson’s sparrow to add to our life lists.” A black swan is a frequent visitor to the basin in all seasons, as well as green herons, rusty blackbirds, swamp sparrows, and ruby-crowned kinglets. “The merlin is less common, but there was one hanging out along Lickinghole Creek near the soccer fields for quite a while last winter.” These are the wetlands in the future Western Park. 

Marshall Faintich, a member of the Virginia Society of Ornithology Speakers Bureau, has spotted 140 avian species in the Crozet area. He maintains a website of bird photography (as well as rare coins) at www.faintich.net. Photo: Alice Faintich.

Marshall Faintich of Old Trail, an avid birdwatcher, wildlife photographer, and author of A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Wintergreen (2009), has spotted more than 140 avian species in Old Trail alone. A member of the Virginia Society of Ornithology Speakers Bureau, he is a frequent speaker at the Monticello Bird Club and other civic organizations. Jenny Gaden, past president of the Monticello Bird Club, also frequently visits the basin. “It’s a prime location mainly because it’s a water habitat,” she said. “You get pretty good waterfowl there in the winter; often there are mud flats or spits that attract shore birds, and evidently there are enough food resources that the bald eagle pair has nested there for several years in a row. Hawks and ospreys are also frequently spotted. There’s a marshy area at the eastern end of the reservoir near the dam that attracts different birds. The walk through the scrubby land habitat also brings in wrens, sparrows, kinglets and other land birds both winter and spring.” The relative isolation and wildness of the spot also contributes to its appeal. 

Lickinghole Creek was dammed up in 1994 by the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority to make sure silt and sediment from Crozet is prevented from reaching the Rivanna Reservoir. “Although the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (RWSA) has yet to convey this area to Albemarle County Parks and Recreation (ACPR), both RWSA and ACPR have tried to manage interim use—in anticipation of its becoming a public park destination—by providing well defined trail routes,” explained Dan Mahon, ACPR Trails Coordinator. 

At Lickinhole Basin. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Birdwatching on mountain hikes during my younger years, I’ll never forget the thrill of spotting a scarlet tanager, indigo bunting, or cedar waxwing. Such vivid and mysterious names! Now I am more likely to simply enjoy the visitors to my backyard birdfeeders—chickadees, goldfinches, tufted titmice, and downy woodpeckers—and of course, the irrepressible hummingbirds! If you are also inclined to birdwatch from your back porch, see my October 2009 article for a guide to attracting different birds with various kinds of birdseed—but don’t forget to bring your feeders in from April to November to avoiding attracting bears to our residential neighborhoods.

In March of 2011, Pete Myers identified the first sighting ever in the Commonwealth of Virginia of a violet green swallow at the pond by the Old Trail golf course. Normally seen in California, Oregon, and Washington, this was only the sixth recorded sighting east of the Mississippi. Photo: Pete Myers.

“There is no question in my mind that urbanization of the area has changed the bird scene there for the worse,” commented Myers. Faintich concurs. “I am especially concerned about the wetlands area in the Western Park in Old Trail [also along Lickinghole Creek]. This is one of the best locations in Crozet for birding, and proposals to turn a large area of this park into additional ball fields and playgrounds is a serious concern.” Of additional concern is the new Fair Hill subdivision on Rt. 250, just west of the Rt. 240 intersection, which borders the south side of Lickinghole Basin. Clearing has come perilously close to the eagles’ nest, and when construction begins, the pair may decide to relocate.

This blue-throated green warbler was spotted along Lickinghole Creek. © Marshall Faintich, Lickinghole Creek, Crozet, VA
September 26, 2014, Permission granted to Crozet Gazette to publish.

“Biodiversity has definitely been affected by development around Crozet and elsewhere,” adds Paisley. “You can check out the American Bird Conservancy website for more about threats to birds and what we can do to help them.” 

This bald eagle pair has been nesting across Lickinghole Basin from the trail for several years. © Marshall Faintich, Lickinghole Creek Basin, Crozet, VA, September 13, 2017. Permission granted to Crozet Gazette to publish.
Migrating shorebirds are frequent visitors to the peninsula at Lickinghole Basin, where they rest and feed on their way. This Wilson’s Snipe visited in April on its way north from South America to the Arctic. Photo: Pete Myers.
Lickinghole Creek is a tributary of Mechums River that winds through Crozet from Church Hill on the east, through several subdivisions including Old Trail, and out past Chiles Peach Orchard. Photo: Google Maps.

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