Field Notes: A Woodcock Encounter

By Scott Bachman, VDOF Senior Area Forester, Blackwater team

Now that it’s April I will declare that spring is officially here in southeastern Virginia! 

Earlier this month, I was traveling a back road in Southampton County when ahead I saw a line of small objects on the highway. As I got closer, I could see they were birds. The lead bird was larger than the four that followed. My first thought was that they were quail, and being a quail enthusiast, I thought it was unusual to see a family of quail this time of year. As I got closer, I realized these were not quail, but a family of American woodcock! The lead bird was the adult female, with four young of the year in tow.

I slowed my vehicle and stopped before I reached the small family. The adult bird hopped off into the mature pine forest on the far side of the road. The hatchlings, however, simply squatted down in the middle of the road. I got out of the truck and, after taking a close up of one of the chicks, herded the young birds off the road in the direction of their mother. 

Woodcock chick

I have seen plenty of adult woodcock (Scolopax minor, also known as timberdoodle and several other names) in my work as a forester and as a quail hunter. They are a federally regulated migratory game bird common in Virginia during the winter months. The birds we see in the winter, I have assumed, migrated from more northern states in search of ice free habitat. During hunting season, I expect to see more woodcock when bad weather up north forces these long-range travelers south. Growing up in western Pennsylvania, I remember seeing woodcock in the fall. They were associated with swampy areas and known for making a funny chirping sound when flying.

Adult woodcock on nest (Photo by Ricky Layson, Ricky Layson Photography,

I had never seen a young woodcock, so I decided to do a little reading. According to the Audubon Society’s website, these plump birds call many different habitats home, but prefer moist forest thickets and brush as well as open fields. To feed, they probe the moist soils with their very long bill, which has a flexible tip to allow grabbing worms and other organisms under the soil.

Still curious about their presence in the spring, I contacted Marc Puckett, a friend, hunting partner, and small game biologist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR). While Marc is best known for his work with quail, he also knows some about woodcock and enjoys hunting them. He told me that, while all woodcock migrate at some point, occurring from Canada all the way to Louisiana at varying times of year, we have some woodcock that act almost like local birds. They spend a great deal of time in Virginia, from fall until early summer in some cases. And woodcock do nest here, with some nests documented as early as late January, even with snow on the ground! They prefer to nest in thick cover, typically regenerating forest lands. Little is known about these woodcock that behave somewhat like residents. A study is currently being coordinated in Virginia by Dr. Gary Costanzo, the DWR migratory gamebird biologist. Stay tuned to the DWR website for information about results of the ongoing study.

Woodcock nest in cutover (Photo by David Powell)

While woodcock are fascinating birds in nearly every respect, particularly interesting is the male mating display that occurs prior to nesting. Males may gather in open areas and give “peent” calls prior to flying straight up in the air, then twisting back to the ground to attract females.  Males have special feathers on their wings that make them whistle during their flight, and the tips of their tail feathers on the underside are bright white to help the females see them during their ground display. (They strut much like a turkey gobbler!) Honestly, I don’t think I have ever seen this, and you may not have either. This interesting ritual takes place in February or March, beginning in the late evening and continuing until after dark. It also may be repeated in the early morning hours, concluding before full light.

It’s good to know that in the darkest, coldest days of winter in Virginia, the American woodcock and its unique mating flights are predicting the coming of spring and the renewal of life in the forest. Like many other forest dwelling animals, however, their population levels may be falling on the East Coast due to habitat degradation and loss. Forest management, therefore, is an important tool for woodcock habitat improvement. Your local Department of Forestry staff can connect you with a biologist that can help you if you are interested in woodcock management on your land.


Field Notes: Partnerships at Pleasant Grove

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

Pleasant Grove Park in Fluvanna County offers a nature-rich experience for visitors and a variety of habitats for wildlife. Behind the scenes, it’s also a model for collaboration between county government and a plethora of partners.

VDOF has been a part of several education and stewardship projects at the park, including establishment of a tree identification trail, providing trees for planting, and most recently, maintenance burning of fields to improve habitat.

On an April morning, members of VDOF’s Jefferson work team performed a prescribed burn of some grass fields at the park. The park plans to maintain these fields as early successional wildlife habitat, potentially establishing warm season grasses in the future. Forester Chuck Wright made all the preliminary arrangements for the burn, including meeting with the county Board of Supervisors to get approval to burn in the park. Although it was fire season, VDOF obtained a spring 4PM Burning Law exemption, which can be used for wildlife habitat maintenance and improvement if conditions allow. 

Conducting the burn were senior area forester David Powell, forester Jonah Fielding, and forest technicians Zach Long and Matthew Hutchins. Fluvanna Parks and Recreation Director Aaron Spitzer came out to observe, as did Master Naturalist volunteers Walter Hussey and Doug Rogers. Doug used his camera drone to photograph the burn from the air.

As with any prescribed fire, safety came first. The fields were near Fluvanna High School and a main road, so many factors had to align for a safe and successful burn. Weather forecasts were checked in the days leading up to the burn. Fire lines that had been plowed around the area weeks earlier were refreshed with the bulldozer. The morning of the burn, the county closed most of the park, and VDOT put up a road sign warning motorists of a burn in progress. Burn boss David Powell checked the temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction before sending his team out with drip torches to light the first field. He continued to monitor the weather periodically, and an afternoon drop in humidity meant ending early, even though part of one field didn’t get burned.   

In contrast to the early successional fields, some areas of the park are being converted to forest. Walter Hussey is one of Pleasant Grove’s most active volunteers, and he has been involved with tree planting in many areas of the park. On a recent drizzly day, he and seven other members of the Rivanna chapter of Virginia Master Naturalists planted American chestnuts near the community gardens at Pleasant Grove. Jerre Creighton, research forester with VDOF, provided seedlings and nuts – a mix of pure American chestnut and hybrids that are 15/16 American. The hybrid trees are the result of years of backcross breeding with Chinese chestnut. Researchers hope the trees’ Chinese heritage brings along genes for long-term resistance to chestnut blight.

Master Naturalists are just one of the groups who collaborate with the county on stewardship and education at Pleasant Grove. There are also local Master Gardeners and Tree Stewards working to improve the park environment. And, as one volunteer at the planting put it, “Some of us wear more than one hat.”

County school students are also stewards of Pleasant Grove. In fact, the chestnuts joined a field of other wildlife-friendly hardwoods, including white oak, red mulberry, dogwood, black cherry, and American plum, that were planted on Earth Day two years ago by county first and second graders.

Tree shelters protect chestnuts and other young trees

It’s not often you find a local park with over twenty miles of hiking trails, river access, a dog park, pollinator garden, a historic home and museum, and more. Pleasant Grove Park is already a fabulous spot to visit, and thanks to the work of many partners, it just keeps getting better.

Field Notes: Atlantic White-cedar Makes a Comeback?

By Scott Bachman, VDOF Senior Area Forester, Blackwater Work Area

A number of years back, a hurricane made landfall on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and forced her way through the southeastern coastal area of Virginia on the way to dumping flooding rains on the remainder of the Commonwealth. That storm was Isabel. In her wake, she left 32 people dead and more than 1.85 billion dollars in damage.

Directly in the path of the storm were Chesapeake and Suffolk.  In addition to homes and businesses, the forests in these cities were significantly impacted. The forests of the Great Dismal Swamp, historically the last refuge of native Atlantic white-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) in Virginia, were not spared. 

You can imagine what happens when very soft swamp soils with little mineral content, tall mature timber, and high winds meet. Large swaths of timber were toppled by the force of Isabel’s winds. This “blown down” timber was eventually salvage logged by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the caretakers of the swamp.  In a happy accident, this disturbance resulted in a flush of Atlantic white- cedar regeneration arising from buried seed in the organic soil. 

Atlantic white-cedar seedling (Photo credit: Jen Wright, USFWS)

Atlantic white-cedar to the casual observer (myself included) appears identical to eastern redcedar, a common Virginia native tree. Their forms and shapes are similar, as is their scale-like evergreen foliage. How might you tell them apart, you ask? Their preferred growing sites are anything but similar. Atlantic white-cedar is found naturally on organic soils, which form in places with a high water table, where organic debris like leaves, needles, branches, logs, and even the occasional dead deer do not fully decompose. In a dry upland site, this organic material is mixed with the mineral soil through the action of animals and weathering. In the swamp, however, this “unincorporated” material becomes essentially compost, or peat. It is a productive but very wet soil type, at least during normal times. 

Years after Isabel led to regeneration of white-cedar in the swamp, a drought settled in over southeastern Virginia. Eventually, a thunderstorm brewed over the Great Dismal, and a lightning bolt flashed in a cloud-to-ground strike, hitting the now dry organic soil. It was likely several days before a visible plume of smoke could be seen over the swamp, and a “peat fire” was underway. 

Unfortunately, organic soil is made of carbon, just like coal (which, if given enough time and the proper conditions, this “peat soil” might become). This means that if it catches on fire, like it did during the thunderstorm, it can burn for a very long time. In fact, it tends to burn until most of the organic soil, which may be several feet deep, is consumed. This makes peat fires extremely hard to extinguish. Fire crews from all over the country came to the swamp to battle the fire, but by the time they were able to moisten the organic soil by blocking ditches and pumping water, much of the newly regenerated Atlantic white-cedar had been destroyed. 

Today there are acres of shallow waters and, in some cases, invasive wetland plants like Phragmites australis where the regenerating white-cedar forest once was. Most of the organic soil was destroyed, but in some areas there is enough left to support an Atlantic white-cedar forest. Without a seed source, however, the forest needed the help of scientists and foresters to get started.

Jen Wright, a biologist at the Great Dismal Swamp, and Josh Bennicoff, the Garland Gray Nursery manager, entered into a partnership early in 2020 to grow Atlantic white-cedar seedlings in the VDOF containerized nursery. This was test, as VDOF had not attempted to grow this species before. After securing “pelletized” seeds from the North Carolina Forest Service nursery, Josh was able to plant the very tiny seeds using our pine seed equipment. Had they not been pelletized, Josh would have had to plant thousands of poppy-seed sized seeds by hand! By midsummer this group of test seedlings were well on their way to being ready for planting in their new home. At the end of the growing season, the year-old seedlings were packaged and transported — destined for planting in the burn-scarred area. 

Atlantic white-cedar seedlings bejeweled in dew Photo credit: Scott Bachman

In early December of 2020, volunteers gathered at the Dismal Swamp office on a Saturday morning to take the two thousand or so seedlings out to the planting sites. This wasn’t just any planting though; to get to the sites, the volunteers often had to canoe! The seedlings, though small, will hopefully find the swamp a great home and enhance the efforts to reforest the burned area with Atlantic white-cedar. 

If the plantings are successful and become established, hopefully this partnership between the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and the Virginia Department of Forestry’s Garland Gray Forestry Center will grow and positively improve other habitats on the Refuge. We look forward to following the growth of these seedlings into the future!   

Field Notes: Wandering the Winter Woods

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

A few weeks ago, on a cold but sunny day, I visited Paul State Forest in Rockingham County for the first time. It was a great place for a winter woods walk.

The Paul became a State Forest in 1962 – a gift to the state from a local judge, John Paul. The forest is included in the Department of Wildlife Resources’ (DWR) list of Virginia Birding Trail sites. DWR describes it quite accurately as “an island of forest in a sea of farmland.” The Paul is located on Clover Hill Road near Dayton, just north of Ottobine (map). Look for the old-school wooden sign at the parking area!

The Paul’s 173 acres of mature hardwoods and scattered pines provide winter foraging and roosting habitat for many birds. The day I was there, the woods and edges revealed a typical winter bird crew: red-bellied and downy woodpecker, dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, ruby-crowned kinglet, tufted titmouse, Carolina chickadee, Carolina wren, and northern cardinal. I hope to go back in late April, when the trees should be alive with migrating warblers.

Carolina chickadee

Stumps reveal that trees are sometimes harvested from this forest. Forest management is one key distinction between State Forests and State Parks, with which they are sometimes confused. State Forests are managed for multiple uses, or sometimes quite specific ones, depending on deed restrictions set forth by the donor. Many of our State Forests pay their own way as true “working” forests. In fact, no state general funds are used to maintain State Forests, and 25% of any timber sale revenue is returned to the county where the forest is located.  

Winter is the perfect time to study and appreciate tree bark in a hardwood forest like the Paul: the pale shagginess of white oak, diamond-patterned furrows of mockernut hickory, the “burnt cornflake” look of black cherry, and lots of other interesting textures. I found an unexpected species during my walk at the Paul: bigtooth aspen. I recognized its smooth, olive-tinged bark, then confirmed my identification with some nearby fallen leaves.

In winter, the understory of the Paul is quite open, in part because goats were posted there to eat invasive plants last summer. Thankfully, they didn’t do much damage to the native spicebush – perhaps because it tastes like lemon furniture polish? The spicebush flower buds were already showing yellow when I visited; if you visit now (mid-March), they should be in full bloom.

Like many of our State Forests, the Paul is easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. It has a small parking area on a country road, and no facilities other than a few picnic tables. But the views from the parking lot and forest edges are lovely, and the forest roads are easy to hike, making it a perfect place for families with young children. Kids outdoors tend to find their own entertainment, and everybody can learn unexpected things from a walk in the woods. (For example, after pulling a large pine branch off the path during my walk, I discovered that hand sanitizer is great for removing pine sap from hands.)

Farm view from the edge of Paul State Forest

In these days of virtual instruction, why not create your own field trip with a visit to a State Forest? You can take along some of Virginia Department of Forestry’s activity ideas for kids to try outdoors. Bonus: They’re fun for adults too!

Native Ecosystem Restoration Expanded in Southeastern Virginia

The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) and the Meadowview Biological Research Station (MBRS) recently acquired land that expands an existing conservation easement on the Joseph Pines Preserve in Sussex County.  The 196-acre purchase by MBRS increases the preserve property to nearly 428 acres. The easement, donated to VDOF by MBRS, includes the entire preserve.

“This partnership exemplifies the positive impact of multiple agencies and nonprofit organizations working together with a shared vision,” said Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring. “As a result of this conservation project we are seeing the restoration of a rare forest community with public access.”

The property, which is open to visitors for low-impact use, is managed to restore a native longleaf pine ecosystem. Longleaf pine’s native range once extended from southeast Virginia to east Texas. Although no natural longleaf pine forests remain in Sussex County, historical forest models indicate that longleaf would have likely been present on the Joseph Pines Preserve landscape. A joint research initiative with the USDA Forest Service in 2018 confirmed the assumption – an old log pulled from wetlands on the property was tested and identified as longleaf pine. 

“Five centuries ago, longleaf pine was arguably the most common tree species in upland southeast Virginia,” said Virginia State Forester Rob Farrell. “VDOF and many of our partners have long recognized the importance of longleaf restoration to environmental and economic health, and we are excited to strengthen our efforts through the expansion of this easement.”

VDOF has held an easement on the preserve’s original 232 acres since 2012. The recent purchase of the additional acreage was made possible by grant funding from the Virginia Land Conservation Fund, the Cameron Foundation, a third anonymous foundation, a loan guarantee from Atlantic Union Bank, and a loan from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund. MBRS’ goal is to expand the preserve to 2,000 acres in Sussex County, by adding property and amending the easement over time.

“Our mission is to put back parts of the system that were lost, to preserve the history, and restore this land as best we can to what we think it was,” said Dr. Phil Sheridan, Director of MBRS. 

With its collective land holdings, MBRS has one of the largest sources of native Virginia longleaf pine seed. MBRS has been a pioneer of longleaf conservation and research and plans to support their conservation efforts by working with VDOF to harvest an existing loblolly pine plantation on the property and convert it to native Virginia longleaf pine. MBRS and VDOF determined that the native longleaf pine genotype is superior for in-state planting because of greater survival, growth, water-use efficiency, and fecundity over other southern seed sources.

“Our organization is a part of the VDOF family. We have a long history of working together with the department, especially on activities to restore longleaf pine. Our work together ultimately culminated with acquiring land to meet our research and preservation goals,” said Dr. Sheridan

Longleaf Pine Ecosystems

Longleaf pine woods at Joseph Pines Preserve. Photo Credit: Meadowview Biological Research Station

Longleaf pine forests are fire-dependent, meaning fire is required for regeneration by preparing an open and clean seedbed. Longleaf ecosystems host a number of other rare species in Virginia, including red-cockaded woodpeckers and two species of pitcher plants. Intensive harvesting and a legacy of fire suppression in the Southeast caused significant decline of the longleaf forests and other fire-dependent species. Joseph Pines Preserve, for example, was likely fire-suppressed for over 100 years. Preserve managers have reintroduced fire to the landscape and will continue work to restore the native ecosystem through the reintroduction of at least 18 rare plant species and three rare animal species.

Some species found in the disappearing longleaf forests were not preserved in seedbanks and have been lost forever. Among them are two pitcher plant species, making them a primary focus for the MBRS. Joseph Pine Preserve hosts six rescued native populations of yellow pitcher plants, five of which have gone extinct in  Virginia. “Preserving this habitat means we’re preventing extinction and conserving biodiversity,” said Dr. Sheridan.

Importance for Forest Conservation

Restoring longleaf pine to the landscape is important for many reasons. In addition to supporting critical habitat, longleaf can be a commercially valuable tree. They contribute to Virginia’s overall forest health because they may be more resistant to pests (like southern pine beetle) than other species of pine, due to inherent characteristics of the tree and the use of fire in longleaf forest management. Longleaf pine forests can also be important sources of fresh water.

Frequent prescribed burning means less thickets and dense foliage, making it easier to walk along the trails. Numerous coveys of native bobwhite quail (another diminished species in Virginia) may startle the unsuspecting hiker. Preserve managers have also heard calls from the rare Bachman’s sparrow on the property. The Preserve also hosts the only known publicly accessible yellow pitcher plant site. 

“Identifying forestland with significant conservation value is an essential part of VDOF’s land conservation programs,” said VDOF Forestland Conservation Specialist Amanda Scheps. “The Joseph Pines Preserve is an outstanding example of land that contains important habitat and supports important research to restore a diminished species.”

About MBRS and Joseph Pines Preserve

Meadowview Biological Research Station is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to preserving and restoring rare wetland plants, habitats, and associated ecosystems on the coastal plain of Maryland and Virginia.  Land acquisition and management is made possible through the generous support of donors, state, federal, and private foundations, and volunteers. To learn more about how you can help, visit:

The primary purpose of Joseph Pines Preserve is habitat restoration and conservation. Although the property is open to the public for low-impact permitted activities, visitors must submit an access and use permit prior to entering the property; the preserve is closed during deer hunting season. Examples of permitted activities are hiking and birdwatching, while ATV and horseback riding are prohibited to prevent damage or weed introduction that would negatively impact rare plant species, Plant collection is strictly forbidden.

About the Virginia Department of Forestry

The Virginia Department of Forestry protects and develops healthy, sustainable forest resources for Virginians.  With nearly 16 million acres of forestland and more than 108,000 Virginians employed in forestry, forest products and related industries, Virginia forests provide an overall economic output of more than $21 billion annually.  

Headquartered in Charlottesville, the Agency has forestry staff members assigned to every county to provide citizen service and public safety protection across the Commonwealth, which it’s been doing now for more than 100 years. VDOF is an equal opportunity provider.


Michelle Stoll, Virginia Department of Forestry, (434) 282-4014,
Dr. Phil Sheridan, Meadowview Biological Research Station, (804) 633-4336,

Featured Image: Native yellow pitcher plant at Joseph Pines Preserve, Photo Credit: Meadowview Biological Research Station

Field Notes: Covey Call in the Big Woods

By Scott Bachman, Senior Area Forester, Blackwater Region

In the pre-dawn hours, Venus and Mars were the brightest objects in the dark sky, save for the crescent moon that, as the old timers might say, was holding water. The occasional satellite could be seen in its telltale unblinking arc streaking across the inky blackness of space. Suddenly, a shooting star blazed west to east before fading out. 

Stephen Jasenak and I were not out in the Big Wood State Forest for a star-gazing morning; no, we were here for a much more terrestrial reason. The State Forest, along with the Big Woods Wildlife Management area and the Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve, are in aggregate one of two focus areas of the Quail Recovery Initiative in Virginia. Since the 1960’s, Virginia’s quail population has declined by an estimated 70 percent. Much of the reason is that modern farming and land-use practices create unfavorable habitat for quail. Forest management is one tool for bringing back these birds across their native range. You can get more information about bobwhites in Virginia here.

Male Northern bobwhite, Colinus virginianus (Photo courtesy of Birdfreak)

Beginning in mid-October and extending into November is the time to arrive in the forest well before dawn to listen for bobwhite covey calls.  The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries) leads this effort in hopes of determining how forest management activities are impacting the recovery of quail populations in the focus area. Each ownership is managed in a slightly different way. This may give quail managers a better understanding of the tool sets to implement on client lands in the Commonwealth.

Marc Puckett, a biologist for the Department of Wildlife Resources and a leader in quail conservation, explained to me that in early mornings throughout the fall birds are trying to join together after being separate “families” during the breeding and rearing seasons. During the winter, quail from multiple families group together, or covey up, in order to conserve warmth as well as better avoid predators. Later in the fall, once the covey has been formed, calling will be reduced. If a covey is broken up by a predator in the night they will call back together in the morning, but if the covey is undisturbed they may be silent for the morning. 

Conducting a Covey Call Survey is a pretty simple process. Surveyors should arrive at the sample point at least one hour before official sunrise, as the “listening period” begins 45 minutes before sunrise. 

For this visit to the forest, 6:30 was the time to begin listening for the distinctive covey call. Twenty minutes later, “Koi-lee” rang out to my west! Moments later another call sounded just south of the first call. Quickly I jotted down the bearing of the calls and the approximate distance from the sample point, along with the time of day, on the data collection map. We strained to hear the next call, but none came before the sun rose above the horizon. At the end of the 45 minute period, we played an electronic recorded call in all four cardinal directions to see if it would stimulate any reluctant birds to answer. Unfortunately, we had no luck that day with the artificial call.  Then it was time to head off for breakfast and the rest of the “real” work for the day. 

This was an excellent result for our first morning out. Like a turkey hunter anticipating that first gobble of the morning, there is an elation from hearing a covey call in your habitat. If you are interested in bobwhite quail numbers on your property, you too can conduct a covey count. On a clear morning with little or no wind, head out to your habitat and listen intently. The call is hard to mistake, especially at that time of the morning in autumn, when most birds aren’t singing, or even awake. When you hear a call, you at least know for certain that quail are using your land. How many are there … well, I’m not sure even Marc can tell you that!

Field Notes: Milkweed Magic

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

For a plant with ‘weed’ in its title, milkweed is a pretty awesome plant. It contains toxins called cardiac glyphosides, which deter feeding by most insects and mammals. Despite this trait, a milkweed plant is a little universe unto itself. In fact, one study documented more than 450 species of insects visiting milkweed in a single midwestern field.

You probably already know about the association between milkweeds and monarchs (Danaus plexippus). The caterpillars of these iconic butterflies feed only on plants in the milkweed genus, Asclepius. As a reward for this boring diet, their bodies retain the toxins produced by the plant. These persist into adulthood, making adult monarchs distasteful to most predators. The butterfly’s black and orange coloring and the caterpillar’s contrasting stripes are nature’s warning to stay away.  

Monarch cats!

But monarchs aren’t the only milkweed lovers in the insect world. Currently, the only milkweed in my garden is a single large specimen of swamp milkweed, Asclepius incarnata. In June, its pink blooms were abuzz and aflutter with many different insects. (The nectar isn’t toxic and attracts all sorts of nectar feeders.) After the blooms faded, I ignored my plant for a month or two. When I examined it in September, I found, in addition to seven hungry monarch caterpillars, a few other interesting insects that feed on milkweed.

Bumblebee on milkweed

Large milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) are “true bugs” of the order Hemiptera. They feed mainly on milkweed seeds, probing through the pods with their long piercing mouthparts to suck juices from the seeds within. Like monarchs, milkweed bugs accumulate toxins in their bodies, and like them, they sport a bold color pattern. This is an example of Müllerian mimicry, in which two or more species look alike and are both noxious to predators.

Large milkweed bug

Milkweed leaf beetles (Labidomera clivicollis) look a bit like very large, chunky ladybugs. Both their larvae and adults feed on milkweed leaves. Unlike monarchs and milkweed bugs, these beetles do not build up toxins from the plants, but they do share the same contrasting colors. This is an example of Batesian mimicry, in which a tasty species mimics one that tastes bad.

Milkweed leaf beetle and aphids

My milkweed also attracted yellow aphids this year, seen in the background of the beetle photo. These are most likely oleander aphids (Aphis nerii), an introduced pest that feeds on (you guessed it) oleander in its native Mediterranean habitat.

Fourteen species of milkweed are native to Virginia. Clusters of white, pink, purple, or orange flowers bloom from late spring through late summer, depending on species. In late summer to fall, the seed pods will split to release fluffy seeds that drift away in the wind.

Many Virginia gardeners cultivate milkweeds for their flowers and for their benefit to monarchs. The summer generations of monarchs live only a few weeks, but September’s caterpillars are different. They will transform into the tough, yet lovely, butterflies that will make a 3,000-mile journey to central Mexico, hang out for the winter, and return to the U.S. in spring.

My monarch caterpillars all left the plant to pupate when I was away for a few days. I looked everywhere for their chrysalises, but in my jungle of a garden, I couldn’t find any. Hopefully they’ll all produce strong, healthy monarchs capable of making that long flight.

Monarchs are a species in trouble. Contributing factors include habitat loss on both breeding and overwintering grounds, climate change, and pesticide use. You can help by growing milkweed in your own yard. (Buying plants from a nursery is usually the best option, because milkweed seeds don’t germinate reliably.) When friends ask what that interesting plant is, don’t be afraid to tell them it’s a weed – and a very cool one!

Field Notes: Sounds of Spring

by Ellen Powell, conservation educator

The flush of green suffusing our woodlands isn’t the only signal that spring is here.

If a daily dawn chorus wakes you this month, it likely includes our state bird, the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). This species is a bit unusual, in that both males and females sing, providing a familiar soundtrack in woodland edges and thickets statewide.

Learn more about cardinals and listen to their songs.

Ivy Creek view 1
Ivy Creek.

One of the first warblers to return to central Virginia woodlands is the Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla). Listen for it’s clear-noted song and watch for it foraging along the edges of woodland streams like the one pictured on the right.

See and learn more about the Louisiana waterthrush here.

Birds aren’t the only singers in the spring woods. Frogs and toads gather in shallow wetlands and ponds to mate. The more males in a breeding chorus, the more likely they are to be heard by potential mates. Late March is an excellent time to hear a chorus of American toads (Anaxyrus americanus), especially on cloudy days.

Listen to ethereal trills of the American toad.



Credit, Photo of Northern Cardinal: Jessica Bolser/USFWS

Foresters on Bear Den Duty

VDOF foresters are lending a hand to locate foster moms for orphaned bear cubs in Virginia. 

VDOF’s sister agency Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) recently reached out with a request for help identifying black bear dens on forestland throughout the state.

DGIF biologists have received a number of calls about bear cubs that have been separated from their mother— “well beyond what we normally see at this time,” says DGIF black bear project leader Stephanie Simek.

Female black bears in Virginia will typically give birth to cubs between January and mid-February while still in their winter dens. The newborn cubs are very small and fully reliant on the sow (mother bear). At this time of year, sows with cubs may occasionally be disturbed by humans, which can result in orphaned cubs, Stephanie explains.

Black Bear cub_20-0064
Photo courtesy of the Wildlife Center of Virginia. Pictured is black bear cub #20-0064

So far this year, several orphaned cubs who could not be reunited with their mothers were transferred to the Wildlife Center of Virginia (WCV) — a non-profit wildlife hospital — to receive care until a suitable surrogate sow in the wild could be found.

Sows with newborn cubs of their own may accept the cubs placed near their den entrance. DGIF biologists have identified a few radio-collared female bears that may act as fosters; however, the department would like to expand their options and are reaching out to partners for assistance.

This is where VDOF forestry staff can help the DGIF team; because our foresters and technicians spend significant time in the field, they are ideal candidates to lend assistance in locating bear dens, which may include hollow trees or brush piles.

Although VDOF staff won’t be in the field looking specifically for dens, if there is a known den on a landowner’s property, or if the foresters encounter an active den while conducting their normal duties, they can communicate this information to the DGIF team.

By providing information about active den sites, VDOF foresters can help DGIF biologists connect healthy cubs with a new, wild family.

Featured photo at top of page is courtesy of DGIF.

For questions regarding black bears in Virginia:
Stephanie L Simek, Ph.D.
Black Bear Project Leader
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries