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Millions of birds are migrating through Hampton Roads – and this week is the peak

A flock of red-wing blackbirds over a marsh at Dutch Gap Conservation Area in Chester, Virginia. (Photo via Shutterstock)
A flock of red-wing blackbirds over a marsh at Dutch Gap Conservation Area in Chester, Virginia. (Photo via Shutterstock)

If you like spotting birds in Hampton Roads, this week and next would be a good time to look to the skies.

An annual “bird migration bonanza” is expected to peak in Virginia and North Carolina in early May, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s national BirdCast tracker.

“That’s what prompts a great deal of excitement this time of the year,” said Bill Williams, vice president of the Virginia Society of Ornithology. “People are always anxious to see what might be in their backyard or at their local birding hotspot.”

During this time, more than a billion birds may be in the air on a single night in the continental U.S., particularly the Southeast, according to the Cornell Lab. They include warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, blackbirds and orioles headed northward to colder breeding grounds. 

A majority of migratory birds travel under the cover of darkness, unnoticed by most human residents. 

That’s because of a calmer atmosphere, safety from predators and guidance from the stars, according to the Audubon Society. 

About 500 species migrate along what’s known as the Atlantic Flyway, from tropical areas of South America and the Caribbean to Canada and as far north as the Arctic.

Williams said many species stop in Hampton Roads to refuel and fatten up. 

“Others, once they get going, don’t stop at all,” he said.

Tools like BirdCast help birders predict peak opportunities. For example, nearly 400 million birds are predicted to migrate across the country Wednesday night. 

But Williams said these trackers don’t pinpoint which species are passing at a given time.

Coastal Virginia’s a good birding area because birds also use coastlines to guide their journey, in addition to mountain ranges like the Appalachians, Williams said.

Though migration activities may be at night, Williams said you can still spot plenty of migratory birds as they eat and hang out in Hampton Roads during the day.

Any local park or natural area is a good birding spot, especially along the coast, he said. 

Some of his favorites include Pleasure House Point and False Cape State Park in Virginia Beach, Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve and Paradise Creek Nature Park in Portsmouth, Grandview Beach in Hampton and the Noland Trail in Newport News.

Over the past half-century, bird populations nationwide have dramatically declined – an across the board drop of nearly 30% since 1970, according to recent research

“They are our canaries in the coal mine,” Williams said. “They're telling us the health of our natural resources. So when we see bird populations declining, there are other species, plant and animal, that are declining as well.”

Habitat loss is a big reason, along with window and building strikes.

Birds can get disoriented by city lights and collide with windows from homes to skyscrapers.

For that reason, the Cornell Lab and other bird advocates ask residents to participate in a Lights Out initiative during migration season, which stretches through mid-June.

That means turning off all non-essential indoor and outdoor lights between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Lastly, there’s a “not very popular topic but it’s one that needs to be addressed,” Williams said. 

“And that is, keep your cats indoors.”

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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