Birding by Zipline
“All right, who wants to go first?” Tiny Elliott asks. My three friends and I exchange glances under the brims of our red hardhats. I reach up and tighten mine a notch with a thick leather work glove. This is not what we usually wear birdwatching, but then, this isn’t the usual birdwatching trip. We understand that to get from here, where an ovenbird is calling teacher teacher near the crook of a white oak tree, to there, where a chestnut-sided warbler is saying pleased to meetcha, we need to step off a platform and zip 190 feet along two steel cables, flying at nearly 30 miles per hour through West Virginia’s New River Gorge, to a platform 45 feet off the ground. And to do that, one of us has to volunteer.
“I’ll go,” says Kim Phillips. At 5-feet-3-inches, she’s the shortest of our tight-knit group of friends, and more than a foot shorter and 100 pounds more petite than Tiny, our guide. He reaches down with his XL gloves and clips her full-body harness into the double cable system via two separate trolleys. “Whenever you’re ready,” he says. She settles into the seat of her harness. Then she’s gone—a small figure getting smaller in the distance, until we can’t see her at all.
A voice crackles over Tiny’s handheld radio. “There’s a red-eyed vireo on the shagbark hickory,” says Reed Flinn. He’s the guide standing on the platform on the other side, waiting for the rest of us to zip in. Now we step up quickly. Kara Jackson goes next, then Linda Vanderveer. When it’s my turn, the cables sag gently under my weight as the metal hardware whisks me into a tunnel of leafy spring growth. Spindly tree trunks fly by in a blur.
It’s not scary, but exhilarating. I open my mouth to whoop, then envision all the insects and snap it shut again. I want to go even faster, so I raise my legs to make myself more aerodynamic. A thick red oak rushes toward me, and when I see Reed signal from the platform, I use my right hand to gently press down on the cable to brake, as I had been told to do.
It’s early May, and my friends and I, who first met while working at Audubon, are hoping to catch the tail end of spring migration in the mid-Atlantic. This zipline, built for Adventures on the Gorge for its Canopy Tour, seems like the ideal way to do so. The course includes 10 zips, five bridges, and two short hikes, spanning more than a mile of woods; it passes through two forest ecosystems and crosses meandering Mill Creek eight times. Plus, we’re at no risk for warbler neck, because we’re not training our binoculars up at the birds, we’re looking at them eye to eye—which doesn’t seem to perturb them. “Birds don’t know what we are [doing up that high], so they’re not concerned that we’re here,” Tiny tells us. “You can talk about them, you can point at them, and they look at you like: It looks a lot like a human, but I didn’t know they could fly.”
Modern ziplines have become an increasingly popular tourist attraction. In the past decade more than 200 commercial tours have cropped up in the United States and Canada. Just about anyone can safely zipline on a reputable course (the industry is self-regulated). Four generations of the same family, including an 87-year-old great-grandmother, have zipped with Adventures on the Gorge, as has a woman with a heart condition, blind and deaf people, and combat-wounded veterans. Birders, however, are just beginning to discover ziplining’s potential—and zipliners are likewise slowly beginning to discover birding.
“I think birding by zipline is a superb idea,” says Kenn Kaufman, expert birder and Audubon field editor. “There are some people who don’t give a damn about warblers, but if you combine them with some kind of edgy outdoor sport, it makes birding more acceptable.”
The red-eyed vireo has disappeared by the time we arrive at the second platform, but two brown creepers race each other up the trunk of a hickory like they’re on parallel tracks and propelled by water guns in a carnival game. A ruby-throated hummingbird, glossy in the early morning sun, darts around a nearby tree. At the third platform we spot the red head of a pileated woodpecker just before it swoops down to a log on the ground. The four of us, our harnesses clipped into a loop of cable at the sugar maple’s trunk, lean over the edge of the platform to peer down, fanning out on our short tethers like dancers around a maypole.
“In our area, a pileated woodpecker is like a robin,” Tiny says, and Reed nods his head in agreement. “Nobody local even bats an eye when you see one.” Each pair needs a tree thick enough for the cavities the birds nest and roost in—something this part of West Virginia has plenty of.
Besides resident birds like woodpeckers and parulas, West Virginia’s upland hardwood forests also provide crucial stopover and breeding habitat for such species as golden-winged and blue-winged warblers and scarlet tanagers. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology declared the entire state an “important geographic area” for bird conservation because of its high concentration of neotropical migrants. The region containing the New River Gorge, in particular, provides a haven to many species in trouble, including cerulean warblers, elusive Swainson’s warblers, and wood thrushes, all Audubon WatchList species because their populations are in decline.
The Adventures on the Gorge Canopy Tour sits on two tracts of land, totaling about 40 acres—one property that had been purchased from a timber and mining company and another leased from an owner who, bound by a conservation easement, agreed not to cut trees as long as the tour exists. Ziplines can serve a valuable conservation purpose, too: As long as they’re financially viable, critical bird habitat can’t be logged. The two activities simply aren’t compatible.
"I’m going,” Linda says. But it’s not very convincing. “Okay,” she says again. “I’m going.” The zipline stretches 540 feet in front of her—more than twice as long as the previous ones—and we can’t see where it ends. Just as I begin to wonder what happens if she won’t go, she’s off. “Zipline clear,” Reed’s voice soon declares.
The platform Linda lands on is wrapped around a giant tulip poplar; the trunk, scarred with sapsucker holes, diverges into two broad leafy arteries. As with every tree on the course, the zipline is customized to the poplar’s particular quirks—and it’s carefully engineered not to cause any harm. Rather than passing through the tree itself, the cables are threaded through wooden blocks carved to fit the trunk’s surface. Compression holds the blocks to the tree. Over time, hardware is adjusted to allow the cables and the platform to expand with the tree’s girth. Guy wires connect each platform tree to others nearby; when a strong wind blows the entire course can sway gently, reducing stress on any individual tree.
On our next zip we pass from the deciduous forest to one dominated by hemlocks. We land on one that’s several hundred years old and covered with lichen. “How many of you know what HWA is?” Tiny asks. “It’s a little blue-headed vireo!” Linda interrupts, peering through her binoculars. The bird dances from the hemlock to a nearby tulip poplar and back. “We’re right by her nest,” Tiny says, pointing to a thicket of grass, hair, and twigs just uphill of the platform. Then he tries his speech again. “HWA is hemlock woolly adelgid, a two-millimeter-long insect that was imported from Japan,” he adds.
Since its discovery in Richmond in the 1950s, HWA has spread along the East Coast—it now infests 50 percent of the hemlock stands from Maine to Georgia. A sap-sucking insect, it feeds on the trees’ storage cells, which provide nutrients for the following year’s growth. In effect, HWA starves trees, and further insults like drought finish them off.
HWA can take out a tree like this one in two to four years, Tiny says. We look closer and realize some of its limbs look a bit gray and scraggly, and they’re missing needles. To treat trees foresters use one insecticide on the bark and another buried at the base of the tree. (The concentration required to kill adelgids is minute, and has no known effect on insectivorous birds.) Both chemicals are temporary and have to be reapplied every few years. They’re also expensive. A dollar of every zipline purchase—matched by Adventures on the Gorge—covers the costs of treating the hemlocks on the property.
“We have 4,500 trees that are six inches and bigger,” Tiny says. “So far we’ve treated the course trees, the guy wire trees, and some of the bigger and more spectacular trees in our forest—600 to 800 altogether.” This year the company will start on those with smaller diameters. The U.S. Forest Service is looking at longer-term solutions that could treat trees on a landscape level—as a forest, as opposed to one tree at a time. But the most promising techniques are still a few years away.
"There’s a hooded warbler over here,” Reed says, listening intently. Kim launches the iBird app on her phone and, in seconds, tawee-tawee-tawee-tee-o whistles clearly from its speakers. The song echoes back to us from the foliage. The response gets louder and louder until suddenly we see a flash of yellow and black. There’s a mad dash for the side of the platform nearest the bird. I say a silent prayer of thanks that we’re all clipped in. The warbler is in clear sight on the branch of a hemlock, framed by two poplars.
We’re still pleased with our technological prowess as we cross a footbridge—pausing to admire a phoebe hawking for insects over Mill Creek—and unclip from the cables for a short hike through the woods. After passing a wood thrush we reach the next platform: a large, flat piece of sandstone overlooking a small ravine. This zip is the longest of the course—730 feet—and starts by launching off a rock lodged in the ground. Reed goes first and reports over the radio: “It’s birdy over here.” Now Linda gets a running jump, pulls her legs up to get optimal speed, and shouts “Bombs away!” as she disappears into the trees, binoculars slung over her shoulder.
The four-foot-diameter hemlock on the other end of the cable towers above us. It was already 300 years old when Daniel Boone surveyed the area in the late 1700s, when this was still Virginia. There’s a good chance Washington passed it on his way to survey lands along the Kanawha and Ohio rivers. “Fast-forward to the Civil War,” Tiny tells us. “Two future U.S. presidents fought in this part of Fayette County. Robert E. Lee came—”
“Scarlet tanager!” Linda interjects. “Nobody saw it? It’s red!”
Kara’s skeptical. “Sure, it’s a scarlet tanager…” she says.
As soon as Reed zips to the next platform, something brown streaks from one bush to another—a Swainson’s warbler. The four of us shuffle around the platform angling for another glimpse. “There’s a Swainson’s over here, too,” Reed reports over the radio. “It’s on a rock by the creek getting a drink.” Uh-huh, we think, and spend another 10 minutes studying the rhododendrons before we give up.
“No, he was really here!” Reed protests when we finally reach him. At 85 feet, this is the highest platform on the course. “He was out in the open along the edge of the creek, walking with his feet in the water all nonchalantly. It was crazy.” As he’s talking, there’s another brown streak, but it happens so fast I don’t even register what I’m seeing before it’s gone.
We peruse the mountain and Fraser magnolias on the other side of the creek, then train our binoculars on the dense understory. It’s cooler here in the valley, where it’s heavily shaded. The shade promotes the rhododendron growth, which provides key habitat for the Swainson’s warbler. Tiny settles onto a branch that’s reaching out above the platform like a seat; somewhere above our heads is a parula nest. “If you lose the hemlocks, you’re going to start losing the rhododendrons,” he says. “And if you lose them, you’re going to lose the Swainson’s.”
“And trout and chub,” Reed adds. After all, everything in this unbroken forest is connected. The canopy cools the water, too.
We turn our binoculars skyward and, silhouetted in the very top of a hemlock, spy a yellow-tinged northern parula.
Then, walking across one last footbridge, we notice a rustle in the brush. The sunlight is shining directly into the pockets of open ground. We crouch down on the 150-foot span and train our binoculars in that direction. After a few minutes, a drab brown bird creeps out of the shadows, flipping over leaves as it passes through the pool of light—its white eye stripe clear even without magnification. At last: the Swainson’s warbler. We’re ecstatic. The final zip is 640 feet, low and fast over Mill Creek. This time we really fly.