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Wildlife Habitat Management on Private Lands: New Publication Released

Virginia benefits from a system of protected lands that provide key wildlife habitat.  These range from national, state and municipal properties to lands set aside for conservation by private and non-profit organizations. As impressive as these conservation lands are, their footprint on the landscape pales in comparison to the total acreage that is under private ownership. This is especially true in the Virginia Piedmont, where 95% of the land base is privately owned.  Because of this, private lands can have a huge, positive impact on wildlife conservation.

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  • January 19th, 2017

Hunters: Be on the Lookout for DGIF’s Research Bears

Radio-collar bear research projectFor the first time in over a decade, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) biologists are radio-collaring adult female bears in Virginia. Data acquired through this project will provide new insights into the movements, denning habits, and home ranges of wild, female bears in unstudied areas of Virginia. Additionally, these female bears will provide a source of surrogate mothers for orphaned black bear cubs.

There are currently 10 adult females fitted with GPS radio-collars in portions of the Shenandoah Valley and in southcentral Virginia. GPS radio-collars are linked to satellites which transmit location data to the biologists. In addition to the 10 bears collared currently, another 10 will be deployed in 2017. Most all of these bears are expected to have cubs this winter. DGIF is asking hunters to not harvest these radio-collared bears that are providing valuable information about movement and biology.

Using wild, female bears as surrogate mothers for orphan cubs has been a successful practice in Virginia. Female bears are excellent mothers and will readily take orphan cubs. Each female bear will be visited by DGIF biologists in her winter den, and surrogate mothers will be given an appropriate number of orphan cubs depending on her condition, age, and the number of natural cubs already present.

This exciting project is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, but deployment of the radio-collars will be rotated periodically throughout the state so that no one location or female bear will acquire orphan cubs over an extended period of time.

Bear research project: radio-collarWe hope that each of these radio-collared bears will provide several years of service to the Department’s bear project. Questions about these bears or the project can be directed to Jaime Sajecki, the VDGIF Bear Project Leader.

Please visit our bear page to view information ranging from general bear facts, the Black Bear Management Plan, how-to videos and information on trash can retrofitting and electric fencing, as well as tips for hunters and other useful links. KEEP BEARS WILD!

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  • October 3rd, 2016

Coyote Research Study Update

Although they are found state-wide, coyotes are a relative new-comer to Virginia.  Coyotes are native to the plains of the Midwest, but they eventually arrived in the western mountains of Virginia during the late 1970’s following a well-documented eastward expansion.  Coyotes prefer hilly terrain with open or brushy habitat, but they are also a highly adaptable species. Their numbers quickly increased and coyotes soon became firmly established in every county of the Commonwealth.

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Coyote wearing a GPS radio collar as part of the research study.

Soon after the coyote’s arrival, many hunters and wildlife enthusiasts began to express apprehension regarding the potential impacts coyotes might have on our native wildlife species.  In particular, deer hunters voiced concerns that increasing coyote numbers might lower deer populations in portions of the state.

In order to better understand the potential effects of coyotes on deer numbers, the Virginia Department  of Game & Inland Fisheries embarked upon a 4-year research project in the western mountain region of the state.  The study was headed up by researchers at Virginia Tech and initiated in 2011.  The project was focused on National Forest lands in Bath and western Rockingham County, where deer numbers appeared to have declined substantially during the past decade.  Primary objectives of the project included an assessment of what coyotes eat throughout the year, their movement behavior, habitat selection, and home range size. The diet of bobcats and bears were also studied in the same area and compared with coyotes.

To study the diet of coyotes, researchers meticulously examined 395 coyote scats (feces samples) collected monthly over a 2-year period.  They found out that coyotes eat deer very frequently.  White-tailed deer had the highest overall occurrence in the scat (74%), followed by voles (27%) and insects (16%).  Seasonally, deer occurrence in the scats was greatest in January, March, June, July, and November.  The June-July period coincides with the fawning season but deer were also an important food item during the early fall and late-winter months.

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Bones found in coyote scat for diet analyses.

Although we now know that coyotes eat deer a lot, we don’t know if they eat a lot of deer.   Scat analyses tell us what an animal has eaten, but not how the food item was obtained.  As a result, it’s unknown whether the source of deer in the coyote diet was from deer actually killed by coyotes or whether coyotes were scavenging on carcasses of deer that died from other causes.  Most likely, both sources were important diet components, but additional research (currently underway) will be needed to quantify the contribution of each source.

Coyotes were not the only predators eating deer in the study areas.  Of the 607 bobcat scats analyzed, deer were found in 35% and squirrels were found in 53%.  Seasonally, deer was highest in the scats during June (when most fawns are born) and in late winter (December and January).   Bears also had a high occurrence of deer in their scat (35%), but acorns and berries were found in 61% and insects were found in 45%.

In addition to studying what coyotes were eating, researchers also monitored the movements and survival of 19 coyotes wearing high-tech GPS radio collars.  They found that coyotes in the western mountains formed a mosaic of stable and shifting home ranges that were significantly impacted by high mortality, primarily from shooting and trapping.  Some coyotes lived in loose family groups and occupied well-defined territories.

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Application of a GPS radio-collar on a coyote.

Others were lone individuals classified as “transients” with large home ranges situated between defended territories, referred to as “biding areas.”   These nomadic coyotes were basically lying in wait to fill vacant territories.  Since mortality of coyotes was high (63% of radio-collared coyotes were killed during the monitoring period), it usually didn’t take long for a territory to become vacant.

This complex social structure illustrates why coyote numbers are difficult to manage at the landscape level.  In areas where available territories are limited, coyote numbers appear to be regulated more effectively by competition with one another rather than by mortality from hunting and trapping.  If coyotes truly are having an impact on deer populations, the most effective response may be to improve deer habitat, rather than kill more coyotes.  Coyotes make convenient scapegoats, but they are just one species in a multi-predator system that also includes bobcats and bears.   As is usually the case in wildlife management, ecological relationships are almost always more complex than they appear on the surface.  Certainly, the predator-prey dynamics of coyotes and deer are no exception.

 

All photos courtesy of Virginia Tech.

  • June 2nd, 2016

Tracking the Golden-winged Warbler

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Male Golden-winged Warbler. USDA NRCS photo by Greg Lavaty.

A gorgeous splash of lemon yellow graces the cap and wings of the male Golden-winged Warbler, and pictures can’t do it justice – it has to be seen in the field to feel its full impact.  And by ‘the field’, we mean that literally, as this declining species is a bird of open habitats such as old fields and shrubby pastures; these are habitats that host a variety of other ‘young forest’ species that are also losing ground, including Field Sparrow, Brown Thrasher, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Bobwhite quail.  The golden-wings’ habitat requirements are very specific; the open lands in which it nests are found in heavily forested landscapes at mid- to high-elevations.  In Virginia, the bird’s range is restricted to the high valleys of the western, mountainous part of the state.

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Golden-winged Warbler Habitat on Clinch Wildlife Management Area. Photo by Sergio Harding.

Golden-winged Warblers are already returning back to their Virginia breeding grounds, after spending their winter somewhere in Central or northern South America.  But exactly where do Virginia golden-wings winter?  This is the subject of an ongoing study that will have field technicians from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) busy catching golden-wings at sites in Highland and Bath Counties for the next month.  The study is funded by Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (DGIF) who, with VCU and other partners like The Nature Conservancy, is collaborating on a multi-state project to learn more about the migratory routes and wintering sites of Golden-winged Warblers.  While factors on the species’ breeding grounds are contributing to its wide-scale declines in the Appalachian region, better understanding the challenges that it faces across its full life cycle across two continents will help researchers to more effectively target the necessary conservation actions.

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VCU Crew at Golden-winged Warbler Field Site. Photo by Jessie Reese.

At this same time last year, VCU techs caught 23 golden-wings (and 2 hybrid warblers) using mist nets, placed aluminum and colored plastic bands on their legs as identifiers, and outfitted them with a harness carrying a tiny geolocator.  This device records light levels (to determine timing of sunrise and sunset) that will allow researchers to roughly calculate the coordinates marking the daily location of each bird throughout its fall migration, the winter, and its subsequent spring migration back to Virginia.

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Male Golden-winged Warbler with geolocator in 2015. Photo by Lesley Bulluck.

Geolocators are are a a low-tech substitute for the satellite transmitters that are used to track the movements of much larger bird species; this technology cannot currently be scaled-down to a small songbird such as the golden-wing, which weighs approximately 9 grams (0.3 ounces).  The challenge with geolocators is that the birds carrying them must be caught again in order for researchers to retrieve the devices and download the data for analysis.  They work well for a species, like the Golden-winged Warbler with high fidelity to their breeding sites; these birds have a good probability of being re-caught in the vicinity of where they were outfitted with the units last year (that is if they survive winter and the perils of migration). Just this past Saturday May 7, three birds with geolocators were observed in the exact same locations as where the units were deployed in 2015.  Two of the birds were recaptured, allowing retrieval of the geolocators.  After some data analysis, we will know where in Central or South America these birds spent their winter months!

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Geolocator retrieved from re-captured male Golden-winged Warbler in 2016. Photo by Jessie Reese.

Over the past 10 years, DGIF has funded and collaborated on various Virginia projects aimed at better understanding the distribution and ecology of Golden-winged Warblers in western Virginia.  We currently lead a Virginia partners group working to further conservation of this declining species and to promote incentive programs for landowners to create and maintain quality habitat on their lands for the benefit of golden-wings and a host of other species.  To learn more more about the Golden-winged Warbler and the work that has been done to date in Virginia, please visit our Golden-winged Warbler webpage.

  • May 11th, 2016

Spotted Skunk Study Underway

Photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

Eastern spotted skunk. Photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Did you know there are two different species of skunks in Virginia? Almost everyone is familiar with the sight (and smell) of the common striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), which is widely distributed throughout the state. You may have had one denning under your shed, seen one on the side of the road, or been unlucky enough to have one spray your dog. Few people realize, however, that Virginia is also home to a smaller and more secretive skunk species, the eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius). Generally found only in the western portion of our state, this once common species has been declining in numbers since at least the 1940’s for reasons that are poorly understood and is listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan.

Spotted skunks, like their striped cousins, are members of the skunk family and will spray an odorous secretion in self-defense as suggested by their Latin scientific name, which translates to “stinking spotted weasel.” However, at just 1–2½ pounds, spotted skunks are noticeably more slender and smaller than striped skunks and are not much bigger than a large squirrel. Their glossy black fur has 4–6 broken white stripes along the back and sides that resemble “spots,” versus the two solid white bands that extends down the back of striped skunks. The feet of spotted skunks are more specialized for climbing (they are adept tree climbers), compared to the powerful feet of striped skunks that are adapted for digging. Spotted skunks are more carnivorous than striped skunks, primarily feeding on small mammals, insects, eggs, and even carrion. They typically breed in the later winter or early spring, giving birth to a single litter of 1 – 6 young born in May or June.

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Eastern spotted skunk on the Appalachian Trail. Photo by Smithsonian Wild.

Until just a few years ago, very little was known about the distribution and ecology of spotted skunks in the central and southern Appalachian region. To help address this knowledge gap, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) recently funded a 3-year research project conducted by Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. The project seeks to determine the population status of spotted skunks in Virginia, investigate forest and landscape conditions that influence their distribution, and study their movement patterns and habitat selection.

With the study now in its third year, researchers at Virginia Tech are beginning to report some interesting preliminary results. Using trail cameras stationed at 128 sites in 10 counties, the researchers have documented spotted skunks at 23 different locations. Habitat data collected at the surveyed sites suggest that spotted skunks prefer forests with thick understory vegetation, most likely to avoid detection from predators, particularly great horned owls.

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Eastern spotted skunk ready to be fitted with a radio collar for the DGIF-funded Virginia Tech research study. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Efforts are currently underway to radio-collar spotted skunks, monitor their movements and locate den sites. Initial data from 11 radio-collared spotted skunks has tracked them to multiple den sites in underground burrows, hollow logs, and tree cavities. Their night time movements have generally been within close range of their den sites. Radio tracking data will continue being collected throughout the spring and summer months.

 

 

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Eastern spotted skunk being fitted with a radio collar. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Currently, it’s unclear whether spotted skunks are truly rare, or just secretive and very difficult to find. As this research project continues, we hope to better understand where to look for these elusive animals and more accurately assess their population status in Virginia. Knowledge gained from this project will also help identify potential factors that may be limiting spotted skunk populations, which will be useful for making management recommendations and conserving this fascinating species.

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Entryway to a male eastern spotted skunk’s den. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

How You Can Help

Please note that it’s illegal to trap or shoot spotted skunks in Virginia (unless they are causing damage) and their pelts may not be sold.

If you have trail camera photos or other verifiable evidence regarding occurrences of spotted skunks in Virginia, please contact DGIF’s furbearer biologist, Mike Fies, at 540-248-9390 or by e-mail at mike.fies@dgif.virginia.gov.

You can learn more about this study and receive updates at http://easternspottedskunk.blogspot.com/

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Juvenile eastern spotted skunk. Photo by Victoria Kaufman.

  • February 17th, 2016

Why Is the Loggerhead Shrike Disappearing?

Photo by Eugene Hester.

Reminiscent of a mockingbird with a black mask, the loggerhead shrike is nicknamed the “butcher bird” for its habit of impaling prey on thorny shrubs and barbed wire. Like a raptor packed into a songbird’s body, shrikes hunt insects, small mammals, reptiles and occasionally birds. They are most often found in grazed pastures with scattered shrubs. Once widespread, shrikes are now fairly rare in Virginia, with the majority of the known population found west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Shrikes are considered a Tier I Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan.

Prey impaled by shrike at site on the border of Warren and Clarke Counties, VA. Photo by Amy Johnson.

The causes of shrike declines in Virginia and elsewhere across their range are poorly understood. Since 2014, DGIF has been working to address this information gap through a collaborative banding project with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR). Working under the umbrella of the Loggerhead Shrike Working Group, the two state wildlife agencies are giving one another a hand in trapping and color banding shrikes across state boundaries. Once trapped, each individual is banded with one standard USGS band and 3 plastic color bands (2 bands per leg) and released at the capture site.

Personnel from USFS, WVDN, VDGIF and SCBI participate in shrike banding in Smyth County, VA in December 2014. Photo by Amy Johnson.

This project will help researchers answer several baseline questions about shrike populations and their conservation needs. The unique color combinations of the bands allow biologists to identify individual birds that are re-sighted.

Photo by Amy Johnson.

This helps to understanding the relationship between breeding and wintering shrikes; shows differences in seasonal habitat use; provides an understanding of shrike population dynamics; and their use of habitats over time.

This collaborative project is part of the Shrike Working Group’s efforts to establish a coordinated research project across eastern North America, so that data from multiple states can be pooled to better understand the causes of the shrike’s decline. Recent shrike work in Virginia and West Virginia has been accomplished with the help and collaboration of enthusiastic partners such as the US Forest Service and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI).

Shrike habitat in Smyth County, VA. Photo: Rich Bailey.

  • February 10th, 2016