Important Bird Areas

Allegheny Highlands

Virginia

The Allegheny Highlands IBA includes the high-elevation portions of Highland, Bath, and Alleghany Counties in western Virginia along the West Virginia border. It occupies the folded and mountainous Allegheny Mountains region and is characterized by long, linear, high-elevation valleys divided by a series of narrow, parallel ridges. This area is one of the most rural in Virginia and the wide, flat valleys are dominated by expansive pasturelands and working farms while uplands are generally forested.

{link:For a fact sheet on this IBA, including a map, click here|http://web4.audubon.org/bird/iba/virginia/Documents/Allegheny%20Highland...}

Ornithological Summary

The Allegheny Highlands region of western Virginia is known as a population stronghold for the Golden-winged Warbler, a high-priority species that has been declining by over 10% per year in Virginia. This species is found only at elevations above 2000 feet in appropriate successional habitat. At least 8% of their estimated statewide population occurs within the IBA. Large areas of pastureland, grassy fields, and abundant shrubby edges provide habitat for Loggerhead Shrikes and Field Sparrows as well as abundant populations of Eastern Meadowlarks. Appalachian Bewick?s Wrens were historical breeders in the area, however, no nesting records have been reported since 1985 and this species is now thought to be extirpated from the state. Other important species dependent on shrubland habitat include the Northern Bobwhite, Brown Thrasher, Blue-winged Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Eastern Towhee, and the Indigo Bunting. Mixed hardwood forests support diverse and abundant breeding bird populations including a suite of at-risk Neotropical migrants. Cerulean Warblers are regularly detected along Allegheny Mountain although the status of their population is currently unknown. Intact high-elevation forest tracts support uncommon Virginia species such as the Northern Saw-whet Owl and Appalachian Winter Wren. This area also appears to be a very important migratory pathway for Neotropical migrants. A recent radar study conducted in Highland County revealed large numbers of migrating passerines moving through the area.

Conservation Issues

The biggest threat to the bird communities in this area is the loss of shrubland habitat. Many shrubland bird species have declined over the past 20 years as successional habitats have been converted to forest or intensive agriculture. Golden-winged Warblers depend on a very specific type of shrubland habitat that includes elements of grassland, brush, saplings, and a forest edge. This type of habitat could be created by fencing off pasture edges several meters from the forest edge and allowing these edges to succeed, or by allowing smaller portions of pastureland to go fallow on a rotating cycle. Due to the high elevation of the Allegheny Highlands IBA, the occurrence of Blue-winged Warblers, and thus of hybridization and competition with Golden-winged Warblers, is low here, indicating that this site is a refuge for Golden-winged Warblers. Improving successional landscapes would benefit all shrubland bird species. Grassland species appear to be doing well in this area but may be impacted if agricultural practices shift away from sheep grazing toward more intensive agriculture or development. This area is not currently under immediate threat of development, although there has been more interest recently in purchasing or building second homes. Such development would lead to the construction of more roads and infrastructure, resulting in reduced habitat and increased disturbance to birds. Wind farm development has also become a recent concern in the Highland County area as a proposal to construct several wind turbines along two ridges in the area has gained considerable attention. The level of threat to native bird populations is unknown at this time, but radar data show much higher concentrations of migrating birds along these ridges than in other eastern locations tested with similar methods, suggesting that migrating bird populations could be impacted.

Ownership

A large portion of this IBA is owned and managed to meet conservation objectives. The U.S. Forest Service owns and manages just over half of the forested lands, largely in the southern and western portion of the IBA. Other large landowners include the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (Highland and T.M. Gathright Wildlife Managemant Areas) and the Nature Conservancy, who owns and manages the over 9,000 acre Warm Springs Preserve in Bath County.

Habitat

Valleys are dominated by expansive pasturelands and scattered fallow fields. Uplands are generally dry and are forested largely in mixtures of oaks and other hardwoods such as maple, poplar, and birch as well as some pines. Northern hardwood forests are prevelant at the highest elevations on Allegheny mountain in Highland County, where maples, birch, and northern red oak are common canopy dominants.

Land Use

The majority of privately owned land is used for agricultural purposes. Pastureland and hayfields are the dominant use. The Nature Conservancy owns 9000 acres as a nature preserve and the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries owns two Wildlife Management Areas that are used for hunting and fishing. Some timber is removed in these areas to diversify the habitat. The Forest Service lands are managed to promote biological diversity with some timber removal as well.

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