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Scenes from the Mountain State

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

An empty coal train rumbles along the New River.

From Thursday until Saturday of last week, we were in Fayetteville, WV, in and around the stunning New River Gorge. This river has cut one deep gash down West Virginia's wooded flank. Something about the gorge scares me; the dizzying heights and fast water don't feel like my natural habitat. It's hard to see the sky. You see little bits and pieces of it. I'm used to big ol' friendly Ohio, with its gently rolling hills and open vistas. But there is an undeniable pull to this place, and it's largely because it's so stuffed with great birds, plants, butterflies and animals. And the people are top-notch, too.
I've worked at the New River Neotropicals Birding and Nature Festival every year for the past five. Gave the first keynote, brought Bill the next year, and we keep coming back. The organizers are old friends by now and we love them dearly. Our kids love their kids and it's like falling off a log to bring them along--they just disappear in a little pack. This festival attracts a really discerning cut of birdwatchers, people who know what they like and know how to find it. They're a blast to bird with. So leading the trips is pretty easy. We just use our ears and eyes and put the scope on as many birds as we can. Easier said than done when you're talking about coy, flitty warblers and 25 participants, but we do our best.An ovenbird cooperates for a moment. Bill puts everyone in the shade when it comes to getting the scope on warblers. I'm like the wife who never learned to drive because her husband does it for her. It takes me Forever to get a warbler in the scope, and it's always gone by the time the next person peeks in.
Chet Baker gets to come, because Opossum Creek Resort is pet-friendly. We gave our little doggie the run of the place, and he went cabin to cabin, checking on people and giving kisses and stumptailed wags wherever he went. When we were out birding, he sat atop the hot tub cover, watching chipmunks by the hour.Catdog. He walks on windowsills and the backs of couches; he leaps lightly atop tables and pads softly on ledges. Baker got to meet Katdoc, and I finally got to spend some time with my online buddy. What fun it was! She's the coolest, and rumor has it she will be starting her own blog before too long. I'm ready!We took the kids along on field trips on Friday, and they were terrific, amusing themselves for swix hours without a whine.With things like masses of puddling pipevine swallowtails to watch, who couldn't be happy?
Probably the sexiest bird in the Gorge is the one most birders have yet to add to their life lists: the Swainson's warbler. It's limited to the great laurel thickets along streams, where its clear, ringing whistle sings, "Screw you! Screw the world!" It's darned hard to see, and it seems to be taunting you as you peer into the dark tangles. Pretty much the only way to get 20 or 30 birders on this lovely creature is by playing a tape of its song. You play the song twice and shut the player off. If the bird is going to respond, it will respond instantly, and often sit right out on a bare limb, singing. We had our target bird by 7:18 AM and all laughed and said we wanted to go back to bed. Maybe smoke a cigarette. Ahhh. Life birds are sooo sweet, and six people in my group got to do the Life Bird wiggle.
Naturally, my best shot happened when the bird's head was turned. Buck fever strikes again.I got a life butterfly: an Appalachian azure. I didn't realize it was perched on a dead crawdad until I saw this shot on the screen. This is a lovely, silvery blue beast, way too big to be a spring azure, almost the size of a sulfur. Wow! I was befuddled, then thrilled. Wiggle, wiggle.
Got the garden planted, down to the beans and tomatoes, today. I'm wiped out. Two days hard labor in the sun, not stopping for anything. I could get used to it.


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