Mattaponi Wildlife Management Area, Virginia

Where Woodcock and Quail Intersect

“Mattaponi Wildlife Management Area has some of the best woodcock habitat in Virginia,” says WMI biologist Steve Capel, “certainly the best woodcock habitat on a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries WMA.”

The WMA, in central Virginia’s upper coastal plain, includes extensive floodplains along 6.5 miles of the Mattaponi and South Rivers – damp soils that offer prime earthworm-feeding for woodcock.

Bobwhite quail, photo by Brian Stansberry, Wikimedia Commons

Bobwhite quail quickly take advantage of improved and increased hiding cover and food delivered by habitat management./Brian Stansberry, Wikimedia Commons

Says Capel, “The saturated soils bring worms up close to the surface, within probing range of the birds,” which feed by inserting their long bills into the ground. “The floodplains hold moisture year-round, so food is available to woodcock even during dry spells.” That food nourishes woodcock that breed or hatch on the Mattaponi, ones that stop there during the species’ fall and spring migrations, and a population that winters on the area.

Near the Caroline County town of Bowling Green, Mattaponi is one of Virginia DGIF’s newest acquisitions, with many partners involved in securing the 2,500-acre tract: The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Lands, the U.S. Army (Fort A.P. Hill is nearby), and Ducks Unlimited. The WMA has many acres of wetlands, including marshes and old oxbows left after the Mattaponi and South Rivers changed course in the past. The property had been owned by a private company that used it for quarrying rock and harvesting timber – disturbances that resulted in a fair amount of young forest. Today, the WMA is a magnet for many different kinds of wildlife from waterfowl to songbirds to mammals.

Building from Existing Habitat

“There was already a lot of good woodcock and quail habitat when DGIF started its management efforts,” reports WMI’s Capel. “Our joint goal was to make that habitat more abundant, and make it better, for a whole range of wildlife.”

Controlled burn at Mattaponi WMA

More and more, wildlife managers are using controlled burning as an economical way to refresh vegetation and make young forest habitat./M. Dye

Capel worked closely with DGIF biologist Mike Dye to develop a plan that would provide ample acres of the slightly different habitat types that woodcock need, including open, treeless areas for flight displays and breeding in springtime; dense vegetation where the birds can keep hidden from predators as they nest, rear young, and feed; and semi-open sites for roosting on the ground in late summer and fall. Those different habitats also get used extensively by bobwhite quail, songbirds, wild turkeys, rabbits, white-tailed deer, and other wildlife.

Woodcock and quail populations have been falling for decades as the old-field, shrubland, and young forest habitats that these two popular gamebirds need has dwindled – not only in Virginia, but throughout the East. “A lot of the management that’s aimed at helping woodcock benefits quail, and vice-versa,” Capel says.

Among the management actions are prescribed burning (small, purposely set, carefully controlled fires that enrich the soil while knocking vegetation back to an earlier, denser growth stage) and commercial forestry (logging that opens the way for young trees to grow back quickly and thickly). “Forestry operations bring in revenue,” notes DGIF’s Dye, “which can then be used for more habitat improvements.”

Let the Sun Shine In

A key aspect of the current management plan is “daylighting” logging roads: using burning, timber harvests, brush-hogging, and mowing to create a band of thick habitat 50 feet on each side of the 8 to 10 miles of skid trails and logging roads that vein the Mattaponi.

Mattaponi WMA fresh cut

Soon after mowing, roadsides look barren . . . ./M. Dye

These techniques remove taller trees and let the sun shine in. The increased light spurs the growth of low plants, including grasses and wildflowers; shrubs like blackberry, greenbriar, buttonbrush, and silky dogwood; and small trees, including American holly, red cedar, river birch, and loblolly pine – yielding a matrix of dense, mixed cover that’s excellent for both woodcock and quail.

To help daylight roads, the Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society loaned a utility work machine with a mulcher head, used to chew down older shrubs and jumpstart new growth. Quail Forever, another partnering non-governmental organization, seeded daylighted areas with partridge pea and lespedeza, good food plants for quail and songbirds.

New thick habitat along road edge

. . . . but within a single growing season, habitat springs back, attracting wildlife from reptiles to birds to large mammals./M. Dye

Logging decks – clearings sited at intervals along the logging roads, where logs are stored after harvesting and before being trucked to lumber mills – were enlarged and also seeded with wildlife food plants. Male woodcock launch their springtime aerial flight displays from these openings and attract females for mating. As vegetation thickens during the growing season, quail roost and feed on the sites. Later in the year, the logging decks offer nighttime roosting cover for quail and woodcock, both of which spend the night resting on the ground.

Logging operations included thinning 220 acres of loblolly pine, which took place in May and June of 2013. Now grasses and weeds can grow in the bright sunlight that penetrates between the remaining trees. “In two or three years,” Dye says, “we plan to go back and thin the pines further,” both for the financial return and to make the intervening habitat even better.

Helping Game, Songbirds, and More

“It all works together,” Dye continues. “In the thinned pine stands, as well as the daylighted areas along the roads and the logging decks, quail feed on insects attracted to the new growth of flowering herbs.” High-protein insect food is crucial to rapidly growing quail poults in the first few weeks after they hatch. Later in the year – in fall and through the winter – coveys of quail will eat the seeds of partridge pea, beggarticks, lespedeza (also known as bush clover), and other plants.

Male woodcock strutting. Photo by Tim Flanigan

Male woodcock strutting to attract females. Woodcock use cleared logging decks on Mattaponi for breeding./T. Flanigan

In addition to suggesting more-extensive daylighting along roads and larger logging decks, Capel provided input on where to site timber harvests. “Later, when DGIF conducts more heavy-cut timber harvesting,” he notes, “they’ll situate the harvest units close enough to one another so that coveys of quail can shift out of aging habitats and into new, fresh habitats as they become available.” Habitat blocks in close proximity to existing young forest areas will also help woodcock expand their range and increase their numbers on Mattaponi WMA.

The biologists expect a boost in the populations of songbirds, including many Species of Greatest Conservation Need, whose numbers have been falling due to humans’ development taking over former habitat, and areas of young forest and shrubland maturing into stands of older forest where these species don’t live. Birds that will turn up in greater numbers on Mattaponi WMA include indigo buntings, eastern towhees, prairie warblers, yellow-breasted chats, and chestnut-sided warblers. Whip-poor-wills and chuck-wills-widows will find abundant insect prey in the air above the daylighted road edges. Reptiles such as eastern box turtles, five-lined skinks, and North American racers will thrive in the new dense habitat.

Yellow-breasted chat by Jonathan Mays

Yellow-breasted chat is one of many songbird species that need young forest habitat./J. Mays

In the northern part of the WMA, a recent 60-acre clearcut provides even more young forest on a higher, drier site than the river floodplain. The harvest area was a softwood stand stocked with 20-year-old loblolly pine. “It needed to be thinned or harvested,” says Dye. The agency opted for an even-aged harvest, cutting all of the trees and replanting the site to shortleaf pine, which grows more slowly than loblolly. “That will keep the area in a young-forest stage for a longer period,” Dye adds. The pines were planted relatively far apart to allow other vegetation to come in between them.

“Early on, woodcock will use the clearcut for singing and mating. In three to five years, the site will be nesting cover. And in very wet years, it may provide feeding opportunities for woodcock.” Quail will use the habitat as well.

Capel characterizes Mattaponi WMA as "a showpiece. The habitat work is regular and intense, logging is carefully planned and executed, prescribed burning is happening on a significant scale, and judicious herbicide use helps give native shrubs an edge."

“We definitely consider the financial aspects of all our management decisions,” Dye says. “But this is a wildlife management area, and so we consider wildlife first.”

How to Visit

Mattaponi WMA is a fee-use area, free to those who have a Virginia hunting or fishing license. Others must obtain daily or annual use permits by contacting the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries at or 866-721-6911.

Mattaponi WMA is located on Paige Road, State Route 605, in Caroline County, approximately 40 miles north-northeast of Richmond and 20 miles south-southeast of Fredericksburg. From Bowling Green, head north on State Route 2 for 0.3 miles. Turn left on Paige Road which is State Route 605 for 1.5 miles. The property begins at the railroad tracks on the right and the Mattaponi River on the left. See the map below.

PDF icon Mattaponi WMA map.pdf455.06 KB