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Red-cockaded Woodpecker Chicks Fledge Nest at Big Woods WMA

Photo by H. David Fleischmann.

The red-cockaded woodpecker chicks have fledged their nest! They were last observed on Saturday, June 1 and are believed to have fledged either later in the day that Saturday or on Sunday, June 2. Two separate pairs of birders, one group from Virginia and one from Maryland, traveled to Big Woods Wildlife Management Area that Saturday to see the red-cockaded woodpeckers.

Photo by Cindy Hamilton.

Photo by Cindy Hamilton.

Both groups observed the parents tending to their chicks at the nest and beautifully captured their interactions in this series of photos.

Photo by H. David Fleischmann.

Photo by H. David Fleischmann.

Thank you to David Fleischmann and Cindy Hamilton for generously sharing your photos!

Photo by H. David Fleischmann.

Although the young have fledged their nest, this family of red-cockaded woodpeckers may still be observed at Big Woods WMA. For information on visiting Big Woods WMA, click here.

Photo by H. David Fleischmann.

How to Support Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in Virginia

  • Purchase a Restore the Wild Membership to support the DGIF’s habitat restoration work, such as that accomplished at Big Woods WMA. The membership also serves as your pass to visiting Big Woods WMA and over 40 other WMAs throughout the Commonwealth.
  • Consider participating in a Safe Harbor Agreement, if you are a landowner with property adjacent to Piney Grove Preserve, Big Woods WMA, or Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
  • If visiting red-cockaded woodpecker viewing areas, such as at Big Woods WMA, please stay out of the marked stands of trees that hold the woodpeckers’ cavities. Do not approach, pursue the birds, or play callback recordings—all of which are considered harassment of this endangered species.
  • To learn more about Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and their history in Virginia, visit their species profile on the DGIF website.
  • June 14th, 2019

First Nestlings of the Endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker Hatched on Big Woods Wildlife Management Area

On the morning of May 16, a group of thirteen met at the Big Woods Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Sussex County for what was to be a landmark conservation event:  the banding of two nestlings of the federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, the first ever to be hatched on the WMA.  Banding is used to keep track of individuals in this small yet growing population of the woodpecker, which has recently expanded onto Big Woods from the abutting Piney Grove Preserve.

Climbing the nest tree at Big Woods WMA.

Tired yawns could not stifle the air of excitement as the group gathered – there were representatives from DGIF, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary/Virginia Commonwealth University (CCB).  All three entities have been partners in conservation efforts for the woodpecker in Virginia, and the banding was to be the culmination of all the time, energy and work that has gone into this project since DGIF acquired Big Woods in 2011*.

The group hiked to the woodpeckers’ territory amid ebullient conversation.  Using specialized sectional ladders, Bryan Watts of CCB climbed nearly 40 feet up a live pine tree to the nest cavity, and from it he carefully extracted the nestlings.  It was at this moment that the group’s excited chatter abruptly gave way to reverential silence:  all present understood the significance of this moment, and maintained their silent focus as the birds were brought down to the ground and the banding proceeded.

The two young birds, at 6 days old, weighed only ¾ oz each, were featherless and had not yet opened their eyes.  They were naked and helpless, and their appearance was vaguely reptilian.  Chance Hines from CCB banded each with a federal aluminum band and a combination of brightly colored plastic leg bands.  At that point, wide grins and fist bumps erupted among the gathering.  Within a few minutes, the chicks were safely returned to their nest, and the parents were soon back to feeding them.

A series of small milestones led us to this day.  The male of the pair found its way to Big Woods in 2017 from nearby Piney Grove, which harbors a small population of the species.  In 2018 he paired with a female, also from Piney Grove, but the two did not breed.  Eggs were first confirmed in the nest cavity on April 24 of this year, and nestlings on May 10th.  The young birds are expected to leave the nest in early June, fully feathered with handsome black and white plumage.  Confirming their successful fledging from the nest will be another cause for celebration.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker female feeds her nestlings after they are returned to the nest cavity.

As exciting as the moment was, we are but at the beginning of a long journey.  Preceding the birds’ arrival to the WMA was intensive habitat management, including controlled burns and strategic tree thinning, to create the open pine savanna conditions that the species requires.  And we continue to move forward by improving even more habitat to assist the expansion of the woodpecker’s population onto the WMA from nearby Piney Grove Preserve.  This habitat management benefits not only the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, but the entire bird community, including species like turkey and quail.  As we continue with our habitat work, we welcome all of them with open arms.

How to Support Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in Virginia

  • Purchase a Restore the Wild Membership to support the DGIF’s habitat restoration work, such as that accomplished at Big Woods WMA. The membership also serves as your pass to visiting Big Woods WMA and over 40 other WMAs throughout the Commonwealth.
  • Consider participating in a Safe Harbor Agreement, if you are a landowner with property adjacent to Piney Grove Preserve, Big Woods WMA, or Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
  • If visiting red-cockaded woodpecker viewing areas, such as at Big Woods WMA, please stay out of the marked stands of trees that hold the woodpeckers’ cavities. Do not approach, pursue the birds, or play callback recordings—all of which are considered harassment of this endangered species.
  • To learn more about Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and their history in Virginia, visit their species profile on the DGIF website.

*DGIF acquired Big Woods WMA through funds obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Land Acquisition Grant, specifically in service of conservation for the federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

  • May 23rd, 2019

Foraging New Ground: A Pair of Endangered Woodpeckers Has Found a New Home in Big Woods Wildlife Management Area

The Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (DGIF) is thrilled to share big news for a federally endangered species in Virginia; a pair of red-cockaded woodpeckers has moved in to Big Woods Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Sussex County. This is the first documented occurrence of red-cockaded woodpeckers residing on the WMA. The woodpecker species gets its name from a rarely visible small streak of red, called a “cockade” found on each side of the male’s head. The woodpeckers have built roosting cavities in one of the pine trees at Big Woods WMA, a process that takes the birds several months to years to accomplish because they excavate their roosting and nesting cavities strictly in living pine trees, as opposed to dead or decaying trees like other woodpeckers. The woodpeckers’ time invested in settling in at Big Woods WMA indicates that they are there to stay.  Both the male and female woodpecker are banded and originated from The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve, which neighbors Big Woods WMA. The Preserve has long harbored the sole remaining population of red-cockaded woodpeckers in Virginia (a second population is being re-established in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge by DGIF and partners since 2015).

Red-cockaded woodpecker photo by Julio Mulero.

The arrival of these red-cockaded woodpeckers at the WMA marks a major landmark in the DGIF’s conservation efforts for this endangered species. Under the Endangered Species Act, the DGIF has a Cooperative Agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to serve as the lead agency for the conservation of protected animal species in Virginia, including red-cockaded woodpecker. “Through our contributions of funding, equipment and staff time, DGIF has long supported the great conservation work that our partners have done on the Piney Grove population of red-cockaded woodpeckers,” says Sergio Harding, Bird Conservation Biologist with the DGIF.  “In recent years we have become more directly involved in such work through habitat management to benefit the species on Big Woods WMA–it is gratifying to see this work start coming to fruition.”

The Road to Recovery

The DGIF has long supported the Center for Conservation Biology’s (CCB) intensive red-cockaded woodpecker population monitoring at Piney Grove Preserve. According to CCB’s surveys, from 2002-2017, the woodpeckers’ population at the Preserve increased from 20 to 84 individuals and the number of family groups increased from 3 to 13 (individual red-cockaded woodpeckers live in family groups consisting of one breeding pair and one or more helpers). This population growth and increase in family groups marked major milestones in Virginia’s red-cockaded woodpecker recovery efforts. However, as the woodpecker population has grown at the Preserve, the birds have begun to run out of space. “Management efforts at Piney Grove have been so successful that the woodpecker population is now bumping up against the limits of what the property will hold – there is simply not sufficient habitat to facilitate our growing the number of woodpecker groups,” says Harding.

Pine Savanna Habitat at Piney Grove Preserve. Photo by Robert B. Clontz, The Nature Conservancy.

With this in mind, the DGIF acquired Big Woods WMA in 2010 in order to facilitate the expansion of the neighboring Piney Grove Preserve population. The purchase was supported in part with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Land Acquisition grant award, a program directed at the conservation of habitat for endangered and threatened species, in this instance, red-cockaded woodpeckers. Since then, the DGIF has been working hard to restore the WMA to the habitat required by red-cockaded woodpeckers, called a pine savanna. Pine savannas are open woodlands containing widely spaced pine trees and a lush groundcover of diverse grasses and wildflowers. This restoration has been preparation for the hopeful, eventual arrival of the endangered woodpeckers, but in the meantime, it has also benefited numerous other bird species such as Northern bobwhite and wild turkey.

One of the most critical restoration efforts by the DGIF has been reintroducing fire to this forest, which historically played an essential role in shaping pine savannas. The agency burns units on the WMA every two to three years. To further aid in the restoration process at Big Woods WMA, DGIF has also strategically thinned trees and planted longleaf pines, the pine species preferred by red-cockaded woodpeckers and the historically dominant tree of Virginia’s pine savannas. The arrival of these woodpeckers in Big Woods WMA demonstrates that the DGIF’s restoration efforts are making a difference and Piney Grove Preserve’s woodpeckers are finding the expanded habitat they need. “We’re excited to see our work on the ground pay off,” says Stephen Living, the Lands & Facilities Manager overseeing DGIF’s habitat work at Big Woods. “Over the last six years, our efforts have really accelerated and you can see the difference in the habitat. We are accomplishing critical habitat work for red-cockaded woodpecker and countless other species like turkey, quail and neotropical migrants.”

DGIF Land Manager Stephen Living working a prescribed burn at Big Woods WMA. Photo by Matt Kline/DGIF.

Looking Ahead

Now that spring has begun, the DGIF is hopeful this pair of woodpeckers will breed. Breeding may occur in April, which would result in nestlings hatching in May. To support this pair, and any future additional red-cockaded woodpeckers settling into the WMA, the DGIF plans to continue the prescribed burning and forest thinning program. Additionally, the DGIF has begun supplementing the pair’s natural cavities (which can take the birds years to excavate) with artificial cavities created through drilling and the use of insert boxes. These ready-to-use, artificial cavities are a proven technique to encourage red-cockaded woodpecker population growth.

Red-cockaded woodpecker photo by Tom Benson.

So long as the DGIF continues its efforts to maintain Big Woods WMA as a pine savanna, habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker will only continue to improve. The birds rely on mature pine savannas with pines aging 70-120 years old, but most of the WMA’s pine trees, outside the area the birds currently inhabit, are still relatively young. As the WMA’s pines age with the proper continued management, the DGIF is optimistic that nesting opportunities for the birds will expand to support this growing population of red-cockaded woodpeckers.

To learn more about red-cockaded woodpeckers and their history in Virginia, visit their new species profile on the DGIF website.

Visiting Big Woods WMA

The arrival of the red-cockaded woodpecker to Big Woods WMA is big news for bird conservation and it is also big news for birders. Big Woods WMA is the only location in Virginia with public access to view this rare bird. (Although the woodpeckers are also present at Piney Grove Preserve and Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, they do not inhabit their publicly accessible areas.) To welcome birders and anyone seeking a glimpse of the red-cockaded woodpecker pair, the DGIF will maintain a mowed path, marked with wayfinding signs, leading to a cleared viewing area where visitors may observe the woodpeckers and their cavities. Interpretive signs at each end of the path educate visitors about red-cockaded woodpecker and the DGIF’s conservation work at Big Woods WMA. Also newly installed and soon to be open for public use, is a small parking area at the path entrance. Binoculars and spotting scopes are recommended for the best look at the woodpeckers.

Visitors to the WMA may have already noticed that the DGIF has posted orange, no-trespassing signs marking the red-cockaded woodpeckers’ territory boundaries. To help these endangered birds, all WMA visitors must heed this signage by staying out of the marked boundaries (the exception being hunters who are retrieving game). Additionally, please note that use of audio recordings to call the red-cockaded woodpeckers is strictly forbidden.

Big Woods WMA. Photo by Meghan Marchetti/DGIF.

Big Woods WMA is a designated site on the Virginia Bird & Wildlife Trail (VBWT). Directions to the red-cockaded woodpecker viewing area, along with additional birding and wildlife viewing information for the WMA, are available on the VBWT’s Big Woods WMA webpage.

To visit the WMA, you must hold a Restore the Wild Membership, a Virginia hunting or fishing license, boat registration, or access permit, all of which can be purchased online at GoOutdoorsVirginia.com or by calling 1-866-721-6911. If visiting the WMA during hunting seasons (April 1 – May 31 and September 1 – February 28), the DGIF strongly advises to wear blaze orange or blaze pink. The DGIF also asks visitors to, “pardon our mess,” while we continue to improve habitat for the red-cockaded woodpeckers. Timber harvests are in process, which is part of our on-going strategic tree thinning program to restore the area to pine savanna habitat.

Red-cockaded woodpecker flying from its nest cavity. Photo by Martjan Lammertink, U.S. Forest Service.

How to Support Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in Virginia

  • Purchase a Restore the Wild Membership to support the DGIF’s habitat restoration work, such as that accomplished at Big Woods WMA. The membership also serves as your pass to visiting Big Woods WMA and over 40 other WMAs throughout the Commonwealth.
  • Donate to the DGIF’s Non-Game Fund to support research and conservation of Virginia’s Species of Greatest Conservation Need, like the red-cockaded woodpecker, as well as conservation education and wildlife viewing recreation.
  • Consider participating in a Safe Harbor Agreement, if you are a landowner with property adjacent to Piney Grove Preserve, Big Woods WMA, or Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
  • If visiting red-cockaded woodpecker viewing areas, such as at Big Woods WMA, please stay out of the marked stands of trees that hold the woodpeckers’ cavities. Do not approach, pursue the birds, or play callback recordings—all of which are considered harassment of this endangered species.
  • March 21st, 2019