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Biologist assess damage to a forest after a hurricane
Information icon Joshua Havird (blue shirt) and Joel Casto (plaid shirt) assess RCW clusters. Photo by Michael Keys, USFS.

Test flight for red-cockaded woodpeckers

Joshua Havird lifted his quadcopter drone from its case as if he was handling a carton of eggs. The assistant fire management officer from St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge was on hand at the neighboring Apalachicola National Forest in the wake of Hurricane Michael. The Apalachicola, the only national forest on Florida’s panhandle and about 20 miles to the east of Mexico Beach, was hit hard on its western flank.

The Forest manages federally threatened red-cockaded woodpeckers, or RCWs, in a tight-knit partnership with St. Marks and Tate’s Hell State Forest. It has the largest population of RCWs in the world, with about 1,000 tree clusters.

Biologists catch birds hatched on the west side of the Forest and relocate them to vacant habitat throughout the Southeast. After Michael swept through this recovery nursery with a fury, they wanted to know how many clusters were affected so they could soon install artificial cavities or “inserts” to protect the woodpeckers from predators. Initial estimates showed that about 30 percent of clusters had been damaged, requiring 650 inserts.

Insurance adjusters had deployed drones to estimate damage to homes in devastated human communities, so hurricane responders for the Forest wondered it they could do the same for RCW homes. With no drone of their own, they called Havird to help.

Always looking for new ways to use UAS (unmanned aerial system) technology for our natural treasures, Havird was game to use his drone to assess damage to RCW tree clusters on the Apalachicola. In addition to surveying Hurricane Michael damage on roads and bayous back home on St. Marks, Havird has piloted his drone on many missions for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, documenting smoke column heights and smoke dispersal of prescribed burns and mapping colonial nesting bird habitat. He has even checked to see if least terns were nesting on roofs at Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.

“They weren’t — they were just hanging out up there,” he said.

Havird joined two-person teams assessing damage to the clusters to see if his drone would be an efficient survey tool. Unlike insurance adjusters, however, Forest hurricane responders were unable to secure a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones beyond the pilot’s line of sight.

So, Havird had to keep his drone in his view at all times, a difficult task when flying around trees. “From the air I couldn’t distinguish between limbs that were banded and those that weren’t.” RCW trees are marked with a band of white paint around them.

Although the old-fashioned way of walking in and assessing RCW clusters on foot ultimately prevailed over drone technology, Havird’s footage was an excellent public outreach tool for the Forest to show hurricane damage and explain why it could not be fixed all at once. Three Facebook posts of the drone videos reached about 25,000 users and were viewed about 10,000 times. Check them out for a bird’s eye view of Havird’s work (albeit probably not an RCW’s view – as one commenter noted, they rarely fly above the canopy!).

Catherine J. Hibbard, a public affairs specialist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast Regional Office, is the lead public information officer on the Southern Area Red Incident Management Team. The Red Team worked for the Apalachicola National Forest to assess damage from Hurricane Michael and begin recovery actions.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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