The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

May 5, 2013

Birding among outdoor passions

By Scott Shalaway
For The Register-Herald

CAMERON — If you love the outdoors, there are probably some activities you like better than others. Maybe it’s trout fishing or deer hunting. My passion is birds. I love the spring migration when new species return almost daily.

I especially enjoy seeing species I’ve never seen before. Adding birds to my “life list” is a competition with myself. Last year I added mourning warbler to the list.

But what I love best is finding active bird nests, especially those in nest boxes that I have built and put up. When I check my nest boxes for the first time each year, I almost get giddy with anticipation. It’s difficult to describe, but I suspect the feeling is similar to the excitement anglers feel on opening day of trout season or deer hunters feel on the first day of buck season.

A few weeks ago when I checked my boxes, I approached each one slowly and quietly, just in case a female was on the nest. The first three boxes I checked contained freshly built bluebird nests, each with five eggs. The cup on the nest in the fourth box contained a dull blue form. The female was determined to not be disturbed. So I closed the box and walked away.

In other boxes I found Carolina chickadee and tufted titmouse nests. Each contained six eggs, which the female had covered with a layer of nesting material to hide the eggs from more dangerous visitors.

Over the coming weeks I’ll check these nests two or three times a week to monitor each nest’s progress. I’ll watch naked, helpless hatchlings transform into adult-sized fledglings in fewer than 21 days. And I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that if I had not put up the boxes, these birds might not have nested. I will have made a difference, and that’s worth getting excited about.

My wife also enjoys watching our nest box tenants grow and mature, but her passion is morel mushrooms. She starts getting antsy in early April.

“Think we should check for morels, yet?” she asks on the first nice day after her early April birthday. Finding morels on her birthday would be the ultimate gift.

When I found this year’s first morel right in the yard, the bug bit hard. A day later we were in the woods searching Linda’s favorite spots.

Over the last 25 years, we’ve found that predicting a morel crop is impossible. Some years we collect many dozens, and other years there are none.

As we scoured the ground beneath dead elm and apple trees on April 25, I followed Linda’s lead. “Found one!” she yelled. “Two!” “Three! “Four!” “It’s going to be a good year,” she said, beaming.

Over the next hour we visited a half dozen spots where we’ve found morels in the past. Each was fruitful, and Linda nearly filled her mesh morel bag. Linda was in morel heaven, a state I call “morel-apalooza.”

It is only fitting that Linda is a far better morel hunter than I. Her eyes are sharper, and I think she forms a search image for the fleshy yellowish mushrooms that resemble convoluted brain tissue. When our daughters were little girls, they found even more than Linda. I think it was because their eyes were closer to the ground.

I’ve always wondered how fast morels grow. They seem to pop up every night, but that seems unlikely. So when Linda found two small patches of inch-high morels, I suggested we watch them for a few days to see how fast they grow. Linda wanted to pick them, so she faced a real “morel” dilemma.

Ultimately, Linda agreed that this little experiment was a good idea. When we returned 24 hours later, each morel had grown about an inch. The next day they had grown another inch. Satisfied that morels grow rapidly, but over several days, we picked the experimental mushrooms and enjoyed a morel omelet the next morning.

By the end of April, Linda had collected 75 morels — our best harvest ever, and I expect there will be at least a few more.

— Send questions and comments to

Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033, or by e-mail at sshalaway@aol.com