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Fall Offers Unique Opportunities to Appreciate Migrating Birds in Virginia

Each fall, millions of birds pass through the commonwealth during their fall migrations south, offering Virginians opportunities to see hawks, songbirds, and more.

“Virginia is in the East Coast flyway, in the path of birds headed south for the winter. Right now, you can see lots of birds at any place at any time,” said Robyn Puffenbarger, a Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener volunteer who is passionate about birdwatching.

“This is a big time for warblers, vireos, and shore birds,” said Puffenbarger, who suggests simply watching the birds outside your window. “Anywhere there is scrub brush where birds can eat and hide from a predator, you’ll see birds. If you can go to the Eastern Shore, Skyline Drive, or any place where you can hike or drive to be at elevation, you’ll see a lot of birds.”

“Observing birds is a wonderful way to connect with nature, and it is an activity you can do almost anywhere,” said Michelle Prysby, director of the Virginia Master Naturalist Program. “I love that even our most urban areas have birds to enjoy – peregrine falcons nest atop tall buildings in downtown Richmond.”

Connecting with the natural world through activities such as backyard birdwatching can improve the well-being of all Virginians. Virginia Cooperative Extension can help connect the people of the commonwealth with robust local programming around healthy choices, stewarding natural resources, and sharing scientific research from Virginia’s land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University.

Virginia has approximately 400 bird species, according to Prysby, who appreciates the challenge of learning to identify different species she sees in her neighborhood.

“Seeing and hearing different kinds of birds also helps me mark the seasons,” she said. “For example, in October, I’ll start hearing the white-throated sparrows sing, and as winter approaches, I’ll see dark-eyed juncos in my yard.”

Nighttime lights, such as streetlights and lamp posts, can confuse migrating birds, causing them to become disoriented and collide with buildings and windows or to become so exhausted they are vulnerable to other threats. Lights-out projects involve coordinated efforts to darken urban lights to help birds.

“If people in urban areas are interested in helping birds on migration, they can get involved with lights out projects,” Puffenbarger said.

Another way to help birds is by planting native plant species to create favorable habitats in your landscape.

“To increase your chances of observing a diversity of bird species in your yard, use native plant species in your landscaping to provide seeds and fruit for birds to eat, perching spots, and hiding spots from predators,” said Prysby. “Native plants also host a diversity of insects, which birds eat and use to feed their young. Keeping cats indoors is important because predation by cats has an enormous impact on bird populations.”

As raptors, which are predatory birds, migrate overhead this fall, Virginians can see incredible species such as red-tailed hawks and bald eagles. Hawk watches, where people organize to monitor and count migrating raptors, offer a great opportunity to see birds and learn from knowledgeable volunteers.

“Raptors are ecological indicators,” said Brian Hirt, a Virginia Master Naturalist volunteer who has been observing raptors for 25 years and is a hawk watch volunteer at the Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory. “When certain species suffer because of land loss or another issue, it affects the food chain. Raptor populations can show if something is wrong.”

During his years as a hawk watch volunteer, Hirt has seen bald eagle populations increase firsthand.

“Twenty-five years ago, I might see 10 or 15 bald eagles during the entire migration season,” said Hirt. “Now, with the recovery of the population, our record is 50 in one day.”

“The more you learn about raptors, the more interesting they become,” Hirt said. “They have such unique abilities. For example, the peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on the planet. It can reach 240 miles per hour as it dives. A red-tailed hawk coasting at 3,000 feet can spot a squirrel on the ground. Their eyesight is eight to 10 times better than a human during the day.”

Hirt recommends looking for a rare golden eagle this winter. “Golden eagles have a whole different demeanor than other raptors and they have terrific hunting abilities,” he said. “Most of the golden eagles we see in Virginia have migrated down from Canada and overwinter here.”

Hawk watch sites are located in the mountainous western part of Virginia as well as Kiptopeke State Park on the Eastern Shore. To learn more about hawk watches and find a location near you, search on the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources website.

Although it is rare, the snowy owl can also be seen in Virginia during periods where populations “irrupt,” or leave their northern habitats in large numbers for reasons scientists don’t fully understand.

“The birding community gets excited about snowy owls,” Puffenbarger said. “They don’t come every year, but your best bet to see them is on Assateague or Chincoteague Island as they fly down the coast in fall and winter.”

Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners and Virginia Master Naturalists work in communities across the commonwealth to share knowledge and implement research that advances the well-being of all Virginians. Through the strength of local partnerships, they contribute real solutions to the horticultural and environmental issues facing Virginia’s communities. Virginia Cooperative Extension brings the resources of Virginia’s land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, to the people of the commonwealth.

To learn more about gardening or join a community group of other passionate gardeners, contact your local Extension Master Gardener unit by searching for your county here or on Facebook. To learn more about the Master Naturalist program and find your local chapter, click here.

– Devon Johnson

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