Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Great Woodpecker Airlift

I recently defined "Endangered" as a failure to breed in sufficient quantities. That is certainly the case with Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, especially in the small isolated populations towards the periphery of their range in southern Florida. One conservation strategy to help boost these populations is translocation - stealing woodpeckers from large, healthy populations and moving them into empty clusters here, in the hope that they will establish as new pairs.

This year, our study population was slated to receive five pairs of birds from Fort Stewart, Georgia. We lucked out in receiving a ride from our commander in a small aircraft, because it would've been a marathon drive otherwise. On Thursday morning, we crammed the tiny aircraft full of ten empty Woodpecker Moving Devices, two biologists, and two pilots, and set off northward towards the Deep South.

Once on the ground in Fort Stewart, we got swished up into the huge, well-oiled operation that is their wildlife department. Our little biology station could never muster enough people or equipment to send out ten woodpecker trapping teams simultaneously! Our crew was broken up amongst the teams and sent out the door soon after the organizational meeting.

Out in the field, I got a brief taste of some real Georgia pineywoods.

My real shock came when I unfolded the map of the Fort containing all of the RCW clusters... over 400 of them! It's no wonder then that this population can be a source for little groups like ours, with less than thirty active clusters. Here there are also many more natural cavities rather than inserts. Below is much more typical of RCW trees than this insert, with lots of resin flow around the cavity.

My team waited until dusk when our cluster returned to go into roost. After some frantic minutes trying to identify the target bird and its roost, a long-handled net was placed over the cavity hole and the bird was trapped. We were going after specific birds, because only young of the year are translocated. Adults with established territories don't make good subjects for movement because they'll just leave to look for their old home.

My first RCW in the hand

Terrified RCW squeal as we check the band number

With my teams target birds in their WMDs, we waited back at base for everyone to rendezvous. The commander got to check out some baby Gopher Tortoises and other education animals the staff had on hand.

Once all ten woodpeckers were trapped and assembled, Phase 2 of translocation could begin - we all crammed back in the plane and flew back south. Sometime after midnight, we were on the ground and back at APAFR, where the rest of our bird lab was up waiting with coffee in hand. We divvied up the pairs of birds amongst the teams and went out to place them in their new clusters. Each pair gets placed in an empty cluster, with each bird getting put in its own insert. The inserts are then screened off for the night to allow the bird to settle in.

Field work by the light of the moon, circa 3am

Unfortunately, the squeals of a terrified woodpecker brought in an uninvited guest.

We shooed the Barred Owl away, and made sure the woodpeckers were securely screened inside the cavity where they were safe for the night. We also made sure no raptors lurked nearby when we returned at dawn for release. I assure you no woodpeckers were made a snack (at least not before they were flying free and out of our sight - then its not our responsibility).

Pulling on the string to yank the screen cover off

At dawn, after a mere 2 hours of sleep for our crew, we returned to all of the new clusters and yanked down the screens. The new RCWs bolted out and got adjusted to their new homes. Since each pair was actually a young male and female from different families and thus strangers, we watched to see if they would show any interest in each other. In fact, hardly anyone got the cold shoulder, and the hopefully soon-to-be new pairings moved off to forage and face the harsh new world of south Florida together.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Dangers of Working with Woodpeckers

The offender's names have been redacted, but they don't deserve such protection.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

More Woodpecker Boxes

A friend read my previous post about artificial nest boxes for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and forwarded the following press release:

Ithaca, NY - The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has taken a note out of the pages of Red-cockaded Woodpecker conservation plans, and have rolled out a new artificial nest cavity, specifically designed to provide nestling habitat for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. This photo shows the new "Giant Pecker Boxes" before they are shipped to the darkest reaches of the southern United States for implementation.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Building New Homes for Endangered Woodpeckers

A Step-by-Step Guide (but don't try this at home)

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers (Picoides borealis) are unusual among woodpeckers (perhaps even unique? Can anyone name any other examples?) in that they nest exclusively in living pines, most notably Longleaf Pines (Pinus palustris). The cavities are difficult to excavate into hard, sappy wood and can take a very long time to complete. A typical RCW cluster will have a breeding pair and maybe some helpers (young from previous years that stick around to help) so a cluster requires many cavity trees for roosting and nesting within their territory.

Therefore, if conservation management wants to supplement an RCW population, you can't just throw them in a good-looking patch of pineywoods and expect them to magically drill roost cavities overnight. The solution is nest-boxes, but with the added twist of getting them inside the tree. By adding these inserts to woodpecker clusters, the RCWs quickly get a new home that they can use as a base while they drill their own. They also adapt quite easily to using the inserts as their nest cavities. So, here's a photo essay on how a bird nest box gets placed inside a living pine tree. An alternative title to this post might well have been "Chainsaws for Conservation!"

Picoides borealis bringing food to a nest in an insert (photo by Travis Wilcoxen)

This is an insert, ex-situ. Its just like any other nest box, although tall, narrow, and deep. Also, the front is reinforced with a metal grid and the entrance hole is a PVC or metal pipe, to help prevent the insert from being blown out by other woodpeckers looking for an easy home to steal. A cutaway view shows an ugly woodpecker chick in the nest chamber.

So, to shove this insert inside a tree. Step 1 - gather your resources (chainsaw, wood putty, spray-paint, and the insert) and climb the tree.

Size up the insert

Then slice and dice!

Cut the block up into chunks and start ripping them out

I'm no tree-ologist, but this pine looks approximately 25 years old, kinda young.

The tree has to be big enough so you don't cut more than half-way... wouldn't want the tree snapping off now would we?

I've heard that our trees in south-central Florida are puny compared to those 'up north'.

So, now that the hole is cleaned out, does the insert fit? Nope, not quite yet.

Get in there with a chainsaw for some fine detail work to make that insert fit.

Now it fits! Lather on some peanut butter wood putty and slide that baby right in there.

Still doesn't fit? Good thing you brought your trusty hammer!

Great! Now to give it that rustic look, lather on some more putty and paint it up

All finished! Now you have a fully-functioning woodpecker home, ready for occupancy!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Stealing Shrike Food

I was moseying along a barbed-wire fence on the bombing range this week, waiting for a Red-cockaded cluster to wake up, when I noticed an odd object along one of the wires. On closer inspection, it was this utterly ridiculous-looking beetle, with a horn to make any rhinoceros or Triceratops jealous. It didn't move upon my approach, and then I realized it was impaled hard upon the barb - it must have been cached by a Loggerhead Shrike. The barb was stuck quite solidly into the thorax plate, but I was able to slide it off without serious damage to the specimen, thereby depriving the shrike of a critical meal (what an a-hole I am, right? Well, it was worth it). Check this thing out:

The entomologist at Archbold identified it for me as Phanaeus vindex, the Rainbow Scarab, a type of dung beetle (I'm sure they do just fine with all the cattle grazing out here). The colors on the thorax armor are just utterly brilliant (and not well captured here) and they change with the angle. This thing is amazing!