The Red Cockaded Woodpecker is an endangered species. The small bird with prominent white cheek patches was once common in pine forests across the southeastern United States, but its numbers dropped as suburban sprawl began to gobble up its habitat.
In North Carolina the bird has found refuge on a military base. Fort Bragg, one of the largest and busiest military installations in the world encompasses large areas of undeveloped forested land, which explains why it was so inviting to Red Cockaded Woodpeckers. Today, Fort Bragg and adjacent lands are home to the second largest population of the bird.
The Red Cockaded Woodpecker's habitat consists of long leaf pine trees and wiregrass. Fresh reddish sticky looking sap flows down the side of some trees, a sign that the RCW has taken up residence.
The bird is the only woodpecker that carves out cavities in live pine trees.
Each active tree is marked with a double band of white paint to alert soldiers on tactical maneuvers to stay clear. Trees are also tagged and numbered for inventory by field biologists.
Today a group of scientists working for the military is in the field with an essential tool, a laptop computer.
Jackie Britcher heads the Endangered Species Branch on Fort Bragg. She says the problem is keeping up with the 4,755 RCW trees on the installation.
"We have to inventory," she explains. "It helps us to estimate populations, breeding pairs. We can learn whether or not we have to replace cavities. We have an artificial cavity program. And, also we also look at the habitat around the cavity cluster so we know if we have to do some more management other than the prescribed burning."
Prescribed burning or planned forest fires controls forest growth and promotes suitable woodpecker habitat. Wildlife biologist Erin Guinn opens her laptop and begins to take notes.
Guinn: "So as you see here this is tree #514E. Oh, actually a bird just landed on the tree, right on the other side. This is a Red Cockaded woodpecker on the other side of the cavity right here. Do you see it just pop around? As you can see this tree is active. It is being used by this Red Cockaded Woodpecker. You can tell this by the resin wells. You can also tell it by the chipping, which exposes red parts of the tree. You can see the sap flowing down from the tree. It's very fresh, whereas the older sap has turned a greenish, yellowish color and that's a defense mechanism to keep predators from coming up the tree."
Skirble: "So, is this information you enter into the computer?"
Guinn: "Yes, it is. It shows right here that this is an insert, a cavity that we have placed into the tree as part of our management program. Some of them have various shapes and this one shows that it is a normal shape. So, right here I update the current date to show that we have come and looked at the tree on this date. And it is actually already considered active, so I am not going to change any of this current data that is on the tree."
Skirble: "Just confirm it."
Guinn: "Just confirm that the status is the same. Click back to here. And, this shows the habitat on the tree and we determine whether there is any type of problem areas in or around the tree. Some of these listings are hardwood, pine, shrubs and basically we identify whether those hardwoods or pines or shrubs, whether it is sparse, moderate or dense and then at what height so that we know what type of actions we need to take to make sure that the habitat around the tree is preferable for the Red Cockaded woodpecker."
As Erin Guinn enters that data, co-worker Beth Evans props a telescopic pole with an oblong-shaped camera on top on another tree. Jackie Britcher says the "tree top peeper," as it is called, gives the field biologist a way besides climbing up a long ladder, to take a closer look.
Britcher: "These were made specifically for woodpecker cavities. She is going to turn on the switch and we can see what is inside the cavity."
Skirble: "Well? Do we have anything in there?"
Evans: "Usually we will see eggs or nestlings or even the adult will still be in there in the nest, but currently we are looking at a whole bunch of chips on the bottom of the cavity. The bird has been in there working on it. They lay their eggs on a bed of chips."
Biologists like Beth Evans with the Endangered Species Branch repeat this procedure for every RCW tree on Fort Bragg. Centralized computer data speeds up the process and allows managers to focus on recovery goals.
Jackie Britcher says species protection is central to the military mission.
Britcher: "And hopefully, the purpose is so that other species will not be listed which is of course a benefit to military training."
Skirble: "So, when you look around here are you happy with what you see?"
Britcher: "Absolutely! Fort Bragg looks better than it ever has in my time here!"
Jackie Britcher says as a result the Red Cockaded woodpecker population is slowly, but steadily, increasing.
Credit for the success of this protection effort is being shared with many people outside Fort Bragg's gates, including private landowners, businesspeople, federal and state officials and environmental groups.
Among them is the Nature Conservancy, which purchased land adjacent to Fort Bragg as part of a joint program with the military to prevent encroaching development.
Rick Studenmund directs the group's effort. He applauds Fort Bragg for its active role in promoting good stewardship on and off the base.
"The really neat part about this collaboration and the strange bedfellows that exist with the army walking side by side with a conservation organization is that we are working together on habitat conservation at a large scale," he says. "That also protects one of the most important military readiness facilities in the United States. So it is really a win-win situation for nature and for our military forces."
Rick Studenmund says that collaboration is what will eventually take the Red Cockaded Woodpecker off the Endangered Species list. Its recovery is expected within the decade.