What’s Happening With the Birds…
Driving through the gates of Donnelley Wildlife Management Area in the pre-dawn darkness of a chilly, late-October Saturday morning, it hits me: despite many visits over the years, I’ve never driven through here in the dark. Donnelley WMA is usually closed to visitation except during daylight hours, so unless you’re coming in for a pre-dawn check-in for a lottery-drawn hunt, there aren’t that many opportunities to see the place in darkness. So right off the bat, today was special.
It was kind of spooky; a little foggy, and desolate and strangely beautiful, and since I was running a bit ahead of schedule, so I pulled off the road at the turnoff to the Boynton Nature Trail (a frequent favorite stop) and rolled down the windows to savor the moment and listen to what night’s last gasp sounds like here.
It sounds loud! Lots of bird calls, including one nearby high pitched shriek that literally made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. An owl, I guess, or some other night hunter finishing up its regular business. Made me glad to be surrounded by American steel in “Old Blue,” the aging-yet -till-serviceable Ford sedan that carries me around on these adventures. Anyway, after a few minutes of spookiness and assorted avian cacophony I headed on down the road, and pretty soon Old Blue’s headlights revealed the Donnelley lodge in a clearing up ahead.
As I stopped to gather up my camera and recording gear, people were just starting to make their way into the kitchen, where one of the SCDNR’s senior-most wildlife biologists, Chief of Wildlife for Statwide Projects, Research and Survey Derrell Shipes, was busy cooking breakfast, a pot of coffee perking away for the early risers. Drawn by the aroma of fresh coffee and sizzling sausages, the lodge’s kitchen gradually began to fill with biologists and technicians from a number of different conservation agencies, all chatting with more excitement and enthusiasm than the early hour might suggest, particularly since the previous night had been a late one for many of them, but they had good reason. An exciting morning was in store, with the planned release of eight pairs of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers captured and transported from Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge less than 12 hours earlier. For the folks who work with these birds and are committed to their recovery, this is kind of a big deal.
Some history for those unfamiliar with the RCW story is probably in order:
It’s estimated that at the time of European settlement, the eastern coastal plain of what would become the United States of America was home to more than 1.5 MILLION groups of RCWS (a group is the term for a family unit, which is a breeding pair and sometimes several young male “helpers.”)
That’s a lot of birds, but it was a common species, having evolved to fit perfectly into what was then the dominant habitat type of the Atlantic coastal plain – the (then) vast longleaf pine and grassland ecosystem. Other grassland-dwelling species thrived in the “piney woods” as well, where frequent fire kept the understory open and allowed sunlight to hit the ground, encouraging the growth of favorable forbes and grasses, but perhaps none so finely adapted as the RCW – nesting, roosting and thriving in cavities painstakingly chipped from heartwood high in the trunks of mature pines, where the longleaf’s constantly dripping sap provided a barrier against egg-stealing predators, and the surrounding open canopy made them easy to spot . And when there’s millions of trees to pick from, it’s not too hard to find one suitable for a new home. Life was good for RCWs in pre-colonial America.
Of course, those towering pine trunks and abundant sap were soon coveted by another species, but for other purposes. Like for the millions upon millions of board feet of lumber they could produce to build homes and cities, or the barrels and barrels of turpentine, rosin and other products, or the rich farmland awaiting the plow underneath. So it was that, over the course of several centuries, the mighty longleaf pine ecosystem was reduced down to just about 3 percent of the seemingly endless 90-plus million acres that existed at the time of discovery – just fragments, really. And so too went the RCW, with smaller and smaller numbers of groups pushed into a widely scattered and ever-dwindling landscape until the 1970s, when, at the time the U.S. Endangered Species Act was passed, only an estimated 10,000 of the birds remained…..total.
Protection and restoration of the birds to something resembling a stable population has been a goal of wildlife conservationists and biologists ever since, an effort that has benefitted greatly from conservation management strategies aimed at restoring some pieces of the fragmented longleaf pine ecosystem across landscapes in the coastal plain. The work has paid off, so much so that, beginning in the mid-nineties, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and state wildlife agencies like the SCDNR began thinking about the possibility of “translocation,” taking pairs of juvenile birds from established groups in places where they were doing relatively well – such as the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge in the Pee Dee – and moving them to other areas where the habitat has been painstakingly managed over many years with the goal of re-establishing populations throughout the birds’ previous range. Places like the Lowcountry’s ACE Basin, where the ground-breaking notion that public-private partnerships where large landowners could voluntarily give up development rights to protect natural habitats on a landscape-level scale was first developed.
So that’s how we got here. “Here” being an open tract of longleaf pine at Donnelley WMA at sunrise, where we are anxiously eyeballing two white-striped pines with mesh-covered holes, and “we” being SCDNR RCW Project Leader Caroline Causey, SCDNR Regional Biologist Dean Harrigal, USFWS RCW Recovery Coordinator Will McDearman, Aliza Sager, a U.S. Department of Defense biologist and former RCW team at Carolina Sandhills who volunteered to help with this project, and me, the blogger guy with the camera. (A surprisingly huge amount of important wildlife conservation work takes place on our nation’s military bases – see the 2013 SCW magazine article “A Fighting Chance for Wildlife”. Sager volunteered to help out her former colleagues with several translocation projects on her vacation; now that’s dedication.
Causey and Dean Harrigal, who’s been involved in the management of Donnelley and Bear Island WMAs for most of his career with the SCDNR, are similarly passionate about this project.
“Dean has been wanting to do this for a long while, but it never seemed to work out with funding and everything,” Causey tells me on the way out to the release site. “When I started with DNR in 2014 and met Dean, one of the first things he said to me was that establishing a breeding population of RCWs at Donnelley was a long-term priority of his. I told him I would do what I could to help him reach that goal. Ten years or more ago, when they were thinking about getting birds down here, the habitat wasn’t quite right – the pine stands were a little bit too dense, so they did some thinning – RCWs like it in a certain range of ‘basal area’ (a measurement foresters use to estimate the density of trees on a piece of land), not too sparse, but also not too dense. They also needed to get rid of a lot of hardwood understory trees. After talking with him and coming out and seeing how suitable the property was and how much they had done to get ready, my next step was to talk with Nancy Jordan, and she was interested in helping provide birds to us. That was about a year ago.”
Also a dedicated RCW biologist, Jordan monitors more than 150 clusters of the birds – “this summer she banded over 250 nestlings in order to provide us with these birds,” said Causey. “That’s a very intensive process” to monitor the nesting and band the chicks. Nancy did A LOT of work for us over the summer to provide us with birds.”
Back at the lodge, while Causey was out checking the release sites one last time, Shipes, McDearman, Sager, SCDNR biologist Michael Small and Mark Pavlosky, an SCDNR technician who’s been working cooperatively with the USFWS staff at Sandhills over the past year to prepare for this day, had given me a short course in how the birds slated for translocation are captured and the work that goes into preparing for that.
“This starts back in the summer with documenting of reproduction on the source site. In other words, from a recovery standpoint you need to prove that your source population had good reproduction and that these birds are there in sufficient numbers,” said Shipes, “so that some can be moved to a new location without adversely impacting the population at the source site (Carolina Sandhills in this case). We had a technician (Pavlosky), working at the source site in late summer to help document that, so that if the woodpeckers did well this summer there would be birds there for us to get.”
“These are young of the year – five-to-eight months-old birds,” added McDearman, “hatched in May or June.” Birds at Carolina Sandhills are monitored about once a week, so staff there would know within a week when a new hatch had occurred. They have to be banded and monitored to see which ones will be good candidates to be moved. But to do that, those nestlings can only be pulled from their cavities using a special noose technique when they’re about 5-10 days old.
After a summer of intensive work monitoring the banded nestlings (now grown to “sub-adults”), it’s time to capture the male-female pairs identified for translocation. This needs to happen the evening before if possible, to minimize the stress on the birds, so at dusk the previous evening, these folks were capturing today’s birds at Sandhills, which they then drove all the way to Donnelley, arriving here in the middle of the night.
So it’s difficult to do – a bit of a bird-capture high-wire act. “You don’t want to spook them so much that they just decide to roost outside for the night and not go back inside the cavity. That’s dangerous for them, it exposes them to predators,” said Sager.
By this time Caroline Causey and Dean Harrigal have joined the group gathered around the table in the lodge, having been out already checking the release sites. Causey shows me one of the “translocation boxes” used to transport the captured birds from Carolina Sandhills to Donnelley.
“Every bird travelled down here in one of these last night,” Causey tells me, “then we climbed the trees in the dark and put them in the cavities and we screened them in. So you’ll see when we get out there, the screens are in place with thumbtacks and there’s a rope attached so when the birds wake up, we’ll pull the screens off. After the screens come down we do a quick observation to see how they react, and then you basically move out of their way and let them do their thing. They can range about a half-mile radius around their cavity trees for foraging – they don’t use all of that, and sometimes groups will share some foraging habitat, but you want to provide them with at least 120 acres of good quality pine trees that are at least 10 inches in diameter and above, without a whole lot of understory.”
Everything about the operation is designed to make the transition as smooth as it can be for the birds, but there’s really no perfect way to do it, Causey tells me on the short drive out to the release site “They aren’t used to riding in cars,” she says wryly.
It’s obvious that Causey a person who pays attention to every detail...just as obvious is the dedication, enthusiasm and good humor with which she and this entire team of professionals approach this job. That kind of attitude flows from the top, is what I’m thinking as we drive along. I’m fussing with the camera controls, worried about getting a good shot in that split-second when the screen drops and the birds leave the roost.
“They are one of the last birds to wake up in the morning so we should have a little bit of light,” Causey says reassuringly – master of every detail… keeping up morale…staying positive.
Once we reach the site, everyone talks quietly, waiting for dawn and the telltale sounds that will signal the birds are awake. McDearman has a large spotting scope trained on the box he and Sager are watching.
“South Carolina, in my opinion, has some of the best RCW habitat in the whole range (which extends up to Virginia and westward to Texas),” says Causey “We’re second in total population behind Florida.”
Florida’s Apalachicola State Forest for instance is a stronghold – over 600 active clusters. South Carolina’s Francis Marion has over 500. But we are unique in that we also have around 350 active clusters on private lands. There’s also the Carolina Sandhills population and several on DNR-managed lands such as the Webb Wildlife Center in Hampton County. “So our population is pretty big, and there’s definitely clusters that we still don’t know about,” says Causey.
One pair released on a nearby plantation in the ACE moved five clusters away from their initial release point, but stayed together as a couple. Again, the whole “translocation” strategy is still fairly new, and data is still being collected about how the birds react, that’s yet another aspect of this project that has these biologists excited – they are essentially breaking new scientific ground.
Only six or seven reintroduction projects like this one have been done since it first began in the 90s, according to McDearman. This one will make three just within the ACE Basin.
Eventually, there may even be movement or overlap between the different released populations here as future generations begin to spread out.
“It gives them a better chance when there’s more habitat available,” says Harrigal. “It gives them more opportunities for survival, is, I guess the best way to describe it.”
When the time comes, Harrigal pulls the string on the bird we’re watching – Aliza Sager pulls the other one.After they fly from the roosting sites, the birds flit from treetop to treetop, and the sounds of their vocalizations come fast and….well…furious. They do not sound happy.
What does that mean?
“It means that these guys probably won’t be a pair,” laughs Causey. “They don’t really seem to be making friends.”
Couldn’t the reaction just be the result of being captured, transported 100 miles from home and released in a strange territory? Maybe, say the experts, but it’s not unusual for them to choose other mates after exploring other groups nearby. Then again, they do seem to be following each other around….. “Maybe they are trading alien abduction stories,” someone jokes – RCW biologist humor. Everyone laughs, and we watch the birds for a while longer, while Harrigal and McDearman chat about the potential for more releases/projects in the ACE.
It’s a little tough to leave. What will happen to these intrepid, yet fragile explorers, launched on a mission to explore a new world? What will they find? How will they cope? Will they stay together or forge new bonds with someone else? I guess you could ask the same questions about us.
Eventually, the lure of more coffee and the desire to talk to the other groups and see how their releases wins out, and we head back to the vehicles. It’s been a really fun morning, and oddly moving, as much for the people I’ve met as the birds. It’s just so obviously important to them, and the serious, yet good-humored way they approach this task makes it seem not even remotely just a job for them. It’s obvious there’s no place else they’d rather be at 6am on a Saturday morning. Aliza Sager told me when we first met that she was exhausted after a long week of little sleep and lots of hard work, but when she finally got to the Donnelley Lodge the night before, still she wanted to stay up and talk with colleagues. “We don’t all get together like this that often she said, and it’s just exciting to hear about what people are doing. What’s happening with the birds.”
On this particular Saturday morning at Donnelley WMA, what’s happening is this.