The piney woods stretching for miles around us smell springy, as warm winds melt the last of a big January snow. At the crest of a rise, Bobby Clontz stops his pickup: "Look back … that's a hard view to beat."
A tawny, sunlit sea of native grasses and low shrubs laps the dark columns of tall, widely spaced loblolly pines. Light streams through the green needles, which gleam as they toss in the breeze. It's a classic pine savannah, often described as "parklike." Psychologist John Falk has found humans associate strongly with such landscapes, which resemble the African savannahs where humanoids climbed down from the trees hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Such pine parks once covered much of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, from Virginia to Texas; nowadays, perhaps 1 percent remains. And this remnant, including the 3,200 acres that Clontz manages here at The Nature Conservancy's Piney Grove Preserve just south of the James River, is now strongly linked with a tiny, endangered bird.
The red-cockaded woodpecker was listed as nationally endangered three years before the federal Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. The cardinal-size bird depends on pines old enough to have become diseased with a fungus that rots their heartwood, a process of decay that can take up to a century or longer.
The heart-rot that would mean ruin to the logger is the salvation of the RCW, as it is commonly called by birders and conservationists. A red-cockaded woodpecker may spend a year or two of its five-year average lifespan excavating its nest, boring through several inches of tough, outer wood and creating a chamber in the softened heart of an old pine.
Piney Grove Preserve is a "lifeline," the last shot for the bird in the whole Chesapeake region, said Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, who's along today. Since the 1970s, as corporate logging took down the remaining great old pines, the center, part of the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University, has been documenting the bird's march toward extinction in Virginia and researching its habitat needs.
"Mitchell [Byrd, founder of the Center] would come back to check on a nesting area and find woodpeckers flying around, landing on stumps where their habitat used to be," Watts recounted. By 2002, Virginia was down to two nesting pairs. The last RCWs in Maryland disappeared from Dorchester County, their northernmost range, between the 1950s and 1970s, as the last old-growth pines there were clear-cut.
Virginia state Sen. Garland Gray, whose timber company owned Piney Grove, was no friend of endangered birds, deliberately cutting and otherwise altering their nesting areas to avoid restrictions of the Endangered Species Act.
Ironically, Gray's company cut pines on a long-term rotation—every 70–90 years—unusual in an industry that typically harvested trees at much earlier ages. So, when The Nature Conservancy acquired Piney Grove in the late 1990s, it was already potential RCW habitat.
Birds had to be trapped and transferred from North Carolina to jump-start breeding in the preserve. We hear proof today that it has worked: the woodpecker's nasal, raspy calls and probing the bark platelets of pines for insects.
Sheets of whitish sap girdling some trees make it easy to spot nesting cavities. The woodpecker spends a good deal of its day chipping sapwood around its nest to encourage a flow of sticky resin that discourages snakes and other predators from entering.
Piney Grove, Watts and Clontz said, is nearly at "saturation," with 13 nesting red-cockaded woodpecker pairs and 70 birds total. The additional birds are integral to the RCW's unusual, cooperative nesting. They act as "helpers" by helping to feed the nesting pairs' young. A nesting "cluster" can require up to 400 acres of territory, Clontz said.
Setting the woods on fire is one of Clontz's most important duties. He's burned as much as three square miles at a time. Fire is key to pine savannahs, keeping the understory open and free of hardwoods, which discourages predators and creates the habitat that the woodpecker needs.
Expansion plans, using adjoining state forests and pending private land deals by The Nature Conservancy, could soon enlarge the bird's habitat here to as much as 30,000 acres.
This is critical, Watts said, because all of the other RCW restoration sites in this northernmost part of the bird's range (North Carolina and Virginia) may vanish because of accelerating sea level rise in the next century. An attempt to get the woodpeckers nesting in the nearby Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge has not yet worked.
What's good for the woodpecker also lends needed help to other species, like the brown-headed nuthatch, chuck-will's-widow, bobwhite quail, coastal fox squirrel and Bachman's sparrow. All but the sparrow are thriving at Piney Grove, and Watts wants to introduce that bird here as well. Nontidal wetlands throughout Piney Grove form a rich habitat for state-threatened fish and salamanders. Clontz is re-introducing longleaf pines, too. Longer lived than loblollies, they form the primary red-cockaded woodpecker habitat throughout most of its range and once covered an estimated one million acres in Virginia.
The red-cockaded woodpecker is up to 6,000 nesting clusters throughout its range, extending through coastal plain pines all the way to Texas. The core of its comeback involved U.S. military bases like Fort Bragg and Eglin Air Force Base. Their training missions required preserving large blocks of old forest, which military exercises frequently set afire—a perfect prescription for the bird, Clontz said.
The little bird has driven big changes. Research on its habitat needs by Watts' center has changed forest management across millions of acres, far beyond Virginia.
And the military, in part from concerns it that would become the last refuge for the woodpecker, created a multi-billion-dollar program to protect natural lands outside of bases for a variety of purposes, a program that now extends throughout the Chesapeake watershed.
Tending to the woodpeckers' survival, as with so many endangered species recovery efforts, brings science and conservation to bear on restoring whole ecosystems.
Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal or somd.com.