ABC Birding: Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area, West Virginia
Editor's note: "ABC Birding" is a new triannual feature that takes readers to birding sites benefiting from ABC and partners' conservation efforts. Some of these locations permit hunting and visitors are advised to review seasonal hunting dates and take necessary precautions before visiting. Travel may not be advisable for some at this time, and we suggest that readers review the CDC's coronavirus guidelines and local conditions before traveling.
Lay of the Land: Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA) spans 23,000 acres of mountainous forest in West Virginia. Mature oak-hickory forest predominates, but there are also about 3,500 acres of oak-pine forest, and also scattered clearings. Undergrowth includes Mountain Laurel and serviceberry. The WMA is 16 miles long, north to south, and between 1.5 and 3 miles wide. A 205-acre lake lies at its heart.
Focal Birds: Common nesting woodland birds include Ruffed Grouse and Wild Turkey, and many Neotropical migrants: American Redstart; Ovenbird; Worm-eating, Black-and-white, Prairie, and Pine Warblers; Wood Thrush; Yellow-billed Cuckoo; Eastern Whip-poor-will; Baltimore Oriole; Indigo Bunting; and Scarlet Tanager. Cerulean Warblers breed in smaller numbers but can be found by listening for their “cheera cheera cheera chicha-CHEEE” song in tall deciduous stands near small openings in the forest.
Other Wildlife: Black Bear, Bobcat, River Otter, Beaver, Eastern Box and Wood Turtles, Timber Rattlesnake.
When to Visit: The Cerulean Warbler and other nesting Neotropical migrant species sing on territory mid-May through June, quieting down by early July. (Note that turkey-hunting season ends mid-May.) Sleepy Creek WMA is open year-round, but before visiting, check state hunting seasons.
Conservation Activities: A sign entitled “Cerulean Warbler Management Area,” located on the “range road," marks the site where the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture (which ABC leads), and the National Wild Turkey Federation performed a 2017 shelterwood harvest. This carefully planned small clearing benefits the birds by preserving diverse forest structure, while allowing in more light to nurture oak and hickory saplings. This area is designed to provide enhanced habitat for Cerulean Warblers and other forest birds, and should attract them over the next five years. Meanwhile, the low vegetation and edge habitat at this and other nearby active management sites attract early successional species including the Prairie Warbler, White-eyed Vireo, and Indigo Bunting.
Cerulean Warblers nest nearby in the forest, at the edge of other small clearings: Walk about 100 yards past the sign and through the shelterwood harvest and you will arrive at these canopy gaps.
Directions: From the town of Shanghai (roughly seven miles west of Interstate 81), head west on Hampshire Grade Road, which soon enters the WMA. Shortly after entering, you reach the top of the mountain. Take the first right onto the gravel road, where you see the sign directing visitors to Sleepy Creek Lake. (This road is marked on maps as forest service road 826 and is known locally as the “range road.”)
From the range road turnoff, drive about a mile until you see on the right the large “Cerulean Warbler Management Area” sign explaining the cut and its wildlife benefits. Elsewhere along the “range road” are signs describing other timber management practices that benefit wildlife. Sleepy Creek WMA has many trails and also a camping area near the lake.
Visit the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture website to learn more about the organization and its work.