The Park's Hidden Treasures
By Teta Kain
For the two years, field ornithologist Bill Williams was under contract with the Conservation Park of Virginia to assess the quail population before and after efforts to re-establish the Northern Bobwhite Habitat Restoration Project which covers a fairly large area of the southeastern section of the park.
At least once each month, and more often in peak migration months, Bill conducted his surveys at dawn, walking the two-mile long nature-trail road. The trail winds down the hill through fields planted with various crops to attract wildlife, runs along sections of mixed hardwood forests and pine stands, across the railroad tracks, continuing on to the small beaver pond nestled in the woods near the Chickahominy River. At each of seven established stops he counted everything from birds to butterflies, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and dragonflies.
Bill is one of Virginia's premier birders, and has served the state birding community in many capacities since the 1970s. He founded the Williamsburg Bird Club, and started the Williamsburg Christmas Bird Count in 1977, serving as compiler from 1977 through 1988, and again from 2007 to the present. He is a past president of the Virginia Society of Ornithology, and also founder and past president of the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory. He has also performed various other surveys and studies of birds and wildlife around the state for many years.
On his very first visit, Bill realize what a treasure of wildlife inhabits the park property. The variety of habitats offers up a diversity of plants and animals, the likes of which are seldom found in this part of Virginia. Shoreline habitat along the Chickahominy River, old growth forest, new and old cutovers, agricultural fields, and a 5-acre pond hidden away in the back recesses of the Park has provided some surprising finds.
Bill's main objective was determining the bobwhite (quail) population and his first visits, before prescribed burning was completed, yielded very few individuals. After the burn to rid the area of unsuitable shrub growth on 20 acres behind the skeet ranges, and eradication efforts to eliminate other unwanted, invasive plant species, Bill began to see an increase in bobwhite numbers. It will take diligent management to maintain the habitat properly and park manager Kevin Key has ably taken on that task. With those practices in place, we should see a steady increase in bobwhite numbers in the coming years.
The surveys also resulted in some very unusual discoveries. During his very first survey on 6 March 2010, Bill observed and photographed a female Anhinga at the beaver pond. This bird is usually found only in the very southeastern corner of the state around Stumpy Lake below Virginia Beach and westward along the North Carolina-Virginia border to the Meherrin River area. There are a few records of it occurring in the Williamsburg/Jamestown area, but no previous sightings in Charles City County have ever been recorded.
On other early spring mornings American Woodcocks performed their aerial acrobatics, soaring high into the air, whistling their jaunty calls in the dawn, and fluttering to the ground to bob along the ground doing their strange mating dances to attract females. Another time, on a May morning, a female Wood Duck paraded by with her seven downy hatchlings in tow. Whip-poor-wills were still singing in during a September census, quite a late date for them to be vocal. A White Ibis was also at the beaver pond that month. The next month, four river otters were photographed as they frolicked in the beaver pond.
These are just a few of the encounters with wildlife that Bill related in his monthly reports to the park. At the end of this report you will find a complete list of all species Bill found on his 36 visits over the two-year period. All of these discoveries emphasize the cornucopia of wildlife the park holds. It is a special place that deserves our utmost attention to its preservation and protection.