Love is for the Birds: Red-cockaded Woodpeckers Thrive at Blanding
CAMP BLANDING JOINT TRAINING CENTER, Fla. – It is early morning in Northeast Florida and the sun is just beginning to break through the dark expanse deep in this long-leaf pine forest. Ulgonda Kirkpatrick is standing at the base of a pine tree as her warm breath hits the cold air leaving a white misty cloud.
Kirkpatrick, a wildlife biologist for the Florida Department of Military Affairs, is looking toward a small hole with a screen over it twenty feet overhead in a long-leaf pine.
Inside the hole is a male red-cockaded woodpecker. Just the day before he was a resident of the State of Georgia, but now he’s waking up in his new Florida home. Some twenty meters away a female red-cockaded woodpecker is in another man-made cavity waiting for the screen placed across the cavity to be removed as well.
Kirkpatrick’s hope is the two birds will fly from their homes and meet together to be a mating pair. Within minutes Kirkpatrick’s hard work of driving through the night from Fort Stewart, Ga. and placing them in their new homes pays off.
When the screens are removed the birds fly in opposite directions and begin chirping to one another.
Minutes later the two are flying around each other chirping and flapping their wings. Love blossoms in a pine tree forty feet in the air.
Mission accomplished. Kirkpatrick smiles as she records their actions in a notebook pulled from her back pocket.
Amid wire grass and scrubby palms at Camp Blanding – the red-cockaded woodpeckers are seeing resurgence in numbers.
“Over the past five years Camp Blanding has seen an 85 percent increase in the total number of active clusters and we are only one away from reaching our recovery goal,” Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick, who studied conservation biology at Arizona State University, said Camp Blanding has 24 of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mandated 25 active clusters in the forests.
The birds were donated by Fort Stewart as part of a cooperative effort to repopulate the red-cockaded woodpecker at the Florida National Guard’s 73,000-acre training site at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center. This is where wildlife conservation and military training meet.
Working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the Florida National Guard has emerged on the leading edge of restoring the red-cockaded woodpecker numbers.
Camp Blanding started receiving birds through the “translocation cooperative” in 1999, but has been actively managing the birds since 1995, Kirkpatrick said.
Today’s delivery of birds may be the last at Camp Blanding because of the species’ population growth. Kirkpatrick added the goal of the environmental staff at Camp Blanding is to donate red-cockaded woodpeckers to other sites. That goal is coming true; in 2005 one female bird was sent to Saint Sebastian State Park in Southeast Florida.
Ralph Costa, a red-cockaded woodpecker recovery expert at Clemson University, said the military’s support of bringing the bird from the brink of extinction is not only vital, it is required by law.
“The military is contributing significantly and Camp Blanding is no different,” Costa said.
There are more than 40 protected species of plants and wildlife at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center.
In large part the population of the red-cockaded woodpecker has increased at Camp Blanding because of the removal of hardwood trees in the long-leaf pine forests, moving the birds from donor sites, and creating new “cavities” in trees.
“We are going to be able to use (Camp) Blanding to contribute to the growth of other areas,” Costa said. “Blanding has very rapidly met its goal.”
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