The endangered Delmarva fox squirrel (Photo credit: USFWS)
Managing the forest to create or maintain such habitat is what Kellum does, trying to balance the needs of different animals. The fox squirrels may not like understory, but it’s essential for other creatures.
Different parts of Blackwater are managed in different ways. “There are the natural areas,” says Kellum. “That’s where we take only protective action, like fighting destructive insects: southern pine beetle, the gypsy moth.”
Other areas are more intensely managed. In some places, trees are marked for removal to develop or preserve three distinct types of bird habitat: ground, midstory and upper canopy. The ground, with a nice covering of fallen leaves and other natural debris, is important to birds that Kellum calls “leaf flippers,” mainly hermit, Swainson’s and wood thrushes. Worm-eating warblers, ovenbirds and waterthrushes also dine on the forest floor.
According to Kellum, thinning dense stands means that the remaining trees will grow taller with larger crowns and greater fruit or nut production. Thinning also creates greater vertical structure within the forest and better habitat for forest-interior-dwelling songbirds. “The only way to increase understory and midstory,” he says, “is to open up the canopy by removing trees to allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor.” The shrubs and young trees of the understory and midstory are preferred by various flycatchers, white-eyed and blue-headed vireos, house wrens, hooded warblers, blue grosbeaks, indigo buntings and more.
Higher in the upper canopy is where yellow-billed cuckoos are found, along with red-eyed vireos, rose-breasted grosbeak, summer and scarlet tanagers and an array of warblers — northern parula, pine, palm, and black and white.
In creating these environments, Kellum is limited to native shrubs and trees. Fortunately, that’s a pretty big palette. Beyond red oaks, there are cherrybark, willow, pin and southern red. There’s also white oak, swamp chestnut oak, river birch, sweetbay magnolia, American beech, loblolly pine, Virginia pine, indigo bush, American holly and more. Some are easy to identify in any season; others pose challenges for visitors who want to put names to everything they see.
The refuge’s human visitors, however, aren’t really the point. “Our job is to enhance and manage forested properties to benefit forest interior birds and the Delmarva fox squirrel,” Kellum says. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but recreational activities take a backseat to wildlife in a national wildlife refuge.
“They’ve been doing such an amazing job down there,” Georgena Terry says of Kellum and everyone else who works at Blackwater. “It’s really there for the animals.”
Steve Bailey, a former New York Times editor, teaches journalism at Salisbury University and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.