Fleetwood Hill Battlefield: Hot Spot for Birds and History

Fleetwood Hill Battlefield is a magnet for birds and Civil War buffs. During the American Civil War, The Battle of Brandy Station took place on June 9, 1863 when Union Calvary Major General Alfred Pleasanton launched a surprise attack against Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate calvary.

Years ago, local citizens came together to save the battlefield from development. The National Park Service mapped the historic area and recommended preserving four separate areas. Fleetwood Hill Battlefield is one of the four that is preserved from development. American Battlefield Trust is the main organization behind the preservation.

American Battlefield owns this beautiful spot located in Culpeper County between the small towns of Elkwood and Brandy Station. The Trust purchased 61 acres area at Fleetwood Hill in 2013. Here you will find a free parking area that overlooks one of the most scenic views in the county. In one direction, is the grasslands of the battlefield that hosts a variety of grasslands birds. In the other direction, is a beautiful private farm with a pond popular with waterfowl in the winter.

Fleetwood Battlefield is a great year-round destination for birding. Trips to the battlefield in the winter surprise the visitor with unexpected visitors such as Tundra Swans. On December 18, 2017, I stopped by the battlefield to see what was in the Beauregard Farm pond. To my surprise, when I got out of my car, I flushed four Greater White-fronted Geese from the field across from the parking lot. They had been foraging for grain in the field. It was the first time I had spotted geese in the field directly across from the parking area. On the pond, I saw two Cackling Geese among around 50 Canada Geese, 12 Hooded Mergansers, three Tundra Swans, about 30 American Black Ducks and about 60 Mallards. It was a lucky day as some winter days the pond is deserted.

When Spring arrives, my attention shifts from the Beauregard pond to the battlefield. The field fills with thistle and other plants that provide food and cover for grassland birds. Soon Grasshopper Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, European Meadowlarks, and American Goldfinches make the battlefield home for the breeding season. I just spotted a Dickcissel yesterday who was singing vigorously from a tree-top. Native trees in the field provide home to other species such as Orchard Orioles. The battlefield is quite a “birdy”place.

Fleetwood Hill Battlefield is also a great place to look for butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies.

Kudos to The American Battlefield Trust for doing a great job maintaining the battlefield, while providing breeding areas for grassland birds. Moreover, they have installed new interpretative signs in the battlefield providing the visitor with a wealth of information about the Civil War battlefield. The Grasshopper Sparrows like to come out and perch on the interpretative signs!

American Battlefield recently put in a stationary telescope that allows visitors to get a closer look at the area for free. I look forward to being able to use this scope during winter to look at the birds on the farm pond across the road! You can also see the mountains of the Shenandoah National Park from this spot.

Fleetwood Hill Battlefield happens to be located in a priority block for the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas 2 (2016-2020). The atlas is a project to map breeding birds throughout Virginia to inform conservation strategies. The priority block is known as Brandy Station SE. For more atlas information, I cover atlasing of this block in a separate blog post: Brandy Station SE (Priority Block) – VA Breeding Bird Atlas 2.

American Battlefield is seeking to make Fleetwood Hill Battlefield and other historic areas into Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain State Park. They have been acquiring land in the Brandy Station area for this effort. You can learn more about the American Civil War sites in Culpepper and other battlefields from The American Battlefield Trust; the only national level organization working to save America’s historic battlefields. Consider making a donation to American Battlefield on this site. Battlefields are great for preserving our nations’ history while providing open space, which in turn provides wildlife habitat. A win-win!

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Rockwater: A New Park, A New Place to Bird

In May 2018, the town of Culpeper debuted its newest park, Rockwater Park. Located on Route 29 just south of the town center, Rockwater is set on 32 acres. There is a mile of wide paved trails. This makes for a tick-free birding experience if you remain on the trail. It also means that the trails are handicapped accessible for wheelchairs or motorized scooters. So everyone can bird here.

Rockwater Park’s entrance is a steep incline one way into a paved parking lot with one sheltered picnic area and a building with bathrooms. From there you can choose to routes to start off though either way you will loop back around. No getting lost here. The trails are set back from the road and are relatively quiet. There are residential areas surrounding the park though they are mostly obscured from view.

This park has been nominated as an eBird hot spot. You can check what birds I found on my first birding trip there: Rockwater Park, June 14, 2018. I also spotted a groundhog and a doe with her fawn during my visit.

The park is in Culpeper West NE block for the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas 2 project. This block currently has about five hours of surveying done. Checkout what birds have been found in this block: Culpeper West NE. If you get to Culpeper, consider visiting Rockwater Park to do some atlasing!

Virginia: Thousands of Brown-headed Cowbirds

Today I decided to bird some new areas. I first headed to a birding hot spot in Virginia. The location consists of two large farm fields and a quiet dead-end road in between. I got to this birding spot there and was initially disappointed because I only heard a Blue Jay and spotted some Mourning Doves. I decided to move on to the next spot. As I was heading back down the the dead-end road I saw a massive bird “cloud” moving in the sky in the field to my right. These birds were flushed from the ground by a hawk .

I figured that the birds were probably starlings. I stopped and got out my binoculars. I could see that they were not starlings and wondered if they were some sort of black bird. I couldn’t tell until they came toward where I was parked.

I watched the massive group of birds as they moved along in the field. Finally they started flying in my direction and stopped in the field and in the road next to me. I could see without binoculars that they were Brown-headed Cowbirds. I looked with my binoculars at the group in the field to see if there were any other birds mixed in. I spotted only one starling.

I was awestruck when the birds were all around my car and perched on the fence posts on both sides. They gradually moved to the field on my left.

I figured I should get a photo to prove that I saw so many cowbirds today. I was just about to get a great shot when a hawk came out of nowhere and flew into the mass of cowbirds that were in the air coming toward me. The hawk easily snagged one cowbird for his meal and flew away. The remaining cowbirds scattered. I managed to get a few photos and video with my smart phone. Unfortunately, the birds were now some distance and skittish as I tried to get closer so no good shots.

Watching Wrens at Home in Virginia

For a bird enthusiast living next to a state forest had its perks. Many birds that nested in the forest would pop over to look for things to eat. There were the usual Northern Cardinals that always are a delight to watch, along with House Sparrows, and Carolina Chickadees. However, the proximity of the forest also provided for regular glimpses of Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Carolina Wrens, and the rare visit of a Winter Wren.

The Winter Wren was one of the rarest visitors to my porch only appearing for a few days each spring in earnest search of insects. I spotted the Winter Wren busily clearing every nook and cranny of my porch of bugs. I appreciated the pest removal service and the entertainment provided by this bird who completely ignored my presence. It was a quick visit similar to when a hummingbird swoops in to drink nectar.

One evening, I put the porch light on and to my surprise I noticed that there was something wedged between the light fixture and the wall. It appeared to be a bird of some sort. I discovered the preferred sleeping spot of a male Carolina Wren! Each night the wren would return to sleep in this spot safe from the owls in the adjacent forest. I looked forward to dusk when he would return and set up for the night. It was fun to see him arrive and warily try to sneak up to his hideaway. He would land the fence then move over to a chair looking all around before making his finally move up to his spot. Then every morning, he would sing loudly before departing. He usually did not wake me up as there seemed to be always an American Robin that would take to sing around 430am.

Eventually, I started to see the same wren in the day time. It would look for insects on my porch and hang around longer than the Winter Wren had. I was surprised when I saw the wren head over to the plate of birdseed I had on my porch. The wren tossed aside many nuts and seeds until it found a choice piece. I ended up seeing the wren swallowing  whole peanuts. I noticed that when he was eating seed, the other birds stayed away. Apparently, the Carolina Wren is intimidating to other birds! So he had the seeds and nuts to himself until he decided to fly away to the forest or just to the parking lot.

Often I would spot him hopping around the parking lot and jumping up to car fenders to pull off dead insects to eat. When satiated the wren would spend the day off in the forest. At dusk he would return to his safe spot on the porch to sleep.

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One day, I noticed that there was another wren with slightly paler markings coming to my porch with the male wren. I later guessed that this was his lady friend. They would show up to look for bugs. This female wren was a lot shyer and would quickly hide behind a planter to eat a seed she scooped up from the plate. The male wren was bold and would visit even when I was sitting a few feet away from the plate.

At some point, I witnessed the male wren showed the female wren his sleeping spot. They both even nestled down for the night a few times. They were really crammed in there with one perched on top of the other! I do not think the female wren was impressed with this spot as she would disappear some nights and he would be back alone for the night. Probably in an effort to impress his lady and get her to want to nest at his “bachelor pad,” the male wren began a meager attempt to build an actual nest on the light fixture. He brought a few small twigs and placed them up there. Later the twigs would alway blow down. He would try again. He tried at least three times to make a nest with just a few pieces of tiny twigs. He alway failed. Every now again, the male wren got the female wren back up to this tiny spot.

I bought the wrens dried meal worms to eat and left a pile for them. They enjoyed them a lot whereas most of the other birds at the feeder preferred nuts and seeds. I delighted in watching them visit together. Then one day both of the wrens disappeared.

Infrequently, I would spot the male wren in the daytime but never at night. The female was missing. I figured she must of convinced him to go with her to a different nesting spot. Sure enough one day the pair came to the porch in the daytime with a fledgling! It was as if the father wren was showing his baby where he liked to hang out and get something to eat. I only saw them visit twice.

I saw the whole wren family with another fledgling in the nearby forest many times though as the male wren gave away their location by singing loudly every day.

I have since moved away and miss this wren family. Whenever, I hear a Carolina Wren sing I think about the times I was amazed by the wrens on my porch.

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