Back from the brink?

Published 10:08 pm Thursday, June 29, 2017

As it turns out, family planning is, in fact, part of the job description for biologists working at the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. And planning for families of red-cockaded woodpeckers can be tricky business.

In 2015 and 2016, the refuge resettled nine woodpecker pairs from South Carolina into a habitat that had been specially designed and planted for them to flourish here in Virginia. Red-cockaded woodpeckers are an endangered species, and they had not been seen in the swamp for 40 years before the resettlement.

The idea was to reintroduce the species to a place where it had once flourished and to make a second Virginia site where they could live, thereby increasing the species’ ability to withstand potential catastrophes.

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After 10 years of work to set up the conditions the birds need — mature pine trees on which they can forage and make their cavities for nests, surrounded by low vegetation — hopes were high for the 18 birds brought to Virginia in 2015.

But nature is unpredictable, and the 18 birds brought to the refuge had a tough transition. Only five were left this spring, with others having been killed by hawks or disappearing altogether from their nesting sites.

But refuge officials did not give up hope, and their efforts and patience were rewarded in May, when two nests were found with a total of five eggs. Again, nature being what it is, only two birds survived from those nests — the other three are thought to have been eaten by a black rat snake.

But the two hatchlings, both females, are healthy and flying now, and the program looks to have the potential for success.

Biologists expect to bring more adult woodpeckers into the refuge this fall, with the long-term goal of establishing five breeding groups — breeding pairs and their young — in the Great Dismal Swamp.

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.

It’s great to know that the swamp may one day be filled again with the pitter-patter of little beaks because of the careful planning and patience of these dedicated biologists who committed years ago to being family planners for a species that stood near the brink of extinction.