Partnership Restores Red-cockaded Woodpeckers to Sumter National Forest

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After a 40-year absence, the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) is once again nesting in the Sumter National Forest in South Carolina’s Piedmont—thanks to a partnership of federal, state and nonprofit organizations. Biologists confirmed just this month that the endangered woodpeckers are reproducing on the Sumter National Forest.

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An endangered red-cockaded woodpecker is relocated from Georgia to South Carolina. Image courtesy: NWTF

The tiny woodpecker was once common across South Carolina’s vast pine forests. Historic timber harvesting and changes in commercial tree farming practices led to the decline of the RCW, which requires mature pine trees for nesting—found in the open habitat of southern pine ecosystems.

Scientist estimate that before European settlement, more than a million RCW families inhabited 90 million acres of open pine forests of the Southeast from New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia to Florida, west to Texas and north to portions of Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky.

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U.S. Forest Service biologist Mark Garner places a woodpecker in an artificial cavity at night on the Sumter National Forest near Edgefield, South Carolina. Image courtesy: NWTF

Though foresters and wildlife biologists have been working for decades to restore the open longleaf pine ecosystem across the Southeast, RCWs hadn’t been observed in the Sumter National Forest for more than 40 years. It all changed last spring.

An unexpected sighting occurred when a lone male RCW was spotted by USDA Forest Service Savannah River Site biologist Thomas “Tal” Mims.

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U.S. Forest Service staff members Jamie Atkins, Jeff Magniez and Mark Garner worked as a team to place the woodpeckers in their new homes at night near Edgefield, South Carolina. Image courtesy: NWTF

Mims was in the Lick Fork Lake Recreation Area on the Sumter National Forest near Edgefield and saw the federally endangered bird in the open pine woodlands. The habitat for the RCW was just right and a month later the once-lone male was introduced to a female RCW that was translocated from Poinsett Weapons Range near Sumter, South Carolina. In May 2018, the birds produced two offspring.

“After the initial establishment of a breeding pair of RCWs, the Forest Service worked closely with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine that there is enough suitable habitat near Lick Fork Lake to support eight additional breeding pairs of birds,” said Jeff Magniez, Sumter National Forest’s zone wildlife biologist.

The Sumter National Forest obtained four pairs of birds through the RCW Southern Range Translocation Cooperative (SRTC), which is a group of RCW managers that work to recover the species. In November 2018, a team of Forest Service biologists traveled to Fort Stewart, Georgia, to capture the birds. They drove through the night to the Long Cane Ranger District in the Sumter National Forest, where eight specially trained RCW handlers stood by and placed the birds into artificial cavities that had been inserted into loblolly pines.

“The birds were successfully released from their cavities at day break the following morning,” Magniez said. “Six months later, we have at least two RCW breeding pairs this spring on the Long Cane with active nests and eggs!”

The project has taken on a life of its own. The Long Cane Ranger District is partnering with the Talladega National Forest in Alabama and is using special leg bands that have been developed by wildlife biologist Jonathan Stober and a retired electrical engineer. These leg bands use RFID (radio frequency identification) technology in conjunction with an antennae wand, and work like a grocery store scanner.  The team tagged the eight birds with the new leg bands. The birds can now be identified by just walking up to a roost tree and running the wand over an occupied woodpecker cavity.

“It’s a much easier way of tracking the birds than having to use binoculars and spotting scopes to see what color tag the bird is wearing,” Stober said. “Now, in an evening, you can pass by a stand of trees and identify which birds are roosting and know in a matter of seconds. It will help us monitor the birds that were relocated and keep track of how the population is growing over time.”

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A red-cockaded woodpecker pair meet for the first time on the Sumter National Forest. Image courtesy: NWTF

RCWs require a healthy, pine-savannah ecosystem to thrive. The National Wild Turkey Federation, which is headquartered just a few miles from the release site, in cooperation with the Forest Service and partners, helps create the habitat as part of its wild turkey habitat enhancement programs across the Southeast and beyond.

“NWTF conservation projects are aimed to support wild turkeys and their habitats, but they also benefit other species that rely on these same habitats for some portion of their life cycle,” said Ross Melinchuk, NWTF vice president of conservation. “Our work with the U.S. Forest Service and many other partners has involved a considerable effort to manage the southern pine ecosystem. These conservation efforts have brought the ‘gobble’ back to our southern forests, and the release of the red-cockaded woodpecker will help return this endangered species to some of its native habitats. It is exciting to see this happening so close to our home here in Edgefield County.”

“The S.C. Department of Natural Resources was pleased to assist the Forest Service with restoring red-cockaded woodpeckers to this historic location where they were wiped out over 40 years ago,” said Caroline Causey, project leader for SCDNR’s RCW program. “The current population of South Carolina is expanding into parts of the historic range where they have been absent for many years. Management activities in the Lick Fork Lake Recreation Area have created the perfect habitat for turkey and quail and have culminated in suitable habitat for highly selective RCWs.”

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Above is the colored visual banding tag previously used for woodpeckers and right is the new RFID tag developed on the Talladega National Forest. Image courtesy: NWTF

Magniez praised the partnership of federal, state and nonprofit organizations in restoring RCWs to the Sumter National Forest.

“The project couldn’t have been successful without numerous partners, which include the U.S. Army’s Fort Stewart, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and the Talladega National Forest in Alabama. We are indebted to numerous current and past Sumter National Forest employees who have managed the habitat around Lick Fork Lake to create suitable wildlife habitat,” Magniez said. “We hope that these woodpeckers will stay in the area for years and form breeding pairs so that the population will expand and contribute to the recovery of the species,” he said. “We will be giving periodic updates on how the birds are doing.”

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