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Monitoring Shorebirds Black skimmers take to the sky during a shore bird nesting survey on Wreck Island, Virginia Coast Reserve. © © Peter Frank Edwards

Stories in Virginia

VCR: Migratory Bird Conservation

Protecting migratory bird populations throughout VCR’s coastal habitats.

The barrier island beaches, marshes and mudflats of Virginia’s Eastern Shore provide globally important habitats for migratory birds throughout the year. 

For over four decades, The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve has developed a Migratory Bird Program that focuses on protecting and managing these habitats for many species of breeding, wintering and migrating birds. 

Monitoring Nesting Birds
Oystercatcher with chick
American Oystercatcher More oystercatchers breed in Virginia than any other state on the East Coast. © Ursula Dubrik fStop Foundation

Every year from April through August, thousands of birds nest and raise their young on Virginia's barrier island beaches. 

As part of VCR's Migratory Bird Program, we work closely with federal and state partners including US Fish & Wildlife Service, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to monitor and protect the nesting pairs and colonies, or groups, of birds on the islands. 

Long-term monitoring allows VCR and our partners to track changes in the size, location and even reproductive success of these bird populations – information that is critical for guiding management actions. 

Each year the Conservancy hires seasonal technicians and interns to assist with these monitoring efforts. 

Managing for Migratory Birds

Piping Plover chicks on the property of the Beach Club of Cape May, Inc.
Piping Plover Chicks A federally threatened species, this small, ghostly, solitary-nesting shorebird is well camouflaged against the background of a beach. © Dottie Dowling

In the spring and late summer the beaches of the Virginia Coast Reserve, as well as the marshes and mudflats, are also flooded with hundreds of thousands of migrating shorebirds on their journeys between far-away breeding and non-breeding grounds. 

Many of these species only spend a short amount of time in coastal Virginia every year, but the time they do spend here resting and feeding can make or break the success of their migratory journey. 

We work closely with partners like the Center for Conservation Biology and Virginia Tech to understand how these birds use Virginia’s coastal habitats and what they need for the best chances of survival. The barrier islands of Virginia have been recognized as a site of International Importance to shorebirds within the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.  

These bird species, many considered threatened or endangered, must overcome many challenges to successfully produce young or complete their migratory journeys.  Storm waves and extremely high tides can wash out large numbers of nests or drown flightless chicks. Predators such as raccoons, foxes, gulls, and crows will eat eggs, chicks, and even adult birds. 

Sharing the Beach
Signs are posted on VCR's barrier islands during prime bird nesting season from April through August.
Share the Beach Signs are posted on VCR's barrier islands during prime bird nesting season from April through August. © Gwynn Crichton / TNC

Human visitors to the islands - and their pets - can unknowingly trample eggs or chicks, keep adult birds from protecting their eggs or chicks from the hot sun or predators, attract more predators to the area and prevent birds from feeding themselves or their young enough food. 

As part of our Migratory Bird Program, VCR manages its barrier island properties to prevent some of these disturbances to the birds while still allowing for visitor access to these beautiful, remote natural areas. 

Staff and volunteers conduct visitor outreach on the islands and at local boat ramps to inform people of the nesting activity.  Staff and volunteers post hundreds of signs each year along the island chain to alert visitors to the presence of nesting birds.       

Visit our barrier island page to learn which Conservancy-owned barrier islands in Virginia are open for public use and about important use policies and restrictions.     

Conservation PARTNERS
Winnie the whimbrel is fitted with a tiny solar-powered transmitter to track her long-distance migration.
Tracking Lost Distance Travel Winnie the whimbrel is fitted with a tiny solar-powered transmitter to track her long-distance migration. © Barry Truitt / TNC

We work closely with many different partners to understand how bird populations use and depend on the Virginia Coast Reserve for survival.  We use that information to understand range-wide conservation needs and guide local management actions to protect and build resilient migratory bird populations both in coastal Virginia and throughout the hemisphere.    

  • US Fish & Wildlife Service
  • Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
  • Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation
  • Center for Conservation Biology
  • Virginia Tech
  • Virginia Marine Resources Commission
  • Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  • Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory 
CONTACT

Alex Wilke, Coastal Scientist
Phone: (757) 442-3049
Email: awilke@tnc.org