Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Endangered Woodpeckers on Comeback Trail in Okefenokee; Biologists Band and Count Hatchlings to Help Record the Bird's Progress

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Endangered Woodpeckers on Comeback Trail in Okefenokee; Biologists Band and Count Hatchlings to Help Record the Bird's Progress

Article excerpt

Byline: GORDON JACKSON

WAYCROSS - A pair of adult red-cockaded woodpeckers angrily squawked as wildlife biologist Dean Easton walked through a stand of pine trees in the northwest corner of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge last week.

Easton set down his gear near the base of a tree and raised a "treetop peeper" - a camera mounted on a pole - to peer inside a cavity 20 feet above the ground. A monitor attached on the pole about chest-high showed grainy black-and-white images of two hatchlings about 1 week old inside.

The adult birds continued to fuss nearby as Easton lowered the camera and erected a ladder against the tree trunk. By the time he climbed to the top of the ladder, Easton's hands had so much pine tar that had dripped on the ladder that he had to powder them with corn starch so he could safely handle the hatchlings.

A nuisance to Easton, the pine gum is a safety feature for the birds.

After the birds nest, they peck holes around the cavity to keep a coat of resin on the trunk as a defense against predators such as snakes and flying squirrels, Easton said.

He removed the chicks from the tree cavity and gently placed them in a small wooden box in a pouch around his waist and climbed to the ground.

Biologists band the endangered woodpeckers when they are 5 to 10 days old because it's the ideal time to handle hatchlings, Easton said. Their bodies are still pliable, they don't have feathers yet and it's less traumatic for younger birds to be handled, he said.

Easton quickly sorted the colored bands he would attach around the legs of each bird to identify them as they mature and move throughout the wildlife refuge.

After both birds were banded, Easton put them into the box, climbed the ladder again and gently eased them back into the cavity.

In about a week, the birds will have feathers and Easton said he will return to the nest to determine their gender. Once their feathers grow, males have a red spot on the top of their heads that remains until they molt the first time. The birds, which grow to the size of a cardinal, will leave their nest after about 28 days, he said.

Declared endangered in 1970, red-cockaded woodpeckers were once common in forests throughout the Southeast. As much as 97 percent of the longleaf pine habitat they prefer has been eliminated by timber companies and development.

He estimated there are fewer than 100 of the birds in the refuge and fewer than 9,000 in the nation.

The birds are the only woodpeckers to excavate cavities in living trees. While they prefer longleaf pines between 80 and 120 years old, they will use other pines such as loblolly, slash and shortleaf. Timber harvesting of old growth timber has wiped out much of their preferred habitat and their numbers dwindled with the felling of the trees. …

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