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Virginia CZM Program: 2016 Coastal Grant Project Description and Final Summary

Project Task:VA CZM logo



The College of William and Mary - The Center for Conservation Biology (CCB)

Project Title:

Assessing the Status and Distribution of Colonial Waterbirds in Coastal Virginia (2018 Breeding Season)

Project Description:

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 every five years for trend analyses.  The 2018 survey will represent the sixth in the time series.  All of these surveys have systematically covered all 24 species of colonial waterbirds throughout the Coastal Plain physiographic area of Virginia.  The resulting data have been used by the regulatory and conservation community for a wide range of purposes.
CCB proposes to conduct the 2018 colonial waterbird survey for coastal Virginia.  The survey will include several partners including the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy and The Center for Conservation Biology.  As in previous surveys, the Coastal Plain has been subdivided into five sectors for survey purposes.  We are requesting funding to survey the “urban” sector including all of the independent cities (Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Newport News, Hampton and Portsmouth) of lower tidewater.  Funding or in-kind services required to survey other sectors is being provided by the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy and The Center for Conservation Biology.

Federal Funding:


Project Contact:

Bryan Watts, 757.221.2247,

Project Status:

4/15/18 - 9/28/18; Project Completed

Final Product:

Assessing the Status and Distribution of Nesting Herons in Urban Areas of Lower Tidewater, Virginia (2018 Breeding Season) (PDF)

Project Summary:

Twenty-five species of colonial waterbirds nest in Virginia including herons, egrets, ibises, gulls, terns, skimmers, cormorants, and pelicans.  A coalition of agencies, organizations and individuals has systematically surveyed waterbird nesting colonies throughout the Coastal Plain periodically since 1993.  The objectives of these surveys have been to develop timely data resources that may be used for environmental review and to assess long-term trends in breeding populations.  The 2018 survey represents a continuation of the series.  The objective of the sub-project reported here was to survey heronries throughout urban areas of lower Tidewater including the cities of Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Portsmouth. 
CCB surveyed lower Tidewater for heron colonies between 10 April and 3 July, 2018 by systematically driving or walking through neighborhoods and other urban areas.  CCB mapped and surveyed 90 heronries that supported great egrets, yellow-crowned night herons and green herons.  Colony size varied from 2 to 259 breeding pairs with 79% below 10 pairs and 93% below 20 pairs.  The total number of breeding pairs has increased by nearly 30% since 2003 but is comparable to the number found in 1993.  The number of colonies has increased steadily over time and is more than double that found in 1993.  The increase is due entirely to the proliferation (30 vs 86) of yellow-crowned night herons over this time.  The number of colonies of great egrets (7 vs 3) and green herons (11 vs 4) has declined over this same time.
Population changes of herons within urban areas should be viewed within the larger context of the state-wide population.  Great egrets continue to expand their breeding range westward in Virginia and the broader population has increased significantly over the past 30 years.  However, tension continues between urban-nesting pairs and landowners and several breeding locations have been lost.  Urban-nesting pairs of yellow-crowned night herons represent a significant percentage of the state-wide population.  Yellow-crowns have been declining within other breeding locations but have experienced resurgence within urban areas.  Although green herons breed widely throughout the state, population estimates have always been poor due to the difficulty of surveying for them.  Several important breeding sites within urban areas have been lost over the past 30 years resulting in a significant decline of the known population.  Causes for these losses remain unclear.
Technical Report: Watts, B. D. and M. U. Watts. 2018.  Assessing the status and distribution of nesting herons in urban areas of lower Tidewater, Virginia (2018 breeding season).  Center for Conservation Biology Technical Report Series, CCBTR-18-11.  College of William and Mary & Virginia Commonwealth University, Williamsburg, VA.  9 pp.
Database: Watts, B. D. and M. U. Watts 2018. Nesting herons in urban areas of lower Tidewater, VA 2018. The Center for Conservation Biology: CCBDB-18-12. College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University. Williamsburg, VA.
-This data will be included in the final 2018 colonial waterbird survey report to DGIF that will also be sent to CZM. 
-This data will be uploaded to the CCB Mapping Portal as part of the 2018 colonial waterbird survey update of that data series. URL:
-This data along with the rest of the colonial waterbird survey will be submitted to be published in the state ornithological journal (The Raven).

Disclaimer: This project summary provides the federal dollars initially awarded to the grantee. Due to underexpenditure or reprogramming of grant funds, this figure may change. For more information on the allocation of coastal grant funds, please contact Laura McKay, Virginia Coastal Program Manager, at 804.698.4323 or

A more detailed Scope of Work for this project is available. Please direct your request for a copy to or


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Virginia Department of
Environmental Quality
P.O. Box 1105
Richmond, VA 23218
(804) 698-4000

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