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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Endangered Woodpeckers Return to Great Dismal Swamp After 40-Year Absence

hard at work
Bryan Watts from the Center for Conservation Biology prepares an artificial cavity to receive a red-cockaded woodpecker. Photo by Robert B. Clontz/The Nature Conservancy.

Four pairs of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers took flight last Friday in their new home at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Suffolk, Virginia, which hasn’t seen the woodpecker since 1974. 

The  plan to reintroduce the birds at Great Dismal Swamp Refuge aims to boost the nationwide population of 6,400 potential breeding pairs. Great Dismal Swamp would be Virginia’s second population of the woodpeckers and the only one on public land. It would also be the northernmost outpost of the eastern birds, now concentrated largely in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. 

“The potential to restore the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker to Great Dismal Swamp is very exciting,” says refuge manager Chris Lowie. “This effort illustrates the role that national wildlife refuges can play in the recovery of threatened and endangered species. It’s very rewarding to see our countless partners and volunteers bring this to life after many years of planning.”

The project is one of 14 efforts nationwide being funded through the Service’s Cooperative Recovery Initiative (CRI) to help recover threatened or endangered species at or near national wildlife refuges. Other species meant to benefit from this year’s funding of $5.8 million include a Midwest dragonfly, a tiger beetle and a Southeast pitcher plant.

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red-cockaded woodpecker 
A red-cockaded woodpecker with an insect perches near a nest in a tree cavity. Photo by USFWS

The red-cockaded woodpecker once was common in pinelands from New Jersey to Louisiana. By the time the species was listed as endangered in 1970 under the Endangered Species Act, fewer than 10,000 birds were scattered throughout the Southeast.

Having a new breeding colony “will help protect the Virginia population against loss from catastrophic events such as disease and storms, and put the bird on the track to recovery,” says Lowie.

So last Thursday, biologists captured the eight birds from healthy populations at Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina and Palmetto-Peartree Preserve in North Carolina. Biologists then transported them north to Virginia. At the new site, biologists placed each bird in a pre-dug artificial cavity, put a screen over the cavity and waited. The translocated birds were released from their cavities Friday morning. Biologists are closely monitoring the woodpeckers’ activity. Additional translocations and releases will continue once a year for  at least three years.

Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, did inject a note of caution, noting that while the first step succeeded, it will be spring, when the birds breed, before biologists know whether the woodpeckers are on the way to establishing a population.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in mature pine forests, where trees may be up to 100 years old. The birds nest and roost in tree cavities that they dig and maintain. Around the cavities, the birds peck holes that weep resin. The resin protects eggs and young against snakes and other predators.

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In the Southeast, pine forests are often harvested – for wood and paper products – before they are old enough for the birds. Mature pine forests also depend on periodic fire to clear out undergrowth and allow seeds to germinate. Wide-scale fire suppression has reduced the size and health of these forests. 

Great Dismal Swamp Refuge contains mature native pine forest, including some 2,000 acres of pine pocosin habitat – deep-soiled evergreen marsh that supports longleaf pine trees. The refuge, says Lowie, “has good habitat for red-cockaded woodpeckers, but no longer has the birds.”

Partners in the project include several Service offices, the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and local groups. Three previous endeavors to reintroduce colonies of the birds – in Arkansas, Florida and Mississippi – have been successful. 

Great story! Very uplifting to hear about sucess like this.
# Posted By Heidi Newsome | 11/2/15 11:35 AM
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