Status and distribution of colonial waterbirds in coastal Virginia: 2018 breeding season

B. D. Watts, The Center for Conservation Biology
B J. Paxton, The Center for Conservation Biology
R Boettcher, The Center for Conservation Biology
A L. Wilke, The Center for Conservation Biology


Colonial waterbirds are highly visible components of coastal avifaunas that share the unusual characteristic of nesting in dense assemblages. One consequence of having large portions of populations nesting in few locations is that even restricted disturbance may have profound consequences on a population level. Development of conservation strategies for these sensitive species requires current status and distribution information. In the fall of 1992, a consortium of agencies and individuals agreed that a comprehensive monitoring program for the Virginia colonial waterbird community was needed and that assessments should be made on regular (initially every 10 years but reduced to 5 years in 2003) intervals for trend analyses. Systematic surveys have been conducted during the breeding seasons of 1993, 2003, 2008 and 2013. The 2018 survey reported here is the fifth in the time series. These surveys have covered colonial waterbird populations (24 species – Great Blue Herons were not included in 2008 and 2018 due to budgetary constraints) throughout the Coastal Plain province of Virginia. We surveyed 270 waterbird colonies during the breeding season of 2018. Colonies supported an estimated 43,159 breeding pairs of 23 species. Gulls were the most abundant group with more than 19,700 breeding pairs. Terns and waders accounted for 7,129 and 6,386 pairs respectively. Although they have declined dramatically, Laughing Gulls continue to be the most abundant species and were three times more abundant than any other species, accounting for nearly 40% of the total waterbird community. The barrier island/lagoon system of the Eastern Shore was the most important region for the majority of colonial species encountered. In 2018, this region supported 22 of the 23 species evaluated. The Eastern Shore accounted for 50.5% and 46.6% of all breeding pairs and colonies respectively. For 17 of the 23 species, the region supported more than 50% of the known coastal population. The colonial waterbird community as a whole in coastal Virginia has declined dramatically since 1993 (2018 survey did not include Great Blue Herons or all Great Egrets). Population estimates for 15 (68%) of the 22 species assessed declined between 1993 and 2018. Declines varied considerably between species with 14 species declining more than 40% and 9 species declining more than 60%. Cattle Egrets showed the highest loss rate (-96.7%), declining from an estimated 1,459 to only 48 pairs. Little Blue Herons declined by 83% from 374 to only 64 pairs. Seven species increased between 1993 and 2018. Dramatic expansions were documented for White Ibis, Double-crested Cormorant, and Brown Pelican. Over the past 25 years, two major forces appear to be shaping the colonial waterbird community in Virginia. These include 1) regional shifts in population centers that are driving population increases in Virginia and 2) habitat degradation related to sea-level rise. With the exception of Great Egrets, all species that have increased over the past 20 years have experienced ongoing range expansions and are riding a population wave that is progressing through Virginia. This includes Great Black-backed Gull, Double-crested Cormorant, Brown Pelican, and White Ibis. Most of the decline in medium-sized waders is being driven by habitat loss related to erosion of islands. This erosion results from sea-level rise, is ongoing and represents a significant threat to these populations. Several ground-nesting seabirds are likely more directly impacted by the loss of viable habitat and demographic impacts related to frequent flooding. The most notable example is the Laughing Gull that has experienced a catastrophic decline in both population and distribution.