by Crystal Cockman
This week I had the awesome opportunity to go out in the field with a friend of mine who is a red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) biologist in the North Carolina Sandhills, Kerry Brust. I went with her to put brightly colored and aluminum bands on nestling RCWs as part of a research project that has been going on since 1978. It began as the NCSU RCW Research Project initiated by Dr. Phil Doerr and Dr. Jay Carter III. Sandhills Ecological Institute (SEI), a non-profit NGO formed in 1998, continues that same research in collaboration with Dr. Jeff Walters’ lab at Virginia Tech.
SEI was created for the following purposes: conduct research and monitoring studies of the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and related ecosystems in North and South Carolina; promote the study of and education about the longleaf pine and related ecosystems; engage in scientific studies and promote education regarding the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) and its habitats.
From their website, “SEI maintains the related RCW demographic databases, and conducts a variety of studies on the ecology, population biology and behavior of the RCW. Insights gained through intensive study of the Sandhills RCW population have been applied throughout the Southeast. Important management tools were developed here in the North Carolina Sandhills, including artificial cavities and cavity restrictors.”
Intensive population monitoring entails: annual cluster and cavity tree status inspections, routine nest checks from April to July to assess breeding effort, color-banding of nestlings and unbanded adults, fledging checks to document reproductive success, and comprehensive adult group census.
Kerry is co-director of SEI with Jay Carter, as well as the supervising biologist. Assisting Kerry are two other full time biologists, Andy Van Lanen and Anna Prinz. SEI monitors approximately 300 RCW clusters on Fort Bragg, Camp Mackall, the Sandhills Game Land, McCain Forest, The Nature Conservancy’s Calloway Forest, Weymouth Woods State Nature Preserve and various private lands each year.
We were out on Fort Bragg. Federal lands (including Department of Defense) are mandated to protect federally listed species such as RCWs. RCWs were listed as endangered in 1968, and were one of the first species covered under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.
RCWs are a non-migratory, cooperatively breeding species that lives in family groups and defends a set territory called a cluster. Clusters are the collection of cavity trees used by a single RCW family group. Groups can be a breeding pair only or have as many as 4-5 generally related helpers. RCWs are considered an “umbrella” species, because other species also benefit from management for RCWs (prescribed fire, thinning of understories, etc).
We went out early in the morning and since it was drizzling, we started our day by just doing nest checks. This involves use of a camera on a pole that can be stuck in the cavity and sends an image down to a viewer where we can see what is in the nest. Our first few nests did not have anything but wood chips in them, which is how RCWs prepare for egg laying. We finally found a newly hatched chick with eggs that still had not hatched. It was about three days old.
It stopped raining so we were able to go to a nest where babies needed to be banded. Kerry climbs ladders that she stacks as she goes to get up to the cavity hole. She uses a delicate string noose to carefully remove the babies from the nest, then places them in a soft cotton bag to carry them down and back to the truck. Here she pulls them out and masterfully places bands on their legs while they are wriggling about and making soft chirping noises. Then she climbs back up and puts them back safely in their nest. The ideal age for banding nestlings is 6-8 days old. It was truly remarkable to get to see these unique birds up close.
The North Carolina Sandhills RCW population is just one of 13 Primary Core Recovery Populations designated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service throughout the Southeast needed for complete recovery. Despite observed population increases within Sandhills’ public lands, RCW are still a protected species. While military training restrictions for the Army have been relaxed on Fort Bragg, regulations for development and timber harvest impacting RCW foraging and nesting habitat remain in place. As with many listed species, their future remains precarious and thankfully groups like SEI are helping watch over the ones we do have.