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A woman walks on the beach with a tripod resting across her shoulder. Black and white birds with thin orange bills fly overhead. The ocean is visible in the background.
Monitoring Shorebirds Black skimmers take to the sky during a shorebird nesting survey on Wreck Island, Virginia Coast Reserve. © Peter Frank Edwards

Stories in Virginia

Migratory Bird Conservation

Protecting migratory bird populations throughout VVCR’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 five decades, The Nature Conservancy’s Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve (VVCR) has developed a Migratory Bird Program that focuses on protecting and managing these habitats for many species of breeding, wintering and migrating birds. 

Spring at the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve Enjoy this view of VVCR through the eyes of our Migratory Bird Team. Spring is here and the arrival of migrating shorebirds from throughout the Western Hemisphere is underway!

Monitoring Nesting Birds

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

As part of VVCR's Migratory Bird Program, we work closely with federal and state partners including US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) and Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to monitor and protect the nesting pairs and colonies, or groups, of birds on the islands. 

Long-term monitoring allows VVCR 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 TNC hires seasonal technicians and interns to assist with these monitoring efforts. 

Three fuzzy white and gray piping plover chicks standing on a beach.
Piping Plover Chicks A federally threatened species, this small, ghostly, solitary-nesting shorebird is well camouflaged against the background of a beach. © Dottie Dowling

Managing for Migratory Birds

Nesting birds at the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve, many considered threatened or endangered, must overcome many challenges to successfully produce young. 

Storms and extremely high tides can wash out large numbers of nests or drown flightless chicks. Predators such as raccoons and foxes will eat eggs, chicks and even adult birds. And too much disturbance in their nesting areas can cause adults to leave nests and chicks, exposing them to predators or excessive temperatures. 

A bird with a black head and long, thin orange beak flaps its wings on a shell covered beach.
Caught on Camera An American oystercatcher snaps a selfie on one of 55 cameras installed on VVCR's barrier islands in 2019 to evaluate the impact of predators on nesting shorebirds. © TNC
As the sun set, a gull holds a shorebird egg in its beak. It stands in the middle of a wide, flat shell covered beach.
Shorebird Predation A gull is caught eating a shorebird egg by one of 55 cameras installed on VVCR barrier islands in 2019 to evaluate predator impacts on nesting shorebirds. © TNC
Caught on Camera An American oystercatcher snaps a selfie on one of 55 cameras installed on VVCR's barrier islands in 2019 to evaluate the impact of predators on nesting shorebirds. © TNC
Shorebird Predation A gull is caught eating a shorebird egg by one of 55 cameras installed on VVCR barrier islands in 2019 to evaluate predator impacts on nesting shorebirds. © TNC

During the 2019 nesting season, VVCR implemented a project, funded by USFWS and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundatin (NFWF), to use camera technology to evaluate predator populations and their impacts to nesting shorebirds on our barrier islands. 

Seasonal Technician Aylett Lipford diligently reviewed more than 1.9 million photos from 55 nest cameras, documenting events like gulls eating shorebird eggs, ghost crab interactions and a Peregrine Falcon eating a shorebird chick. The results of this project will inform our management of the barrier islands and will be incorporated into a guidance document for managers throughout the Atlantic Flyway.   

A Birder's Delight

Explore this list of commonly seen species at the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve.

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In the spring and late summer, VVCR's beaches, 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. The barrier islands of Virginia have been recognized as a site of International Importance to shorebirds within the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.  

A large yellow sign on Smith Island warns visitors of sensitive nesting areas nearby.
Share the Beach Signs are posted on VVCR's barrier islands during prime bird nesting season from April through August. © Gwynn Crichton / TNC

Sharing the Beach

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

Explore our Seaside is a new online resource developed by TNC and partners, with support from the Volgenau Foundation, to help visitors discover all of the incredible resources that this region supports and to learn about the partners dedicated to managing and protecting these coastal treasures. 

A person holds a brown speckled bird with a small tracking transmitter attached to its back.
Tracking Lost Distance Travel Winnie the whimbrel is fitted with a tiny solar-powered transmitter to track her long-distance migration. © Barry Truitt / TNC

Conservation PARTNERS

We work closely with many different partners to understand how bird populations use and depend on the Volgenau 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.    

CONTACT

Alexandra Wilke, Coastal Scientist
Phone: (757) 442-5417
Email: awilke@tnc.org