At about 2,700 acres, Piney Grove Preserve harbors Virginia's only breeding population of red-cockaded woodpeckers. The Conservancy has worked since 1999 at Piney Grove to restore the historic pine savanna habitat, which the red-cockaded woodpecker relies on for its survival.
Fire is a crucial disturbance needed to maintain open pine savanna habitat. Prescribed fires prevent hardwood encroachment and stimulate grasses by removing accumulations of leaf litter. The Conservancy and its partner agencies have reintroduced fire to about half of Piney Grove Preserve.
On June 6th, The Nature Conservancy and the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary met to band a red-cockaded chick. Banding is necessary to keep track of the population and to restore this endangered species.
Above, Bryan D. Watts, a scientist and director of the Center for Conservation Biology for the College of William & Mary, begins his 30-foot climb up a tall pine tree to retrieve an 8-day old red-cockaded woodpecker chick for banding.
Installing artificial nest cavities provides convenient, ready-made housing, encouraging the establishment of new breeding colonies.
The prehistoric-looking red-cockaded woodpecker chick rests on a towel below its artificial nest cavity. This chick chirps for its parents when removed from its nest cavity, expecting to dine on ants, wood roaches, spiders and other insects.
At only 8 days old, the chick is smaller than a sandwich bag. Orange, yellow and silver bands will be attached to its legs to help scientists monitor the population.
The tiny chick is held by Watts as he prepares it for banding. Today, it is estimated that there are about 15,000 red-cockaded woodpeckers from Florida to Virginia and west to Texas and Oklahoma. Only 1% of the woodpecker's original habitat remains.
As Watts bands the chick, the parents fly overhead. Red-cockaded woodpeckers employ a cooperative breeding system, whereby young birds are raised by their parents and other adult red-cockaded woodpeckers in the cluster.
The chick is placed in a plastic bag to be weighed. At just 32 grams, it weighs a little less than a bottle of aspirin.
Once the banding is complete, Watts makes his final trek up the ladder to return the chick safely to the nest. When the chick becomes full grown, it will be about 8.5 inches long with a wingspan of 14 inches.
Since the Conservancy aquired the Piney Grove, the population of red cockaded woodpeckers has increased in Virginia. Last year, the Conservancy acquired an additional 4,900 acres adjacent to Piney Grove from International Paper. This additional acreage expands the area for the red-cockaded woodpecker.