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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

Coyote Research Study Update

Although they are found state-wide, coyotes are a relative new-comer to Virginia.  Coyotes are native to the plains of the Midwest, but they eventually arrived in the western mountains of Virginia during the late 1970’s following a well-documented eastward expansion.  Coyotes prefer hilly terrain with open or brushy habitat, but they are also a highly adaptable species. Their numbers quickly increased and coyotes soon became firmly established in every county of the Commonwealth.

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Coyote wearing a GPS radio collar as part of the research study.

Soon after the coyote’s arrival, many hunters and wildlife enthusiasts began to express apprehension regarding the potential impacts coyotes might have on our native wildlife species.  In particular, deer hunters voiced concerns that increasing coyote numbers might lower deer populations in portions of the state.

In order to better understand the potential effects of coyotes on deer numbers, the Virginia Department  of Game & Inland Fisheries embarked upon a 4-year research project in the western mountain region of the state.  The study was headed up by researchers at Virginia Tech and initiated in 2011.  The project was focused on National Forest lands in Bath and western Rockingham County, where deer numbers appeared to have declined substantially during the past decade.  Primary objectives of the project included an assessment of what coyotes eat throughout the year, their movement behavior, habitat selection, and home range size. The diet of bobcats and bears were also studied in the same area and compared with coyotes.

To study the diet of coyotes, researchers meticulously examined 395 coyote scats (feces samples) collected monthly over a 2-year period.  They found out that coyotes eat deer very frequently.  White-tailed deer had the highest overall occurrence in the scat (74%), followed by voles (27%) and insects (16%).  Seasonally, deer occurrence in the scats was greatest in January, March, June, July, and November.  The June-July period coincides with the fawning season but deer were also an important food item during the early fall and late-winter months.

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Bones found in coyote scat for diet analyses.

Although we now know that coyotes eat deer a lot, we don’t know if they eat a lot of deer.   Scat analyses tell us what an animal has eaten, but not how the food item was obtained.  As a result, it’s unknown whether the source of deer in the coyote diet was from deer actually killed by coyotes or whether coyotes were scavenging on carcasses of deer that died from other causes.  Most likely, both sources were important diet components, but additional research (currently underway) will be needed to quantify the contribution of each source.

Coyotes were not the only predators eating deer in the study areas.  Of the 607 bobcat scats analyzed, deer were found in 35% and squirrels were found in 53%.  Seasonally, deer was highest in the scats during June (when most fawns are born) and in late winter (December and January).   Bears also had a high occurrence of deer in their scat (35%), but acorns and berries were found in 61% and insects were found in 45%.

In addition to studying what coyotes were eating, researchers also monitored the movements and survival of 19 coyotes wearing high-tech GPS radio collars.  They found that coyotes in the western mountains formed a mosaic of stable and shifting home ranges that were significantly impacted by high mortality, primarily from shooting and trapping.  Some coyotes lived in loose family groups and occupied well-defined territories.

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Application of a GPS radio-collar on a coyote.

Others were lone individuals classified as “transients” with large home ranges situated between defended territories, referred to as “biding areas.”   These nomadic coyotes were basically lying in wait to fill vacant territories.  Since mortality of coyotes was high (63% of radio-collared coyotes were killed during the monitoring period), it usually didn’t take long for a territory to become vacant.

This complex social structure illustrates why coyote numbers are difficult to manage at the landscape level.  In areas where available territories are limited, coyote numbers appear to be regulated more effectively by competition with one another rather than by mortality from hunting and trapping.  If coyotes truly are having an impact on deer populations, the most effective response may be to improve deer habitat, rather than kill more coyotes.  Coyotes make convenient scapegoats, but they are just one species in a multi-predator system that also includes bobcats and bears.   As is usually the case in wildlife management, ecological relationships are almost always more complex than they appear on the surface.  Certainly, the predator-prey dynamics of coyotes and deer are no exception.

 

All photos courtesy of Virginia Tech.

  • June 2nd, 2016

Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan

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Red-cockaded woodpeckers are a federal and state endangered species in Virginia. They are a Tier I ranking in our Wildlife Action Plan. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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.

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The shenandoah salamander is listed as endangered at the federal and state level. It is a Tier I ranked species in the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan. Photo by Brian Gratwicke.

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.

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The wood turtle is a state threatened species in Virginia with a Tier I ranking in our Wildlife Action Plan. Photo by John White.

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.

  • May 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!

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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.

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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

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