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The High-Points of Southwest Virginia

By Eric Wallace

An image of a mountain range taken from the top of a mountain

CO Roger Pierson

When aspiring naturalist and ecologist Cade Campbell turned 16, a driver’s license paired with his recent discovery of the VABBA2 to open a new world of ornithological adventure. Living on the border of far southwest Virginia in Bristol, Tennessee, brought proximity to some of the East Coast’s most interesting and untrammeled avian habitats, including high-elevation hotspots like Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain. Participating in the Atlas supplied an education-backed reason for exploring.

Project-based fieldtrips became a fixture of Campbell’s homeschool curriculum. Given his passion for nature—and aspirations to parlay the enthusiasm into a career—the teen says his parents consider his work with the VABBA2 a superlative self-directed learning experience.

“At first, I’d get an alert on eBird that somebody had spotted something interesting [within 30-40 miles] of my house and jump in the car and go check it out,” says Campbell, now 17, with a laugh. The privilege was intoxicating. Previously, such outings would’ve required coercing a parent—and likely been postponed until the weekend. But no more.

When it came to collecting data, however, “the approach wasn’t very efficient,” Campbell admits. He began planning ahead and staking out areas with a goal of “maximizing observations of nesting and breeding behaviors.”

An image of a man with binoculars looking out across a body of water

Cade Campbell

Experience and improved understanding of the project’s needs led to further regimentation.

“There’s so much ground in this region, and we just don’t have the birders to cover it,” says Campbell. Realizing the majority of high-elevation areas above 4,500 feet had little to no survey hours, he began targeting priority blocks in harder-to-reach locations.

Related adventures have carried Campbell down remote backroads, walking paths and old fire trails to under-the-radar peaks, hollows, reclaimed mining sites and rural farms, along the banks of isolated rivers, beaver ponds, creeks and lakes, into swampy wetlands and more. During last year’s spring migration and breeding season, he upped the ante by volunteering at the Blue Ridge Discovery Center two or three days a week.

To do it, Campbell stayed with his grandparents’ and commuted from their home in Marion. At the center, he worked with directors Aaron Floyd and Lisa Benish—both experienced birders and contributing Atlasers—to identify breeding birds in lesser-known mountain spots in Grayson County and surrounding areas. The experience, says Campbell, was profound.

“On one hand, it was an opportunity to work closely with knowledgeable birders and learn a ton of new skills,” he says. Meanwhile, he was being introduced to “all these cool high-elevation habitats that, if it wasn’t for the VABBA2, I would never have discovered.”

The feeling is one Roger Pierson knows well, albeit through a different passion. The 63-year-old lives in Sperryville, Virginia, and was introduced to the activity of ‘Highpointing’ in 1999. The idea was simple: Hike to the tallest spot in a given state then move on to the next.

An image of a snowy spire of rocks atop a mountain“Initially I adapted the goal because it seemed like an interesting way to visit all 50 states,” says Pierson, a senior engineer for the University Research Foundation in Maryland. Along the way, he learned that many summits lay in obscure or hard-to-reach areas. “Highpointing has carried me to so many amazing places. And most were spots that, if it wasn’t for this crazy hobby, I never would have known existed.”

The activity proved addictive. By 2018, Pierson had scaled the tallest peak in every state in the U.S. Since then, he’s made a goal of visiting high-points in Virginia counties west of the fall line.

“For me, highpointing tends to be an insidious, all-consuming and contagious undertaking,” says Pierson, with a laugh. “It’s just such a fantastic tool for adventure. Everybody knows about places like McAffee Knob or Mount Rogers—and that’s why they’re so crowded. But with this approach? You get amazing areas that’re totally off the trodden path, which, to me, is where the real magic occurs.”

Campbell agrees wholeheartedly.

While at the Blue Ridge Discovery Center, he learned how environmental conditions at peaks that were less than a mile apart could support a drastically different range of species. He combed rhododendron thickets, explored high-elevation balds and rare southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest—which covers just 100 square miles and is considered the second-most endangered ecosystem in the U.S. Akin to high-elevation islands, the latter are havens for geographically rare birds that typically breed only in Northern and Boreal forests.

Among them, Campbell found a wetland area created by beavers. Over the years, dam-building had created a complex of surrounding meadows.

“It was full of swamp rose and silky willows, like something you’d expect to find in the northeast or Canada,” says Campbell. “It felt like I’d wandered into a totally different place, something that couldn’t possibly be in Virginia.”

While there, he feasted on rare sights, including glimpses of Red Crossbill, Hermit Thrush, Golden-Crowned Kinglet, Yellow-Rumped and Canada Warbler, Winter Wren and Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker. Also, otters, weasels and rafters of Wild Turkey.

But Campbell’s favorite experience? Confirming the first pair of breeding Brown Creeper for the region, which typically only nest in Canada. The feat took weeks of detective work to achieve.

“It started with me climbing through an almost vertical stand of white pines and hearing a high-pitched whinnying sound,” says Campbell. Initially he was baffled. “All I knew was, it sounded really cool. So, I started kind of stalking around and trying to figure out where the sound was coming from and what was making it.”

An image of a brown creeper in a tree

Brown Creeper (CO Cade Campbell)

Eventually he spotted a male Brown Creeper. Though the bird soon darted out of sight, Campbell made a routine of returning to the spot each day. One evening, the male reappeared carrying what looked to be nesting material. Campbell was following him through the woods when, suddenly, he disappeared behind a piece of bark.

“I thought, ‘This is crazy, he’s got a nest in there!’” says Campbell. Though the site proved to be uninhabited—a ‘dummy’—a few days later, the bird led Campbell to another filled with tiny hatchlings. “It was awesome. I even got to watch the female feed them a little spider!”

Campbell’s experiences at the Discovery Center have inspired him to extend his atlasing efforts to new areas. He’s visited peaks throughout Region 7, and is currently focusing on those in the Clinch Mountain Range and the Walker Mountain Cluster.

“I love visiting these spots, because you know they’re all gonna be more-or-less isolated, incredibly beautiful and bring interesting differences in habitat,” says Campbell. “It’s exciting, because you just never know what you’re gonna see.”

Similar to Pierson and highpointing, he reflects, “I’m just so thankful I discovered the VABBA2 when I did. With it, I’ve learned a huge amount about bird behavior and gained valuable firsthand experience working with an important conservation initiative. Meanwhile, it’s helped me develop an intimate relationship with one of most fascinating regions in Appalachia.”


Interested in helping bird in high-elevation areas in southwest Virginia?

  • For a complete list of county high-points, including access, directions and hiking information, click HERE.
  • For questions about helping with priority blocks in Region 7, email VABBA2 director Ashely Peele, or Region 7 coordinator Steven Hopp.
  • March 20, 2020