By Tom McCann
On a drizzly May morning, nature proved once again why it will always be the number-one reality show.
I arrived at Piney Grove Preserve, an hour south of Richmond, around mid-morning to meet up with my colleagues from The Nature Conservancy. Joining us were several partner staff and two reporters — all of us with cameras at the ready.
We were gathered to greet the newest generation of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers born at the preserve. Our research partners would be attaching tiny metal bands around the nestlings’ ankles to follow their progress.
Like all reality shows, this day would offer plenty of drama.
Bryan Watts from the Center for Conservation Biology scaled a ladder 35 feet up a pine tree to the first nest, marked by a cavity opening roughly as big around as a soda can. The woodpecker chick inside, however, refused to go quietly.
Seemingly wise to our plans, the chick flattened its body to the floor of the nest, making it impossible for Watts to remove safely. Hovering like paparazzi, we were denied our photo op, and the suspense continued to build.
We all trekked a few hundred yards to a second nest, where the process started again. As our anticipation continued to mount, Conservancy ecologist Brian van Eerden talked about the woodpeckers and efforts to save the forests that these rare birds need to survive.
The only woodpeckers to inhabit living trees exclusively, red-cockaded woodpeckers need old-growth longleaf or loblolly pines — trees at least 50 years old. The soft heartwood of older trees allows the birds to carve the cavities they use for roosting and nesting.
Since most such pines were felled decades ago and replaced with trees that timber companies could harvest on shorter rotations, the Conservancy first had to save the remaining older trees before saving the woodpeckers.
We purchased the first 1,500-acre tract to establish Piney Grove in late 1998. The following spring we introduced prescribed burning to open up the forest floor and fight invasive species. Active management has continued ever since, with key partners ranging from the Center to state and federal agencies.
These strategies are working at the now 3,200-acre preserve. Thanks to our investments in forest management, which include inserting cavities in some trees to serve as “starter homes,” Virginia’s rarest bird recently reached an important milestone.
This year, for the first time since conservation efforts began at Piney Grove, 10 breeding groups of red-cockaded woodpeckers successfully nested and are caring for chicks. The goal not only marks a milestone in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery plan, but also represents the bird establishing a Virginia stronghold.
Like so many reality stars, this chick was more than fashionably late. But the crowd was still wowed.
Four days old, featherless, still blind, and barely able to lift its head, the bird was too small to wear the band that would help scientists track its progress. Its belly — stuffed with insects — seemed oversized for its tiny frame.
Watts explained that the chicks grow so quickly at this stage that even day-by-day changes are noticeable. He would return in a day or two, and the scene would be replayed all over again.
The bird’s role in its historic breeding class can then turn to enhancing our understanding of the species and our conservation efforts on its behalf.
"This is an important day," said van Eerden. “Since we began working at Piney Grove in 1999, we’ve had a vision for what we could do to help the red-cockaded woodpecker. Today’s success story shows what is possible when partners follow the science and come together for a common goal.”
Reality shows rarely earn awards or critical acclaim. But in the case of this rare bird, nature produced a winner — and such a great show that I’m eagerly looking forward to reruns.
Tom McCann is an associate marketing director for the Conservancy based in Arlington, Virginia. Tom is a regular contributor to Passport to Nature.