Great Swamp Wildlife Management Area, Washington County, Rhode Island

About Great Swamp WMA

This 3,475-acre property near West Kingston in southern Rhode Island includes 2,600 acres of forested wetlands in the floodplains of the Chickasheen, Usquepaug, and Pawcatuck rivers.

Red maple, Atlantic white cedar, red oak, white oak, white pine, and American holly are important tree species. The Great Neck, a higher-elevation drumlin near the center of the WMA, was farmed and pastured before being abandoned in the early to mid-1900s.

The Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife manages Great Swamp WMA for wildlife conservation, hunting and fishing, and compatible public recreation. Waterfowl, American woodcock, ruffed grouse, Northern bobwhite, whip-poor-will, osprey, Northern harrier, New England cottontail, Eastern cottontail, beaver, bobcat, river otter, fisher, coyote, red and gray foxes, and white-tailed deer are some of the wild species inhabiting the area. Ring-necked pheasants are released on the WMA during small game season.

Improving the Land for Woodcock

Land managers and biologists use a range of techniques to make Great Swamp WMA more hospitable to woodcock, blue-winged warblers, bobwhite quail, New England cottontails, and other species that need young forest, a type of habitat that is rare and dwindling in Rhode Island. Management efforts focus on four main categories:

Great Swamp

Old farm fields are cleared off periodically to keep them functioning as woodcock displaying and breeding areas.

Old fields and young-forest openings (42 acres). Tractor-drawn brush hogs, skid-steerer-mounted brush mowers, and commercial-grade Brontosaurus mowers periodically chew down vegetation, removing tall growth that would shade out low, dense saplings, sprouts, and shrubs. Woodcock use these areas for springtime displaying and breeding.

Wildlife openings (44 acres). These fields, managed through farming techniques, provide food and cover for wildlife, including grassland species such as upland sandpiper, Eastern meadowlark, and bobolink. In spring, after winter’s snows have beaten down the grasses, male woodcock sing and conduct display flights here. During late summer, managers mow strips in meadows and fields to provide nighttime roosting habitat for woodcock.

Tree shearer in action

A tree shearer sets back regrowing trees in a Forest Management Area.

Forest management areas (100 acres). Heavy cutting has created blocks of different-aged forest close to one another, forming a mosaic of densely regrowing hardwood forest that supplies brood-rearing and feeding cover. Managers laid out 12 cutting blocks on the 476-acre Great Neck area and made patch cuts in 1995, 2007, and 2010. Other blocks are scheduled to be harvested in 2015, 2020, and beyond. Male woodcock display during springtime in recent clearcuts, and interior-forest birds go there to feed on berries and other wild fruit. American holly, whose fruits are a favorite late-summer and early fall food of migratory wood thrushes and other songbirds, are left standing where feasible.

Control of invasive species (621 acres). Managers remove and suppress autumn olive and multiflora rose through cutting, herbicides, and controlled burns. Native shrubs are believed to provide more and better food and cover for wildlife.


Since 2008 biologists have been capturing woodcock at Great Swamp WMA and equipping them with radio transmitters, then monitoring the birds to learn which habitats they use and when. Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife biologist Brian Tefft and University of Rhode Island professor Scott McWilliams are primary investigators. In 2010 Roger Masse, a Ph.D. candidate in the university’s Department of Natural Resources Science, joined the research team.

In 2008 and 2009, the biologists put radio transmitters on 19 woodcock, 17 of which were males captured on singing grounds in spring. The birds were radio located twice each week. From dusk through dawn, the males occupied singing grounds, where they conducted display flights during twilight to attract females. As day came on, most of the males flew as far as 1 mile to feeding habitats in the floodplains of the Pawcatuck and Usquepaug rivers.

Woodcock with transmitter and antenna

Woodcock outfitted with a radio transmitter. Gerald Krausse photo

These diurnal, or daytime, habitats included pole-stage and mature forest with an extremely dense understory of shade-tolerant rhododendron, viburnum, sweet pepperbush, maleberry, greenbrier, and highbush blueberry. The biologists found high densities of earthworms – a favorite woodcock food – in the floodplains’ rich, moist soil. Some woodcock also spent the daytime hours in deciduous upland forest and mixed upland forest. Average daytime home ranges in feeding habitats were calculated to be 35 acres per bird in the 2008 season and 22.3 acres per bird in the 2009 season.

Forty other kinds of birds shared these daytime habitats, including five species of greatest conservation need in Rhode Island: Eastern towhee, blue-winged warbler, indigo bunting, field sparrow, and whip-poor-will.

In 2010 the scientists captured and put radio transmitters on a total of 35 birds – 11 at Great Swamp WMA; 21 at Arcadia WMA; and 3 at Big River WMA. Three of the birds were females, and the rest were males. The researchers located the birds three times weekly. The data will allow them to calculate home ranges.

The researchers also are running singing-ground survey routes at Great Swamp and Arcadia WMAs. After collecting data for only two years, the biologists note an apparent increase in the numbers of singing males in areas where managers have been actively restoring old-field and shrub-thicket habitats and using logging to create young forest.

Funding for the research has come from the Rhode Island Agricultural Experiment Station, a USDA McIntyre-Stennis grant, and a USDA Hatch grant.

Other Factors

Another species of greatest conservation need in Rhode Island is the New England cottontail, a different species than the more-common Eastern cottontail, which was introduced in Rhode Island in the 1930s to improve rabbit hunting opportunities.

The New England cottontail population has fallen severely over the last 50 years, while that of the Eastern cottontail has not diminished as drastically. Eastern cottontails can thrive in habitats that have been fragmented by suburban and urban development, but New England cottontails do not fare as well in small, chopped-up, partly developed areas.

New England cottontails are still present in Kent and Washington counties, where Arcadia WMA and Great Swamp WMA are located. As recently as the 1990s, 14 to 16 percent of rabbits harvested in the area were New England cottontails. Researchers are using fecal-pellet DNA analysis to determine where New England cottontails remain. Habitat-improvement plans are underway for five sites in Rhode Island, on both public and private land.

At Arcadia WMA, managers plan to expand patch cuts made to create grouse and woodcock habitat within the last 10 years. Clear-cut logging benefits New England cottontails, which need sites at least 25 acres in size to successfully reproduce and evade predators. Managers are also considering trapping New England cottontails from areas of good concentrations and relocating them to newly created and restored young forest and shrub thickets.

Funding and Partners

Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife, University of Rhode Island, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Wildlife Management Institute.

How to Visit

Great Swamp and Arcadia WMAs are large installations, and many of the management activity sites are in gated-off areas. To view woodcock and New England cottontail habitat improvement measures, contact Brian Tefft, Wildlife Biologist, Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife, 277 Great Neck Rd., West Kingston RI 02892, 401-789-0281, email