DGIF has acquired over 1300 acres in Caroline County. The newly acquired Robert W. Duncan (RWD) Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and the Mattaponi Bluffs Wildlife Management Area officially opened to the public on April 11, 2019.
The RWD is nestled in the northeast corner of Caroline County, in the Upper Coastal Plain and located between Frog Level and Aylett. The land is a contiguous tract of flat to gently rolling land, with a few steep and adjacent to the Mattaponi River. Mattaponi Bluffs is located in the north-central portion of Caroline County, in the Upper Coastal Plain and located between Athens and Penola. The land is a contiguous tract of steep bluffs and wetlands, somewhat typical of the surrounding topography adjacent to the Mattaponi River.
The WMAs feature a diverse set of plant communities and habitats, and are excellent locations to pursue wildlife and angling activities.
Robert W. Duncan WMA
The RWD WMA is 1300 plus acres and conserves important upper coastal plain wildlife habitat, providing quality wildlife-related recreation. Forests range from mature and mixed upland hardwoods to managed pine stands, as well as wetland and bottomland forests. The property borders the Mattaponi River for approximately 3 miles.
Wildlife enthusiasts will find exciting viewing opportunities on the RWD WMA, especially along the 3 miles of Mattaponi river frontage. Bald Eagles, Osprey and Blue Herons are common and the diverse forests provide critical habitats for many migratory warblers. Interior wetland habitats provide opportunities for viewing wading birds and amphibians.
The diverse forests and open lands of the RWD WMA provide abundant habitat for all of game species found in central Virginia. Deer, turkey and squirrel populations are thriving and in recent years, black bears have become more common in the area. An oxbow wetlands complex of the Mattaponi River provides opportunities for duck hunting; woodcock are also common in the bottomlands and wetter forested sites.
Mattaponi Bluffs WMA
The Mattaponi Bluffs WMA is 470 acres and conserves important upper coastal plain wildlife habitat, providing quality wildlife-related recreation. Forests are predominantly mixed upland hardwoods with some wetland and bottomland forests as well. The property borders the Mattaponi River for approximately 1.5 miles.
The Mattaponi River supports a good fishery throughout much of its length, including the section of river adjacent to the RWD WMA. Bluegill and redbreast sunfish, chain pickerel, bowfin, and brown bullheads are common as well as smaller-sized largemouth bass. The spring run of white and yellow perch can make for exciting ultra-light fishing.
The RWD WMA property was purchased from the Neale Family and Mattaponi Bluffs was purchased from Banbury Farm II, LLC. Partnerships with the Fish and Wildlife Service, members of the Neale family, Hopkins family, founders of Green Top Sporting Goods, and hunters and anglers made this possible.
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.
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.
Come spring, the Hog Island WMA offers some of the best wildlife watching in the Old Dominion. That’s because this season is an excellent time to observe bald eagles and other avian species.
“Hog Island WMA is part of the James River eagle concentration area,” says Stephen Living, a DGIF Lands and Facilities manager. “As such, it is heavily used by resident and migratory bald eagles throughout the year. Dozens of bald eagles can be seen at Hog Island on any given day, foraging around the impoundments or along the James River shoreline. There are at least three active bald eagle nests on Hog Island this year, but there are as many as seven historical nest sites.”
Living adds that DGIF personnel conduct moist soil management for waterfowl, which involves draining water from the impoundments at Hog Island to help foster plants attractive to migrating and wintering ducks. When these impoundments are lowered in the spring, gizzard shad respond by journeying to them. Carp also spawn during this time frame and attempt to enter the impoundments as well. These events reach their peak anytime from March through May and the large numbers of fish stacked up in the surrounding creeks and canals provide a veritable feast for eagles, herons, and any number of other wildlife species.
One thing visitors should not expect to see at the Hog Island WMA is, well, hogs.
“There are no feral hogs present there,” Living says. “The name is derived from the Jamestown settlement days when the early colonists would keep their pigs on the island.”
The Hog Island WMA consists of 3,908 acres in three separate tracts on the lower Tidal James. Two tracts (Hog Island and Carlisle) are in Surry County; the third tract (Stewart) lies in Isle of Wight County. The public land is also an excellent place to view a wide variety of waterfowl and shorebirds as well as raptors such as ospreys. Tidal marshes, loblolly pine forest, agricultural land, and ponds enrich the very diversified habitat there. For more information: www.dgif.virginia.gov/wma/hog-island.
After the initial sighting of a ruff at Hog Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA) on July 20, birders have continued to flock to the site in hopes of catching a glimpse of the rare bird. While seeking the ruff on July 25, two birders spotted another rarity for Virginia, a roseate spoonbill. Roseate spoonbills are a wading bird related to ibises that range much further south. They breed along the coasts of southern Florida, Louisiana and Texas, and on down along the coasts of Mexico and into South America. Although a few scattered sightings of roseate spoonbills have occurred in Virginia since 2017, previously the last documentation of this species in the Commonwealth was in June of 2009.
Juvenile tricolored heron at Hog Island WMA. Photo by Dan Whiting.
In addition to the ruff and the roseate spoonbill, birders have been turning in some impressive eBird checklists for Hog Island WMA all week, including reports of American avocet, tricolored heron, little blue heron, white ibis, and glossy ibis. These shorebirds and wading birds have been enticed to the WMA by the mudflats and low water levels resulting from work on our renovation project with Ducks Unlimited, during which work crews have been pumping water out of the WMA. The renovation entails replacement of aging water control structures and the dredging of canals, which will allow us to raise and lower water levels, a management practice that facilitates habitat for shorebirds, waterfowl, and other birds. After the project’s completion, we look forward to continuing water drawdowns as part of our habitat management efforts throughout the year.
If you would like to try your luck at spotting the ruff, roseate spoonbill, and many other shorebirds and wading birds, be sure to check out Hog Island WMA’s mudflats and impoundments at the northern end of the property and walk the internal roads around the impoundments. Birding conditions remain good–although crews have temporarily stopped pumping water and the recent rains have increased water levels a bit, we are still seeing many notable birds. Don’t forget to bring your binoculars or a spotting scope to get the best look!
Visiting Hog Island WMA
Hog Island WMA is currently open seven days a week. An Access Permit or a current Virginia Hunting, Fishing or Boating License is required. Access Permits are available for purchase online or by calling 1-866-721-6911.
Please note that when traveling to Hog Island WMA, you will first need to pass through the Security Checkpoint for the Surry Power Plant–be sure to have a valid ID. Security personnel will need to check your vehicle as well. Wearing bug spray is recommended. While Hog Island WMA remains open during our renovation project, please be sure to give work crews plenty of space to safely do their work and pay attention to any “area closed” notices. Please park in designated areas only. Foot traffic is welcome on gated roads.
The Phelps Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Fauquier County has long featured a trail with hunting stands that are available to mobility-impaired hunters on a reservations-based system. Building on the success of this program, in 2013 the Department launched an effort to improve accessible hunting at WMA’s all across the Commonwealth.
Each of the Department’s four regions has now installed an accessible hunting trail. The locations were selected to facilitate quality hunting and to provide barrier-free access to all hunters, including those who have limited mobility. All the new trails are available on a first-come first-serve basis. Read the rest of this article…