NATURE NOTE – Number 67 April 28, 2023
Regardless of where you live in the BRMC area, there is a good possibility that you will see some interesting birds that we have not talked about in earlier NATURE NOTES. These may not be common in some areas, but they are out there, and because they fly and are drawn to ponds, streams, and rivers, there is a good change that you may stumble upon some of these during one of your Scouting outings during the spring to fall seasons. So be prepared to know something about…
Our Current Topic: Waders and Inland Shore birds
This group does not include ducks, geese, etc. that we discussed in NN # 61, but some other birds that we might think of as “water birds”. Let’s take a closer look at some of these in our area of western and central Virginia.
The most common is the large (46” long, with a 72” wing span) Great-blue heron. Often seen standing alone in a stream or slowly flying overhead with its long legs dragging out behind, this is a beautiful blue and grey bird you can find in all seasons in our area. Once seen, this becomes a memorable nature moment for most scouts.
We also have some smaller herons, such as the chunky Green-back heron. This dark, crow-size heron is likely to be seen in the very early morning along a stream or pond near woodlands and is likely to give out a loud “squawk” when disturbed. Often its neck is curled up and not extended like the Great-blue. When in flight, this bird appears almost tailless with yellow legs trailing out behind. These birds have occurred at both of our reservation lakes.
Two other less common species are the Yellow-crowned Night heron and the Black-crowned Night heron. Not uncommon in the Roanoke River, I suspect they are more common all around the area than we might think. Since they are typically active at dusk and dawn, they are often overlooked. These are also roughly crow-sized birds with color on their head that is a major identifying feature. The Yellow-crowned has a black and white stripe along the top of its head, and a not-too-easy-to see yellow crown. The Black-crowned is a stocky heron with white underneath and a black crown and back.
The Egrets: less common, but seen time to time, are these all-white birds.
The Great egret is the very large one, standing over 3 feet tall, usually near water, but not always. Its long yellow bill and black legs are keys to this bird. It’s likely a summer visitor only.
The much smaller Cattle egret (20” tall) is most likely not near water, but in a pasture, maybe with cattle, and often in small groups pecking around in the grass for insects. A critical, and easy to see, marking of this bird is the brownish-orange color on the crest, breast and wings during breeding season. Stockier than other egrets, this one has an orange bill. It is not a native bird, but one that has moved from Africa, thru South America, into Florida, and north along the east coast.
The smaller, non-herons and non-egrets, include two rather common sandpiper-type birds.
The first is the Killdeer. A beige-colored, pigeon-sized bird of open fields and golf courses, is easily recognized by the two black bands across its white breast. Unlikely to be seen in the winter, it’s common in the summer. Listen for the loud “Kill-dee”. This bird has the unique habit of distracting its predators away from its nest by faking a wing injury. Watch the parade field at Powhatan.
The other is the Spotted sandpiper. This fairly common small (7 ½”) bird will be found near water, often in pairs, flying out over the pond or river and showing very conspicuous white wing spots and frequently issuing a high-pitched “WEEET”. If you see this bird standing on a rock near a stream, it will identify itself with a very noticeable nodding, or dipping motion, and if you are very close you will see the strong dark spots on its light breast – hence the name.
If you travel during the summer to the beaches, the opportunity to see water birds of all types greatly increases. I won’t try to single out any particular species, as there are many. Toss a field guide and binoculars into your beach bag and see what you can find when you get bored with the sun and waves.
During migration, the chance of seeing a greater number of sandpipers, plovers, herons, etc. increases though out our area. Many of these look very similar and can be difficult to identify. You might just want to focus on those few species listed above for the BRMC area. They are out there, and there is a good chance you will see some of these different birds. This gives you an opportunity to start a conversation about nature with your scouts and cultivate an interest. Maybe it’s the beginning of Bird Study Merit Badge. This NOTE gives you some info you can use. Remember, you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy and learn more about nature. Just add a little knowledge as you go and it will expand over time.