Every Mother’s Day weekend, my mom and I join a small knot of birders on a country lane in West Virginia. We’ve come for our annual date with the Bobolinks.
We stand along the roadside, watching nesting pairs swoop over a shaggy field. The Bobolinks have flown more than 12,000 miles to meet us here, winging their way from southern South America. Males are reverse-tuxedoed and blond, like little James Bonds. They perch on fenceposts and sing for joy. Other seasonal visitors, including dozens of migrating warbler species, also alight in the West Virginia woods. Flashes of orange and yellow and blue brighten the leafing trees.
The birds' reappearance coincides with a 60-year-plus tradition: the West Virginia Wildflower Pilgrimage, based in Blackwater Falls State Park and hosted by West Virginia Garden Club and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.
Few people think of eastern West Virginia as a birding destination, but the area is home to a remarkable array of habitats at varying elevations. Dolly Sods Wilderness, in the Monongahela National Forest, is a high plateau of windswept spruce and sphagnum bogs. Cacti and other endemic, drought-tolerant plants grow in the shale barrens in the rain shadow of the Continental Divide. Warblers abound in the northern relict wetlands of the Cranesville Swamp Preserve. All together, participants often see close to 120 bird species over the course of the weekend.
The Wildflower Pilgrimage has become a Mother’s Day tradition for my mom and me, and now for my daughter, too. Let everyone else do brunch and bouquets—we will have muddy boots, cathedral forests, and birds.
Five. That’s how many birds my mom could name when she was in her thirties. Then my dad built a clothesline in our Baltimore backyard and attached a birdhouse to the post. A tiny, energetic bird moved in and set about raising a family. My grandmother Eleanor knew its name: House Wren. That was the sixth bird.
In 2002, my mom was walking in a Maryland park with her best friend, Janie Wadler, when they fell into conversation with a group of early-morning birders. One told them about the upcoming Wildflower Pilgrimage, only a 3.5 hour drive away, and so they decided to go. They were ill-prepared; Janie only had pocket-size binoculars, while my mom lugged an enormous pair from the ’70s. In a hushed sanctuary of old-growth hemlocks, my mom saw her first warbler: a Black-throated Blue. It posed in a stand of rhododendrons, just long enough for her to focus her unwieldy binoculars. It was spectacular.
Just like that, she became a birder.
She and Janie have made the trip to Blackwater nearly every Mother’s Day weekend since. “We’re not good birders,” my mom says. “And we’ll never be.” But the event’s naturalists are patient teachers, and from them she has learned to see what she’d missed for so many years: a flurry of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a crowd of Cedar Waxwings, a single acrobatic swallow.
I first joined my mom at the Wildflower Pilgrimage in 2010. An avid hiker, I found the pace agonizingly slow. I wanted to cover miles, not vainly search the trees. The wildflower people paused every two minutes to crouch over some chickweed or columbine. If you tried to pass them, you risked trampling the trilliums.
We entered Fernow Experimental Forest in the town of Parsons, a little-visited research area managed by the U.S. Forest Service. There, I spotted a fiery little bird darting through the leafless woods. Brilliant orange on deep black, it looked like nothing I’d ever seen.
I held my breath as I focused the binoculars. I felt a pang when it flew away. My mom knew its name: American Redstart. Just like that, I became a birder, too.
In the years since, I’ve come back with my mom again and again. I’ve learned the buzzy call of the Black-throated Blue and the mountain-stream burble of the Winter Wren. I’ve seen warblers galore: Chestnut-sided, Yellow-rumped, Black-and-white, and the glorious Blackburnian. I’ve even come to appreciate the wildflowers.
I brought my daughter, Emily, for the first time when she was five. Learn one bird per year, my mom always urges her: “And when you’re 40, think of how many birds you’ll know!”
Emily, now 10, can identify cardinals and bluebirds, titmice and chickadees. (“They technically say their name, though,” she concedes.)
We always book one of the rustic cabins at Blackwater. These are warm and well-appointed. Some still have vintage plates printed with deer, quail, and the West Virginia State Parks seal. On Friday and Saturday mornings, we report to the lodge parking lot to join our selected tour group. Each sets off at a specific time, in a color-coded convoy.
The event itself is called a pilgrimage, but the term really is the right word for our time together: a ritual of faith. Faith that the birds will keep calling us back. Faith that my mom, now 76, will retain her wren-like energy. Faith that my daughter, too soon a teen, will not say she’d rather stay home. Faith that the landowners will leave their field unmown, so the Bobolinks will have a place to nest. Faith the warblers will return, even as their numbers dwindle.
Fifty years ago, longtime leader Bill Beatty remembers seeing a fallout, a phenomenon when migrating warblers drop from the sky en masse. “All of a sudden, the woods are full of warblers. More than you can look at.” In West Virginia, he doesn’t see fallouts like that anymore.
Last year, we didn't spot any warblers at all. Mother’s Day fell early in the month, and Saturday brought a cold and unrelenting rain. As we returned to the Blackwater lodge, socks soaked and Emily sullen, we saw something unexpected: a male Scarlet Tanager in the parking lot. It poked dejectedly around a patch of grass, searching for insects without success. It was probably starving, a tour leader told us.
Emily tossed out a few of the blackberries we’d brought for lunch. The tanager devoured them. My mom and I watched, enthralled by this shining visitor.
We had seen one bird, and that was enough.