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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

Spring Migration Begins in Virginia

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Blue-headed Vireo. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren.

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.

© Marshall Faintich Warren Ferry, VA 4/23/15

Yellow-throated Warbler. ©Marshall Faintich

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
their voice.

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

© Marshall Faintich Dutch Gap, VA 4/26/13

Prothonotary Warbler. © Marshall Faintich

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.

© Marshall Faintich

Palm Warbler. © Marshall Faintich

  • March 25th, 2016

Vernal Pools for Salamanders

Photo by Devin Floyd, Center for Urban Habitats.

Spring is imminent and the first rains have arrived—and so have the salamanders! With warming temperatures and all the snow melting over the past few weeks, some salamander species have been on the move looking for vernal pools. A vernal pool is a seasonal, “ephemeral” or temporary type of wetland habitat that’s formed by the accumulation of winter rains and snowfall, typically in shallow depressions in woodlands.

Virginia is home to 50 salamander species. The majority of these are nocturnal and carnivorous, preying on insects and also frogs, fish, and even other salamanders. Some of the species are fully aquatic, while others are semi-aquatic or fully terrestrial. The ones we see migrating in spring are semi-aquatic. Throughout most of the year, semi-aquatic species like spotted salamanders and eastern tiger salamanders live on land beneath rocks and logs, or in the cool, moist leaf litter of deciduous or mixed forests. Over the winter they hibernate underground, and then from late winter through early spring—peaking in March and April—hundreds of them emerge to find water, seek a mate and breed, en masse.

There’s a lot of excitement in the air when salamander enthusiasts don headlamps on a nighttime adventure in the rain, looking for these long-tailed amphibians scurrying across roads, where the critters are easiest to find. Recently an unusual emergence of spotted salamanders occurred in Albemarle County, and we thank Devin Floyd of Center for Urban Habitats for sharing his photos of these incredible animals—more than seven inches long! —crossing Rte. 29 in the Charlottesville area.

Female spotted salamanders will lay hundreds of eggs a few days after mating, and within a few weeks of development, the young salamander larvae will wriggle free and disperse, to begin solitary lives back in the woods.

Photo by Carol A. Heiser.

At my own home, I marvel at salamander eggs which appear every spring in a small water garden in my backyard. The gelatinous blobs are attached to plant stems just below the water’s surface, and there are dozens of larvae in each egg mass. Some salamander species lay egg masses containing hundreds of larvae.

Salamanders, like other amphibians, have moist, permeable skin, which makes them vulnerable to chemical pollutants and other contaminants in storm water runoff. Because these animals are very sensitive to changes in water quality, they are important indicators of environmental health. If a stream runs through your neighborhood, you can help salamanders and other aquatic wildlife by minimizing or discontinuing the use of fertilizers and herbicides on your lawn, and by allowing at least a 20-foot-wide buffer of native plants to grow along the edges of the stream. If there’s a low-lying, wet spot in your yard, avoid mowing it, and instead allow water-loving plant species to grow there, which will help retain the moisture and provide much-needed cover.

You can also improve amphibian habitat around your home by installing a small in-ground water garden that will function like a vernal pool, as long as you don’t add any fish. Also, allow leaves that fall in autumn to remain on the ground as protective cover throughout the year, rather than bagging them up and removing them off site.

For maximum benefit to wildlife, consider creating a vernal pool or constructing a small wetland on your property. See the example at Boxley’s Piney River Quarry in Amherst County.

Here are more resources for learning about salamanders and the habitats that support them:

— Carol A. Heiser, Habitat Education Coordinator

  • March 16th, 2015