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Coming Through:
WV's Path For Migration

By Russ McClain

Bird watchingOne of the most conspicuous and eagerly awaited signs of spring in the Mountain State is the return of our neotropical migrant songbirds.   Whether enjoying a morning spent hunting for spring gobblers or simply taking a hike in one of the state's many natural areas, the activity and sounds of our returning songbirds are hard to miss.  

Coming from as far away as South America, these new arrivals are often in stark contrast to the late winter grayness of Appalachia, sporting uniforms of bright red, indigo blue and vibrant yellows.   From the jumbled, rattled whistles of the yellow-breasted chat to the melodic, liquid tune of the wood thrush, the fact that a new season is upon us cannot be ignored.

Neotropical migrant birds are those that, for the most part, nest in North America but spend the winter months as far south as the tropical habitats of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.   Over half of the 171 species of breeding birds typically seen or heard in West Virginia during the summer are neotropical migrants.   Indeed, almost half of all bird species that breed in the United States and Canada migrate to the neotropics where they spend six to nine months before returning north in the spring.

Most of them are insectivores, catching insects in a variety of entertaining ways-- mid-air fly catching, flushing prey from the ground and diving into old leaf tangles in the forest canopy.   In the spring, it is the increased food abundance, and the reduced competition for other resources such as nesting space, that brings them north.   Examples of West Virginia neotropical migrants include the broad-winged hawk, yellow-billed cuckoo, red-eyed vireo, cerulean warbler, scarlet tanager and the rose-breasted grosbeak which is featured on our state's Wildlife license plate.

The remainder of our breeding birds are either considered residents, spending the entire year close to the breeding grounds, or short-distance temperate migrants, wintering north of the tropics in places such as the southern United States.   Familiar birds such as the pileated woodpecker, northern cardinal, blue jay, chickadee and tufted titmouse generally stay with us from summer into the winter, often visiting our backyard feeders, eating wild seed, or gathering dormant insects from the bark of trees.  

Other species, such as the American robin, cedar waxwing, red-tailed hawk, eastern bluebird and American goldfinch, while seemingly present year-round, often

Birders Books

There are many resources available to assist birders in their enjoyment of WV's neotropical migrant birds, many available from the West Virginia Nongame Wildlife Program.  

Birding Guide to West Virginia by The Brooks Bird Club of West Virginia, 1999.

West Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas by Albert R. Buckelew and George A. Hall, 1994.

The National Audubon Society's  The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley, 2000.

The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, National Geographic Society, 1999.

Stokes Field Guide to the Birds, Eastern Region by Donald and Lillian Stokes, 1996.

Peterson Field Guide to the Eastern Birds by Roger Tory Peterson, 1980.

WV DNR Educational brochures -

Get Started Bird Watching, For The Birds...Feeding Birds in Your Backyard, Neotropical Migratory Birds of West Virginia and Birds of West Virginia Field Checklist.

For an excellent website , check out West Virginia's own Brooks Bird Club at

will migrate short distances to escape colder temperatures and harsh conditions.   The individuals of these species seen in the summer may be an entirely different set of birds than seen in the winter.   For instance, the goldfinch you see at your thistle feeder in January may be on winter vacation from Pennsylvania!

As early as the end of February in some counties, our resident comradery of chickadees, titmice, cardinals, finches and woodpeckers is complemented by an influx of temperate and tropical migrant birds.   One of the earliest arrivals, the eastern phoebe, can be found calling out in open spaces, advertising for a mate before most flowers have broken the ground.   In fact, most pairs of eastern phoebes complete their first nest prior to the arrival of many other migrant songbirds.  

Another species, the tree swallow, also arrives around this time, sustaining itself on berries and seeds until the weather warms.   Many other early migrants also eat fruit in the beginning of the breeding season, because insects are less available during the transition to spring.

These early arrivals are not typical of most of our neotropical migrants however.   Typically, most neotropical migrant birds arrive in West Virginia from early April to late May. The peak of migration occurs during the last two weeks of April and the

first two weeks of May.   During this time, multitudes of neotropical birds descend on the state, including many warblers, vireos, swallows, flycatchers and thrush species.

The Louisiana waterthrush is usually the earliest warbler to appear in the state, setting up residence along wooded stream bottoms where it feeds upon early-emerging aquatic insects such as mayflies and dragonflies, and the occasional crayfish.   The yellow-throated warbler is also an early arrival, primarily being spotted in areas of lower elevation such as the New River Gorge and Ohio River Valley.   They most often settle in areas of mature bottomland forest, in sycamore groves and open woodlands.  

In the higher elevations of the Allegheny mountains, the blue-headed vireo is one of the first breeders present on the nesting grounds while many other migrants are still moving through the state.   With its quizzical calls, it is a birdwatching favorite as it searches diligently for insects along branches and twigs--occasionally snatching them from mid-air!

As many a West Virginia birdwatcher can attest, our state is truly an exceptional area in which to see numerous neotropical migrant Bird watchingbirds, both during migration and the nesting season. Varying greatly in latitude, longitude and elevation, the Mountain State provides wonderful opportunities to view a variety of nesting birds.  

By traveling a short distance within the state, you can see both northern species, such as the Canada warbler, and southern species, such as the summer tanager. Our large tracts of mature, unbroken forest, as well as the variety of wetland and high elevation habitats, present an apparent endless variety of places to explore and enjoy watching birds, whether it be the return of a favorite species or the discovery of one you've never seen.

Russ McClain , a former ornithologist with the DNR and coordinator of the WV PIF working group, is stationed in Elkins .

WV Considered An Important Bird Area

In the early 1990s, studies began to show that populations of many neotropical migrant birds throughout North America had been seriously declining due to habitat loss and degradation.   As human populations have grown and land use has changed over the course of the 20 th century, conditions required by some bird species to survive and successfully reproduce have deteriorated.   In many areas of the United States, habitat destruction and degradation, through urban and suburban sprawl, commercial agriculture and fragmentation of forested areas, have all taken a serious toll on our birds.   As forests shrink in size, so do many of our bird populations.

We are fortunate in West Virginia, however, with large tracts of continuous forest and sparse human population, and as a rule, healthy populations of neotropical migrant songbirds.   In fact, many researchers suggest that the state's forests produce so many birds that populations of some species help to resupply other areas in the region more impacted by habitat destruction.   As a result, West Virginia has been identified as having a key responsibility in East Coast bird conservation - as a source population for some of our more threatened forest birds.  

With this designation comes the task of managing our forest resources in a responsible way, providing for both human resource needs and the habitat needs of neotropical migrant birds.   Though seemingly an easy task in a state with a wealth of forests, it will become an increasingly difficult situation as ever expanding human populations and an increasing need for forest products place a larger demand on our resources.  

With over 80 percent of WV's forested land in private ownership, and represented by mature timber or prime sites for housing and commercial development, it is predicted that we will begin to see a steady increase in the fragmentation of our woodlands.

Efforts are currently underway in West Virginia to promote responsible use, management and protection of our forests to best conserve migrant songbirds.   The WV Partners in Flight working group and the WV Important Bird Areas program, are already working to maintain bird populations in the state and identify new areas that deserve particular conservation attention.   Whereas Partners in Flight concentrates on conservation planning at a regional level, including promoting West Virginia as a source for many important species of songbirds, the Important Bird Areas program seeks to identify specific, essential, and vulnerable areas in which to focus conservation actions.  

To find out more about WV Partners in Flight and The Important Bird Areas Program, please contact West Virginia Partners in Flight, WVDNR, PO Box 67, Elkins , WV 26241. Or email:

-Russ McClain