Woodpeckers soar at refuge

Published 9:58 pm Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Two new red-cockaded woodpecker chicks hatched last month in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, representing a milestone event in the effort to re-establish the birds in an area where they once flourished.

The chicks, both females, hatched May 13 and have since successfully learned to fly. Biologists at the refuge couldn’t be happier with the new additions to their family.

“It was exciting,” said Jennifer Wright, wildlife biologist at the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. “We’re all nervous, because they’re the first ones. We just want to be sure they’re safe.”

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The red-cockaded woodpecker is an endangered species and was last seen in the area of the swamp about 40 years ago. That changed in the fall of 2015, when young pairs were captured from a population in South Carolina and brought to a habitat in the refuge that had been specifically managed to be as ideal as possible for the birds.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are very picky when it comes to their home.

Bryan Watts captures two red-cockaded woodpecker chicks to be banded at the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo by Jennifer Wright

“They’re really specific as to what habitat they like,” Wright said, adding about 10 years of planning and habitat management preceded the birds’ arrival. “They need a pine savanna with only mature pine trees — big, tall pine trees they can forage on. They like to put their cavity holes up high. They don’t like really tall vegetation underneath their trees. They like it short.”

Despite the management, the pairs of birds brought in 2015 didn’t breed last spring. Several more pairs of birds were brought to the refuge last fall, resulting in nine total pairs.

But out of those 18 birds, only five remained on the refuge this spring, Wright said. Two were killed by a hawk, but it is unknown that happened to the others.

There were two males and three females, so the refuge biologists remained hopeful that breeding would be successful this spring.

“Lo and behold, in early May we found one of the males had hooked up with a female, and they did have a nest,” Wright said.

A few weeks later, another nest was found.

The first nest, which had two eggs, produced the two new birds. They were banded at seven days old and sexed at 20 days old.

“A week later, they fledged,” Wright said. “We were able to document they were out foraging with their mom and dad.”

The other nest produced three young birds, but, sadly, they are believed to have been eaten by a black rat snake, Wright said.

The successful breeding gives the biologists hope for the future. This fall, plans include bringing more breeding pairs as well as extra males, as there are now three more females than males on the refuge.

“Our long-term goal is to have five breeding groups, which consists of a pair and their young,” Wright said. “The young tend to stick around and help out their parents for the next year or two.”

Re-establishing the red-cockaded woodpecker in the refuge is key to the survival of the species. Only one other population, at Piney Grove Preserve in Sussex, remains in Virginia, making it the northernmost outpost of the bird that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands throughout the Southeast and as far north as New Jersey.

If some disaster were to wipe out those birds, the group at the Great Dismal Swamp now gives the red-cockaded woodpecker some resiliency in Virginia.

“We want to have some resiliency and keep that population that historically used to be here still here,” Wright said.