Four pairs of red-cockaded woodpeckers from the Osceola National Forest were carefully captured in early evening, secured four hours later into new homes high in the longleaf pines of The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve and released at sunrise the following day.
The successful translocation last weekend of the endangered birds under federal guidelines aimed at raising the species’ numbers was the fourth successful effort for The Nature Conservancy team. Those efforts have led to a population of about 30 red-cockaded woodpeckers at the preserve, including four fledglings — the true measure of success — born this earlier this year.
Last weekend’s translocation was the first done in the pitch black of night. The nerve-wracking effort was made even more stressful by a thick fog.
“The stars were beautiful, the sky was clear, but there was dense fog on the ground which made it very difficult to find the trees in which we were placing the birds,” said Jennifer Milikowsky, the wildlife biologist overseeing the project for The Nature Conservancy and partnering on the project with Aves Consulting’s Sarah Lauerman and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Michelle Wilcox.
Juvenile birds will form mating pairs in a new habitat if their introduction is handled just right. If the birds can be secured by screens in tree cavities and released in the morning at the exact same time, they will fly out, see each other and pair up.
Milikowsky said the new birds did just that.
“We watched them interacting positively and foraging for food,” she said. “They had had several hours to sleep after we placed them in the cavities. This is important if they are to be fit enough to forage the next day.”
A team of experts including Milikowsky, Lauerman, and Wilcox had collected the hatch-year birds just before 8 p.m. on Oct. 8 and spent about another hour matching their federally issued band numbers to the Osceola National Forest database to make sure they had the right birds. They did the same thing four hours later in the dark standing on ladders leaning against the pines at the preserve, using the light from a head lamp, before putting the juveniles into each new cavity.
Volunteers gathered at 5 a.m. the next day to help with the sunrise release, when cords attached to each screen covering the eight cavities were pulled. “We do it right after they wake up, when we see their face at the screen,” Milikowsky said.
While red-cockaded woodpeckers love old-growth longleaf pines, where they excavate their homes in the soft heartwood of the trees, scientists have discovered they can insert manmade wooden boxes into younger pine trees and that the birds quickly adapt to this artificial housing. The most important thing is that the cavities are inserted in living pine trees because that is where these woodpeckers, unlike any other species of woodpecker, make their homes. This allows the birds to peck the bark surrounding their cavity entrance, wounding the tree and creating a layer of resin (or sap) that serves as a protective barrier from tree climbing rat snakes – the main predator of woodpecker nests.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers disappeared from the preserve over the years when it was a working ranch. Through the Conservancy’s restoration efforts, especially the reintroduction of growing-season prescribed fire, the longleaf pine habitat is once again healthy enough to support these endangered birds.
Additional support for this translocation came through partnerships with the Florida Park Service, North Florida Wildlife consulting and the red-cockaded woodpecker Southern Range Translocation Cooperative. In 2010, the juvenile birds from Osceola National Forest were made available for translocation through funding from the U.S. Army’s office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Occupation Health in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. Previous translocations, since 2008, have been funded by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Department of Defense’s Office of Secretary of Defense for Sustainable Ranges.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.