Cerulean Warbler

Introduction to Bird Watching in Virginia

Virginians take pride in their history, a long and rich tradition going back to the first English settlement at Jamestown in 1607.  Living in a strange new place, these early colonists were interested in all aspects of their surroundings, and we have a description of wildlife from the writings of John Smith in 1608.  Among his entries are mentions of waterfowl, herons, red-winged blackbirds, and eagles.  Many notable naturalists including John Bannister, John Clayton, Mark Catesby, and John  James Audubon added to our knowledge of bird distribution in Virginia.

Our third United States president, Thomas Jefferson, had two homes, one at Monticello near Charlottesville and the other, Poplar Forest, in what is now Bedford County.  He was particularly interested in nature and compiled a list of 100 Virginia birds in 1789.  By the early 1900s interest in ornithology in Virginia had intensified, probably fueled in part by the 1890 publication of the Catalog of the Birds of Virginia by William Rives, and in 1913 Harold H. Bailey published the first compilation of breeding birds of the state.

Over the years both attitudes toward and interaction with birdlife changed.  Prior to the last century many people viewed virtually all natural resources as commodities from which they were entitled to profit.  By 1900 two species once common in Virginia, the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon, had become extinct in the state.  Market hunters, both for the table and millinery trade, began to have a serious impact on the population of birds, especially along the Virginia coast.  Gradually the public began to realize the magnitude of loss and conservation became an issue of importance.

In 1929 a young professor of biology at Lynchburg College, Ruskin Freer, invited all interested parties to meet in Lynchburg with the purpose of establishing a state-wide ornithological society.  On December 7 of that year the Virginia Society of Ornithology was founded to promote the study and conservation of birds in the state.  With a membership today of approximately 1,000, this organization continues to work toward those goals and attracts both the amateur bird watcher and professional ornithologist.  Some of the projects and publications sponsored by the Virginia Society of Ornithology include an Atlas of the Breeding Birds, an Annotated Checklist of Birds, and a field list that is periodically updated.  For more specific information about this organization, please check the Birding Resources found at the end of this section.

As a mid-Atlantic state, the geographic location of Virginia makes it one of the more interesting places to watch birds.  From the sandy coastline of the beaches to the sharp ridges of the Appalachians, there is a wide variety of habitat.  The capital, Richmond, is about halfway between the borders of Maine and Florida, and, as might be expected, some species reach their northernmost extension here, whereas others are at the southern edge of their range.  Bachman’s sparrow, more often associated with pine plantations and scrubby fields of the southern United States, is occasionally seen in Virginia, and the purple finch, state bird of New Hampshire, breeds at higher elevations in the mountains.

The undeveloped barrier islands bordering the Atlantic Ocean provide prime habitat for breeding gulls, terns, herons, egrets, and shorebirds.  Virginia has been fortunate in retaining most of the beaches along the Eastern Shore in a natural state.  Much of this property is under federal and state protection or is owned by the Nature Conservancy.  These barrier beaches are essential stop-overs for shorebirds during migration.  By September songbirds and raptors will begin to funnel down the Delmarva Peninsula and gather by the thousands at the southern tip.  A visit to the fall banding station at Kiptopeke State Park allows “up close and personal” views of netted birds.

In 1964 the 17-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel connecting the Eastern Shore with the mainland of Virginia was opened.  Generally speaking, rocky coastlines are associated with New England states, but the massive rocks placed along the islands now provide a suitable substitute habitat and have attracted birds with a more northern affinity.  Harlequin ducks, along with both common and king eiders, are usually spotted from the bridge every winter and purple sandpipers often feed by the tunnel islands.  The southernmost tunnel island is open to the public, and during the winter it is a good spot from which to look for gannets, scoters, red-throated loons, and horned grebes.

The Chesapeake Bay, one of the world’s richest estuaries, borders miles of shoreline and is the wintering ground for a significant number of waterfowl.  Canvasback, redhead, long-tailed duck, and both species of scaup are among the species that can usually be found.  Four major rivers, the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac empty into the Chesapeake Bay.  Along the bay and lower portion of these rivers, bald eagles have made a dramatic comeback and are once more a common sight.  In 2003 the annual survey conducted by the Center for Conservation Biology in Williamsburg reported more than 350 active bald eagle nests from this region.

Toward the western part of Virginia the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains are home to birds that are unlikely to be spotted in the eastern areas of the state.  It is here that the Blackburnian, chestnut-sided, and cerulean warblers can be found during the summer months.  Spruce dominate the highest ridges of Mount Rogers and even the hermit thrush, normally associated with more northern latitudes, is known to nest there.

Part of the excitement of bird watching in Virginia is that a short trip across the state can produce such a variety of birdlife.  The most recent edition of the state’s field checklist totals 365 species with another 50 or so that have been recorded fewer than 6 times.  During spring even a moderately successful day in the field can result in sightings of more than 100 species, and for anyone energetic enough to drive from the mountains to the coast in a single day a goal of 175 species is certainly reasonable.

The beginning bird watcher may now be feeling somewhat overwhelmed at the mention of sighting species numbers in the triple digits, when identifying only 20 seems like a major task.  If watching birds is a new idea, where does one start and what should be done first?  The following 5 suggestions will help get the fundamentals in place and set the novice on the road to bird identification.

  1. Purchase a good field guide. Numerous field guides are available today.  This book is a good beginning step, but because only 100 species are illustrated here and 365 regularly occur in Virginia, there are obviously some birds that you won’t be able to identify if this is your only resource.  In general, most field guides cover a large area, often all of North America.  Make sure that such a publication has maps illustrating the range of the bird.  It won’t do you much good to carefully check all of the field marks on that little brown bird in your yard against the rufous-crowned sparrow, because the rufous-crowned has never been seen in Virginia anyway.Most experienced bird watchers prefer field guides with drawings as opposed to photographs.  A photograph shows a specific bird in some particular kind of lighting condition at a moment in time, and the bird that you are viewing may not fall into that category.  A drawing, on the other hand, is usually representative of what the species should resemble and accentuates the key field marks that are needed to identify the bird.Once you bring your new field guide home, don’t just throw it in a drawer somewhere.  Keep the book within handy reach and when you have a few moments to spare, glance through it.  Learn where the sparrows are located in your field guide, the differences between tanagers and orioles, find the eye-catching birds that you would really like to see someday.  The more familiar you are with the book, the easier it will be to use in the field.
  2. Learn to use your ears. If you have ever been out with an experienced birder, you may have been rattled as bird after bird was called out and you never saw a thing.  The sad truth is that for every one bird seen on a woodland walk, nine will be heard.  So, if you can not identify birds by call, you will be blissfully unaware of 90 percent of the birds around you.  Try to learn 50 of the most common bird songs and you will be immediately aware if something sings that you don’t recognize, and you can track it down.If you think that learning 50 bird songs is an impossible task, just ask yourself how many different people you can identify by their voice on the telephone.  You use your auditory skills to distinguish timbre, inflection, accent, and tone quality.  These are the same skills used to learn bird songs.  Both tapes and CDs of bird songs are available.  The best method of learning the calls is to choose five species of birds most likely to be found near your home and listen only to those five calls for half an hour every day for a week.  You can transfer the calls to a tape and play it in the car on the way to work, as you fix dinner, or as you relax before going to bed.  After a week, add five more songs.  In less than three months you will have a good command of the 50 bird calls that you are most likely to hear.One especially nice aspect of learning bird sounds is that you are unlikely to forget them.  The part of the brain that masters tunes and songs differs from that where we store facts.  The day may come when you can’t remember what important event occurred in 1066, but if you go outside the cheerful notes of the cardinal will be forever embedded in your mind.  You will know that there is a bluebird in the nearby field, a song sparrow under the hedge, and a towhee down by the creek.  (If you doubt that your brain handles songs differently, think of the name of a tune that you know, and see if the melody doesn’t pop into your mind.)
  3. Carry good optical equipment. Buy the best binoculars that you can afford—you can often find adequate binoculars for a reasonable sum.  If you plan to use the binoculars on long walks or for many hours at a time, find something fairly lightweight.  If the optics are too heavy to carry around your neck, try a shoulder harness, available in most birding specialty stores or catalogs.  Make sure that the binoculars are at least 7x (magnify by 7) and, for those unfamiliar with the use of binoculars, probably not higher than 8x.  With magnification lower than 7x you will not be able to see details, but as magnification increases, the field of view decreases and it becomes more difficult to locate the bird.  The binoculars should have a reasonably wide angle of view so that you can spot a small target flitting in the top of a distant tree.Although it is not always possible, particularly if you order optical equipment by mail or over the Internet, it is always a good idea to try out a pair of binoculars before you purchase them.  In many respects binoculars are like shoes.  What feels comfortable to one person simply does not suit another.  If you know someone who has binoculars, ask if you may look through them.
  4. Establish contact with other bird watchers. Virginia is home to more than 25 local bird clubs and there is probably one near your area.  Check the Virginia Society of Ornithology website for a complete listing.  Most bird clubs sponsor field trips, annual winter bird counts, and various educational activities.  The clubs are happy to welcome beginners and the easiest way to learn more about birds is to go out in the field with someone who is familiar with the species most likely to be found.  On your first organized birdwalk, if you identify yourself as a novice someone will usually make a special effort to help you find the birds.Members of the bird club will also know about the best bird-watching spots in your area.  The club can provide information about local checklists, those devoted to birds of your county or city, and other publications of interest.  Most bird clubs have a newsletter that carries information about returning migrants, unusual species spotted nearby, and any upcoming festivals or meetings.
  5. Consider joining the Virginia Society of Ornithology. Quarterly newsletters will keep you in touch with birding activities at a statewide level.  The organization sponsors field trips every year to some of the most interesting bird-watching sites in the state. The publication also provides information on conservation issues that pertain to birds and access to a wealth of ornithogical information.

And, a last piece of advice, in addition to the five tips, is simply to enjoy the birds.  Watch what is going on around your home and try to be aware of what the birds are doing.  Whether it is a hummingbird zipping by the porch or a song sparrow scratching under the feeder, birds are a unique window to the world of nature that is all around us.  Enjoy the view.

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