In Virginia the pandemic gave rise to some unexpected stars: birds.

By: - April 6, 2021 12:01 am

Oystercatchers off the Eastern Shore of Virginia mingle with gulls. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

On the second Easter Sunday of the pandemic, as children all around Virginia hunted for eggs on the ground, the most eagerly anticipated egg of all was gently deposited 22 stories above the city of Richmond by a peregrine falcon named 95/AK. 

It’s safe to say that 95/AK gave the Easter Bunny a run for his money this year. Since March 1, the livestream of the nesting box atop the downtown high-rise where she and her mate have been breeding has been viewed more than 90,000 times. Over 3,300 people have signed up for email updates on how the pair is doing

“It’s no secret that last year was quite challenging, but through that challenge, and more people being home around a computer or any other device, we’ve seen a 20 percent increase in viewership in the first month (of 2021) alone,” said Paige Pearson, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, which runs the livestream.

Over a dark and often dull 13 months of pandemic life, birds have proven a bright spot for many housebound Virginians. Maybe it’s their ubiquity; there are more than 470 species of birds found in the commonwealth. Maybe it’s their frequently festive plumage, a reminder of how we too used to dress up and flock together to socialize, to find mates, to haggle over resources.

Or maybe it’s the flying thing: there’s a reason that birds are a symbol of freedom. Until March 2020, most of us had probably never been as jealous of a grackle as we suddenly were then. 

Peregrine falcon 95/AK checks out some eggs she has laid in her nestbox in Richmond in view of a livestream camera set up by the Department of Wildlife Resources. (Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources)

Whatever the reason, bird watching both physical and virtual has soared in many places over the past year. According to data from the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, Richmond Falcon Cam pageviews nearly doubled between 2019 and 2020, while update subscribers more than tripled. 

The Chesapeake Conservancy, which works extensively in Virginia and operates three bird livestreams in Maryland including one of great blue herons on the Eastern Shore, has also seen viewership rise. 

“We observed an increase in interest in the cams in 2020, as people turned toward them for solace and a connection to nature while distancing to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” said conservancy spokesperson Jody Couser. “As the 2021 season begins, this trend continues.” 

Still, other pandemic effects like widespread school closures have also left a mark on audiences of avian enthusiasts. Ryan Abrahamsen, a part-owner of Riverside Outfitters in Richmond who with partner Andy Thompson started the RVA Osprey Cam in 2017, said that while he didn’t believe COVID had increased viewership overall, “it’s likely we have increased steady viewership.” 

“In years past classroom settings typically had the live feeds going in their classrooms — Holton Elementary for example, but because of COVID that is no longer happening,” he wrote in an email. (In another, unrelated blow, a camera malfunction took the Richmond Osprey Cam offline this year, although Riverside Outfitters is still operating an eagle camera in Port Tobacco, Md., and a falcon camera on the James River Bridge in Newport News.) 

Audiences can ebb and flow too depending on whether the breeding season produces offspring: Couser noted that viewership of the ospreys on Kent Island declined after their eggs failed to hatch in 2020. Unsurprisingly, stressed-out Virginians really just wanted to look at baby chicks. 

If that’s the case, the odds look good for the Richmond falcons. The Easter egg was the fourth 95/AK has produced this year. Last year also saw her produce a four-egg brood — with Dumfries falcon 24/AU, who had to be euthanized this January after a severe accident — of which one hatched. That little one, which flew the coop last July, has since been relocated to Shenandoah National Park. 

Whether this year’s eggs prove as fruitful is any of thousands of Virginians’ guess.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing. She previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress, and her work has been twice honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Institute and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

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