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ODU Class Registers First Sighting of Northern Lapwing in Virginia

lapwingcNorthern Lapwing (photo from Web source) robyn-natashaRobyn Nadolny (left) and Natasha Hagemeyer

Up until last week, there had been no sightings in Virginia of the Northern Lapwing, a mostly blackish and white bird about the size of a crow that is commonly found in Europe and Asia. But that changed, thanks to Robyn Nadolny, a doctoral student at Old Dominion University who specializes in ticks.

Actually, Nadolny had some help from birders, with whom she had trekked into Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach on Nov. 20. She was on a field trip with the Field Ornithology class of Eric Walters, assistant professor of biological sciences at ODU. Nadolny said she took the class, in which most of the students are undergraduates, because birds are the hosts for many species of ticks in Hampton Roads and learning how to identify birds is relevant to her dissertation. "It's been a lot of fun to round out my naturalist skills with this class," she explained.

Walters said the Field Ornithology class goes on a field trip each week. "This happened to be Back Bay, a site we had not visited this semester. I had picked this location because I wanted the class to get an opportunity to see Tundra Swans and other wintering waterfowl. We were looking at the various birds and had been watching one area for about 30 minutes when a strange bird arrived. We originally thought it was a Northern Harrier, as it was being chased by a bald eagle. After it landed, we realized that it was not a bird of prey. It looked and acted like a shorebird. But, the markings were not familiar to me."

Cue Nadolny. "I am the only graduate student in the class whose research is not primarily focused on birds, and I think it was that inexperience that led to the correct ID," she said. "Because I don't have a lot of experience identifying and working with birds, I was only focusing on the morphology of the bird and not on which birds were common to our area. Flipping through my Peterson's Field Guide, I stopped on the Rare Shorebirds page; the illustration of the Northern Lapwing, which is an occasional vagrant in the Northeast after being blown over by late autumn storms, jumped right out at me. The distinct black bib, crest, white underwing coverts, and most especially the hawk-like flight, combined with the shorebird stance, absolutely sold me right away. Because I had never heard of this bird before, I had no idea of its rarity when I called out, 'It's a Northern Lapwing!' It was thrilling enough to identify a bird we were struggling with, but it was very exciting to have been a part of a sighting that is so remarkably rare."

Walters admits that he was skeptical at first. "Robyn Nadolny suggested to me that it was a Northern Lapwing. I was not familiar with this species and dismissed the suggestion. I continued to look at the bird through a spotting scope. As I called out field marks, both Robyn and Natasha Hagemeyer (another graduate student in the class) said 'check' after each was called out. I still did not believe that this was a Northern Lapwing. There has never been a record from Virginia. So I continued to study the bird. Half of the class left to go see if they could get a closer look. As I continued to watch the bird, I could see the diagnostic crest on top, the rusty tail coverts, the black bib and other diagnostic features. They eventually convinced me that this was the real deal and so I suggested they call the Virginia Rare Bird Alert hotline."

Hagemeyer is a Ph.D. student mentored by Walters, yet this was her first ornithology class and her work in the past has been more with songbirds than shorebirds. "Shorebirds can be very difficult to identify, so when our mystery bird landed and it became apparent that it was a shorebird, we had both scopes on it. I got very frustrated, as I had thought I'd mastered the shorebirds, but could not identify this particular one."

Laysa Hedjar, an undergraduate in the class, persisted in trying to take photos of the bird through a spotting scope, Walters said. "She eventually succeeded in capturing some photos that leave no doubt about the identity of the bird."

Because the field trip had a time limit to accommodate the students' schedules, the class had to say goodbye to the exotic bird. "Unfortunately, no other birders were able to see the Northern Lapwing," Walters said. "Our ODU class may end up being the only people to have ever seen a Northern Lapwing in Virginia. It was a special moment and I was proud to be able to share such an important discovery with the class. I am sure many of them will never forget it."

Nadolny and Hagemeyer have submitted the field observations and photographic evidence to the Virginia Avian Records Committee. If accepted, this will be recognized officially as the first and only sighting of a Northern Lapwing in Virginia. Because the species is endemic to Eurasia, it is extremely rare to find a Northern Lapwing in North America.

As it turns out, there were other reports in November of Northern Lapwings being sighted in Maryland and farther up the East Coast. These sightings attracted bird watchers from across the country who wanted to take advantage of this rare chance to view this species. According to the Wild Facts website, "In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there has been a lot of talk among birders about which rare sightings they might be able to manage. Many species that are not often seen in the United States were spotted during and after the storm swept the East Coast. These include the Pomarine Jaeger, Petrels, Northern Gannets, Ross's Gulls, and even some Northern Lapwings."

Apparently, the Northern Lapwings were swept off course during migration by a combination of the winds of Sandy and high pressure in the north Atlantic.

Nadolny is a second-year Ph.D. student working with Holly Gaff, assistant professor of biological sciences, whose research focus is on the ecology of ticks and tick-borne disease.