If you follow N.C. 16 north to its intersection with N.C. 88, you could turn left to get to Jefferson or right to reach Wagoner Access, one of three sections of New River State Park. Another option is to drive under the overpass at this intersection where Bill Bledsoe Road begins. This stretch of dirt and gravel road runs just a few miles along the South Fork of the New River — a more scenic way to reach the entrance to Wagoner Access.
At a bend of the river along Bill Bledsoe Road on a recent trip, a little yellow bird settled into a cup-shaped mass of dried vegetation in a dogwood tree.
Yellow warblers are prone to all the usual hazards when they’re nesting: severe winds, extreme cold snaps, depredation by rat snakes, crows, jays, squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, and more. But they’re adept at dealing with a common threat to nesting songbirds — the brown-headed cowbird.
Cowbird behavior has evolved unusual methods of reproduction by foregoing nesting altogether. Instead of going through the rigors of nest-building, incubation of their eggs and rearing their young, they just let other birds do that for them.
More than 200 species of birds, mostly songbirds, have been known to fall victim to this cowbird ruse, known as brood parasitism. Female cowbirds watch the nesting behavior of birds and lay their own eggs, usually just one, in the freshly completed nest of the host species. Most hosts are seemingly oblivious to this intrusion and incubate the cowbird egg along with their own eggs. This trickery adds insult to injury as the cowbird egg usually hatches before the host’s eggs, giving the cowbird hatchling a head start. Cowbird eggs and hatchlings are usually larger than the host’s and that edge plus the 24-hour advantage results in the cowbird chick beating out the host’s chicks for food. It’s not uncommon for one or more of the host chicks to starve, as the cowbird nestling hogs the food.
Yellow warblers have figured this out, though, and have devised a solution. They simply add a layer of nesting material over the cowbird egg, thus depriving the interloper of the warmth provided by the incubating warbler, warmth needed for the embryo to develop and hatch.
If the same cowbird or a different one lays a fresh egg atop the second floor of the nest, the warbler adds another layer. This back and forth will sometimes continue through a fourth and even a fifth layer, with the warbler usually prevailing over the cowbird.
Alongside Bill Bledsoe Road, a blanket of fog began to lift slowly from the river as the first rays of sunlight filtered through the willows. A great blue heron stood ankle deep in the river while a kingfisher’s rattling call announced his passage, following the water downstream. A wood duck hen marshaled her brood of eight downy ducklings along the edge of the water, bobbing along like feathered corks, one breaking from the pack to pursue a bug on the surface.
A female yellow warbler sat low in her nest. Adorned with fluffy willow catkins, the downy bed would soon be home to four or five nestlings. The male, breast decorated with thin red streaks, stood guard nearby, occasionally delivering food to his mate.
Across the road from the river, barn swallows swooped low over a pasture, snatching insects from the air. The rafters of a shed that shelters a tractor also provided cover for swallow nests. Weeks ago, the swallows gathered mud from the riverside in their short little beaks and glued bits to the rafters, forming a nest shaped like a coffee cup sliced in half vertically. During my visit, little swallow heads peeked over the rim, ready to compete with each other for the next morsel of food a parent brings.
A common yellowthroat sang wichity- wichity- wichity from a hedgerow.
About 27 miles of the New River were designated a National Wild and Scenic River in 1976, the designation preserving the river’s ecology and pristine beauty by prohibiting damming, development and diversion. About the same time, three separate sections within this stretch of the river were established as New River State Park. In addition to Wagoner Access, they are known as 221 access and Alleghany Access.
The first two have walk-in campsites and bathhouses with hot showers. The third, Alleghany Access, is accessible by canoe only and has campsites and pit toilets but no showers.
Each of the three sections of New River State Park offers good birding and a retreat from the troubles of the world on a summer morning. But North Carolina’s state parks are seeing many more visitors in the time of COVID-19, so be sure to make reservations if you plan to camp there.