May 29, 2014
American Redstart singing in Redbud
American Redstart singing in Redbud

I recently drove from Columbus (OH) to Charlotte (NC) in the rain.  Eight hours, a poor man’s sightseeing tour through central Appalachia, Billy Joel’s “Allentown” playing in my head the entire way.  It felt like it took days, and it felt like it took months off my life, and I don’t mean that in a good way.

Life, like the birding life and bird photography, is a series of trade-offs, holy or unholy depending on who you are.  There’s a thin thread of depression running through my family, I like variety in my birds, and I want to get out with the camera when I want to get out with the camera.  I grew up in the Midwest and happily left the four seasons there (gray skies, high humidity, golden autumns, and frozen slush) for the single one we have here in the West (sunny days).  We have 15 hummingbird species, east of the Mississippi but one, but they have 39 warblers, we but 16.  I was in Appalachia during leafout week to shoot those eastern warblers because, to paraphrase a recent Chipotle ad, Mother Nature is at the top of her game when she brings them back just as the dogwood, azalea, and redbud are blooming—shards of azure and gold glinting through the old familiar spring palette of soft greens splashed with white and pink.

There’s a reason why Appalachia is often a punch line, but verdant forests and spectacular avian jewels make a periodic visit an anticipated event for avid birders and bird photographers.  And, as always, the striking diversity yet easy camaraderie of my four companions on the trip, three of them total strangers, were another reminder of how birding breaks down social and cultural barriers—a professional photographer, Anglo, from Cleveland, an ER doc, Japanese-American, from California, an IT specialist, East Indian, from Bangalore, and a contractor, Hungarian-Canadian from Ontario.

We shot from sunrise to sunset, we shot in the rain, we shot in the soft light of noonday clouds, we shot in the magic light of evening DST, we endured wood ticks and flooded river fords, and we endured the curiosity of local turkey hunters—“Wow, now tha-yat’s (two syllables) a big ole camera.”  A big old camera lens, tiny colorful subjects seldom encountered up close and personal, few interruptions on seldom travelled backroads, sharing a passion with newly minted friends—that’s typical birding life and real life doesn’t get much better than that for camera carrying birders.

Prior to this trip, my best photographs of perhaps a dozen eastern warbler species had been taken in Arizona, silent migrants or winter vagrants skulking about in the desert undergrowth.  Here we had singing, territorial males not shy about showing off on bare branches between sparse, fresh greenery and the peak color of flowering spring trees.  Spectacularly successful, we photographed well 15 species never expected and uncommonly seen in the west.  You can check them out at the following link

Sure, I’m going to retrace this route in a couple years, but next time I’ll try to arrange a better travel schedule with less solo driving to get there, no rain in the forecast, and maybe John Denver’s “Country Roads” playing in my head.  Still, I’ll trade a rainy drive through Appalachia for the anticipation of avian jewel images.