For the birders: pandemic spurs new interest in area’s feathered friends

Matt Gingerich, right, and Bob Adamek wait for owls to arrive on a summer evening in Linville. Photo by Eric Gorton.

By Eric Gorton, senior contributor

Disappointed that the barn owls were not putting on the hunting display he had hoped for, Matt Gingerich resorted to a smartphone app and Bluetooth speaker to mimic their call.

Moments later, in the deepening twilight, a large, dark-colored bird darted above the pasture, making a beeline straight at him and his invited guest, photographer Bob Adamek.

In near whispers, Gingerich and Adamek, binoculars raised to their eyes, voiced their approval as they watched the raptor investigate the presence of an apparent intruder. As it neared them, the owl screeched a few times, perhaps warning the visitors to back off, made a swift u-turn and headed back in the direction it had come from, toward a big red barn and adjoining silo.

“If that’s all we see tonight, it was worth it,” Adamek whispered as the bird headed away.

Barn owl in silent flight. Photo courtesy of Bob Adamek.

Gingerich, a bird enthusiast for as much of his 38 years as he can remember, said the owl and its mate have been nesting in the silo on his in-law’s property, just nine miles from downtown Harrisonburg, for at least 10 years. The pair had four chicks this year, and have had as many as six in other years.

A stay-at-home-dad who spends much of his time outdoors tending to gardens and livestock, Gingerich normally watches the owls hunt from his home on a hill overlooking the field. He surmised the birds refrained from their normal hunting activity this night, cool and crisp for June, due to his and Adamek’s presence.

Under the glow of a nearly full moon, they saw the male owl flying around the barn and silo a few times throughout the evening, while the female mostly stayed perched in an opening at the top of the silo.

The owls normally hunt voles, said Gingerich, a man who clearly knows a thing or two about birds. As he spoke, a smaller dark-colored bird darted past.

“There goes a common nighthawk right there,” Gingerich said, before reeling off some details about them: “A ground-nesting bird in the nightjar family, like whip-poor-wills. They fly out over the fields and catch insects. They have these huge mouths that open up and they just swoop up bugs.

“I know of a few places where they probably breed, sort of along this stretch up to Timberville,” he continued, pointing northward, “where there’s fields with rock outcroppings and open barren fields.”

“Matt’s a bit of a legend around us because he really knows birds,” said Adamek, an avid outdoorsman who took up serious birdwatching about 30 years ago after encountering a flock of warblers near Rawley Springs.

“I had no idea what they were,” said Adamek, division photographer for Harrisonburg City Schools. “I felt ashamed that I fancied myself an outdoorsman and I had no idea what any of these insanely colored birds were all around.”

So he bought a bird book, put up a feeder in his yard and has been an active birder for most of the time since.

On this night, Adamek came equipped with a 500mm f4 lens attached to his high-end Canon camera, mounted on a sturdy tripod. “I love to study the birds and see them up close,” he said. “With this much glass,” he continued, motioning with his right hand toward the camera, “you can really bring that bird right in front of people so you can see the detail of it.”

Just this year, Adamek gave up hunting after 47 years to concentrate on photography. He said he found it difficult recording kills after hunts, “but I do want to record everything that I can get photographs of.”

This barn owl pair, long-time residents of a silo in Linville, raised four chicks this year. Photo courtesy of Bob Adamek.

Gingerich, a member of the Rockingham Bird Club, said more people have become actively involved in birdwatching during the pandemic. He met Adamek and a couple other birdwatchers during the health crisis.

“We started out caravanning around in our vehicles with walkie-talkies,” Gingerich said, both men chuckling as he recounted their adventures. “We did a waterfowl and raptor survey back in February and we did a trip over to Highland County back in March with these walkie-talkies and we made it work. Now, fortunately, we’re all vaccinated and we feel comfortable going out together and driving together.”

Gingerich also helped keep an owl banding research project going during the pandemic at Highland Retreat near Bergton. Clair Mellinger, a former professor at Eastern Mennonite University, and Charles Ziegenfus, a former professor at James Madison University, started the banding station in November 2001 as part of a national research effort called Project Owlnet. The network now consists of more than 100 banding stations from Ontario to Alabama to learn about the migration patterns of Saw-whet Owls. The two men had decided not to run the station last fall due to the pandemic, but Gingerich volunteered with several others to keep the project running for a 20th consecutive year.

The increased interest in birding during the pandemic stretched well beyond the Shenandoah Valley. Audubon Magazine reported in August 2020 that the backyard bird industry boomed during the pandemic.

Gingerich said anyone can be a birdwatcher and can participate in the hobby at their own pace.

“What is great about birding is that there are many different styles of birding. There are folks who bird in their yards and local parks or drive all across the state,” he said. “Several of us local birders did a county big day back in May and tried to find as many species as possible in 24 hours in Rockingham County. While that type of birding can be fun, it is also exhausting.”

In the January edition of the bird club’s newsletter, Gingerich wrote about involving his young children in the hobby and noted that he has observed 172 species from his yard over the years, including 155 species in 2020.

Although the Bird Club reverted to Zoom meetings in 2020, cut out field trips and canceled its annual bird seed sale last fall, membership in its private Facebook page increased in the past year, Robyn Puffenbarger, the club’s vice president of programs, said in an email.

“I know my husband and I really enjoyed our backyard birding even more,” Puffenbarger said.

Part of that enjoyment, she said, came from participating in a challenge from Gingerich to identify 100 species in January. “That was a really nice way to keep the cold, dark days of January from being a drag,” she said. “We did some really long Saturdays and Sundays out and about chasing birds all over the county. Very fun!”

Perhaps the birds aren’t always as enthused. As Gingerich and Adamek called it a night and walked past the silo, the owls let out another round of screeches that sure sounded like a scolding.

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