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Look quick to spot migrating birds locally
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The migratory Blackburnian warbler, with a brilliant orange throat, is a favorite of Virginia Museum of Natural History bird expert Dr. Jim Beard. (Photos by J.A. Spendelow, courtesy of

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Birders, rejoice. Several species of birds are passing through Henry County and Martinsville on their annual spring migration, and it’s not too late to spot them.

According to Dr. Jim Beard, curator of earth sciences and the unofficial bird expert at the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) in Martinsville, April and May are the peak months to spot migrating birds locally.

“A lot of North American birds winter in the tropics,” Beard said. “For example, Cape May warblers winter in the Caribbean and they nest (build their nests and breed) in Maine and Canada. The only time you ever see them here is when they’re flying through in the spring. There are a lot of species like that. A lot of these are small, brightly colored things, some of which live in the treetops and are kind of hard to see, but some of which can be pretty conspicuous.”

In addition to the Cape May warbler — which is black and yellow with black streaks along its breast — another migratory bird that’s easy to spot is the chimney swift.

“If you look up in the sky pretty much any time of day in the summer in Martinsville, you’ll see them,” Beard said. “They look like little flying cigars. You can find those anywhere in the city. They make a chittering noise as they’re flying through the air. That’s how they locate their prey; it’s echolocation.”

Chimney swifts often form large clouds around dusk as they descend to their roosts inside chimneys. At the old VMNH location on Douglas Avenue, Beard said, huge groups of them often could be seen nesting around the building.

Like many migratory birds that can be spotted locally, Beard said, chimney swifts spend the winter in South America.

“Most insect-eating birds don’t like cold weather because there aren’t any insects around,” he said. “They tend to go to the tropics and then come back here in the springtime when there are more insects around.”

Because so many migratory birds are insectivorous (insect-eating), area residents won’t have much luck drawing their attention with a feeder full of birdseed. Water — preferably dripping water — is more likely to lure them into the backyard.

“They especially like it if there’s cover nearby, like if there’s a little bush or tree that they can perch in and drop down and get the water,” Beard said.

However, he said, there are exceptions. The rose-breasted grosbeak sometimes stops at birdfeeders for a quick bite.

“It’s a bird about the size of a robin,” Beard said. “It’s black and white with a big triangular red patch on its breast. This time of year, sometimes these guys will come to bird feeders. In fact, I’ve seen a couple in bird feeders this year. They don’t nest in Martinsville, but they nest in the mountains. If you go up to Blue Ridge, you can sometimes find them up there.”

Other species that local birders should keep an eye out for include the familiar barn swallow, with its forked tail; purple martins, deep-purple colored swallows that travel in colonies; the nighthawk, which often can be seen flying near the lights at night baseball games; scarlet tanagers, which nest near Philpott Lake; and the wood thrush, which is not often seen but has a beautiful, flute-like call.

Beard’s favorite migratory bird, however, is the Blackburnian warbler.

“It’s mostly a black and white bird, but it’s got a brilliant orange throat,” he said. “If you’re looking up into the trees and all of a sudden you see this flash of bright orange in there, that’s a great thing to see. I look forward to seeing that every year. I’ve seen a couple this spring, so I’m happy with my spring migration.”

If area residents aren’t having much luck spotting these birds around their homes, there are several area locations they should try visiting, Beard said.

“A good place is (Jack Dalton Park),” he said. “If you’re looking for birds in migration, they like to concentrate in urban islands. Parks in cities are pretty good places to go. You want to find a place with shallow running water with a little bit of cover nearby, and a lot of times you can see a lot of birds in there.”

Also, the campgrounds around Philpott Dam are good for spotting birds, Beard said, and in the early spring, the Blue Ridge Mountains are an excellent place to go birding.

Migratory birds arrive in the Henry County/Martinsville area and in the Blue Ridge Mountains at roughly the same time, he said, but because it takes a little longer for the trees to grow their leaves in the higher elevations, it’s easier to spot birds along the Blue Ridge.

Over the years, Beard said, he’s spotted some fairly unusual birds locally.

“One that really surprised me that I saw in Henry County a few years ago was a least tern,” Beard said. “I have no idea what it was doing here. That’s a bird that usually nests on the Barrier Islands on the coast, and very occasionally on sandbars and rivers.”

Another unusual find, he said, was “a yellow-crowned night heron, which lives on crayfish. It wouldn’t surprise me if they’re hiding along the Smith River someplace. I’ve only seen that bird once here.”

While he loves geology, Beard said he has a lifelong interest in all aspects of nature, birds included.

“Even when I was a kid, I could identify most things I saw out in the woods: birds, plants, whatever. Actually, rocks were the one thing I couldn’t identify,” he said, laughing. “Maybe that’s why I got so interested in (geology) later on.”

Beard has been bird watching for more than 30 years in various locations. In that time, he’s seen a wide variety of species locally.

“I’ve probably seen almost 200 species of birds just in the city and county,” he said. “You see a lot of stuff here if you spend enough time and you look around.”


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