2017 was a productive year for DGIF’s Virginia Loggerhead Shrike banding and monitoring project, a collaboration with partners from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Loggerhead Shrikes are a state-threatened bird and are listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan. Read the rest of this article…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
As the Blue-headed Vireos and Yellow-throated Warblers have already begun to arrive in Virginia we look toward the beginnings of Virginia’s Spring migration. Each year approximately 34 species of warblers return from the Bahamas, and Central and South America along with many other species traveling north up the Atlantic Flyway. Some will stop for only a moment of rest, while others will stay, nest and fledge young here before returning to their wintering grounds next fall. It is an endless playing out of the Circle of Life.
With the weather warming, there is nothing like getting outside in the early morning to hear the dawn chorus, making it an idyllic time of year to head out on the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail (VBWT). Male birds will be staking their territories and courting females to continue the long established cycle that gives the seasons
In Virginia there are many places to see these “new” arrivals each year. From the G. Richard Thompson Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Fauquier County with its abundance of trillium blooming and Kentucky Warblers singing loudly, to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge with Swainson’s Warblers to James River Park and its plethora of Prothonotary Warblers to the Clinch Mountain WMA and Mount
Rogers in Southwest Virginia and the call of Cerulean Warblers, there are so many great places to visit for warbler watching. Even in your own backyard, there are many local parks that host birdwatching opportunities. You can find many of these sites on the VBWT. Take the time to get outside and discover Virginia’s Wild Side and, while you’re at it, take a friend and enjoy it together!
To follow the status of this year’s warbler migration, please check back with DGIF’s Facebook page throughout April, when we will be posting updates on the status of the Palm Warbler’s journey up the Atlantic Flyway, from Florida, through Virginia, and up to their breeding grounds in Canada.
It’s autumn, and whether you’re a bird or a bat, you may be on the move, heading south for the winter. While many of us are aware of bird migrations during the spring and fall, few of us realize that bats migrate as well. As with birds, some bat species “disperse” short distances, as little as 10 or 20 miles, others “migrate regionally,” hundreds of miles between summer and winter roosts, and a few species “migrate long distances,” typically from Canada and the New England states down to the southern United States.
Whether you migrate regionally or over a long distance, migration is a costly venture and there needs to be a good reason to pack your bags for a long fall trip. With bats there are two reasons why you would migrate. First, you need to remember that the majority of our North American bats are insect eaters and once winter rolls around their food source is gone. This is why many bat species have opted to hibernate (short distant dispersals or regional migrants) as opposed to migrating long-distances. Second, winter temperatures can be harsh and physiologically stressful even if you can find food, limiting your chances of survival.
Virginia’s state bat, the Virginia big-eared bat, disperses short distances between warmer caves used during the summer as maternity or bachelor sites, to colder caves used to hibernate. Other species such as the little brown, Indiana, and tri-colored bats move longer distances, often over 100 miles between summer tree roosts and caves used for hibernating. The long distance migrants found in Virginia include the red, hoary, and silver-haired bats. These are bats that use trees as roost year round and are often found migrating through Virginia on their way north or south in the spring or fall.