TALLAHASSEE – In 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida panhandle and the 570,000 acre Apalachicola National Forest. Approximately 113,000 acres of the forest were impacted by the storm and of these acres, more than 24,000 were severely impacted. Debris left by the storm created hazards and increased fuels that complicated efforts to use prescribed fire to manage and clear the landscape. Downed trees were strewn across the landscape, blocking roads and prohibiting access to areas of timber that had been planned for harvest. One of the most significant results of this hurricane was the impact that it had on the habitat of the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW), a species the US Fish and Wildlife Service had declared endangered.
Despite the damage, progress is visible on the forest and the results of the hard work are becoming apparent. Work to stabilize the population of red-cockaded woodpeckers has proven successful, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently proposed downlisting the RCW from endangered to threatened.
The RCW excavates cavities exclusively in living pine trees; preferably old pine trees with heartwood softened by fungal disease. It can take years for the birds to excavate the cavities they use for nesting and roosting. Hurricane Michael downed 1,409 trees with RCW cavities; this created an immediate threat to the endangered species. Interagency partners moved quickly to address the problem.
The US Forest Service and partners from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, USFWS and the Long Leaf Alliance worked to install 692 cavity inserts to serve as pre-fabricated replacements for the nesting sites that were lost in the storm. The boxes were inset into trees in a manner that mimicked natural cavities. The RCW found and utilized a number of the cavity inserts.
In the spring of 2019, biologists were surprised to see that this had been one of the most productive nesting seasons on their records. Nearly half of nesting attempts were found in the cavity inserts. 80% of the chicks that researchers banded fledged, and many established in other cavity inserts.
The USFWS describes the red-cockaded woodpecker as a “territorial, non-migratory bird species of the southeastern and southern United States.” The birds were once common throughout the longleaf pine ecosystem, but the types of mature forests the species prefers have declined; and that habitat loss has been reflected in declining RCW populations. Today, the world’s largest population of RCWs resides on the Apalachicola NF. Biologists believe that the quick installation of the inserts minimized disruption and made the difference in the RCW’s nesting success
This article originally appeared on Washington County News: Endangered woodpecker species recovering two years after Hurricane Michael