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How to Help Birds in 2019 and Beyond

Scarlet Tanager photo by Alan Schmierer.

As we take off into 2019, we reflect on 2018’s Year of the Bird, a celebration of birds that marked the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA)—one of the first laws passed to protect wildlife and one of the most important for birds. Throughout 2018, the DGIF supported this national campaign, along with over 180 other organizations and agencies that work to protect birds and their habitats. We highlighted a sampling of our bird conservation work in Virginia; we shared the Commonwealth’s best birding opportunities and tips for getting started; and we offered numerous simple, but meaningful actions that we all can take to help birds.

Not only are birds beautiful and fascinating to observe, but they are beneficial to humans and we are very fortunate to have them living around us. Birds consume countless quantities of pests, including insects and rodents; they disperse seeds efficiently, helping our forests and grasslands to flourish; and they indicate the health of our water, air, and natural areas. In this final Year of the Bird article, we have summarized all of the simple, meaningful actions you can take to help Virginia’s birds thrive in 2019 and beyond. As one first step to take this year, please share this article with others to show your appreciation for birds and the easy ways that we can all give back to our feathered friends.

How to Help Birds

Enhance and Protect Bird Habitat

Pollinator Habitat Demonstration Garden at Pleasant Grove Park, Fluvanna County, established by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Habitat Partners© Program, in cooperation with Powhatan-Goochland Master Gardeners. This native plant garden received a Virginia Association of Counties Achievement Award in 2015.

  • Grow Native Plants.Native plants will attract and support birds around your home by providing them with food, protective cover, and nesting locations. The DGIF and Audubon provide helpful resources for selecting the best native plants for birds and the Virginia Native Plant Society has a helpful list of native plant nurseries.
  • Contact DGIF’s Team of Private Lands Wildlife Biologists (PLWBs), if you are a Landowner. Jointly hired with Virginia’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, PLWBs specialize in on-site landowner habitat evaluations followed by detailed management planning. To find out if your area is eligible, contact your local PLWB or DGIF’s Small Game Project Leader, Marc Puckett at 434-392-8328, puckett@dgif.virginia.gov.
  • Drink Shade-grown Coffee. Shade coffee plants in Latin America are grown under tall trees, which provides habitat for the Cerulean Warbler (and many other neotropical migrant bird species) on its wintering grounds. The alternative, ‘sun coffee’, is grown as a row crop and is contributing heavily to loss of bird habitat through deforestation.
  • Reduce Your Use of Pesticides. Insects and their larvae are a vital food source for birds, particularly for feeding young and during their migrations. Some pesticides are harmful to birds. Try these alternatives and prevention tips.
  • Do Less Yardwork in the Fall. Less is more–leave your leaves, skip garden clean up until spring, and do not mow old fields until mid-March. Fallen leaves, dry stalks, and seedheads provide a safe shelter for dormant insects and insect eggs, a critical food resource for most bird species, especially come springtime. Dry stalks and brush provide birds protective cover from predators and seedheads bear food that birds can eat all winter long.

Juvenile tricolored heron at Hog Island WMA. Photo by Dan Whiting.

Keep Birds Safe

  • Keep Pet Cats Indoors.According to the 2014 State of the Birds report, free-ranging outdoor domestic cats in the U.S. collectively kill approximately 2.4 billion birds every year, making them the number-one direct, human caused threat to birds.
  • Make your Windows Obvious. National Audubon Society estimates that between 100 million to 1 billion birds a year die from collisions with reflective or clear glass. Reduce the risk of collisions with windows by trying these bird-friendly window solutions.
  • Turn Building “Lights Out” during Bird Migration (April/ May and September/ October). Many birds migrate at night, using the stars and moon to help them navigate. Light pollution from cities, particularly from skyscrapers, can attract or disorient birds, leading to their collisions with buildings or windows, or a bright beam can “trap” birds, who then exhaust themselves while they circle. For easy ways to help reduce light pollution from high-rises, see Audubon’s Lights Out program.
  • Reduce Plastic and Do Not Litter. Properly dispose of trash (about 80% of ocean plastic comes from land-based litter); reduce your use of single-use plastics (eg. plastic shopping bags, bottled water, and plastic straws); and do not release balloons (remember -what goes up must come down). All of these actions will help coastal birds and other coastal wildlife.
  • Practice Bird-safe Behavior at the Beach. Watch where you step (beach nesting birds lay their well-camouflaged eggs directly on the sand), do not feed the gulls (one becomes many and they will eat shorebird eggs and chicks), and keep your dogs leashed or at home (free-roaming dogs are a danger to shorebird eggs and chicks).

Start Birding and Share Your Love of Birds with Others

  • Visit our new Birding Basics Webpage. Here you will find numerous tips to get started in the wonderful world of birding.
  • Explore the Virginia Bird & Wildlife Trail (VBWT) with your family and friends. This trail system will guide you to the best places in the Commonwealth to see native birds and wildlife.
  • Join a Bird club. Birding with others adds to the enjoyment and it is the best way to improve your skills. Find a local club at Audubon.org and Virginiabirds.org.
  • Share Your Shot. Submit your bird photos to the annual Virginia Wildlife Photo Showcase. In honor of 2018’s Year of the Bird, the contest features a special sub-category for Virginia’s native birds, especially neotropical migrants. New to bird photography? Check out these bird photography tips.
  • Take a Child to Nature – Introduce a child you know to nature or make a purchase from the DGIF e-store to support the Virginia Wildlife Grant Program, a funding source to connect youth to the outdoors. A single encounter with a bird or other wild animal can spark a life-long passion.

Conducting a VABBA2 Survey at Amelia WMA. Photo by Meghan Marchetti.

Give Back

  • Participate in the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas (VABBA2). This DGIF-sponsored citizen science project will support bird conservation in the Commonwealth by documenting the status and distribution of our breeding birds. Get started as a volunteer at VABBA2.org.
  • Contribute to DGIF’s Non-Game Fund to support the conservation of Virginia’s Species of Greatest Conservation Need listed in Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan, including Loggerhead Shrikes, Cerulean Warblers, Golden-winged Warblers, numerous shorebird species, and so much more. Make a donation online by registering at Go Outdoors Virginia.
  • Purchase an Access Permit to support conservation on Virginia’s public lands. This permit also acts as your pass to visiting 42 Wildlife Management Areas and numerous DGIF-owned lakes. Available for purchase by registering at Go Outdoors Virginia or calling 1-866-721-6911.
  • January 2nd, 2019

Less Is More! Easy Ways to Improve Habitat for Birds This Fall

As the weather cools and the leaves change color and begin to fall, it may conjure images of hours spent at home cleaning up gardens, raking leaves, or mowing brush. Whether you are a homeowner or a private landowner, these ritual seasonal chores, are not only time consuming, but they can also negatively impact birds by removing important food and shelter they need to thrive in cooler months. By leaving habitat in place, birds will be more attracted to your property. As the DGIF’s Small Game Project Leader, Marc Puckett explains, “Autumn is a time when birds need cover and seeds, pollinators need the last fall nectar, and insects still need plants as hosts.” All those seeds and insects provide valuable food for birds.

In this Year of the Bird, consider changing up your fall routine in order to attract and support birds this fall through winter. Here are some easy tips from DGIF’s habitat experts—and good news; less is more!

Easy Yard and Land Maintenance Tips to Help Birds Thrive from Fall through Winter

Thickets, weeds and brush, such as the winged and staghorn sumacs and other native shrubs in this old field, provide excellent fall and winter shelter for songbirds. Photo by Marc Puckett.

For private landowners, Puckett, recommends,

“First and foremost – do not mow old fields during fall. Mowing during fall will result in an area devoid of cover all winter long–wait until early to mid-March to mow, if possible. And perhaps even more importantly, even if you do mow in fall, don’t mow it all every year. Mow in rotation, either half or one third, annually on a 2 or 3 year cycle. This way no matter when you mow, you will still be leaving cover on part of the land year round.”

So, by not mowing or by mowing less land, you can actually do more for birds. Similarly, homeowners need not worry about raking and bagging leaves. The DGIF’s Habitat Education Coordinator, Carol Heiser, says, “One of the most important things you can do for wildlife is to allow the leaves to stay on the ground, rather than bagging them up and throwing them away. The dead leaves act as a kind of cover or blanket for dormant insects, and leaf cover can also keep the soil from eroding.” So leave your leaves or rake them up into your garden beds and use them as mulch, rather than bagging and throwing them away. Homeowners should also consider taking it easy on the fall garden cleanup, ideally leaving the cleanup for spring. Heiser recommends, “Keep your garden beds intact. When you leave the dry stalks and seedheads standing, they provide a safe place for insects to lay their eggs for next year’s cycle, and for birds to hide from predators.” All those seedheads are also full of seeds that birds can pick on through fall and winter; they are nature’s bird feeder.

Eastern towhee foraging through fallen leaves. Photo By Vitalii Khustochka.

For anyone still wanting some fall chores to do, one helpful action that any homeowner or landowner can take is to plant native shrubs and trees. Heiser says, “Fall is the best time to plant native shrubs and trees because their roots will be going dormant soon anyway, so there’s less trouble with transplant shock.”

For landowners, Puckett suggests, working on eliminating undesirable lawn, such as fescue grass, which provides no value for birds or other wildlife and prevents growth of the native grasses and wildflowers that they do need.

“The Fall is a great time to spray sod forming fescue grass, if it is invading your land and if not in an area prone to soil erosion. Fescue can be sprayed with herbicides effectively into early December, if there has not been too many hard frosts and the grass is still green. By spraying at this time, you can kill the fescue without harming other beneficial plants that are dormant.”

However, Puckett is quick to caution about spraying in a wildflower meadow, “Many wildflowers stay susceptible to herbicides even when the flowering portion of the plant is dead. So, for a wildflower meadow being invaded by fescue grass, it would be better to use a grass selective herbicide.” He adds, “Remember to follow the label directions – the label is the law.”

To continue your habitat actions for birds into the winter, Puckett recommends, “The cold weather is a great time to kill and remove non-native invasive trees and shrubs, like Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), privet, autumn olive and others. During this time of year, treatments with proper herbicides are highly effective at controlling undesirable trees and shrubs. By eliminating non-native invasive plants, native species that are preferred by birds and other animals are given a chance to flourish.”

Simplifying your routine fall yard and land maintenance practices really can make a difference for birds; follow these tips from DGIF’s habitat experts and your property will be more attractive and supportive to birds. They will be well fed and sheltered and you will enjoy improved birdwatching this fall and winter and for years to come.

American goldfinch feeding on seedheads. Photo By Janet and Phil.

Additional Habitat Resources

  • For private landowners, DGIF has a team of five private lands wildlife biologists (PLWBs), hired jointly with Virginia’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), that specialize in on-site landowner habitat evaluations followed by detailed management planning where appropriate. Interested landowners can find out if their area is suitable by contacting their local PLWB or Marc Puckett at 434-392-8328, marc.puckett@dgif.virginia.gov.
  • For community groups and landscape professionals who want to establish native plant demonstration gardens for wildlife viewing and public education outreach, the DGIF offers a Habitat Partners© Education Program, which provides training on conservation landscaping practices. Interested groups or professionals can contact Carol Heiser at Carol.Heiser@dgif.virginia.gov to inquire about program availability.
  • The DGIF’s habitat webpage – Find numerous resources for improving habitat
  • Habitat at Home© booklet – Find habitat landscaping tips and the best native tree and shrub choices to support birds and other wildlife.
  • Information on herbicide application methods for removing non-native invasive trees and shrubs, can be found at https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/accomplishing-forest-stewardship-with-hand-applied-herbicides.
  • Managing Land in the Piedmont of Virginia for the Benefit of Birds & Other Wildlife – Find land management recommendations that benefit birds in this introductory how-to guide.
  • Virginia Native Plant Society – For a list of nurseries that sell Virginia native plants
  • November 8th, 2018

Represent Virginia Birds in the October Global Big Day

Help set a new birding record this Saturday!  On the heels of this year’s record-breaking Global Big Day on May 5th, Cornell Lab of Ornithology is organizing its first ever October version of the event, and participants are needed!  Set for this Saturday, October 6th, Global Big Day is a 24-hour event seeking to document as many bird species as possible across the world.  Why October? Because the southern hemisphere is in the throes of its spring season, while migration is in full swing at more northerly latitudes.  For Virginia, this means lots of fall birds passing through on their way south, and the return of many species that breed to the north but winter in the Commonwealth.

Golden-crowned Kinglet photo by Dave Inman.

Participation is easy – on October 6, get outdoors and do some birdwatching. Identify and count the birds you see around your home, your neighborhood, or at your local Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail site, then enter your bird observations into eBird.  By counting and documenting the bird species you see here in Virginia, you will ensure Virginia birds are well represented in the count, plus you’ll be joining bird enthusiasts around the world in a quest to break a new Global Big Day record. This past May’s Global Big Day set a record of 6,899 species of birds seen in one day, with participation by 28,000 observers.  Among states, Virginia was ranked in the top 10 for species documented and in the top 20 for number of checklists submitted!

Help Virginia rise further in the ranks – view eBird’s Global Big Day October announcement for more information on participating.

Participating in this event is one simple thing you can do to help birds during the 2018 Year of the Bird, a celebration of birds and a call-to-action for people to help birds in simple yet meaningful ways.  The checklists you submit into eBird on October 6 will provide data that scientists can use to better understand bird populations and their movements across time and space.

Add to the fun of your Global Big Day by bird watching with a friend, your spouse, your children, or grandkids. You may even want to check your local bird club to see if they are having a special field trip for the event. Find your local club at: Audubon.org or Virginiabirds.org.

Black-throated Blue Warbler photo by Billtacular.

If you enjoy observing birds during the Global Big Day and don’t want the fun to end, consider participating in the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas(VABBA2), a citizen-science project of DGIF, the Virginia Society of Ornithology and the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech. Data collected from this project is helping to map the distribution and status of Virginia’s breeding birds. Find everything you need to get started at VABBA2.org.

  • October 5th, 2018

Fall Migration is Reaching its Peak! Visit the Virginia Bird & Wildlife Trail to View Migrating Birds

Each fall in Virginia, birds of prey (also known as raptors) and small songbirds, called warblers, travel southward through Virginia along the Atlantic Flyway. These magnificent birds have left their northern breeding grounds and are heading south for the winter. Along the way, they stop-over in Virginia to refuel and rest before they continue their southward journey. Their arrival marks the start of the fall migration peak in Virginia, which will continue through mid-October.

Raptors migrate during the daytime, providing great viewing opportunities as they soar high in the air. The best places to see migrating raptors this time of year is at Virginia’s designated fall Hawkwatch sites, the majority of which are located in the mountains.  There are often Hawkwatch staff or volunteers in place to help you in spotting and identifying the birds, while other staff or volunteers are busy counting and recording the numbers of each species observed. These Hawkwatches provide their data to the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMNA), which keeps a database on hawk migration from nearly two hundred affiliated raptor monitoring sites throughout North America.

Male black-throated blue warbler perched on an American beautyberry. Photo by Alan McDonley.

Unlike raptors, warblers are night migrants.  As they pass through the Commonwealth, they seek patches of forest to stopover during the day.  Places like Virginia’s National Wildlife Refuges, State Parks, Wildlife Management Areas, and local nature trails can be ideal places to spot these migrants. Their habitats provide protective cover, making a safe place for the birds to rest. They also offer abundant insects, a critically nutritious food source for the birds to replenish their energy before heading off on the next leg of their journey.

Virginia’s Eastern Shore is a particularly special place to view autumn’s migrating raptors and warblers. Bordered to the west by the Chesapeake Bay and to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, the Eastern Shore of Virginia is the long, slim southern tip of the larger Delmarva Peninsula. The unique shape of the peninsula and its position along the Atlantic Flyway creates a funnel-effect that concentrates migrating birds in a relatively small area while they are traveling southward.

If you can’t make it to a Hawkwatch site or the Eastern Shore, but still want a chance to observe migrating birds this fall, there are many other opportunities in Virginia to do so! Many warblers follow the path of the Appalachian Mountains, which provide rich habitat and dense protective cover for their migration stop-overs, and some birds even meander through the central portion of the state from one habitat patch to the next.

Celebrate the Year of the Bird  by getting outdoors and viewing fall migration. Check out the list of Virginia Bird & Wildlife Trail sites below for top locations where raptors and warblers can be observed during Virginia’s fall birding season, then get out and go! Remember the best time to see these fall migrants is now through mid-October.

Peregrine Falcon. Photo by Pete Richman.

Virginia Hawkwatch Sites

Kiptopeke Hawkwatch – Located at Kiptopeke State Park and operated by Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory (CVWO), is a renowned fall hawk-watching site, especially for viewing migrating falcons, including merlins and peregrine falcons. CVWO reports daily records of both species in the hundreds.

Snickers Gap Hawkwatch  – Located 20 miles west of Leesburg, Virginia, is at its best from September 14 – 21 when thousands of migrating birds of prey stream past overhead. The most widespread species seen is the broad-winged hawk, which may occur in the thousands.

Merlin. Photo by Stan Lupo.

Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch –  On the grounds of the Inn at Afton, just east of Waynesboro, Virginia. In operation from August 15 – November 30. Broad-winged hawks fly over in the greatest numbers, but other hawks may be seen, such as sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, and red-tailed hawks.

Hall Road, Raptor Viewing Stop and Overlook – Although not an official hawkwatch site, these two spots on Hall Rd, atop the ridge of Sinking Creek Mountain in Roanoke County, provide excellent vantage points for viewing fall’s migrating raptors. Turkey and black vultures, red-tailed, broad-winged, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks all occur regularly.

Harvey’s Knob Overlook – Located near Roanoke, Virginia on the Blue Ridge Parkway, between mile markers 95 and 96. Mid-September brings large numbers of broad-winged hawks, plus some osprey and bald eagle. Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks peak during October. Towards late October and into November look for red-tailed and red-shoulder hawks.

Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve – This Preserve, surrounding Buffalo Mountain in Floyd County, has a steep one-mile trail that reaches the summit. The summit’s clearings and 360 degree view provide a good spot to watch hawk migration in the fall where broad-winged hawks stream by as well as some osprey, sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, and red-shouldered hawks.

American redstart. Photo by Matt Stratmoen.

Top Virginia Locations to see Migrating Warblers in the Fall

Virginia’s Eastern Shore (sites are listed north to south)

Black-throated green warbler. Photo by Dan Pancamo.

Northern and Central Virginia

Appalachian Mountains (sites are listed north to south)

How to Help Migrating Birds on their Journey

Northern parula. Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider.

Migrating birds heading south face a variety of treacherous obstacles, but there are simple actions we can all take to help reduce the danger and ease their trek towards their wintering grounds.

  • Keep pet cats indoors. According to the 2014 State of the Birds report, free-ranging outdoor domestic cats in the U.S. collectively kill approximately 2.4 billion birds every year, making them the number-one direct, human caused threat to birds.
  • Make your windows obvious. National Audubon Society estimates that between 100 million to 1 billion birds a year die from collisions with reflective or clear glass. Windows confuse birds by reflecting the surrounding landscape and therefore appearing as usable habitat or by appearing as clear, open space. Many tips for preventing bird window strikes are available: try these bird-friendly window solutions.
  • Go “Lights Out.” Many birds migrate at night, using the stars and moon to help them navigate. When city lights twinkle below, this light pollution can attract or disorient birds, leading to their collisions with buildings or windows. Sometimes a city’s glow or a bright beam of light can “trap” birds, who then exhaust themselves while they keep circling. For easy tips on reducing light pollution from dusk to dawn, see Audubon’s Lights Out initiative. Not only will this help migrating birds, but it will also save you on energy costs.

Palm warbler in non-breeding plumage. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar.

  • September 24th, 2018

Connecting Children to Nature via The Virginia Wildlife Grant Program

In this Year of the Bird, Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (DGIF) encourages you to introduce a child to nature to help foster their love for wild animals and wild places. A single encounter can spark a lifelong passion. Experiences in nature, such as birding and wildlife viewing, are memorable and enriching—the thrill of finding wild animals in their natural habitats and the awe of watching how they interact with one another and their environment. The entryway into such activities are relatively easy and low cost—kids can view nature from anywhere; the wonderment can begin at home, in a schoolyard or along a trail or stream. The DGIF is proud to help connect children to the outdoors through our Virginia Wildlife Grant Program, a partnership with the Wildlife Foundation of Virginia.

Over the last 4 years, the Virginia Wildlife Grant Program has supported 128 projects connecting kids to the outdoors, totaling $170,000 and benefiting nearly 40,000 children in Virginia, from our coast to the mountains and included kids with special needs.  Wildlife viewing has been one of the Grant Program’s major areas of connection and support. It was the Program’s most funded activity in 2017 at nearly $20,000 supporting 10 projects. Previous grant recipients in this category have included the “The Sounds of the Birds Study” at Linwood Holton Elementary in Richmond, “Sounds of the James Eagle Tour” for Virginia Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments, and an “Outdoor Club for monthly Saturday morning field trips” at Belvedere Elementary School in Fairfax County.

“The Sound of Birds Study” was funded in Fall 2016 at Richmond’s Linwood Holton Elementary School with a focus on providing their students an opportunity to get outside to hear and see the birds in their own schoolyard, and also spend time drawing their observations.  These simple connections could lead to lifelong adventures.

“Sounds of the James Eagle Tour” with Virginia Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments was a great adventure for children and their parents along the James River, led by Captain Mike Ostrander of Discover the James. Tom Wilcox, DGIF Director of Engagement, enjoyed accompanying the families on their field trip. Reflecting back on the experience, Wilcox shared, “I learned that visually impaired kids really ‘see’ nature in a very different way, and the appreciation runs deep when you invest in them. I learned from parents the challenges of raising kids with visual challenges and observed that nature brings people together – an added benefit!”

Belvedere Elementary School of Fairfax County enjoying a Saturday morning nature walk at Huntley Meadows Park as part of their Outdoor Club, a 2016 Grant Program recipient. Stacey Evers, Environmental Educator at Belvedere shared a highlight of the walk: “a great blue heron suddenly took flight, soaring over the wetlands and people….One fifth-grader talked about this moment the rest of the year.”

Belvedere Elementary School in Fairfax County created an Outdoor Club, in which they offered students and their families an opportunity to go on nature walks and view wildlife at local parks on the first Saturday of every month. They averaged 57 participants per month, most of which were students K-5, plus staff and their families. Stacey Evers, Environmental Educator at Belvedere, reported on the program:

“The Belvedere Outdoor Club turned out to be one of the most powerful programs we’ve ever offered….[It] connected youth and adults to our beautiful natural surroundings, and it also connected us to one another. I can’t think of a more effective way to connect children – or adults – to the outdoors than by giving them regular, positive experiences in nature with loved ones and by creating a community whose identity is being outside together.”

Ways to Help Take a Child to Nature

  • The 2018 Virginia Wildlife Grant Program is accepting applications now through August 31st. Do you know a school, non-profit organization, or government entity in need of support for a children’s birding or wildlife viewing program? Please pass along this opportunity to them! Additional outdoor activities are also eligible.  To learn more and apply click here.
  • Interested in supporting the Virginia Wildlife Grant Program? Revenue for the grant program is generated by merchandise sales at ShopDGIF.com, fundraising events, and private donations.
  • Looking for a Place to Share Nature with Kids? The Virginia Birding & Wildlife Trail is your guide to finding the best spots for wildlife viewing in the Commonwealth. Find a wildlife viewing site near you by clicking here.


  • August 16th, 2018

Catching the Blue Streak: Following the Cerulean Warbler on its Trans-continental Migration

Birds often reveal their presence to us through their vocalizations, before we even have a chance to see the bird itself. This is especially true of the Cerulean Warbler, whose buzzy song is delivered emphatically from high in the canopy of mature trees. Craning your neck to catch a glimpse of a singing male is well worth it: the Cerulean Warbler takes its name from the male’s rich blue plumage. In Virginia, this tiny warbler breeds in large forests in the mountains, making an annual long-distance migration from its wintering grounds in Latin America.

Cerulean Warbler habitat. Photo by Lesley Bulluck.

Unfortunately, populations of Cerulean Warblers have declined dramatically over the last few decades. According to Partners in Flight, their populations fell by 72% between 1970 and 2014. The Virginia Wildlife Action Plan lists Cerulean Warbler as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need, tying its declines to loss of breeding habitat. Nationally, Cerulean Warblers breed in hardwood forests on slopes, ridge tops and along rivers in the Appalachians and Midwestern states. However, given that these birds spend their winters in Central and South America, it is worth investigating whether factors there are also impacting the bird’s populations. A team of researchers working across ten states is beginning this important study by first determining exactly where Cerulean Warblers’ wintering grounds are located. Here in Virginia, the research team consists of a partnership between the Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (DGIF), Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU Department of Biology and Center for Environmental Studies), The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Virginia Society of Ornithology (VSO).

VCU field crew. Photo by Lesley Bulluck.

The Cerulean Warbler study relies heavily on technology; researchers outfit the birds with light-level geolocator units, tiny data-collecting devices that allow researchers to roughly track the bird’s whereabouts over a year. Because the units cannot transmit data, researchers must retrieve the geolocators in order to download and analyze the information collected.  VCU leads the hands-on field work in Virginia, with the other partners (DGIF, TNC, and VSO) contributing funding for the purchase of the geolocators and support of the field work. The project took place at DGIF’s Gathright Wildlife Management Area in Bath County, where strategic forest management over the past few years has contributed to maintaining an abundance of Cerulean Warblers. In spring of 2017, 13 geolocators were deployed and an additional 14 individual (control) birds were color banded over the course of a short but intense few weeks. This past May and June, an effort was made to collect the units by recapturing the birds, fresh from their return from their wintering grounds. Here in Virginia, over 100 unbanded birds were observed throughout Gathright and the surrounding area. However, only one bird bearing a geolocator was found (and successfully captured in its same territory from the previous season) by VCU; and only two banded birds without geolocators were observed. Similar low numbers were reported from other states involved in the larger study. We do not know why so few birds captured in 2017 returned to the study area. However, the single geolocator unit retrieved in Virginia holds a wealth of data on that bird’s movements over the course of a year, and we eagerly await results from the analysis. A similar Virginia project involving Golden-winged Warblers, another declining long-distance migrant, has yielded impressive results and some insights into the causes of its declines.

Cerulean Warbler photo by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren.

How to help the Cerulean Warbler

  • Participate in Virginia’s Second Breeding Bird Atlas, now in its third of 5 years, to help document the breeding status and distribution of Cerulean Warblers and many other bird species in the Commonwealth.
  • Consider donating to DGIF’s Non-Game Fund, so that we can continue funding projects, such as this, that contribute to cutting edge research on Virginia’s Species of Greatest Conservation Need.
  • Drink shade-grown coffee. Shade coffee plants in Latin America are grown under tall trees, which provides habitat for the Cerulean Warbler (and many other species) on its wintering grounds. The alternative, ‘sun coffee’, is grown as a row crop and is contributing heavily to deforestation.
  • August 3rd, 2018

Good Birding Continues with a Roseate Spoonbill and More at Hog Island WMA

After the initial sighting of a ruff at Hog Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA) on July 20, birders have continued to flock to the site in hopes of catching a glimpse of the rare bird. While seeking the ruff on July 25, two birders spotted another rarity for Virginia, a roseate spoonbill. Roseate spoonbills are a wading bird related to ibises that range much further south. They breed along the coasts of southern Florida, Louisiana and Texas, and on down along the coasts of Mexico and into South America. Although a few scattered sightings of roseate spoonbills have occurred in Virginia since 2017, previously the last documentation of this species in the Commonwealth was in June of 2009.

Juvenile tricolored heron at Hog Island WMA. Photo by Dan Whiting.

In addition to the ruff and the roseate spoonbill, birders have been turning in some impressive eBird checklists for Hog Island WMA all week, including reports of American avocet, tricolored heron, little blue heron, white ibis, and glossy ibis. These shorebirds and wading birds have been enticed to the WMA by the mudflats and low water levels resulting from work on our renovation project with Ducks Unlimited, during which work crews have been pumping water out of the WMA. The renovation entails replacement of aging water control structures and the dredging of canals, which will allow us to raise and lower water levels, a management practice that facilitates habitat for shorebirds, waterfowl, and other birds. After the project’s completion, we look forward to continuing water drawdowns as part of our habitat management efforts throughout the year.

If you would like to try your luck at spotting the ruff, roseate spoonbill, and many other shorebirds and wading birds, be sure to check out Hog Island WMA’s mudflats and impoundments at the northern end of the property and walk the internal roads around the impoundments. Birding conditions remain good–although crews have temporarily stopped pumping water and the recent rains have increased water levels a bit, we are still seeing many notable birds. Don’t forget to bring your binoculars or a spotting scope to get the best look!

Visiting Hog Island WMA

Hog Island WMA is currently open seven days a week. An Access Permit or a current Virginia Hunting, Fishing or Boating License is required. Access Permits are available for purchase online or by calling 1-866-721-6911.

Please note that when traveling to Hog Island WMA, you will first need to pass through the Security Checkpoint for the Surry Power Plant–be sure to have a valid ID. Security personnel will need to check your vehicle as well. Wearing bug spray is recommended. While Hog Island WMA remains open during our renovation project, please be sure to give work crews plenty of space to safely do their work and pay attention to any “area closed” notices. Please park in designated areas only. Foot traffic is welcome on gated roads.

  • July 27th, 2018

Virginia’s Barrier Islands: A Vital Refuge for Shorebirds and Seabirds

Amongst Virginia’s most undeveloped and wild habitats are its Barrier Islands along the Eastern Shore. These fourteen sandy, seashell covered islands, some containing marshes and lagoons, play two important roles: they protect the Eastern Shore’s coastline from severe storm damage and they’re home to a diversity of coastal wildlife. Designated as an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations, the Barrier Islands are especially important refuges for shorebirds and seabirds. These islands form a critical section of the Atlantic Flyway for migratory birds: over 100,000 shorebirds move through the islands each spring, some of which stay to breed. Amongst the shorebirds breeding on these islands are the federally endangered piping plover, the state-endangered Wilson’s plover, and the American Oystercatcher. The state-threatened gull-billed tern, a medium-sized seabird, also breeds here. All four of these species along with a number of other beach-nesting birds are listed in Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan as Species of Greatest Conservation Need due to their local and/or rangewide population declines.

Biologists with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) collaborate with biologists from The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve (VCR) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to monitor the breeding success of these four declining species. Working together allows these biologists to track the birds’ breeding distributions, population size, and reproductive success over time. The biologists are also able to examine the birds’ responses to threats and management actions, which helps to inform best conservation practices for these species. The biologists’ monitoring efforts are essential because these birds serve as important environmental indicators for coastal ecosystems.

The health of the Barrier Island habitat is vital to the survival of these coastal birds. Over half of Virginia’s American oystercatcher population breeds on the barrier islands. For piping plovers and Wilson’s plovers, the Barrier Islands are the only place in Virginia where they breed. Fortunately, Virginia’s Barrier Islands are well protected by agencies and organizations–VCR, USFWS, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, DGIF, and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission own and manage most of them. 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. With these protections, these birds have been slowly making a comeback in the Commonwealth.

Black Skimmers take flight as biologists from TNC and DGIF count nests on a Barrier Island. Photo by Robert B. Clontz.

Status of Shorebird and Seabird Species

On the Barrier Islands, American Oystercatchers increased in population by 61% between 2000 and 2017, from 267 pairs to 431 pairs. Piping plover breeding pairs increased from 104 pairs in 1986 to a record high of 291 pairs in 2016. However, this peak decreased in 2017 by 22 pairs. Virginia forms the northern end of the Wilson’s Plover Range where the breeding population has fluctuated between 22 and 50 pairs since 1988. The gull-billed tern, along with several other species of terns that breed in Virginia, still appears to be in decline. The population exhibited a 58% decrease in the number of breeding pairs between 1993 and 2013, but their status may have improved since. DGIF Coastal Biologist, Ruth Boettcher reports, “We are conducting Virginia’s fifth coastwide colonial Waterbird survey this year and so far our gull-billed tern estimates appear promising.”

DGIF biologist Ruth Boettcher on a nest count survey with partners from TNC. The flags are planted to mark transect lines which prevents double counting. Photo By Robert B. Clontz.


Although Virginia’s populations of piping plovers, Wilson’s plover, and American oystercatchers are relatively stable, they (and numerous other coastal bird species) face a multitude of challenges during the birds’ annual cycles.  They struggle to find sufficient food sources to fuel their long distant migrations and to avoid predators. They must adapt to a changing climate and the sea level rise that comes with it. They also must compete for suitable habitat that is under constant threat by human development and disturbance.

Mylar balloon found by DGIF biologist on barrier islands while monitoring nests.

An increasing human disturbance affecting coastal habitats around the world and the wildlife that inhabit them is plastic debris that washes ashore from ocean waters. In June of this year, National Geographic reported:

“Worldwide, 73 percent of beach litter is plastic: filters from cigarette butts, bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, and polystyrene containers.…Some 7,000 species of marine animals have been reported so far to have eaten or become entangled in plastic….By 2050, virtually every seabird species on the planet will be eating plastic.”

Unfortunately, Virginia’s Barrier Islands, despite their protections, remote location and undeveloped state, are no exception to this disconcerting plastic pollution phenomenon. Although the amount of litter that washes ashore the Barrier Islands is not as severe as coastal litter found in other parts of the world, every day in the field while monitoring endangered and threatened shorebirds and seabirds, Boettcher reports that she and other biologists encounter and pick up a wide variety of debris that has washed ashore.

Boettcher’s pack with a bag she uses to collect balloons as she happens upon them. This is one day’s worth of collection.

“We encounter all kinds of trash on the islands. In addition to the myriad of bottles, food and drink containers and plastic bags, we also come upon washed up fishing gear, appliances and other household items, and storage/refuse containers of all shapes and sizes. Latex and mylar balloons are becoming increasingly prevalent on the islands and in the surrounding marshes. It is not unusual for us to pick up between 10 and 20 balloons along a 2-3 mile of stretch of beach without even actively searching for them. While we occasionally see wildlife directly impacted by trash (e.g., shorebirds entangled in netting or balloon ribbons, ospreys entangled in the fishing line used to line their nests, the ingestion of balloons by marine animals), the increasing accumulation and pervasiveness of debris in coastal habitats can only increase the potential for negative interactions between wildlife and trash.”

Protecting coastal habitats and their wildlife is a shared responsibility. Fortunately, there are many easy ways to make a difference and be part of the solution. During this Year of the Bird, we encourage you to take the following actions to keep Virginia’s Barrier Islands and other coastal habitats bird-friendly.

Simple Ways to Help Coastal Birds and Habitats

  • Properly Dispose of Trash or Take It With You when you are enjoying the outdoors. About 80 percent of ocean plastic comes from land-based litter, transported to the ocean via storm drains, streams, and rivers. Especially, never leave trash on the beach or Barrier Islands to avoid attracting predators such as gulls, raccoons and feral cats, which may then move on from the trash to predating on shorebirds and their eggs. If you encounter litter while enjoying the beach, safely pick it up and dispose of it properly. Participating in organized beach clean-up efforts also make a big difference.
  • Reduce Your Use of Single-Use Plastics. Consider using reusable shopping bags, using reusable/ refillable water bottles instead of buying bottled water, and skipping plastic drinking straws or using a paper or reusable straw instead.
  • Do not release balloons. What goes up must come down. Released balloons eventually return to land or the ocean where sea turtles may eat them (mistaking the burst balloons for jellyfish) or birds and other wildlife may become entangled in their ribbons. For more information on balloons as litter and celebratory alternatives to balloon releases, visit Clean Virginia Waterways.
  • 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 congregations of birds occur. You’ll know if you’ve entered a nesting area if birds vocalize loudly, dive-bomb 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; beach-nesting birds 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 are drawn in, which can become a nuisance for people and a danger to shorebird eggs and chicks, which gulls eat.
  • While at the beach, keep your dogs on leashes or at home. Free-roaming dogs at the beach can eat shorebird eggs and chicks, flush incubating adult birds off their nests, and even kill adult birds.
  • Donate to Virginia’s Non-game Fund to support research and conservation of the shorebirds and seabirds mentioned in this article, as well as Virginia’s other Species of Greatest Conservation Need. You can make a donation online by registering at Go Outdoors Virginia.

A mylar ballon & green latex balloon found on a Barrier Island. When latex balloons burst they take on this jellyfish-like shape and may be consumed by marine animals.

American Oystercatcher nest on a Barrier Island containing a 1 day old chick and 2 eggs.

Additional Resources

For more information on the problem of marine debris in Virginia and what’s being done to reduce it, please visit the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality – Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program’s webpage: Marine Debris in Virginia.

For information on visiting the Barrier Islands and their use policies, please visit:


Common Tern nest by a Horseshoe Crab shed on a Barrier Island. Photo by Robert B. Clontz.

  • July 12th, 2018

Tracking the Golden-winged Warbler from the Highlands of Virginia to South America

In May 2015, DGIF sponsored an intrepid crew from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) to set off for Bath and Highland counties to outfit small migratory songbirds with tiny data loggers, also known as geolocators, to track the birds’ movements over the period of a year.  The birds are Golden-winged Warblers, a rapidly declining species which breeds in the shrubby, high-elevation valleys of western Virginia and which winters in Latin America.  The work was part of a broader effort across 14 states and Canadian provinces to describe the migratory routes and wintering ground locations of two golden-wing populations, one of which breeds in the Appalachians (and includes the Virginia birds) and the other in the Great Lakes region.  The Appalachian population has been particularly hard-hit, declining to a mere 5% of its original size since the 1960s, while the Great Lakes population is relatively stable.

Geolocator units used to track Golden-winged Warbler movements.

In May 2016, again with funding from DGIF, VCU returned to their study sites to retrieve as many of the geolocator units as possible.  This involved finding returning golden-wings, recapturing the birds, removing the units and releasing the birds again; VCU was successful in retrieving 5 units from birds in Highland County.  Unfortunately, due to defects in the geolocators, only 2 of the 5 had usable data; similarly, only 48 of 76 units recovered across the broader study area had collected roughly a year’s worth of data.

Despite this setback, the data harvested from the geolocators proved to be very valuable.  It showed that in 2015, the two golden-wings each made a roughly 3,200 mile journey from Highland County to their wintering grounds in north-central Venezuela.  This included travel through the southeastern US, across the Gulf of Mexico, and through Central America to reach their wintering destination in northern South America!  Leaving their wintering grounds in March of 2016, they then roughly followed the same route in reverse to return to within 500 feet of their 2015 breeding sites.

The results from the broader study are even more telling:  golden-wings from declining populations in other Appalachian states, like the Virginia birds, had also wintered in northern South America; while birds from the stable Great Lakes population largely spent the winter months in Central America.  In addition, the closely-related and relatively stable Blue-winged Warbler, which breeds in both the Appalachian and Great Lakes regions, wintered almost exclusively in Central America. The birds with the declining populations are consistently spending the winter in northern South America, whereas the birds with relatively stable populations are wintering in Central America. This evidence strongly suggests that events that take place away from their breeding grounds are driving the declines of the Appalachian golden-wing population.  For example, the loss and fragmentation of forested landscapes were disproportionately greater in northern South America than in Central America between the early-1940s and 1980; this roughly corresponds to the period of greatest decline of the Appalachian golden-wing population.  In addition, Appalachian golden-wings travel farther distances during migration than do the Great Lakes warblers; obstacles to successful migration may therefore be greater for the Appalachian birds.

Searching for Golden-winged Warblers in Highland County. Photo by Jessie Reese.

Despite these findings that point to wintering grounds habitat loss as a limiting factor, maintaining an ample supply of golden-wing habitat on the breeding grounds remains a priority.  Without the proper management, the shrublands on which the species depends will revert to forest.  However, the results of this study force us to take a critical look at how the North American bird conservation community allocates its efforts.  While we have traditionally focused on the breeding grounds here in the U.S., it may be important to step up our work with Latin American partners south of our borders.  Such efforts will be crucial for the long-term survival of declining long-distance migrant birds, which pay no heed to political boundaries.

How to help the Golden-winged Warbler

  • Help document the breeding status and distribution of golden-wings and many other bird species in the Commonwealth by participating in Virginia’s Second Breeding Bird Atlas, now in its third of 5 years.
  • Consider donating to DGIF’s Non-Game Fund so that we can continue funding projects, such as this, that contribute to cutting edge research on Virginia’s Species of Greatest Conservation Need.
  • May 29th, 2018