Welcoming Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers to FPNWR

RCW 1

Years of habitat management, collaboration with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and funding by Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge have culminated into translocation of the first Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers on Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge 

Photo by Mark Danaher, USFWS. 

Article by Joe Acampora, USFWS. 


The winter 2018-2019 season was a busy one on Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge as Refuge staff fully engaged efforts to provide new habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis, "RCWs"). In January, biologists from the Refuge again joined forces with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission to check on nesting boxes, also known as cavity inserts, installed in 2017 and graciously funded by Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge. The team also scouted new areas on the Refuge suitable for additional RCW habitat management. These efforts came to a head in March, as the first red-cockaded woodpeckers were released onto their new home on the Refuge.


Background
Once common across the southeastern US, today the red-cockaded woodpecker is limited to just 3% of its original expanse. While many remaining populations stabilized following conservation efforts beginning in the 1990’s, many others remain in decline and in danger of local extinction, known as extirpation. Here in southwest Florida, while we are proud to be an ongoing success story for the red-cockaded woodpecker, many challenges remain to ensure the long term success of still vulnerable populations.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is the only woodpecker in North America to nest in living pine trees, requiring expansive stands of healthy and mature trees to establish breeding populations. Excavating nesting cavities in living pine is hard work for a little woodpecker, and the cavities can take upwards of three years to complete! In addition to healthy trees, the birds also require a healthy diversity of understory vegetation to provide adequate habitat for insects - their main prey source.


Welcoming RCWs to FPNWR
By funding the construction and installation of a series of pre-constructed nesting cavities into living trees, as well as working to manage forest habitat, the Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge have helped staff create ideal conditions for red-cockaded woodpecker populations to thrive on the Refuge.

The first two “clusters” of RCW boxes on Florida Panther NWR were installed in 2017 and in March 2019 these efforts came to fruition as four red-cockaded woodpeckers were translocated on the Refuge from a growing colony at nearby Picayune Strand State Forest.

Other work this winter to ensure the RCW’s success on the Refuge has focused on preparing habitat around these nesting clusters. Prior to the woodpeckers’ arrival, Refuge staff spent a day clearing understory vegetation from around nesting trees to mitigate fire risk in these areas, while Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) partners spent a morning swapping out one of the original nesting boxes, which required replacement after some wear and tear from other inhabitants and weathering from recent storms including Hurricane Irma.


The Future
Refuge and FWC staff also spent a day this past winter scouting out potential sites for new clusters of RCW boxes. The team’s options were limited however, as significant pine die-off has occurred across the refuge from recent storms. At this time only a couple of isolated areas still possess the mature trees necessary for successful red-cockaded woodpecker colonies. Many of these areas also have a high level of cabbage palm overgrowth, which displaces the natural grasses and undergrowth that provide food for red-cockaded woodpeckers in the form of insects and their larvae. These areas will require further habitat management efforts such as controlled burns and removal of the palms before they can be considered suitable habitat for RCWs.