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Welcome to Rockbridge’s Community of Birders

By Eric Wallace

An image of a Canada warbler in a tree

Canada Warbler (CO Dick Rowe)

Birding introduced former Federal Elections Commission spokesperson Bob Biersack to new friends and an unexpected passion. Blockbusting for the VABBA2 was like icing on the cake. (Written by Eric Wallace, VABBA2 Communications)

Listening to 64-year-old Rockbridge Bird Club vice president, Bob Biersack, he sounds every bit the veteran birder. Conversations, friendships, weekends and vacations revolve around the activity. The interest has carried him and his wife to points both near and far from their Lexington-area home—including forays into almost every Wildlife Management Area in the Virginia mountains; Yellowstone National Park; Pennsylvania’s 150-mile-long Greater Allegheny Passage bike trail—and that’s just recently.

Biersack has written about his adventures in a (delightful) monthly column since 2015, when he assumed the editorship of the RBC newsletter. And yet, for all the activity, he’s relatively new to birding.

“I spent 30 years in Washington D.C. working as a statistician and spokesperson for the Federal Elections Commission,” says Biersack. The position was consuming. Duties included talking with journalists from major news outlets like the New York Times and occasional television appearances. “Birds weren’t on my radar,” he adds, simply.

However, that changed with retirement. Looking to escape the city bustle, the couple moved to Rockbridge County in 2012.

“Suddenly, we’re living on 67 wooded acres surrounded by farms and National Forest,” says Biersack. “I’m watching the seasons go by, tuning into their natural rhythms—and I start to notice all these birds.”

An image of a group of birders in a meadow

RBC at Boxerwood (CO

Intrigued, he sought to learn names and identifying characteristics. Perusing online resources, he discovered the Rockbridge Bird Club. “I thought, ‘This could be a way to make some friends,’” says Biersack. Worst case scenario, he’d learn something about the area’s birds.

Attending a meeting, he was shocked: More than 50 people showed up. As one of the oldest and most prestigious ornithological clubs in the state, the RBC’s roster was studded with fascinating members. There was Rhodes scholar and Columbia University emeritus professor, Bob Baxton. Virginia Military Institute biology professor, Dick Rowe. Former Virginia Wilderness Committee president Laura Neale. Avid, longtime birder, John Pancake. And the list went on.

Furthermore, the group was experiencing a revival. With older leaders aging out, a new vanguard had emerged. Talk ranged from boosting web presence and social media engagement, to adding more youth programs and fieldtrips, to maximizing community collaborations, and so on.

“The excitement was incredible,” says Biersack. Better still, members were welcoming. “They seemed genuinely happy to see a new face and went out of their way to invite me into the fold. Their passion for birding was infectious.”

Biersack became an immediate regular. Soon he was managing the group’s new webpage, penning newsletters, helping plan events, and serving as its elected secretary. Tagging along with veterans like Neale and Rowe, his birding improved at breakneck pace.

“I was hooked,” Biersack says with a laugh. “It’s such a great community. Everyone is so encouraging and happy to pass along knowledge. And that makes it a lot of fun.”

An image of a yellow bellied sapsucker on a pine tree

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (CO Dick Rowe)

Approaching the VABBA2’s launch in 2016, the club was rife with excitement. “This is the largest and most comprehensive avian survey undertaken in state history,” says project director Ashley Peele. “Its importance cannot be underestimated.”

Accordingly, the RBC urged members to volunteer. Veteran birders led Atlas-themed fieldtrips to hard-to-reach areas in Rockbridge County and beyond. Collaborations with the Rockingham Bird Club’s Diane Lepkowski helped blitz-cover some of the region’s most remote priority blocks.

Though interested, Biersack worried his skills were inadequate.

“With atlasing, you’re not so much seeking birds out as trying to observe their interactions,” he says. Assigned to predefined geographic areas known as “blocks,” participants visit locations again and again, looking for breeding indicators like coupled pairs or nest-making. “That intimidated me,” Biersack confides. “I worried I’d make mistakes and mess up the data.”

Neale disagreed. “If you enjoy watching birds, you’re qualified to participate,” she asserted in a 2016 newsletter.

Biersack was persuaded to tag along on fieldtrips. Outings included public and private lands alike: There were expeditions to the 500-acre Brushy Hills Preserve in Lexington; to the 378-acre Locher Tract along the James River in Glasgow; to areas surrounding the upper Jackson River and Lake Moomaw in Highland County; and more.

An image of a black throated blue warbler male on a pokeberry shrub

Black-throated Blue Warbler male (CO Dick Rowe)

Biersack’s favorite, though, was an isolated tract of private property atop a 3,500-foot mountain near the Short Hills Wildlife Management Area. Once used as a hunting sanctuary, the owners had grown elderly and rarely visited. With high elevations, acres of pristine grassland, dense surrounding forests, and a large pond, opportunities to Atlas for interesting montane species abounded. The group looked for coveted migratory songbirds like Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Veery, Least Flycatcher, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Magnolia, Blackburnian, Black-throated blue, Canada, and Cerulean warblers, Winter Wren, Warbling Vireo and more.

“We took country roads into the middle of nowhere, then got on dirt jeep trails and went even further,” says Biersack with a laugh. “We were in the funnel of the Shenandoah Valley, where the Blue Ridge and Alleghanies meet, so there was a lot of interesting overlap. To me, it was just fantastic.”

Encouraged by the outing’s success, Biersack attended a VABBA2 training session in Charlottesville. Hosted by the Monticello Bird Club, participants spent an afternoon learning to identify breeding behaviors. The session included a field lesson in a nearby park. For Biersack, the event was revelatory.

“I realized atlasing offered a profoundly intimate birding experience,” he says. “Observing species in this manner requires tuning into the landscape and watching how they interact with habitat. It’s like you’re eavesdropping on an ecosystem and the birds are your guide.”

An image of a veery on a branch

Veery (CO Dick Rowe)

Going into 2017, Biersack assumed responsibility for one of his region’s hardest to reach blocks in the Goshen Wildlife Management Area.

“The success of the VABBA2 depends on comprehensive coverage,” says Peele. “And this particular abathrea posed some major hurdles. With nobody stepping up, Bob’s commitment was huge.”

The problems had to do with the area’s distance from urban centers, rugged terrain, and status as a WMA. Bordered by steep cliffs and dense forests, access is limited to a few footpaths and service roads. Aside from hunting season, the latter are closed to the public. Reaching the interior from the barriers requires 6-8 miles of hiking, roundtrip.

Biersack was willing to invest the driving time. But for the sake of efficiency, he needed a key. Working with the VDWR, Peele made it happen.

“This was extremely atypical,” says VDWR project liaison, Sergio Harding. “But the VABBA2 is one of our primary initiatives; we wanted to ensure Bob had the tools he needed to succeed.”

Biersack started out birding alone. Through the spring, summer and fall, he visited about once a week. Time in the woods ranged from 2-4 hours. Revisiting most areas, he became intimately familiar with the property’s unique habitats.

An image of a meadow with sparse trees that is located in Goshen WMA

The Meadow Land at Goshen WMA (CO Sergio Harding)

“I got out there and discovered some incredible spots,” says Biersack. His favorite, known as the Meadow Land, is a large, high-altitude grassy clearing with a small pond atop Bratton Mountain. It is surrounded by thick forest. While there, he confirmed breeding activity for high-altitude species like Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Veery, Black-throated Green Warbler and more. “It’s such an incredible habitat, I had to share it with my friends,” he says. Convincing members to come along, they’d say, “‘Wow, this place is fantastic!’”

Heading into the Atlas’s fourth season, Biersack has nearly completed his survey of the GWMA. Though the Atlas currently has more than 1,000 volunteers statewide—and a collective log of about 50,000 field-hours—38 counties still have less than 25 percent of their priority blocks completed. The vast majority are located in southern and southwest Virginia. Biersack hopes his story will inspire others to volunteer, particularly in hard-to-reach areas.

I am profoundly grateful that I overcame my reservations and signed up to help with the VABBA2,” he says. “Not only is it a necessary conservation effort, the project introduced me to a fantastic wildlife area that I probably wouldn’t have visited otherwise. Today, I tell every birder, hiker, hunter, fisherman, whatever: ‘If you love wildlife and the outdoors, help out with the Atlas. You won’t regret it!’”

Whether you’re a county resident or out-of-town visitor, the Rockbridge Bird Club invites you and yours to attend a fieldtrip. For monthly updates—including Biersack’s fantastic column—check out the group’s Newsletter.

Former club president, Laura Neale, says there are a number of outings planned for the spring and early summer. Though more will be added soon, present offerings include:

  • Bi-monthly trips to the Boxerwood Nature Center & Woodland Garden. Walks through the 15-acre arboretum are led by knowledgeable club-members, with participants receiving a pocket-list of the more than 90 species that occupy the area throughout the year. The next walk is on Saturday, March 16th, at 8 a.m.
  • Annual fieldtrip to Apple Orchard Mountain. Located in the Jefferson National Forest, this 4,500-foot peak is the highest in Bedford and Botetourt counties. Saturday, May 11.
  • Additional Atlas-specific trips in Alleghany County are soon to be announced.

To learn more, email fieldtrip chair Wendy Richards:

  • March 1, 2019