The 2012 season marked a number of new milestones for the recovery of the federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker in Virginia. Biologists from the Center for Conservation Biology documented modern day highs at the Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve for the number of breeding pairs, the number of young fledged, and this past winter we recorded a record high population count. The Piney Grove Preserve in Sussex County supports the northernmost population within the Red-cockaded Woodpecker’s range and the only place the species is found in Virginia.
The bumper year started with the Preserve attaining a record high 10 breeding pairs. The number of breeding pairs at Piney Grove has steadily increased from an all-time low of only 2 breeding pairs in Virginia in 2000. This accomplishment was only possible from efforts of habitat and population management. The 10 breeding pairs produced a new single season high of 26 fledgling woodpeckers. The 2012 calendar year culminated when results of our winter population count were tallied to show a new high of 53 individual Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. The winter population consisted of 37 adult birds and 16 of the 26 birds fledged this breeding season. The loss of some hatch-year birds between summer and winter is typical for the Piney Grove population and likely result of natural mortality and dispersal. Based on winter counts, the population at Piney Grove has more than doubled since 2001 and has gained more than 20 birds from just 4 years ago. The population and productivity levels now exceed quantities observed in the early 1980s when Virginia’s Red-cockaded Woodpeckers began its rapid decline.
This Piney Grove population is considered small by comparison to that found further south and is isolated by more than 85 miles from the nearest cluster sites in North Carolina. Historically, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers were recorded farther north into New Jersey and Pennsylvania and resident birds were known from the open maritime forests of Maryland as recently as the 1930’s and 1940’s. In Virginia, both number of active clusters and birds has declined dramatically over the past 40 years. The first systematic survey of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in Virginia was conducted in 1977 and documented 23 active clusters scattered across 5 counties. By 2000, the population declined to its lowest point of only 2 breeding clusters. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker remains in eminent danger of extinction within Virginia. A multi-organizational partnership was formed under the primary mission of stabilizing the population and restoring it back to pre-1980 levels. The Nature Conservancy purchased the tract now known as the Piney Grove Preserve and has developed an aggressive management program designed to restore the disturbance regime necessary to return the site to an open pine savannah. Recovery of the remaining Virginia Red-cockaded Woodpecker population has also required dedicated efforts from the Center for Conservation Biology to undertake population monitoring, and management, and the translocation of birds from other states. Collectively, these efforts have resulted in a rebound of the population to the levels we see today.
Written by Mike Wilson