Celebrating Virginia’s Snakes in Honor of National Reptile Awareness Day


Child holding an Eastern Kingsnake. Photo by John White.

Every October 21st is National Reptile Awareness Day, a day created to promote education, conservation and appreciation for reptiles. Reptiles are a group of animals that include snakes, lizards, turtles, crocodiles, and tuataras. Reptiles are characterized by having dry scales that are shed periodically. The vast majority of reptiles are cold blooded, which means that they cannot generate their own body heat and depend on outside sources to raise their body temperature.

In honor of Reptile Awareness Day, we are celebrating Virginia’s snakes, a group of reptiles which play an important role in our environment, but are often misunderstood. There are 32 species of snakes in the Commonwealth, of which, the vast majority are considered harmless. Snake species occur across Virginia, from coastal marshes to mountain ridgetops and even in urban areas under buildings.  There are only 3 species of venomous snakes occurring in the Commonwealth: Northern Copperhead, Eastern Cottonmouth, and Timber Rattlesnake.


Festival participant holding a Cornsnake at the Great Dismal Swamp Birding Festival. Photo by Jessica Ruthenberg.

Snakes differ from other reptiles by having no legs, ears, or eyelids, and by possessing only one functional lung. The most notable characteristic of a snake is its long, slender body. A snake’s muscular body and flexible spine allows it to climb effortlessly, swim, and slip into the smallest spaces. Although snakes lack ears and cannot technically hear, they do have the ability to detect low frequency vibrations from the air and ground.

Depending on the species, Virginia’s snakes may mate in the spring, summer, or fall.
Leathery shelled eggs are usually deposited in May or June, with young hatching in late summer. But not all snakes lay eggs; the young of many of Virginia’s snakes are actually born alive. With young that are born alive, the eggs are held inside the body and live young are born in late summer.

Snakes play important roles as predators and prey.  All snakes are carnivorous, which means that they eat other animals and do not eat plants. Snakes possess the special ability to


Eastern Kingsnake eating a Copperhead. Kingsnakes are immune to the poison of Virginia’s venomous snakes. Photo by Tricia Pears.

swallow their prey whole because they have two independent lower jaws connected by aligament that can expand greatly. Major prey items include invertebrates (animals lacking a backbone), fish, amphibians, other reptiles, birds, bird eggs, and a variety of mammals. Snakes play an invaluable role in our environment by controlling many pests, including mice and rats. Snakes also play a key role in the web of life; they are food for a variety of predators including certain mammals, birds, and other snakes.

Snake Conservation

The greatest predators of snakes are humans. Misconceptions about snakes have made them among the most persecuted of all animals. Hundreds, if not thousands, are needlessly killed every year in the Commonwealth. A common reaction to an encounter with a snake is to kill


State Endangered Canebrake Rattlesnake. Photo by J.D. Kleopfer.

it on sight whether or not it poses a danger. However, the fact is that most snakes are harmless, and even dangerous ones would rather flee than fight.  Once we begin to learn about snakes, we can replace our misconceptions with facts and our fears with curiosity, and we can begin to appreciate their important roles in our natural environment.

Fourteen of Virginia’s 32 snake species are included in Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan as Species of Greatest Conservation need, including the State Endangered Canebrake Rattlesnake (the southeastern Virginia population of Timber Rattlesnake) and the Northern Pinesnake. A century ago, the Northern Pinesnake was considered common in several parts of Virginia, but there have been no sightings of this species in the last 25 years, so it’s been presumed extirpated from the Commonwealth. The extirpation of this species is most likely due to fire suppression, habitat


Festival participants admiring a Cornsnake at the Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival. Photo by Jessica Ruthenberg.

loss and fragmentation, and human persecution. The Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (DGIF) recently participated in an investigative study that demonstrated Northern Pinesnake habitat (dry open slopes with vegetated cover) is still available in Virginia and that it would be feasible to reintroduce this endangered species into its historic range.

Simple ways to help conserve and protect snakes and other reptiles:

  • Support efforts to establish and protect natural areas.
  • Provide habitat for wildlife on your own property by keeping portions of it unmowed and ungrazed and by planting native plants.
  • Reduce your use of fertilizers and pesticides in your yard and garden.
  • Recycle and do not litter or pollute.
  • Join a conservation organization.
  • Make a contribution to DGIF’s Nongame Wildlife Fund.
  • Do not kill snakes.
  • Keep learning about snakes and teach others what you learn, so that all may appreciate this unique group of Virginia’s wildlife. More information on Virginia’s snakes may be found in these resources:

Festival participants learning about a Cornsnake at the Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival. Photo by Jessica Ruthenberg.

  • October 21st, 2016

Hunters: Be on the Lookout for DGIF’s Research Bears

Radio-collar bear research projectFor the first time in over a decade, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) biologists are radio-collaring adult female bears in Virginia. Data acquired through this project will provide new insights into the movements, denning habits, and home ranges of wild, female bears in unstudied areas of Virginia. Additionally, these female bears will provide a source of surrogate mothers for orphaned black bear cubs.

There are currently 10 adult females fitted with GPS radio-collars in portions of the Shenandoah Valley and in southcentral Virginia. GPS radio-collars are linked to satellites which transmit location data to the biologists. In addition to the 10 bears collared currently, another 10 will be deployed in 2017. Most all of these bears are expected to have cubs this winter. DGIF is asking hunters to not harvest these radio-collared bears that are providing valuable information about movement and biology.

Using wild, female bears as surrogate mothers for orphan cubs has been a successful practice in Virginia. Female bears are excellent mothers and will readily take orphan cubs. Each female bear will be visited by DGIF biologists in her winter den, and surrogate mothers will be given an appropriate number of orphan cubs depending on her condition, age, and the number of natural cubs already present.

This exciting project is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, but deployment of the radio-collars will be rotated periodically throughout the state so that no one location or female bear will acquire orphan cubs over an extended period of time.

Bear research project: radio-collarWe hope that each of these radio-collared bears will provide several years of service to the Department’s bear project. Questions about these bears or the project can be directed to Jaime Sajecki, the VDGIF Bear Project Leader.

Please visit our bear page to view information ranging from general bear facts, the Black Bear Management Plan, how-to videos and information on trash can retrofitting and electric fencing, as well as tips for hunters and other useful links. KEEP BEARS WILD!

  • October 3rd, 2016

A Growing Elk Herd in Virginia

pict0249Since restoration efforts to restore this once-native species began a few years ago, Virginia’s Elk have been thriving!  DGIF Biologists estimate the total number of elk in Virginia to be between 150 to 200 animals.  Our Virginia bulls are growing impressive antlers and are now “bugling” to assert their dominance, and to impress their harems.  The sound of the elk bugle is one of the most unique sounds in nature.  These magnificent animals provide a great viewing opportunity–Elk Cows can weigh up to 600lbs and Bulls can grow to a whopping 700lbs!

ek000591Elk Viewing Opportunities:

Elk viewing opportunities are available via bus tours offered by Breaks Interstate Park until November 19th.

Another public viewing opportunity exists at Poplar Gap Park in Buchanan County—Elk are often seen around dusk.

If you go:  Take binoculars and a camera to capture photos.  If elk are bugling, you may want to try to record a video of their unique call.

Read more about Virginia’s Elk herd in an upcoming issue of Virginia Wildlife MagazineSubscribe today!

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  • September 30th, 2016

Fallfish: Little Tarpon of the Commonwealth

shm_fall_fish_vert_lowres_sharper_7235By Mike Pinder

Every angler has an amazing fishing story.  For those who can afford it, few can compare to catching a tarpon.  The strike, the set, the explosion when the silvery giant leaps into the air is a yarn that can last a lifetime.  Although for many, such a trip is unaffordable and out of reach.  Luckily a closer, low-cost alternative is available to many Virginians.

In the inland rivers of the commonwealth lives a powerful swimmer that has been compared on a small scale (no pun intended) to this monster in both appearance and fighting ability.  It is one that can grow to 20 inches, weigh up to two pounds, and fights all the way to the net.  Its common name is the fallfish (Semotilus corporalis) but those who have tangled with this beast know it as the Shenandoah tarpon.

While the fallfish has many attributes shared with other freshwater game fish, it is categorized as a nongame species. The fallfish is actually the largest native minnow in the eastern United States.  Minnows are often thought of as small, delicate creatures and mainly as dinner for bigger, more aggressive species.  As a large, sleek, aggressive predator that feeds on insects, crayfish, and other fish, this minnow sets such a notion on its head.  Prior to the introduction of smallmouth bass and other sportfish, the fallfish was the apex predator in many streams and rivers.


An adult fallfish is distinct from all other species by its sure size.  Its torpedo-shaped body and large tail are attributes that support it as a strong swimmer.  Adults have large silvery to bronze colored scales with the dorsal and tail fringed in black.  Breeding males can be distinguished from females by having horny bumps (tubercles) on their snout and around their eyes.  Young fish have a dark stripe running the length of their body that is lost when they reach adulthood.

The fallfish ranges from Virginia to Ontario, Canada. In Virginia, it is known to inhabit the James, Potomac, Rappahannock, and York drainages.  A small, introduced population is also present in the Falling River of the Roanoke drainage.  In the northern portion of their range the species inhabits lakes and ponds, while more southerly fallfish are found in warm-water rivers and streams.  Both young and adults prefer pools and, occasionally, runs and faster water.


To have the “tarpon experience,” fallfish are best caught using ultra-light tackle or by fly fishing.   Anything that is used to catch panfish will work on them.  These include spinners, jigs, plugs, and even a big juicy worm.  Fallfish hit hard and fast and, once the hook is set, usually respond by leaping out of the water.  Because of their soft mouths, it is best to land them with a net.

The taste of fallfish is one of much debate.  Its flavor has been described as tasting like bland brown paper to sweet and delicate.  As a minnow, small thin bones support its flesh, so be careful.  Instead of making a culinary snap judgment, take it upon yourself to try fallfish using a favorite fish recipe.  You never know; it may become your signature dish!

For those who want to catch a hard-fighting fish like a tarpon, but never had the money or the time, think about giving fallfish a try.  It is as close as your local river, and once out there, your amazing fish story may be just a cast away.

Photos by Sally Mills, Virginia Wildlife Editor, and Lynda Richardson, Virginia Wildlife Art Director.


Interested in learning more about fallfish? Pick up a copy of the September/October issue of Virginia Wildlife magazine today!

This issue also includes: New 2017 trout maps showing all stocked, delayed harvest, and special regulation trout streams in Virginia; Mountain Trout; Fall Turkey Tactics; Wood Ducks, and more!

Virginia Wildlife is your ticket to learning more about Virginia’s spectacular wildlife, fisheries, and breathtaking habitats. Whether you hunt, fish, boat, camp, or take in the wildlife from your easy chair, Virginia Wildlife offers you stories and insight on the natural world, supplied by the state’s leading wildlife and outdoor experts.

  • September 27th, 2016

It’s World Shorebirds Day!

World Shorebirds Day occurs every September 6th to celebrate the world’s shorebirds and their conservation efforts. Shorebirds comprise a diverse group of birds that are commonly found along shorelines throughout North America. There are over 50
shorebird species in North America and 41 species have been documented in Virginia.


Least Sandpiper. Photo by Gregory Smith.

These birds vary in size and shape from the small 6″ Least Sandpiper to the large 23″ Long-billed Curlew. If you have visited Virginia’s beaches, you may already be familiar with the small Sanderlings that run along the waves probing for prey or the taller, more upright Willet. If you don’t make it to the beach much, you probably have still observed a shorebird! Contrary to what their name suggests, shorebirds are found in more than just coastal areas. The Killdeer, a shorebird that runs in spurts and calls “kill-deer” when excited, can be found on lawns in cities, agricultural areas, and even on golf courses.

Shorebirds are among the more difficult birds to identify. Some species are quite similar to others and require you to compare characteristics such as leg length and color, bill shape, length and color, feeding behavior, and to a lesser extent, vocalizations. Many will change from a bright plumage in the breeding season to dull grays and browns in the fall and winter months.


Long-billed Curlew foraging on a small crab. Photo by Matthew Paulson.

Shorebirds feed primarily on invertebrates found in or adjacent to intertidal habitats or shallow waters. Common prey items include marine worms, insects, small crabs, clams, and oysters. Often, the length and shape of a shorebird species’ bill dictates what type of prey it eats and its foraging techniques, while the length of its legs determines the water depths in which it feeds.

Many species of shorebirds are long distance migrants often crossing thousands of


Red Knots make one of the longest migrations of any bird species, approximately 9,300 miles. Photo by Ann Marie Morrison.

miles each year from arctic, boreal and temperate breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada to wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere. Amazingly, some of these world travelers weigh less than a cell phone! Annual round-trip migration usually entails a sequence of flights between two or more stopover sites that connect breeding and non-breeding habitats. Protecting these stopover links along the migratory pathway is a critical component of shorebird conservation.

Shorebird Conservation

About half of the world’s shorebird populations are in decline. Of the 30 or so shorebird species that commonly occur in Virginia during some portion of their lifecycle, 13 are PipingPlover_USFWSdesignated as Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan because of local and/or rangewide population declines.

Shorebirds face a multitude of challenges during the annual cycle,  including finding sufficient food sources to fuel their long distant migrations, avoiding predators, competing for suitable breeding and non-breeding habitat that is under constant threat by human development and disturbance, sea level rise, and adapting to a changing climate. It is for these reasons numerous shorebird species are in decline.

The good news is Virginia’s protected barrier islands and adjacent saltmarshes located along the seaward fringe of the Eastern Shore are home to thousands of shorebirds year round! These islands and marshes are largely undeveloped and most are owned and managed by agencies and organizations like The Nature Conservancy – Virginia


American Oystercatchers. Photo by Peter Massas.

Coast Reserve (VCR), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS),  Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation (VDCR), Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) and Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

Collectively, these coastal habitats represent key sites for breeding and non-breeding shorebirds. Many islands are open to visitors with seasonal restrictions in place to protect nesting birds while a few others are closed during the nesting season or year round.

Every year, biologists with the VCR, USFWS and VDGIF monitor the breeding success


Wilson’s Plover. Photo by Andy Morffew.

of the federally threatened Piping Plover, the state-endangered Wilson’s Plover and the American Oystercatcher. All three species are Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan and serve as important environmental indicators for coastal ecosystems. This collaborative effort allows biologists to track each species’ breeding distribution, abundance and productivity over time and examine their responses to threats and management actions.

Simple Ways You Can Help Shorebirds

  • When visiting the beach, watch where you step. Beach-nesting birds lay their eggs directly on the sand and these eggs are very well camouflaged with their surroundings, making them difficult to see. To avoid areas where eggs are likely to occur, pay attention to signs, avoid entering roped off areas, and areas

    Sanderlings. Photo by Richard Towell.

    where large groups of birds occur. You’ll know if you’ve entered a nesting area if birds begin vocalizing loudly, dive-bombing you, or feign injury to lead you away from their nest. If any of those behaviors occur, it’s best to back away. Generally, if you stay closer to the water’s edge you’ll be okay; shorebirds tend to nest in the higher parts of the beach.

  • Don’t feed the gulls. Feeding just one gull may seem harmless, but it won’t be long before more predatory gulls are drawn in, which can beco
    me a nuisance for people and a danger to shorebird eggs and chicks.
  • Keep your dogs on leashes or at home. Free-roaming dogs at the beach can flush incubating adults off nests, eat shorebird eggs and chicks, and even kill adult birds.
  • Take all trash with you when you leave the beach or islands to avoid attracting predators such as gulls, raccoons and feral cats.
  • Donate to Virginia’s Non-game Fund to support research and conservation of shorebirds and Virginia’s other non-game wildlife. You can make a donation at GoOutdoorsVirginia.com.
  • Document your shorebird observations in eBird, especially during the Global Shorebird Counting weekend, which occurs each year around World Shorebirds Day.

Additional Resources

To learn more about World Shorebirds Day, please visit:

To learn about Virginia’s barrier island use policies, please visit:

For further information on Virginia’s beach nesting birds and island use policies, please contact:

  • The Nature Conservancy: (757) 442-3049
  • Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge: (757) 331-2760
  • Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge: (757) 336-6122
  • DCR Natural Heritage Program: (757) 787-5989
  • DGIF: (757) 709-0766

For information on public use policies on Virginia’s ungranted state lands such as sand spits, sand shoals and marshes, please contact:

  • Virginia Marine Resources Commission – (757)414-0710


    Willet. Photo by Anna Hesser.

  • September 6th, 2016

The Story Behind the Cover

Over the next few months we will be sharing stories by the photographers themselves on how the outstanding images that grace this year’s 2017 calendar were captured. Purchase a calendar and follow along with each  behind-the-scenes look at how hard working photographers get those breath taking images! If you want to learn more about each photographer there will be contact information at the end of each posting. Enjoy!

Ricky Simpson, photographer of the 2017 calendar cover, holds up a press proof of his bald eagle cover at Progress Printing Plus.

Ricky Simpson, photographer of the 2017 calendar cover, holds up a press proof of his bald eagle cover at Progress Printing Plus.

RICKY SIMPSON – Cover of bald eagle photographed on the James River near Richmond on a Discover the James Bald Eagle Tour with Capt Mike Ostrander.  (The following is by Ricky)

After many photography tours with Discover the James, this particular morning proved to be unique. Once we were in the boat Captain Mike Ostrander shared a mystical dream with us that he had the previous night. In his dream he encountered two Bald Eagles that flew up to his boat, wings spread, and took on human form.  As they hovered in the air they spoke with him. When Capt. Mike asked their names the eagles called themselves Lalina and Pierre.

Carol Kushlak, Production Manager of Virginia Wildlife magazine, checks the color of the 2017 calendar cover by Ricky Simpson. Ricky Simpson, calendar cover photographer, is behind her taking pictures of the press. Progress Printing Plus staff Marshall Forbes, Senior Account Executive, and Tom Cruise, in red, the sheetfed pressman, wait for approval on color of cover.

Carol Kushlak, Production Manager of Virginia Wildlife magazine, checks the color of the 2017 calendar cover. Ricky Simpson, calendar cover photographer, is behind her taking pictures of the press. Progress Printing Plus staff Marshall Forbes, Senior Account Executive, and Tom Cruise, in red, the sheetfed pressman, wait for approval on color of cover.

All of us thought it was a pretty cool dream and I really didn’t think any more of it until…I got home and was reviewing the images I shot that morning. When I saw what would eventually become the 2017 Virginia Wildlife cover shot my mind immediately went to Mike’s dream. Naturally, I wanted Mike to see the photograph so I sent him the image and asked if the photo was anything like his dream. His response was “Wow…straight from my dream”.  Little did I know at the time that the image would eventually grace the cover of this year’s calendar. Without Captain Mike’s dream this shot would have been buried with the many hundreds of other “keeper” Bald Eagle images I have stored on hard drives. Some would say coincidence but I say divine intervention.

I am honored and very thankful that this image was selected. A big thank you to Lynda Richardson and all the staff at Virginia Wildlife for a great magazine and a calendar that exhibits the beautiful wildlife and scenery we are blessed with in Virginia.

Camera, lens and settings: Nikon D3S body – Nikon 400 2.8 lens with 1.4X tele-converter, Shutter speed 1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 400. I used a monopod for support. For those just beginning the adventure of photographing wildlife and nature, I would say be patient, shoot many images and strive for shots that exhibit behavior without disturbing the subject. Also, invest in good glass. High quality lenses hold their value much better than camera bodies and will give you resale value when you decide to upgrade your lenses.

-Ricky Simpson
Follow Ricky on Facebook

Purchase your copy of the 2017 Virginia Wildlife Calendar »

Ricky Simpson laughs as Tom Cruise, sheetfed pressman for Progress Printing Plus, signs his bald eagle cover of the 2017 Virginia Wildlife calendar.

Ricky Simpson laughs as Tom Cruise, sheetfed pressman for Progress Printing Plus, signs his bald eagle cover of the 2017 Virginia Wildlife calendar.

  • August 24th, 2016

DGIF eStore Grants Connect Youth to the Outdoors

IMG_6783 cropyIn October 2010, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) and the Wildlife Foundation of Virginia (WFV) created a mutually-beneficial relationship for the purpose of developing new or enhanced fundraising projects and managing funds to implement projects which aligned with the missions of the VDGIF and the WFV. The Virginia Wildlife eStore was launched on July 1, 2013 as an innovative partnership project to raise funds to support fish and wildlife conservation. The eStore represents creative marketing efforts at VDGIF and the WFV and provides customers with products to connect people to the outdoors.

We are keeping with the promise to support fish and wildlife conservation through the development and implementation of the Virginia Wildlife eStore Grant Program to connect youth to the outdoors.

2016 Total Funding Available: $45,000 (individual grant amounts will vary based on the scope of each proposal and we are anticipating the funding of 20-25 projects). The average grant amount in 2015 was $1,500.

DSCN1643Grant Period: August 1, 2016 – July 1, 2017

Eligible Applicants

  • 501(c) (3) Non-Profits
  • Local Government Organizations
  • Schools

Grant Focus Area

  • Youth Outdoor Activities – hunting, fishing, boating, shooting sports, wildlife viewing, or education programs

Disbursement of Funds

  • The WFV shall disburse 100 % of the funds to Grantee when the award is accepted.
  • A match is not required.

IMG_1604Grant Timeline

  • Application Submission Deadline – September 1, 2016
  • Award Announcement – October 1, 2016
  • Project Completion date – June 1, 2017
  • Final Report due – July 1, 2017


  • July 31st, 2016

Ware Creek WMA

Newly-opened Ware Creek WMA is 2600 acres in New Kent County, in the community of Barhamsville. Located on the York River and bounded by Philbates and Ware Creeks, this area offers extensive wetlands, as well mixed hardwood and pine forests and open fields.

Ware Creek WMA

The uplands of Ware Creek WMA are comprised primarily of variously aged mixed pine and hardwood forests with some pine plantation. Agricultural fields offer upland habitat variety along with small wildlife clearings. Wetlands include rich saltmarshes as well as tidal freshwater marshes and small interior ponds and beaver wetlands. Excellent opportunities exist for a variety of upland game, especially deer and wild turkey as well as small game. Terrapin Point Marsh on the York River, along with the marshes of Ware and Philbates Creeks offer good waterfowl and rail hunting opportunities.

Fishing opportunities here are primarily found in adjacent York River as well as the brackish Ware and Philbates Creeks. The best access to these areas is by boat. Additional fishing opportunities on the WMA will be developed.

Paddling and boating opportunities exist on the York River and Ware and Philbates Creeks. Launching facilities are available at nearby York River State Park for a fee and at the DGIF ramp located in West Point. Excellent wildlife viewing opportunities exist at Ware Creek WMA. Waterfowl, marsh birds songbirds and raptors like bald eagle and osprey can be found here along with reptiles like diamondback terrapin, eastern box turtle, and eastern rat snake.

Ware Creek WMA

The strategies for wildlife management at this WMA are still under consideration. DGIF welcomes public input and comment as to the management of wildlife and habitat, as well as wildlife-related recreational opportunities, at Ware Creek WMA. A public input meeting will be held at the Heritage Library (6215 Chesapeake Circle Ste. D New Kent, VA 23124) in New Kent County on July 19th from 5:30–8:00 PM. Department staff will gather input into all aspects of wildlife-related recreation and management. This meeting and other venues of public input will help to inform management strategies at Ware Creek WMA moving forward.

Directions to Ware Creek WMA

From Richmond and Points West: From I-64 East take Exit 227 VA-30 Toano/Williamsburg. Turn Left onto Old Stage Rd (VA-30). After 1.5 miles turn right onto Holly Forks Rd. After 0.9 miles Holly Forks Rd becomes Tabernacle Rd. Continue on Tabernacle Rd for 1.9 miles and turn left onto Triangle Rd. After 0.5 miles turn right onto Holly Fork Rd and proceed 0.3 miles to Millers Rd. Turn left on Millers Rd and continue 0.4 miles to the management area.

From Newport News and Points South: From I64 West take Exit 227 VA-30 Toano/Williamsburg. Turn right onto Old Stage Rd (VA-30). After 1.5 miles turn right onto Holly Forks Rd. After 0.9 miles Holly Forks Rd becomes Tabernacle Rd. Continue on Tabernacle Rd for 1.9 miles and turn left onto Triangle Rd. After 0.5 miles turn right onto Holly Fork Rd and proceed 0.3 miles to Millers Rd. Turn left on Millers Rd and continue 0.4 miles to the management area.

  • June 24th, 2016

Restoring the Red-cockaded Woodpecker in Virginia


Under the still, blue skies of Sussex County on the morning of June 10, six pairs of boots strolled  through the open loblolly pine forests of Big Woods Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Faintly at first, then louder, the repeated call of a red-cockaded woodpecker was heard by six pairs of excited ears. This lone woodpecker’s call was evidence that birds from


Red-cockaded woodpecker with nestling. Photo by Kevin Rose (DGIF).

the bordering Piney Grove Nature Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), are finding their way onto the WMA, owned by DGIF.  The boot-clad biologists from DGIF and TNC were thrilled, after all, they had met at the WMA specifically to discuss facilitating an expansion of the red-cockaded woodpecker population from Piney Grove onto Big Woods in the coming years.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers, affectionately known by the acronym RCW, are a federally endangered species that depend on mature, open pine savannas that once blanketed much of the southeastern United States, but have over time been reduced to a fragment of their former glory.  Despite this adversity, the birds persist on this remaining landscape and for decades, have been staging a recovery thanks to intensive habitat management and woodpecker monitoring by a variety of partners.


Open loblolly pine savanna at Big Woods WMA.

In Virginia, DGIF participates in a coalition working on RCW conservation that includes partners such as TNC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary. DGIF has supported management and monitoring of RCWs at Piney Grove Preserve, Virginia’s only documented RCW population, as well as the recent reintroduction efforts of RCWs into Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (which is hoped will result in the


Prescribed burn at Big Woods WMA. Photo by Matt Kline (DGIF).

Commonwealth’s second RCW population). DGIF’s purchase of Big Woods WMA in 2009 and habitat management efforts to restore its pine savanna habitat, including hundreds of acres of prescribed burns (980 acres in 2015; 1200 acres in 2016), underscores the Agency’s commitment to recovering RCW in Virginia.  The woodpecker population has thrived at Piney Grove, but is now pushing up against available habitat with little room left to expand.  With some additional thinning and continued prescribed burning to open the understory of its fire-adapted pine forests, areas of Big Woods should be suitable to welcome RCWs in the next year or two.  In order to encourage settlement and breeding by the RCWs, older mature pines will be provided with artificial cavities, a technique that has successfully been used to expand RCW populations into new areas of already-settled forest.


DGIF biologist takes a sample core from loblolly pine to evaluate its suitability for RCW cavities.

RCWs are unique among woodpeckers in that they excavate cavities exclusively in living pine trees, rather than in snags (dead trees).  RCWs are also unique in that they are cooperative breeders (only 3% of all bird species breed in this manner). They live in family groups whose offspring from previous years delay their own reproduction in order to help parents raise their future siblings.  The dynamics of this breeding system limit the number of birds that are nesting in any given year. This behavior, in conjunction with the mechanics of excavating cavities in living trees and the dependence on mature and open forest conditions, contributes to long recovery times for the RCW population as a whole.  Restoration of this unique species requires patience and a long-term view, but with continued collaboration among partners, is achievable within the Commonwealth.


Red-cockaded woodpecker approaching its tree cavity. Photo by Kevin Rose.

In the meantime, walking through Big Woods on that mild late-spring morning reminded the biologists that their conservation goals for RCW speak to the broader goal of restoring a southern pine ecosystem to the WMA, along with all of the species supported by this habitat-type.  They listened for bobwhite quail, watched red-headed and pileated woodpeckers fly from tree to tree, and heard the singing of yellow-breasted chats, prairie warblers, Eastern towhees and field sparrows. Experiences such as these, while planning future management strategies, help to keep spirits high and minds focused while moving forward on this conservation journey.

  • June 20th, 2016

Coyote Research Study Update

Although they are found state-wide, coyotes are a relative new-comer to Virginia.  Coyotes are native to the plains of the Midwest, but they eventually arrived in the western mountains of Virginia during the late 1970’s following a well-documented eastward expansion.  Coyotes prefer hilly terrain with open or brushy habitat, but they are also a highly adaptable species. Their numbers quickly increased and coyotes soon became firmly established in every county of the Commonwealth.

Coyote With Transmitter

Coyote wearing a GPS radio collar as part of the research study.

Soon after the coyote’s arrival, many hunters and wildlife enthusiasts began to express apprehension regarding the potential impacts coyotes might have on our native wildlife species.  In particular, deer hunters voiced concerns that increasing coyote numbers might lower deer populations in portions of the state.

In order to better understand the potential effects of coyotes on deer numbers, the Virginia Department  of Game & Inland Fisheries embarked upon a 4-year research project in the western mountain region of the state.  The study was headed up by researchers at Virginia Tech and initiated in 2011.  The project was focused on National Forest lands in Bath and western Rockingham County, where deer numbers appeared to have declined substantially during the past decade.  Primary objectives of the project included an assessment of what coyotes eat throughout the year, their movement behavior, habitat selection, and home range size. The diet of bobcats and bears were also studied in the same area and compared with coyotes.

To study the diet of coyotes, researchers meticulously examined 395 coyote scats (feces samples) collected monthly over a 2-year period.  They found out that coyotes eat deer very frequently.  White-tailed deer had the highest overall occurrence in the scat (74%), followed by voles (27%) and insects (16%).  Seasonally, deer occurrence in the scats was greatest in January, March, June, July, and November.  The June-July period coincides with the fawning season but deer were also an important food item during the early fall and late-winter months.

diet analyses

Bones found in coyote scat for diet analyses.

Although we now know that coyotes eat deer a lot, we don’t know if they eat a lot of deer.   Scat analyses tell us what an animal has eaten, but not how the food item was obtained.  As a result, it’s unknown whether the source of deer in the coyote diet was from deer actually killed by coyotes or whether coyotes were scavenging on carcasses of deer that died from other causes.  Most likely, both sources were important diet components, but additional research (currently underway) will be needed to quantify the contribution of each source.

Coyotes were not the only predators eating deer in the study areas.  Of the 607 bobcat scats analyzed, deer were found in 35% and squirrels were found in 53%.  Seasonally, deer was highest in the scats during June (when most fawns are born) and in late winter (December and January).   Bears also had a high occurrence of deer in their scat (35%), but acorns and berries were found in 61% and insects were found in 45%.

In addition to studying what coyotes were eating, researchers also monitored the movements and survival of 19 coyotes wearing high-tech GPS radio collars.  They found that coyotes in the western mountains formed a mosaic of stable and shifting home ranges that were significantly impacted by high mortality, primarily from shooting and trapping.  Some coyotes lived in loose family groups and occupied well-defined territories.

VACS photo 8

Application of a GPS radio-collar on a coyote.

Others were lone individuals classified as “transients” with large home ranges situated between defended territories, referred to as “biding areas.”   These nomadic coyotes were basically lying in wait to fill vacant territories.  Since mortality of coyotes was high (63% of radio-collared coyotes were killed during the monitoring period), it usually didn’t take long for a territory to become vacant.

This complex social structure illustrates why coyote numbers are difficult to manage at the landscape level.  In areas where available territories are limited, coyote numbers appear to be regulated more effectively by competition with one another rather than by mortality from hunting and trapping.  If coyotes truly are having an impact on deer populations, the most effective response may be to improve deer habitat, rather than kill more coyotes.  Coyotes make convenient scapegoats, but they are just one species in a multi-predator system that also includes bobcats and bears.   As is usually the case in wildlife management, ecological relationships are almost always more complex than they appear on the surface.  Certainly, the predator-prey dynamics of coyotes and deer are no exception.


All photos courtesy of Virginia Tech.

  • June 2nd, 2016