Birds in Virginia

peregrin falcons nest almost annually on a ledge of the Riverfront Plaza building in Richmond
peregrine falcons nest almost annually on a ledge of the Riverfront Plaza building in Richmond
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Richmond Falcon Cam, First Egg Laid!

All birds don't fly into Virginia in the Spring and leave in the Fall - but that's pretty much what happens around Hudson Bay in Canada. When the weather gets tough, the tough get going - south. That's where there's food, unfrozen water, and warm sunshine.

What makes Virginia attractive to different species, at different times? There's a reason why the tourists go where they go, when they go, in Virginia. Just as different areas of Virginia attract different tourists during different seasons, the state offers a wide range of habitats for wildlife at different times of the year.

in 2020, the female peregrin falcon laid four eggs at her nest on the Riverfront Plaza building in Richmond
in 2020, the female peregrin falcon laid four eggs at her nest on the Riverfront Plaza building in Richmond
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Richmond Falcon Cam, Fourth Egg

Tourists flock to places like Williamsburg in the summer because school is out of session and families can vacation together. Those who "hit the beach" in the summer are driven in part by the seasons; body surfing the waves or cruising the boardwalk in a bikini makes sense only between May and September. Leaf-lookers crowding the highways to Shenandoah National Park in October are getting a peek at the peak Fall colors.

The birds are as selective as a family with teenagers choosing where to vacation for a week. Some habitats that attract birds are natural, but others are man-made. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge manages 14 ponds known as "moist soil management units," totaling 2,600 acres. By raising and lowering the water at different times of the year, the refuge biologists can attract the ducks, herons, geese, and other aquatic birds.1

Geese and other birds concentrate on the refuge each winter. The bird watchers are close behind. The birds depend upon the biologists to create a setting with food and shelter each year, and the businesses in the area depend upon eco-tourism in the winter. Want a duck carving? Go to Chincoteague, and choose from decoys carved by a wide array of skilled artists.

First there were the birds, then the tourists, then the commercialism. The concentrations at Chincoteague certainly did not occur in the reverse order, starting with the tourist traps and ultimately attracting the migratory birds.

In the case of the birds, there is a long history of natural selection that affects who goes where, when. Thousands of snow geese (Chen caerulescens) migrate each Fall to the marshes on the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic coastline. They show up from Assateague Island all the way south to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. In the Spring, they leave - because the Canadian wetlands offer more food and fewer predators on nest sites than the Virginia marshes.

In 2019, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) destroyed the nesting site of the largest waterbird colony in Virginia, which assembled each spring as approximately 25,000 laughing gulls, herring gulls, black skimmers, gull-billed terns, royal terns, common terns, and other species migrated back from Central and South America. The birds took advantage of the southern island constructed 40 years earlier for the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. The artificial island was isolated from predators at other nesting sites, and located in the middle of the open water habitat which provided food for those birds.

the south island of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel was home to 25,000 nesting seabirds until it was paved in 2019, but replacement habitat was upgraded on Rip Rap Island for the 2020 nesting season
the south island of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel was home to 25,000 nesting seabirds until it was paved in 2019, but replacement habitat was upgraded on Rip Rap Island for the 2020 nesting season
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Until 2017, the US Fish and Wildlife Service had interpreted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as requiring protection of the nesting area. Under President Trump, the Federal agency dropped any requirement for mitigation for "Incidental bird takes." The Virginia Department of Transportation could pave the six acres and use it for construction of the new tubes of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, and could end its multi-year search for alternative nesting sites.

Within the state, however, there was a strong reaction from bird lovers and people with a general sensitivity to environmental changes. Virginia had classified the gull-billed tern as a threatened species, and 98% of the royal terns nesting in Virginia used the six acres on the south island.

Plans to improve habitat on Willoughby Spit to encourage nesting there were dropped after the US Navy expressed concerns about increasing the hazard of bird strikes for planes using nearby Chambers Field at Naval Station Norfolk. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) proposed building a new island as a new nesting site using dredge spoils. That could not be completed before the birds migrated backk for the 2020 nesting season, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expressed concerns about impacts on fish populations from dredging more deep water habitat outside of shipping channels.

The solution was to upgrade 1.5 acres of habitat on Rip Raps Island in the parade ground of long-abandoned Fort Wool, and to trap rats there to protect nesting chicks.

the parade ground of abandoned Fort Wool was covered with sand to create nesting babitat in 2020
the parade ground of abandoned Fort Wool was covered with sand to create nesting babitat in 2020
the parade ground of abandoned Fort Wool was covered with sand to create nesting babitat in 2020
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Conversion of Rip Raps Island

in 2020 royal terns quickly began nesting in the new sand placed at Fort Wool
in 2020, royal terns quickly began nesting in the new sand placed at Fort Wool
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Fort Wool and Barge Artificial Habitats (May 20, 2020)

The state also planned to provide an extra acre of habitat by placing up to 33 barges next to Rip Raps Island, with a layer on sand on the barge deck to provide nesting sites. Construction on the south island in 2018 had forced the royal terns to nest closer than normal to the herring gulls, and the gulls had feasted on the tern chicks. Barriers were designed to keep the chicks from running off the barges and drowning.

To facilitate recovery of the gull-billed tern population, state officials also revised laws to allow for relocating nests and eggs of a state-threatened species. That allowed Department of Game and Inland Fisheries staff to move birds who tried to nest on the now-paved south island over to Rip Raps Island.

Dogs that normally prevented non-migratory geese from nesting were hired to patrol the south island and foce birds to move to other places for nesting. The Virginian-Pilot reported:2

Handlers walk the border collies — Greg, Marx and Hoop, to name a few — to chase after the birds, usually in the morning and nighttime when they try to land. The company's dozen or so dogs on the island are equipped with small booties to protect their feet against the asphalt and ski-like goggles to protect their eyes against the sun.

barges provided another acre of habitat
barges provided another acre of habitat
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Creation of an Artificial Floating Island

after barges were installed and covered with sand, decoys were added to attract birds
after barges were installed and covered with sand, decoys were added to attract birds
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Fort Wool and Barge Artificial Habitats (May 20, 2020)

Bluebirds in Virginia

Managing Geese in Virginia

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker in Virginia

Links

birders are the strongest advocates for conservation of bird habitat and species
birders are the strongest advocates for conservation of bird habitat and species
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service

References

1. "Resource Management," Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, US Fish and Wildlife Service, http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Chincoteague/what_we_do/resource_management.html (last checked May 13, 2016)
2. "Virginia now has a plan to save the state’s largest waterbird colony at Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel," The Virginian-Pilot, February 14, 2020, https://www.pilotonline.com/news/environment/vp-nw-hrbt-bird-colony-plan-20200214-lf3ezb2zfnhvnb3hqq2a7t66qe-story.html; "Virginia paved over its largest seabird nesting site during the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion," The Virginian-Pilot, January 7, 2020, https://www.pilotonline.com/news/transportation/vp-nw-hrbt-bird-colony-20200107-ag24qpimkngkvhxepuoiv2dxni-story.html; "In Virginia, a Race to Ready New Nesting Sites for 20,000 Returning Seabirds," Audubon, February 21, 2020, https://www.audubon.org/news/in-virginia-race-ready-new-nesting-sites-20000-returning-seabirds; "Besides cutting spending, Northam’s budget tackles a Hampton Roads seabird problem," Virginia Mercury, April 21, 2020, https://www.virginiamercury.com/blog-va/besides-cutting-spending-northams-budget-tackles-the-hampton-roads-seabird-problem/; "Seabirds return to the HRBT — but to a different island this time," The Virginian-Pilot, April 25, 2020, https://www.pilotonline.com/life/wildlife-nature/vp-nw-hampton-roads-bridge-tunne-birds-20200425-xrdy6ihnv5c2blwpvrbggoobda-story.html; "Creation of an Artificial Floating Island," Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/birds/seabird-conservation-in-hampton-roads/creation-of-an-artificial-floating-island/ (last checked May 3, 2020)

peregrin falcon viewing downtown in Richmond in 2020
peregrin falcon viewing downtown in Richmond in 2020
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Richmond Falcon Cam, Courtship at the Box


Habitats and Species
Virginia Places