July 30, 2008

A Chance to Go Birding Behind the Arsenal’s Fence

By Jim Minick [email protected]

It's a land of rare sparrows, bobwhite quail and deer too many to count. It's a bend in the New River where German brothers first farmed corn and cattle in the 1740s. And now this place of thousands of acres is a land encircled by miles and miles of fence.

I've driven by the Radford Army Ammunition Plant for more than 20 years, always glimpsing in, always wondering what the land looks like, what wild creatures still live there and how the river shapes the cliffs.

Just recently, I had a chance to venture into part of this barricaded land. A small group of birders from the New River Bird Club met at the bagging plant, part of the arsenal built in the 1940s to bag black powder. The factory and most of the buildings have since crumbled, but not the "igloos." These humps in the earth store the explosives manufactured at the main arsenal six miles away.

We meet at 7 a.m. at a guard house where we show driver's licenses, receive visitors' passes and are told the rules. Then the fence opens, and our van drives through. We are in. Though we hear the interstate a mile away, hear the backup beeps of heavy equipment somewhere nearby, we are in a 2,800-acre preserve, a grassland and pine forest crisscrossed by miles of paved road connecting all these igloos but also fenced to exclude all of us humans. I feel weirdly thrust into some apocalyptic future absent of people, where wildlife suddenly returns and tough grass grows up through the pavement.

We're here to see birds, of course, but we're here mainly to see the Henslow's sparrow, a diminutive fellow the size of a mouse with an olive-colored head, so my bird book says. According to Cornell University's Web site, this sparrow is "an uncommon and famously inconspicuous bird... [that] breeds in weedy grasslands of the east- central United States."

So uncommon that most of us, despite years of trekking after birds, have never seen it. This rare bird has become even rarer as its preferred grassy nesting land disappears to our human appetite for more subdivisions.

Birders with their binoculars and reference books and bad jokes are an odd lot. Pile 12 of us into a van and you hear everything from oohs and aahs at spotting two quail to the horrible pun of pointing at a barn-swallow perched on top of an igloo and someone saying, "There's a bunker-swallow!"

Len DiIoia, the natural resource specialist for the arsenal and our tour guide/driver, is extremely patient, answering too many questions and tactfully rounding us back into the van after yet another long stop of looking. But Len's conservation work on this vast tract of land and his willingness to educate groups such as us is also why the arsenal recently won the Jackson Abbott Conservation Award from the Virginia Society of Ornithology.

As Len drives, we look at families of turkeys with poults scooting across the road; at massive-antlered bucks leaping through hayfields; at a prairie warbler tilting its head straight up to sing. We see kingbirds and orchard orioles, a grasshopper sparrow sitting on the fence, and a peewee nesting in an ash tree.

But we don't see the Henslow's sparrow. In a shallow bowl of land, the 12 of us stand for 30 minutes in the rising sun and stare into the grass. We hear it, a tiny tsi-lick song, and one of our troop even has a tape recorder. He tapes this song and plays it back, trying to call out the shy fellow with his own song, but no luck. Finally Len rounds us up and we go search for other creatures.

Usually a birder's curiosity spills over to the wider natural world, so in our crowded van the talk travels like the circuitous roads we wander. I learn about stinkpots (secretive, yet common turtles), about dog ticks and about butterflies. The regal fritillary, for example, is only found on two places east of the Mississippi -- on another Army base in Pennsylvania, and this very one we drive through. Unfortunately, this early in the day, the regal hasn't yet warmed up to sup on milkweed, so we miss it as well.

But we don't miss the beaver tree. On our last stop, with all of us getting punchy-tired, we don't even exit the van. Len pulls over near a pond where we watch a great blue heron and a 12-point buck. Someone spots a pine tree on the far shore that has been attacked by beavers, the creatures chewing away the bottom 3 feet of bark.

"Never seen that before -- a beaver working on a pine," someone in the backseat comments.

"Guess they don't have any other trees to eat here," another birder adds.

"Imagine the resin that critter has to deal with sticking to his teeth."

"Shoot, that'd be enough to cause him to lisp. Imagine that, a lisping beaver!"

And the whole van cracks up. Like I said, punchy birders tend toward terrible jokes.

At the gate, we wait for the guard to unlock and open it. Unlike the grasshopper sparrow that flew so easily through this wire fence, we are escorted out, thanked for our interest, and then the gate is again locked.

Jim Minick, author of "Finding a Clear Path," lives on a farm in Wythe County and teaches at Radford University.

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