Mac Stone | Bird in the Hand

Longleaf pine forests once encompassed over 90,000,000 acres in the southeastern United States. Today, the unique trees occupy less than 5% of their historic range. As a result of unbridled timbering, the unique flora and fauna that depend on these ecosystems have also plummeted. A slew of non-profit organizations as well as state and federal agencies have shouldered the task of restoring these forests in hopes of resuscitating an important American ecosystem. As with all environmental movements, the longleaf pine forest also has its symbol, the red cockaded woodpecker. An indicator species for the health of the system, this unique bird depends on mature, live long leaf pines for their nesting. Now endangered species, the small charismatic birds hang in the balance as wildlife biologists hurry to understand their behaviors and habitat requirements.

Historically, longleaf pine habitats burned nearly every 3-5 years from frequent lightning strikes. This allowed the shrubby understory to clean out, leaving room for fire-adapted species like palmetto, wiregrass, and of course, longleaf pines. 

US Fish and Wildlife biologist Mike Keys is one of the foremost authorities on red cockaded woodpecker restoration efforts. Using a spotting scope, he identifies isolated populations and breeding adults to better understand nesting success rates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Using a custom wireless video camera, Keys inspects an active nesting cavity. Red cockaded woodpeckers can excavate a cavity as low as 10 feet from the ground and up to 60 feet, making monitoring difficult. This monitoring systems allows biologists to make schedules based on incubation periods and growth rates of chicks.