The slippershell (Alasmidonta viridis) is a state endangered freshwater mussel species in Virginia. It has experienced severe declines across most of its known range in the Commonwealth but individuals have occasionally been reported over the last 20 years from tributaries of the Clinch and Holston rivers in Russell, Tazewell, Smyth, and Scott counties. Read the rest of this article…
Agency biologists returned to sample the acidic, dark-water swamps and beaver ponds in southeast Virginia. Their quarry – a two inch long member of the bass family and state endangered species known as the Blackbanded Sunfish (Enneachanthus chatedon). 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.
Every October 21st is National Reptile Awareness Day, a day created to promote education, conservation and appreciation for reptiles. Reptiles are a group of animals that include snakes, lizards, turtles, crocodiles, and tuataras. Reptiles are characterized by having dry scales that are shed periodically. The vast majority of reptiles are cold blooded, which means that they cannot generate their own body heat and depend on outside sources to raise their body temperature.
In honor of Reptile Awareness Day, we are celebrating Virginia’s snakes, a group of reptiles which play an important role in our environment, but are often misunderstood. There are 32 species of snakes in the Commonwealth, of which, the vast majority are considered harmless. Snake species occur across Virginia, from coastal marshes to mountain ridgetops and even in urban areas under buildings. There are only 3 species of venomous snakes occurring in the Commonwealth: Northern Copperhead, Eastern Cottonmouth, and Timber Rattlesnake.
Snakes differ from other reptiles by having no legs, ears, or eyelids, and by possessing only one functional lung. The most notable characteristic of a snake is its long, slender body. A snake’s muscular body and flexible spine allows it to climb effortlessly, swim, and slip into the smallest spaces. Although snakes lack ears and cannot technically hear, they do have the ability to detect low frequency vibrations from the air and ground.
Depending on the species, Virginia’s snakes may mate in the spring, summer, or fall.
Leathery shelled eggs are usually deposited in May or June, with young hatching in late summer. But not all snakes lay eggs; the young of many of Virginia’s snakes are actually born alive. With young that are born alive, the eggs are held inside the body and live young are born in late summer.
Snakes play important roles as predators and prey. All snakes are carnivorous, which means that they eat other animals and do not eat plants. Snakes possess the special ability to
swallow their prey whole because they have two independent lower jaws connected by aligament that can expand greatly. Major prey items include invertebrates (animals lacking a backbone), fish, amphibians, other reptiles, birds, bird eggs, and a variety of mammals. Snakes play an invaluable role in our environment by controlling many pests, including mice and rats. Snakes also play a key role in the web of life; they are food for a variety of predators including certain mammals, birds, and other snakes.
The greatest predators of snakes are humans. Misconceptions about snakes have made them among the most persecuted of all animals. Hundreds, if not thousands, are needlessly killed every year in the Commonwealth. A common reaction to an encounter with a snake is to kill
it on sight whether or not it poses a danger. However, the fact is that most snakes are harmless, and even dangerous ones would rather flee than fight. Once we begin to learn about snakes, we can replace our misconceptions with facts and our fears with curiosity, and we can begin to appreciate their important roles in our natural environment.
Fourteen of Virginia’s 32 snake species are included in Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan as Species of Greatest Conservation Need, including the State Endangered Canebrake Rattlesnake (the southeastern Virginia population of Timber Rattlesnake) and the Northern Pinesnake. A century ago, the Northern Pinesnake was considered common in several parts of Virginia, but there have been no sightings of this species in the last 25 years, so it’s been presumed extirpated from the Commonwealth. The extirpation of this species is most likely due to fire suppression, habitat
loss and fragmentation, and human persecution. The Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (DGIF) recently participated in an investigative study that demonstrated Northern Pinesnake habitat (dry open slopes with vegetated cover) is still available in Virginia and that it would be feasible to reintroduce this endangered species into its historic range.
Simple ways to help conserve and protect snakes and other reptiles:
- Support efforts to establish and protect natural areas.
- Provide habitat for wildlife on your own property by keeping portions of it unmowed and ungrazed and by planting native plants.
- Reduce your use of fertilizers and pesticides in your yard and garden.
- Recycle and do not litter or pollute.
- Join a conservation organization.
- Make a contribution to DGIF’s Nongame Wildlife Fund.
- Do not kill snakes.
- Keep learning about snakes and teach others what you learn, so that all may appreciate this unique group of Virginia’s wildlife. More information on Virginia’s snakes may be found in these resources:
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.
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.
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
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.
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 designated 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Did you know that five of the world’s seven sea turtle species occur in the Chesapeake Bay and the coastal waters of Virginia? These species include the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), the Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) sea turtle, the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), and the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata).
The most abundant and regularly occurring species in Virginia are the Loggerhead and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. Green turtles and leatherbacks are observed in the Commonwealth each year, but they are far less abundant and their distribution is uneven. The hawksbill turtle is the rarest of all species in the region; it has only been
recorded twice in Virginia.
Sea turtles are easily distinguished from other aquatic turtles by their large size and paddle-like limbs or flippers which lack toes. Unlike other turtles, sea turtles are unable to withdraw their head and flippers into their shells. Sea turtles have long been considered the ancient mariners of the sea because of their long migrations across ocean basins.
Sea turtles typically occur in Virginia from May – October but may stay through late fall/early winter if water temperatures remain warm. The majority of these turtles are juveniles. The highly productive waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the seaside lagoon system of the Delmarva Peninsula represent important developmental habitat for growing turtles.
Virginia represents the northern extreme of the Northwest Atlantic loggerhead sea turtle nesting range. Since 1970, 166 loggerhead nests have been documented on Virginia’s dynamic ocean-facing beaches.
The state’s first and only green sea turtle nest was reported in 2005 and the Commonwealth’s first and second Kemp’s ridley nests were documented in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
The average sea turtle nest contains over 100 eggs, of which very few reach adulthood. After about a 60 day incubation period, hatchlings emerge at night and enter the ocean where they embark upon a life in the marine environment.
Sea Turtle Conservation
All five species of sea turtles that can be found in Virginia are afforded protection under state and federal Endangered Species acts. Loggerhead and green sea turtles are listed as threatened; Kemp’s ridley, leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles are listed as endangered.
The recovery of these species requires a substantial and well-coordinated effort to understand each species’ distribution and abundance as well as its life history and ecology; thus, many of these programs are developed and implemented through partnerships with other conservation agencies and organizations. VDGIF has taken the lead in promoting the establishment of a multi-agency sea turtle nest monitoring and management program that is consistent with other state programs in the US loggerhead nesting range. The Department continues to support sea turtle research that has strong management implications and furthers the conservation of sea turtle within the Commonwealth and beyond.
In 2015, the VDGIF, the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center’s Stranding Response Program and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources drafted the Virginia and Maryland Sea Turtle Conservation Plan (which is still awaiting final approval). The overarching goal of the conservation plan is to enhance the survival and conserve the habitats of sea turtles in Virginia and Maryland. The path to achieving this goal is described in a comprehensive Conservation Outline, which is meant to guide the conservation, research and management of sea turtles in Virginia and Maryland over a ten-year period.
One of the issues facing sea turtles are strandings. Strandings are events in which several hundred sea turtles wash ashore dead or near death. These events occur every year. The causes of strandings are often difficult to determine, but are known to include interactions with fishing gear, ingestion of marine debris, boat strikes, disease and sudden exposure to cold water temperatures.
How to report sea turtle strandings: If you encounter a dead or a live, but weakened sea turtle (or a marine mammal), please call the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center’s Stranding Response Team at 757-385-7575 and be prepared to provide information on the location, species (if known), estimated size, condition, and a contact number of a person who will be near a phone. If possible, please take photographs with your cell phone that can be texted or emailed to the stranding team, upon request.
For over 40 years, Virginians have worked to keep species from becoming extinct. We can be proud of some amazing achievements. Species like the bald eagle and the Dismal Swamp southeastern shrew are no longer endangered. Our population of red-cockaded woodpeckers is healthy and slowly growing. Shenandoah salamanders are as secure as we can make them on their ridgetops in Shenandoah National Park. Finally, despite overwhelming odds, we’ve been able to maintain many of our populations of wood turtles and freshwater mussels. Indeed, we can be proud of our many accomplishments.
Unfortunately, the effort is far from over. Nationally, during the last decade, the number of species petitioned for protection under the Federal Endangered Species Act has increased by over 1000%, and over 12,000 species of conservation need have been identified. Almost 900 of these species occur in Virginia and are impacted by the loss of their habitats, the introduction of invasive species, exposure to new diseases, and changing climatic conditions. Since the Endangered Species Act was created in 1973, we’ve also learned that endangered species conservation is an expensive and contentious decades-long commitment that isn’t always successful. Despite our best efforts, some endangered species still become extinct. The green blossom pearly mussel was recently declared extinct in Virginia and surrounding states.
With these growing challenges in mind, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) is pursuing a different strategy—keeping species from becoming endangered in the first place. Working with numerous partners, DGIF has completed Virginia’s second Wildlife Action Plan. This document was created to help Virginians use known science and proven, cost effective techniques to keep species from becoming endangered. Many of these actions can be taken around our homes and communities. Check out the list below for some simple suggestions that can make a big difference for wildlife.
Simple Actions to Help Wildlife
- Keep our Rivers Clean – Preventing erosion, planting trees and shrubs along shorelines, keeping dog waste out of ditches and storm drains, and not over applying fertilizers to lawns and gardens help conserve hundreds of our fish, crayfish, mussels, turtles, frogs, and insects.
- Clean Outdoor Gear – Several invasive species and wildlife diseases are spread on boats, waders, boots, and other outdoor equipment. Clean these items to help keep our rivers and forests healthy.
- Plant Native Plants – Many of the most harmful invasive species in Virginia were planted by unsuspecting gardeners. Avoid repeating these mistakes by incorporating native trees, shrubs, and flowers into you landscaping. Planting native plants will also provide sources of food and shelter to support our native birds, butterflies, and more! To learn more about planting with native plants to create Habitat at Home, visit our habitat webpage.
- Find New Homes for Unwanted Pets – Remember that pets are a lifetime commitment. However, if you find yourself in a situation in which you can no longer take care of your pet, do not release them into the wild. This is often traumatic for your animal as well as a common way for invasive species and new diseases to be introduced into our ecosystems. Instead, work with shelters and rescue organizations to find new homes for your unwanted pets.
To learn more about Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan and Virginia’s Species of Greatest Conservation Need, please visit bewildvirginia.org.
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!