The mission of Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory is to protect wildlife through education, field research, and habitat conservation. Several of our ongoing efforts pertain to research and habitat protection of birds. One such project involves Prothonotary Warblers, and part of that project occurs at Harwoods Mill Reservoir. In 2009, Newport News Parks & Recreation authorized the placement of several Prothonotary Warbler boxes and monitoring via kayak commenced that same year. During a monitoring session in 2011, several older Wood Duck boxes were discovered along the shore. A quick review indicated the boxes were no longer functional. Dave Youker, the Vice President of CVWO petitioned Newport News Parks & Recreation to take over and revitalize the nest boxes, and they approved the request.
After analyzing each box and location, Dave determined the boxes and sites could not be salvaged. Several factors played into this determination. Box placement prevented ease of access for Wood Ducks, as tree branches obscured box entrances. Boxes were affixed to trees which facilitated possible predation and encouraged squirrels to take up residence. Box dimensions also deterred use by Wood Ducks. The entrance holes were smaller than the typical 3.5 x 4.5 inch oval-shaped size, and the boxes were shorter than the normal 24 inch height. There were no kerf cuts or mechanism on the inside of the boxes to aid the ducklings in reaching the entrance holes. Finally, Dave found no evidence that any bedding material was present. Since Wood Ducks don’t gather nesting material, providing some bedding encourages nesting.
After building 7 new boxes in 2012 that were appropriately sized and constructed, Dave placed them on ¾ inch EMT poles in the water along the shore of the reservoir. A clear flyway was available to each box to facilitate entrance and exit, and wood shavings were added as bedding material. Now all Dave had to do was to wait for the Wood Ducks to begin nesting. His enthusiasm was somewhat dampened as no Wood Ducks used any of the boxes that first year. Nor the second. Nor the third. However, persistence paid off in 2015 as 2 of 7 boxes had Wood Ducks, producing 25 eggs and fledging 19 ducklings. The following year productivity increased with 6 of 7 boxes occupied, producing 75 eggs and fledging 67 ducklings.
Each winter, Dave checks the boxes, makes repairs, and adds new bedding. He tempered his expectations for the coming season realizing that the huge success of the previous year was probably an anomaly. The 2017 season has just concluded as there is no longer any nesting activity in the boxes. The final tally: 7 of 7 boxes occupied and 1 box had a second nesting. Total eggs production was 148 with 103 ducklings fledged. Truly an amazing year!
We hear a lot about habitat decline and its negative effect on wildlife. This Wood Duck project shows that we can do much to facilitate our wildlife in their attempts to adapt to these changes.