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How Sweet Sweet Sweet It Is!

There are sounds of nature tucked into the minds of all naturalists which, upon reoccurrence, unspool the memory of the moment in time they were first heard.

One such personal memory occurred for me on a warm April morning nearly 40 years ago. Ernie Davis and I were anchored adjacent to a deep run in the scenic Staunton River lobbing bucktails to fat-bellied striped bass on their annual, 60-mile spawning journey. Above the noise of rushing waters, screaming reel drags, and occasional laughter, the cheerful notes of an avian’s song caught my ear. Twisting around on the seat of the flat-bottomed boat, I caught a flash of yellow in the overhanging sycamore and boxelder limbs. Then, as if scripted by Aldo Leopold, the colorful bird flew down to a twisting, wild grapevine just overhead and began chirping a most delightful ditty. This was my unforgettable introduction to the prothonotary warbler. There was no way to know it at the time but, many years later, the recollection of that neotropical migrant would initiate a new, exciting chapter of my personal environmental study.

Evolution of a Project

Brandon Martin, natural resource manager for Fort Pickett, right, and volunteer Phil Davis, strategize nesting box locations along tributaries of the Nottoway River in Brunswick and Dinwiddie counties.

In January 2017 it was my good fortune to accept employment through the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation. Because of our lockstep interests in wildlife conservation, Ward and I had developed a meaningful friendship decades earlier. Soon after meeting the successful NASCAR driver, it became obvious his primary interest in life was natural resource stewardship. Through sustainable forestry practices, sound land-use decisions, and habitat enhancement, Burton’s organization dedicated itself to the welfare of the diverse community of plants and animals dependent on his foundation properties at the Cove.

During an early meeting, Ward instructed me to develop a project that could raise public awareness of the foundation’s objectives. My initial thought was to establish an interesting non-game project. So on a cold February morning, I set out to explore the Cove’s 2,500 contiguous acres bordering the Staunton River in rural Halifax County.

I knew we needed an extraordinarily interesting subject to attract attention; pulling on waders, I headed into the swamps. Although the day was blustery, the wetlands were teeming with wildlife. Flocks of woodies, mallards, and black ducks flushed from a beaver canal as I labored to push through the thick, underwater mats of smartweed. A red-shouldered hawk’s shrill call pierced the air, while a great blue heron in departing flight croaked disapproval at my intrusion. From the impenetrable tangles of leafless button bush, dried stalks of swamp rose mallow, and black willows, thoughts of that fishing trip and the little, yellow passerine emerged from my memory bank. If prothonotary warblers were using the Staunton River as a migration corridor, no doubt a pair nested here. The muddy margins of those Jurassic-like wetlands produced the concept of “Project Prothonotary.”

A Halifax County High School student sets up a press prior to drilling drain holes in a PVC nest bottom cap. Under teacher supervision, HCHS shop classes manufactured 50 of the project’s nesting boxes.

Researching ornithology in Southside Virginia, I soon discovered most people were not familiar with the prothonotary warbler. Prothonotary studies have been ongoing for decades in the lower James River and Tidewater, but breeding information in the Roanoke River basin was nonexistent. A handful of birders had recorded the species, but individual sightings seemed to be the extent of activity.

With no time to waste, materials were purchased, a half-dozen cedar boxes were constructed, and four sourwood tree cavities were collected from the forest. With assistance from several energetic youngsters—another vital component of the project—sites were selected and potential nesting facilities installed. By the end of March and right on schedule, everything was in place!

Science of the Matter

The prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea) is a habitat-specific species preferring flooded timber with stagnant or slow-moving water. It is Virginia’s only warbler that nests in tree cavities. The majority of these gorgeous birds spend winter in Central and South America. Depending on where they overwinter, some round-trip migratory routes take them nearly 5,000 miles.

Clover Power Station employees Will Solomon, left, and Tim Hamlet erect a nesting box in company-owned wetlands adjacent to the Staunton River near Clover, Virginia.

The prothonotary’s North American geographic range includes parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, from Wisconsin and Michigan south to the Gulf of Mexico, east to the Atlantic seaboard (excluding mountainous terrain), north to New Jersey and south to the Florida peninsula. Population strongholds are the Mississippi River drainage and swamplands in the eastern section of South Carolina. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the species in the category of “least concern,” although historical numbers are suspected to be down in parts of its range by as much as 40 percent. The likely cause for decline is loss of wetland habitat and competition from other cavity nesters. In areas of the commonwealth where prothonotary populations have been monitored extensively, numbers are either stable or increasing.

As birds of perpetual motion, prothonotary warblers search thick, stream-side tree canopies for beetles, lacewings, crickets, caterpillars, small moths, and spiders. They also forage near the water’s surface and along floating logs for aquatic insects such as mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies, damselflies, and the occasional terrestrial crustacean.

As with most members of the wood warbler family, the male prothonotary is first to arrive at a potential breeding location. With tireless vigor, he performs a repetitive chorus of “Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet”—both to establish territorial parameters and to attract a mate. During this period he seeks out multiple nesting sites and garnishes each cavity with tidbits of moss. Upon arrival, and after pairing and mating, the female selects the preferred cavity to construct her nest of dried grasses, sedges, rootlets, moss, and willow leaves. The typical clutch of eggs is four to six, cream to pinkish-colored, highlighted with splotches of purplish-brown and gray. Incubation lasts approximately two weeks and is conducted solely by the female. Both adults participate in feeding the young that fledge 10 to 12 days after hatching. Nests are occasionally parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds; odd, because seldom do they target cavity nesters. Also unique to most warbler species, the prothonotary often produces two broods annually.

Jubilation Day

During 2018, Project Prothonotary used PVC nest boxes originally designed by Wisconsin DNR. Readily accepted by the birds, boxes were sponsored by individuals, organizations, and companies as seen on the name plate here.

With the approach of spring, prospects for the project’s success seemed somewhat dubious, primarily because the underlying concept was based upon suspicion rather than empirical proof. But upon my return to the wetlands in late April, all doubts were erased: The unmistakable song of a male prothonotary rang out loud and clear from the willows at the first site. In a matter of moments, the handsome songster flew to a dead limb within feet of where I stood mired in knee-deep muck to perform his sweet melody. No words can appropriately describe the jubilation I felt at that moment.

Three hundred yards farther upstream, a second male was singing. Even more exciting, through binoculars from 40 yards away I watched a female busily transporting nesting material into the cavity. Over the next two days it was my pleasure to discover five of the cedar boxes and two natural cavities in use. Even the vacant box had pieces of moss scattered over the bottom. Seven pairs of prothonotary warblers in wetlands stretching less than two miles: unbelievable!

Spring Semester

In a matter of a few short weeks, discovery transformed into a fantastic learning experience. It involved study of a range of interesting plants and animals that depend upon wetland conditions; suffering through the misery of stifling humidity, blood-thirsty leeches, and mosquitos; and yes, the inconvenience of spring floods. But the project turned out to be an exhilarating spring semester of outdoor education!

Time spent staring through a camera lens and binoculars validated much of the birds’ known behaviors. Yet there were several notable surprises, especially when the adults were feeding their young. For one, females approached nest sites in silence. Males, however, routinely flew to nearby perches to announce their presence with song. At the first note, the hatchlings automatically opened their bills! Also, it quickly became apparent that prothonotary warblers are effective hunters. Seldom did either adult return to the nest with a single food item. More often they transported multiple catches, especially when there were mayfly hatches. I observed the warblers’ bills packed with an assortment of food sources: spiders, mayflies, stoneflies, and caterpillars. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire project was the manner in which they tolerated my human presence. Still, on several occasions when I was caught standing outside the camouflaged blind, approaching males—like master ventriloquists—exhibited an uncanny ability to throw their songs, an adaptation to make them sound much farther away.

“The real jewel of my disease-ridden woodlot is the prothonotary warbler…The flash of gold-and-blue plumage amid the dank decay of the June woods is in itself proof that dead trees are transmuted into living animals, and vice versa.” — Aldo Leopold

Success! Five eggs found in one of the newly installed nest boxes.

Not one of the installed nesting boxes was adopted by other cavity nesters or flying squirrels. I attributed this to the fact that the facilities were purposely placed in late March after chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice had already selected nesting sites. To discourage use by tree swallows, the boxes were located in flooded areas with tree canopies. No nests were disrupted by snake or raccoon predation.

Although the project was established to determine presence of a unique migratory bird, it became a genuine lesson in land stewardship. For decades the Cove’s bottomlands had been heavily grazed by cattle, which resulted in soil erosion and habitat degradation. But with new ownership and a halt to agricultural practices, nature reclaimed the area under the supervision of a keystone species—the North American beaver. Bulging populations of the big rodent with superior engineering skills resulted in natural reclamation that benefitted numerous species of plants and animals, one of which was the prothonotary warbler.

Project Prothonotary 2018

The Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation made a decision to increase the project’s scope of activities in 2018. A design was adopted from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, and 106 boxes were constructed and installed in portions of the Roanoke drainage (selected wetlands along the scenic Staunton River from Brookneal, downstream to Kerr Reservoir, up the Banister River, and the Dan River upstream of South Boston). In addition, 13 boxes were placed in wetlands along the Nottoway River within and adjacent to Fort Pickett in Dinwiddie and Brunswick counties. The objective was not a focus on propagation or collecting scientific data, but rather, expanding educational outreach in Southside Virginia about prothonotary warblers as ambassadors for a critical component of the larger environment.

Braving the chill of March and cold, inhospitable wetlands, a group of energetic youngsters surround conservationist Ward Burton while placing nest boxes for Project Prothonotary.

By the end of April a number of females had accepted the newly designed boxes, although heavy rains flooded several in low-lying areas. Then, during mid-May, and just as the warblers were in the middle of nest construction and egg laying, calamity struck. Over ten inches of torrential rain fell in the upper portion of the Banister, Dan, and Staunton rivers. Within hours, nearly 40 percent of the nesting boxes were several feet under water—silting nests and eggs. Yet the warblers showed resilience by adopting other boxes and, no doubt, natural cavities. By June, and exceeding all expectations, over 100 prothonotary warblers had been confirmed in close proximity to the selected nest sites.

Though purposely avoided by most people during warm weather, the inhospitable quagmires along the Roanoke River are treasure troves of flora and fauna. Thanks to the support of the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation, we now have tangible evidence that far more golden swamp warblers spend their springs and summers here than anyone ever suspected!

For More Information

Birding:

• • •

State and local agency partners included DGIF, DCR, and the Halifax Soil and Water Conservation District. Box construction and installation assistance included students from Averett University, Halifax Co. High School, Hargrave Military Academy, employees of the Clover Power Station, and other volunteers. Financial support was provided by concerned individuals and businesses donating through the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation’s Adopt-A-Box initiative and corporative partners Dominion Energy, Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, and Clover Power Station.

Article and photos © 2018 Mike Roberts. Mike Roberts is a lifelong naturalist and wildlife photographer who utilizes his knowledge of animal behavior and nature to educate others about respect and appreciation for the great outdoors.

 

  • October 1st, 2018

Celebrating 15 years of Nesting by Richmond’s Peregrine Falcons

The original female peregrine falcon of the Richmond pair.

The peregrine falcon breeding season has begun!  Courtship and pair bonding begin in February, and DGIF’s Richmond Falcon Cam, sponsored by Comcast Business, goes live on March 1.  With these events upon us, we take a look back to pay tribute to the falcon pair that has nested in Virginia’s capital city for the past 15 years.  Read the rest of this article…

  • February 19th, 2018

Second Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas Wraps Up Season Two

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding nestlings. Photo by Bob Schamerhorn.

The results are in on the second field season of the 2nd Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas!  The Atlas is a project of the DGIF in partnership with the Virginia Society of Ornithology and the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech.  It is the largest bird survey project currently taking place in Virginia, both in terms of geographic coverage (the entire Commonwealth) and the number of species it surveys (over 200 breeding species).  Read the rest of this article…

  • December 20th, 2017

Virginia, Ontario and the Loggerhead Shrike Connection

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Loggerhead Shrike banded in Smyth County, VA. Photo by Rich Bailey.

By Sergio Harding, DGIF Nongame Bird Biologist

On May 16 of this year, DGIF personnel, working with partners from the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, banded a loggerhead shrike in a pasture in Smyth County, VA.  Shrike banding is being coordinated across multiple states in order to study the connections between breeding and wintering populations of this declining species.  Although this was one of several shrikes banded in Virginia in 2016, this particular banding event was memorable because of a group of cows that had gathered nearby to watch us.  A bull in the group started huffing at us just as we were getting ready to band.  Bird in hand, we collected our equipment and retreated to the other side of a gate, away from any potential bovine interference. And so it was that this shrike got its leg bands, ‘Yellow over Dark Blue’ on the left, ‘Yellow over Silver’ on the right (YE/DB YE/SI, in banding notation).  The bird turned out to be the female of a breeding pair with an active nest.  The molt pattern in the wing feathers revealed that she was just in the second year of her life.  We took some quick measurements and released her some minutes later.  With evening setting in and our work completed, we moved on, with plans to revisit the site in the winter to see whether the bird would stick around.

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Pasture in Smyth County, VA where the shrike was banded.

However, circumstances brought this bird back into our lives a lot sooner than expected.  Last week, a biologist from Wildlife Preservation Canada was reviewing footage from a trail camera.  The camera was set up to monitor a release site for captive-bred loggerhead shrike in Ontario, Canada, where the species is endangered. And there, on an image from August 29, was the Virginia bird, sporting its ‘YE/DB YE/SI’ bands.  The release site is over 550 miles to the north of the site in Smyth County where we had banded the shrike.  This is not the first documented case of a long-distance dispersal by a loggerhead shrike after the breeding season.  However, the fact that the shrike traveled northward was completely unexpected.

This news capped an already exciting week related to loggerhead shrike:  an attentive citizen scientist captured footage in Augusta County, VA of a banded, captive-reared shrike that had been released in Ontario in late August.  This marked the third banded Ontario shrike documented in Virginia within the past 5 years, firmly establishing a link between the Canadian province and our state while simultaneously defying the odds of re-sighting this many banded birds.  This reciprocal ‘exchange’ of shrikes further highlights these connections between populations, while also raising interesting questions.  Because shrike do not spend the winter in Ontario, we expect that our Smyth County bird has already moved back south by now.  Will she return to her site in Smyth County for the winter?  You can be sure that we’ll be there looking for her, with high expectations and eyes wide open.

  • November 1st, 2016

It’s World Shorebirds Day!

World Shorebirds Day occurs every September 6th to celebrate the world’s shorebirds and their conservation efforts. Shorebirds comprise a diverse group of birds that are commonly found along shorelines throughout North America. There are over 50
shorebird species in North America and 41 species have been documented in Virginia.

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Least Sandpiper. Photo by Gregory Smith.

These birds vary in size and shape from the small 6″ Least Sandpiper to the large 23″ Long-billed Curlew. If you have visited Virginia’s beaches, you may already be familiar with the small Sanderlings that run along the waves probing for prey or the taller, more upright Willet. If you don’t make it to the beach much, you probably have still observed a shorebird! Contrary to what their name suggests, shorebirds are found in more than just coastal areas. The Killdeer, a shorebird that runs in spurts and calls “kill-deer” when excited, can be found on lawns in cities, agricultural areas, and even on golf courses.

Shorebirds are among the more difficult birds to identify. Some species are quite similar to others and require you to compare characteristics such as leg length and color, bill shape, length and color, feeding behavior, and to a lesser extent, vocalizations. Many will change from a bright plumage in the breeding season to dull grays and browns in the fall and winter months.

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Long-billed Curlew foraging on a small crab. Photo by Matthew Paulson.

Shorebirds feed primarily on invertebrates found in or adjacent to intertidal habitats or shallow waters. Common prey items include marine worms, insects, small crabs, clams, and oysters. Often, the length and shape of a shorebird species’ bill dictates what type of prey it eats and its foraging techniques, while the length of its legs determines the water depths in which it feeds.

Many species of shorebirds are long distance migrants often crossing thousands of

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Red Knots make one of the longest migrations of any bird species, approximately 9,300 miles. Photo by Ann Marie Morrison.

miles each year from arctic, boreal and temperate breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada to wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere. Amazingly, some of these world travelers weigh less than a cell phone! Annual round-trip migration usually entails a sequence of flights between two or more stopover sites that connect breeding and non-breeding habitats. Protecting these stopover links along the migratory pathway is a critical component of shorebird conservation.

Shorebird Conservation

About half of the world’s shorebird populations are in decline. Of the 30 or so shorebird species that commonly occur in Virginia during some portion of their lifecycle, 13 are PipingPlover_USFWSdesignated as Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan because of local and/or rangewide population declines.

Shorebirds face a multitude of challenges during the annual cycle,  including finding sufficient food sources to fuel their long distant migrations, avoiding predators, competing for suitable breeding and non-breeding habitat that is under constant threat by human development and disturbance, sea level rise, and adapting to a changing climate. It is for these reasons numerous shorebird species are in decline.

The good news is Virginia’s protected barrier islands and adjacent saltmarshes located along the seaward fringe of the Eastern Shore are home to thousands of shorebirds year round! These islands and marshes are largely undeveloped and most are owned and managed by agencies and organizations like The Nature Conservancy – Virginia

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American Oystercatchers. Photo by Peter Massas.

Coast Reserve (VCR), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS),  Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation (VDCR), Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) and Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

Collectively, these coastal habitats represent key sites for breeding and non-breeding shorebirds. Many islands are open to visitors with seasonal restrictions in place to protect nesting birds while a few others are closed during the nesting season or year round.

Every year, biologists with the VCR, USFWS and VDGIF monitor the breeding success

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Wilson’s Plover. Photo by Andy Morffew.

of the federally threatened Piping Plover, the state-endangered Wilson’s Plover and the American Oystercatcher. All three species are Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan and serve as important environmental indicators for coastal ecosystems. This collaborative effort allows biologists to track each species’ breeding distribution, abundance and productivity over time and examine their responses to threats and management actions.

Simple Ways You Can Help Shorebirds

  • When visiting the beach, watch where you step. Beach-nesting birds lay their eggs directly on the sand and these eggs are very well camouflaged with their surroundings, making them difficult to see. To avoid areas where eggs are likely to occur, pay attention to signs, avoid entering roped off areas, and areas
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    Sanderlings. Photo by Richard Towell.

    where large groups of birds occur. You’ll know if you’ve entered a nesting area if birds begin vocalizing loudly, dive-bombing you, or feign injury to lead you away from their nest. If any of those behaviors occur, it’s best to back away. Generally, if you stay closer to the water’s edge you’ll be okay; shorebirds tend to nest in the higher parts of the beach.

  • Don’t feed the gulls. Feeding just one gull may seem harmless, but it won’t be long before more predatory gulls are drawn in, which can beco
    me a nuisance for people and a danger to shorebird eggs and chicks.
  • Keep your dogs on leashes or at home. Free-roaming dogs at the beach can flush incubating adults off nests, eat shorebird eggs and chicks, and even kill adult birds.
  • Take all trash with you when you leave the beach or islands to avoid attracting predators such as gulls, raccoons and feral cats.
  • Donate to Virginia’s Non-game Fund to support research and conservation of shorebirds and Virginia’s other non-game wildlife. You can make a donation at GoOutdoorsVirginia.com.
  • Document your shorebird observations in eBird, especially during the Global Shorebird Counting weekend, which occurs each year around World Shorebirds Day.

Additional Resources

To learn more about World Shorebirds Day, please visit:

To learn about Virginia’s barrier island use policies, please visit:

For further information on Virginia’s beach nesting birds and island use policies, please contact:

  • The Nature Conservancy: (757) 442-3049
  • Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge: (757) 331-2760
  • Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge: (757) 336-6122
  • DCR Natural Heritage Program: (757) 787-5989
  • DGIF: (757) 709-0766

For information on public use policies on Virginia’s ungranted state lands such as sand spits, sand shoals and marshes, please contact:

  • Virginia Marine Resources Commission – (757)414-0710

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    Willet. Photo by Anna Hesser.

  • September 6th, 2016

Restoring the Red-cockaded Woodpecker in Virginia

 

Under the still, blue skies of Sussex County on the morning of June 10, six pairs of boots strolled  through the open loblolly pine forests of Big Woods Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Faintly at first, then louder, the repeated call of a red-cockaded woodpecker was heard by six pairs of excited ears. This lone woodpecker’s call was evidence that birds from

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Red-cockaded woodpecker with nestling. Photo by Kevin Rose (DGIF).

the bordering Piney Grove Nature Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), are finding their way onto the WMA, owned by DGIF.  The boot-clad biologists from DGIF and TNC were thrilled, after all, they had met at the WMA specifically to discuss facilitating an expansion of the red-cockaded woodpecker population from Piney Grove onto Big Woods in the coming years.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers, affectionately known by the acronym RCW, are a federally endangered species that depend on mature, open pine savannas that once blanketed much of the southeastern United States, but have over time been reduced to a fragment of their former glory.  Despite this adversity, the birds persist on this remaining landscape and for decades, have been staging a recovery thanks to intensive habitat management and woodpecker monitoring by a variety of partners.

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Open loblolly pine savanna at Big Woods WMA.

In Virginia, DGIF participates in a coalition working on RCW conservation that includes partners such as TNC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary. DGIF has supported management and monitoring of RCWs at Piney Grove Preserve, Virginia’s only documented RCW population, as well as the recent reintroduction efforts of RCWs into Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (which is hoped will result in the

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Prescribed burn at Big Woods WMA. Photo by Matt Kline (DGIF).

Commonwealth’s second RCW population). DGIF’s purchase of Big Woods WMA in 2009 and habitat management efforts to restore its pine savanna habitat, including hundreds of acres of prescribed burns (980 acres in 2015; 1200 acres in 2016), underscores the Agency’s commitment to recovering RCW in Virginia.  The woodpecker population has thrived at Piney Grove, but is now pushing up against available habitat with little room left to expand.  With some additional thinning and continued prescribed burning to open the understory of its fire-adapted pine forests, areas of Big Woods should be suitable to welcome RCWs in the next year or two.  In order to encourage settlement and breeding by the RCWs, older mature pines will be provided with artificial cavities, a technique that has successfully been used to expand RCW populations into new areas of already-settled forest.

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DGIF biologist takes a sample core from loblolly pine to evaluate its suitability for RCW cavities.

RCWs are unique among woodpeckers in that they excavate cavities exclusively in living pine trees, rather than in snags (dead trees).  RCWs are also unique in that they are cooperative breeders (only 3% of all bird species breed in this manner). They live in family groups whose offspring from previous years delay their own reproduction in order to help parents raise their future siblings.  The dynamics of this breeding system limit the number of birds that are nesting in any given year. This behavior, in conjunction with the mechanics of excavating cavities in living trees and the dependence on mature and open forest conditions, contributes to long recovery times for the RCW population as a whole.  Restoration of this unique species requires patience and a long-term view, but with continued collaboration among partners, is achievable within the Commonwealth.

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Red-cockaded woodpecker approaching its tree cavity. Photo by Kevin Rose.

In the meantime, walking through Big Woods on that mild late-spring morning reminded the biologists that their conservation goals for RCW speak to the broader goal of restoring a southern pine ecosystem to the WMA, along with all of the species supported by this habitat-type.  They listened for bobwhite quail, watched red-headed and pileated woodpeckers fly from tree to tree, and heard the singing of yellow-breasted chats, prairie warblers, Eastern towhees and field sparrows. Experiences such as these, while planning future management strategies, help to keep spirits high and minds focused while moving forward on this conservation journey.

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  • June 20th, 2016

Tracking the Golden-winged Warbler

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Male Golden-winged Warbler. USDA NRCS photo by Greg Lavaty.

A gorgeous splash of lemon yellow graces the cap and wings of the male Golden-winged Warbler, and pictures can’t do it justice – it has to be seen in the field to feel its full impact.  And by ‘the field’, we mean that literally, as this declining species is a bird of open habitats such as old fields and shrubby pastures; these are habitats that host a variety of other ‘young forest’ species that are also losing ground, including Field Sparrow, Brown Thrasher, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Bobwhite quail.  The golden-wings’ habitat requirements are very specific; the open lands in which it nests are found in heavily forested landscapes at mid- to high-elevations.  In Virginia, the bird’s range is restricted to the high valleys of the western, mountainous part of the state.

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Golden-winged Warbler Habitat on Clinch Wildlife Management Area. Photo by Sergio Harding.

Golden-winged Warblers are already returning back to their Virginia breeding grounds, after spending their winter somewhere in Central or northern South America.  But exactly where do Virginia golden-wings winter?  This is the subject of an ongoing study that will have field technicians from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) busy catching golden-wings at sites in Highland and Bath Counties for the next month.  The study is funded by Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (DGIF) who, with VCU and other partners like The Nature Conservancy, is collaborating on a multi-state project to learn more about the migratory routes and wintering sites of Golden-winged Warblers.  While factors on the species’ breeding grounds are contributing to its wide-scale declines in the Appalachian region, better understanding the challenges that it faces across its full life cycle across two continents will help researchers to more effectively target the necessary conservation actions.

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VCU Crew at Golden-winged Warbler Field Site. Photo by Jessie Reese.

At this same time last year, VCU techs caught 23 golden-wings (and 2 hybrid warblers) using mist nets, placed aluminum and colored plastic bands on their legs as identifiers, and outfitted them with a harness carrying a tiny geolocator.  This device records light levels (to determine timing of sunrise and sunset) that will allow researchers to roughly calculate the coordinates marking the daily location of each bird throughout its fall migration, the winter, and its subsequent spring migration back to Virginia.

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Male Golden-winged Warbler with geolocator in 2015. Photo by Lesley Bulluck.

Geolocators are are a a low-tech substitute for the satellite transmitters that are used to track the movements of much larger bird species; this technology cannot currently be scaled-down to a small songbird such as the golden-wing, which weighs approximately 9 grams (0.3 ounces).  The challenge with geolocators is that the birds carrying them must be caught again in order for researchers to retrieve the devices and download the data for analysis.  They work well for a species, like the Golden-winged Warbler with high fidelity to their breeding sites; these birds have a good probability of being re-caught in the vicinity of where they were outfitted with the units last year (that is if they survive winter and the perils of migration). Just this past Saturday May 7, three birds with geolocators were observed in the exact same locations as where the units were deployed in 2015.  Two of the birds were recaptured, allowing retrieval of the geolocators.  After some data analysis, we will know where in Central or South America these birds spent their winter months!

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Geolocator retrieved from re-captured male Golden-winged Warbler in 2016. Photo by Jessie Reese.

Over the past 10 years, DGIF has funded and collaborated on various Virginia projects aimed at better understanding the distribution and ecology of Golden-winged Warblers in western Virginia.  We currently lead a Virginia partners group working to further conservation of this declining species and to promote incentive programs for landowners to create and maintain quality habitat on their lands for the benefit of golden-wings and a host of other species.  To learn more more about the Golden-winged Warbler and the work that has been done to date in Virginia, please visit our Golden-winged Warbler webpage.

  • May 11th, 2016

Start of Red Knot Migration in Virginia

Red Knots will soon be migrating along our coastline! The Red Knot is one of the largest and most colorful sandpipers in North America and their migration is one of the longest of any bird. Each spring they travel 9,300 miles from their wintering grounds at the southern tip of South America to return to their breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic.

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A flock of Red Knots. Photo by Don Faulkner.

Plan a trip to see the Red Knots late April – early June when they stop along Virginia’s coastline to refuel and replenish body weight. Your best bets for observing the Red Knots in Virginia are at these Virginia Birding & Wildlife Trail sites: False Cape State Park, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

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Red Knot. Photo by Ann Marie Morrison.

The Red Knot is a robin-sized shorebird with a somewhat chunky body, straight black bill and relatively short, thick legs. During migration, most adults will be in their full breeding plumage with a unique rusty orange-red color on their face that extends down their breast and underside. Their backs will be mottled with gray, black, and some orange. Breeding females and males are similar looking, but males are a little more brightly colored than females. It’s possible that some migrating individuals may still be in non-breeding plumage, in which case they will have a gray back and white belly, dark barring on their sides, and a white eyebrow on their face.

Look for migrating Red Knots on coastal shorelines and intertidal areas (mudflats and sand flats) where they will likely be pecking or probing the sand or mud foraging on invertebrates, including small mussels, clams, snails, crustaceans and marine worms.

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A flock of foraging Red Knots. Photo by Greg Faulkner.

As you head out to look for Red Knots, please be mindful that they are a Federally and State Threatened Species and listed as a Tier I Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan, which means that this species faces an extremely high risk of extinction or extirpation. If you spot a Red Knot or a flock of them, please observe from a respectful distance and make a contribution to citizen science by entering your observation into e-bird and the Virginia Wildlife Mapping project to help DGIF and other bird biologists keep track of their status. Good birding!

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Red Knots. Photo by Gregory Breese/ USFWS.

  • April 27th, 2016

Second Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas Launches This Spring!

Loggerhead Shrike at Disney Wildlife Preserve (IMG_0397)

Loggerhead Shrike. Photo by Bob Schamerhorn.

Season one of the Second Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas (VABBA2) launches this spring as part of a 5-year study to document the breeding status and distribution of all bird species that spend their spring and summers in Virginia.  This project is a mammoth collaboration between the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Virginia Society of Ornithology, bird clubs, Virginia Master Naturalists, and other citizen scientist volunteers who will be in the field surveying over the next 5 years.  A statewide network of volunteers is needed to collect breeding evidence, so please join us! We need all hands on deck and out watching birds!

In the first Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas, volunteers collected breeding bird information from 1984-1989.  They confirmed that 196 bird species were breeding in Virginia and state biologists were able to generate distribution maps showing were these species were occurring around the state.  Data collected now for the VABBA2 project will allow researchers and managers to assess how changes to Virginia’s landscape has affected bird populations over the last 30 years.  This information is critical for identifying the bird species or habitats most in need of conservation efforts.

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Birders in action. Photo by Brent Slaughter.

This project is founded on the principle that nature and its conservation are the responsibility of all people.  Citizen science is a powerful tool for generating ecological data that informs conservation and management of our natural resources, but it also provides a way for any person to get involved with conservation science in their local area.  We hope that birders, naturalists, and anyone with an interest in environmental conservation work will consider volunteering their time to the VABBA2.  We will do our best to ensure that all interested people can play a role in this exciting and important bird conservation project.

How to Participate

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Brown Thrasher feeding nestlings. Photo by Bob Schamerhorn.

If you are interested in participating, please check out the VABBA2 website. There you can learn everything you need to know about how to get started and can download project materials, including an atlas handbook.  Additional information and tutorials are provided on the VABBA2 eBird webpage, which is where participants will go to enter their species observations and breeding data.

The VABBA2 project partnered with folks at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the organization responsible for eBird, to generate our own eBird data entry portal .  This portal, which launched in early March, allows volunteers to easily enter their own data, which is then immediately available for others to view.  For those already familiar with eBird , the only difference with the VABBA2 portal is that users include breeding evidence in their species checklists.  Volunteers use a series of breeding codes to classify different types of breeding behaviors that they may observe in the field, e.g. a singing male or nest building.

Great Blue Heron with chicks at RIchmond Rookery (IMG_6619)

Great Blue Heron with chicks. Photo by Bob Schamerhorn.

To sign-up as an official VABBA2 volunteer, please visit our VABBA2 Map Explorer tool.  Virginia has 12 atlas regions and each of these has a local Regional Coordinator to answer questions on protocols and generally help guide volunteers.  Contact information for Regional Coordinators and details about sign-up can be found on the VABBA2 website.

The VABBA2 launches officially at the VSO Annual Meeting in Roanoke (April 29-May 1st).  Please join us to learn more about the VABBA2 and other exciting bird conservation work going on around the state.  If you can’t attend the meeting, be sure to check out all of the online resources and feel free to contact your local Regional Coordinator with any questions you may have.  We’re excited to work with Virginians on this important conservation initiative.  Let’s get birding!

  • April 7th, 2016