|Joshua Winchell and NRCS State Conservationist for South Carolina Ann English in the field at the Aiken Preserve in South Carolina. Photo by Wayne Hubbard/UAOTV|
Joshua Winchell, Designated Federal Officer and Coordinator for the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council, recounts a recent visit along the Georgia and South Carolina border highlighting longleaf pine habitat restoration efforts.
Rob laughed when I asked him if I’d be adding a red-cockaded woodpecker to my birding life list. “Josh, you know that when something is listed as endangered that means there’s not a whole lot of them around. So I wouldn’t count on seeing one today!” he said. I smiled along with others on the bus, but was just a wee bit disappointed at his answer. I’ve been an avid bird-watcher since high school, and the possibility of adding a new bird – and a famous one at that – to my life list was exciting. But Rob had just deflated my hopes.
|FWS Wildlife Biologist Nancy Jordan, FWS Longleaf Coordinator Clay Ware (back to camera), and Southeast Region Director Cynthia Dohner (in red-shirt and sunglasses) discuss red-cockaded woodpecker nest monitoring. Photo by Joshua Winchell/USFWS|
Rob was Robert Abernathy, president of the Longleaf Alliance, and he was helping lead a field trip along the Georgia and South Carolina border highlighting longleaf pine habitat restoration efforts. The field trip was organized by Rob, and longleaf pine recovery/restoration coordinators Clay Ware and Kyle Jones from the Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service, respectively. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region Director Cynthia Dohner was with us as well, and was providing insights on the habitat, associated wildlife species, the remarkable collection of federal, state, local and nongovernmental organization collaborators, and the private individuals who own land where much of the longleaf pine restoration was occurring.
|Mature longleaf pine habitat, Aiken Gopher Tortoise Preserve in South Carolina. Photo by Joshua Winchell/USFWS|
Before European settlement, more than 90 million acres of longleaf pine forest blanketed the southeastern United States, but by the early 20th century, almost all of these forests had disappeared due to overexploitation, urbanization, or conversion to other forest types or land uses. Longleaf pine forests contain a stunning diversity of plants and animals, with more than 900 plant species that are found nowhere else in the world. It is also home to the red-cockaded woodpecker, bobwhite quail, indigo snake, gopher tortoise and many other imperiled species. In addition to providing quality habitat and recovery opportunities for these species, longleaf pine has a rich cultural history as an integral part of the southern landscape, is prized for its high quality wood, and is more resistant to insect infestation, disease and heavy winds. The native open-canopied longleaf pine forested systems, properly maintained with frequent, low-intensity fires, have also been shown to be very efficient water-users, which not only makes the system more resilient in the face of climate change, but also serves to improve both the water quantity and quality of the rivers and streams that meander through them.
The field trip was put together for members of the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council, a federal advisory group established by the Interior and Agriculture Secretaries to provide them guidance on a range of wildlife, habitat and outdoor recreation topics. The council was meeting in nearby Edgefield, South Carolina, later that week.The private landowners we visited on the field trip spoke with excitement about longleaf habitat on their properties, and appreciation of the support they’ve received from federal and state conservation bureau staff. One of the landowners, recently retired from the military, talked about his pride in restoring longleaf to his property and improving the land for his children and grandchildren.
Along the way we also visited Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve, a South Carolina Wildlife Management Area that we were told encompassed more mature longleaf pine habitat. And, as its name implies, is home to a population of gopher tortoises (a species of conservation concern) and a range of other plants and animals associated with longleaf pine.
At the preserve we were met by Nancy Jordan, a Service biologist from Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge. Nancy led the group on a walk around the preserve, and spoke about the tortoise and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Nancy spoke enthusiastically about the new wireless cameras attached to long poles that allowed for safer and more efficient monitoring of nest cavities, with only a slight acknowledgement that the old days of clambering up trees and peering into the nest might have been a bit more exciting. Nancy shifted the conversation to the use of artificial nest cavities in the trees to encourage the return of the red-cockaded woodpecker when, right on cue, one flew overhead and landed on the trunk of a mature longleaf pine not 30 feet away from us.
|A red-cockaded woodpecker (NOT the one they saw at Aiken) with an insect perches near a nest in a tree cavity. Photo by USFWS|
I saw the bird close up. I turned to Rob and laughed, mostly with delight and just a hint of something else. He smiled and started laughing along with joy, and the rest of the group joined right in.