Virginia Rusty Blackbird Winter Blitz

Welcome to the website of the Virginia Rusty Blackbird Winter Blitz. The Rusty Blackbird is one of the fastest declining North American passerines and as such is the focus of the recently formed International Rusty Blackbird Technical Working Group. In 2009 and 2010, the Group organized the volunteer-based Blitz to document occurrences of the species across its wintering range, including Virginia. The Blitz is being repeated for a third and final time in 2011 between Jan 29 - Feb 13. Please read on for information about the Blitz and the status and ecology of the Rusty Blackbird in Virginia.

Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird Status in Virginia

The Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) has undergone critical population declines in recent decades, with losses estimated at between 85 and 97% based on data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). This surpasses the well-publicized population declines of many forest interior and grassland birds. In Virginia the Rusty Blackbird was identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the state's Wildlife Action Plan, published in 2005 by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF).

To date, no formal surveys of the species have been undertaken in Virginia. Beyond documentation of occurrences by Virginia's birding community, the best data for the species is generated by the annual Christmas Bird Count. CBC data indicates that the bird is widely distributed across the state and is documented more consistently in certain parts of the state (northern Piedmont, Eastern Shore and southeast Coastal Plain) than others (click on picture below for larger image).

CBC data also suggests that the species is somewhat nomadic during the winter, as it is not recorded consistently within individual CBC circles across years and as the total number of birds counted per circle fluctuates widely over time. In the past two decades those numbers have ranged from no individuals counted to flocks of a few hundred to over one thousand (download PDF table of Rusty Blackbird CBC data here). However, the Rusty's flocking tendencies no doubt complicate the picture, as mobile flocks present within a CBC circle may not be documented during a given count. The distribution of CBC circles in Virginia also leaves large gaps in coverage. Although not all active CBC circles are shown in the figure above, the central Piedmont, the southwestern Coastal Plain as well as riparian areas of the major tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay (where good potential habitat can be found) are clearly under-represented.

Rusty Blackbird Ecology

The Rusty Blackbird is a breeder in boreal forested wetlands of northern New England, Alaska and the Canadian Provinces and winters largely in the southeastern United States, including Virginia. In Virginia the bird is observed between October and April, which encompasses its fall and spring migratory period as well as its winter stay in the state (between December and February). During both migration and winter the species is often gregarious. Rusty Blackbirds may roost and forage in single-species flocks, but are often encountered in mixed flocks with other blackbirds, notably grackles, cowbirds and red-winged blackbirds. Wintering Rusty Blackbirds are generally associated with swamps, but also forage in open marshes and in a variety of upland habitats, including upland woods, fields, and cattle and hog feed lots. During this period they are omnivorous, foraging on a variety of agricultural crops (including peanut fields), acorn mast (especially acorns of willow oak), beech nuts, pine and other seeds, fruits of various trees and shrubs, as well as aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates and small aquatic vertebrates. Further information on the ecology of the Rusty Blackbird and on the potential causes of its decline is summarized in this article in the Smithsonian Zoogoer.

Rusty Blackbird Winter Blitz

The Rusty Blackbird Winter Blitz is a project of the International Rusty Blackbird Technical Working Group, a consortium of partners led by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Research Center. Formed in 2005, the Group has worked to raise the Rusty Blackbird's conservation profile and to help coordinate research taking place across its range. Because population declines may be occurring on both its breeding and wintering grounds, information is urgently needed for both. The Blitz is specifically aimed at the species' wintering range. Here the birds are increasingly scarce and patchy in their distribution, making it challenging to learn about distribution, abundance and ecology as a basis for conservation efforts. The Blitz is an effort to begin addressing these data gaps through a citizen-science approach involving skilled volunteers. It seeks to harness the power of the birding community to collect baseline information as a starting point for future monitoring and conservation activities. In addition, the Blitz aims to gather information that both includes and extends beyond traditional CBC areas, that is linked to specific sites (rather than broader circles) and that is housed in a centralized database. All data collected through the Blitz are stored in eBird, a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society.

In Virginia the Blitz is coordinated as a project of the Virginia Bird Conservation Initiative by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in partnership with the Virginia Society of Ornithology, the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory and the Virginia Important Bird Areas Program. Virginia eBird acts as a portal for data entry.

The 2009 Rusty Blackbird Winter Blitz was held Feb 7-16 and saw participation by 173 birders in 27 states ranging from Massachusetts to Texas. The 2010 Blitz took place Jan 30 - Feb 15 with contributions by 207 birders from 31 states, a 20% increase in participation. In 2010 Virginia ranked third among states in the number of Rusty Blackbird sightings reported. This was accomplished despite the heavy winter weather that plagued the state during portions of the Blitz period. An interactive map of these locations, as well as other results from the 2010 Blitz, can be viewed here.

2011 Blitz

On the heels of the success of the 2009 and 2010 Blitzes, the Blitz is being repeated one last time in 2011. This final year of data collection will round out the effort of the first two years by expanding coverage of past Blitzes, locating additional sites occupied by Rusty Blackbirds, and providing additional data on the stability of these sites across years. In 2011, the Blitz will be held Jan 29 - Feb 13, during which time the blackbirds are easier to find as males sing and the population is relatively sedentary. During this period, volunteers will search for the birds in any locations and habitats that are potentially suitable for wintering Rusty Blackbirds, particularly flocks or concentrations (e.g., dozens or even hundreds of birds). Volunteers who participated in 2009 and/or 2010 are also encouraged to revisit sites where they documented the species to collect data on consistency of use of these sites between years. You can rely on your database of previous sightings, birding intuition, or local knowledge to search the most likely places for wintering Rusty Blackbirds. The Christmas Bird Count information presented above also indicates geographic areas where Rusty Blackbirds have been detected, as well as areas that historically have lacked in coverage. We recommend that you coordinate with other potential Blitz participants in your area to increase geographic coverage, especially if you belong to a bird club or Audubon Society chapter. You may search wherever you like, whenever you like, and as often as you like during the Blitz period. You will be collecting basic information on areas of occurrence (and, equally important, non-occurrence) and flock sizes. We ask that you submit your observations through Virginia eBird, so that they may be analyzed together with eBird Blitz observations from other states. If you are not already registered to eBird, this is a great opportunity to join. Signing up and using eBird is very easy, and you can find instructions on how to do so at the Virginia eBird site.

You can find detailed Blitz protocols and data forms, as well as instructions on entering your results into eBird at the Smithsonian's Rusty Blackbird Blitz website. This information can also be accessed through the Blitz Facebook page.

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