Under the still, blue skies of Sussex County on the morning of June 10, six pairs of boots strolled through the open loblolly pine forests of Big Woods Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Faintly at first, then louder, the repeated call of a red-cockaded woodpecker was heard by six pairs of excited ears. This lone woodpecker’s call was evidence that birds from
the bordering Piney Grove Nature Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), are finding their way onto the WMA, owned by DGIF. The boot-clad biologists from DGIF and TNC were thrilled, after all, they had met at the WMA specifically to discuss facilitating an expansion of the red-cockaded woodpecker population from Piney Grove onto Big Woods in the coming years.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers, affectionately known by the acronym RCW, are a federally endangered species that depend on mature, open pine savannas that once blanketed much of the southeastern United States, but have over time been reduced to a fragment of their former glory. Despite this adversity, the birds persist on this remaining landscape and for decades, have been staging a recovery thanks to intensive habitat management and woodpecker monitoring by a variety of partners.
In Virginia, DGIF participates in a coalition working on RCW conservation that includes partners such as TNC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary. DGIF has supported management and monitoring of RCWs at Piney Grove Preserve, Virginia’s only documented RCW population, as well as the recent reintroduction efforts of RCWs into Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (which is hoped will result in the
Commonwealth’s second RCW population). DGIF’s purchase of Big Woods WMA in 2009 and habitat management efforts to restore its pine savanna habitat, including hundreds of acres of prescribed burns (980 acres in 2015; 1200 acres in 2016), underscores the Agency’s commitment to recovering RCW in Virginia. The woodpecker population has thrived at Piney Grove, but is now pushing up against available habitat with little room left to expand. With some additional thinning and continued prescribed burning to open the understory of its fire-adapted pine forests, areas of Big Woods should be suitable to welcome RCWs in the next year or two. In order to encourage settlement and breeding by the RCWs, older mature pines will be provided with artificial cavities, a technique that has successfully been used to expand RCW populations into new areas of already-settled forest.
RCWs are unique among woodpeckers in that they excavate cavities exclusively in living pine trees, rather than in snags (dead trees). RCWs are also unique in that they are cooperative breeders (only 3% of all bird species breed in this manner). They live in family groups whose offspring from previous years delay their own reproduction in order to help parents raise their future siblings. The dynamics of this breeding system limit the number of birds that are nesting in any given year. This behavior, in conjunction with the mechanics of excavating cavities in living trees and the dependence on mature and open forest conditions, contributes to long recovery times for the RCW population as a whole. Restoration of this unique species requires patience and a long-term view, but with continued collaboration among partners, is achievable within the Commonwealth.
In the meantime, walking through Big Woods on that mild late-spring morning reminded the biologists that their conservation goals for RCW speak to the broader goal of restoring a southern pine ecosystem to the WMA, along with all of the species supported by this habitat-type. They listened for bobwhite quail, watched red-headed and pileated woodpeckers fly from tree to tree, and heard the singing of yellow-breasted chats, prairie warblers, Eastern towhees and field sparrows. Experiences such as these, while planning future management strategies, help to keep spirits high and minds focused while moving forward on this conservation journey.