THOMASVILLE — Red-cockaded woodpeckers have returned to River Creek. Now, state officials hope they’ll take up residence there and repopulate the area.
Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologists and partner organizations on Oct. 19-20 captured and moved eight of the small, endangered woodpeckers from Apalachicola National Forest in Florida to River Creek, the Rolf and Alexandra Kauka Wildlife Management Area in Southwest Georgia.
This species has not been a resident of that site for three decadess. DNR wildlife biologist Joe Burnam says he hopes the four males and four females — released in pairs — will signal a new start.
“The idea is they stick around and establish breeding pairs, and throughout time build the population up,” he said.
If the plan works, the property, which was bought in 2005 in part to restore these woodpeckers, will become the third Georgia WMA with family groups of them.
Named for the thin, red streak between the black crown and cheek patch on males, red-cockaded woodpeckers are the only woodpecker in the U.S. that excavates cavities in living pines. DNR officials say the species’ decline mirrors the drastic loss of mature pine forests with open understories.
The birds landed on the Endangered Species Act list in 1970. Suitable habitat is now found mostly on military bases, national forests and other public lands, plus some private tracts, such as in the Red Hills Region of north Florida and Southwest Georgia.
DNR has made strides in conserving red-cockaded woodpeckers, a high-priority species in the state’s Wildlife Action Plan (www.georgiawildlife.com/SWAP). Woodlands have been restored with prescribed fire. Nest cavities have been installed. Populations have been monitored and landowners given technical assistance through a state habitat conservation plan developed in 1999, the nation’s first for the species, DNR officials said.
Moving birds has been the key component. Coordinated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Southern Range Translocation Cooperative, and dependent on sites such as Apalachicola National Forest where the birds are more numerous, translocations have boosted populations at DNR’s other red-cockaded woodpecker WMAs — Silver Lake near Bainbridge and Moody Forest near Baxley.
When Silver Lake reached 30 breeding pairs this year, River Creek was next in line.
Habitat at the 2,400-acre WMA near Thomasville has been restored through prescribed fire and timber thins. Twenty-eight nest cavities have been installed as suitable homes, work funded largely by a Bill Terrell Avian Conservation Grant from the Georgia Ornithological Society. River Creek’s location across the Ochlockonee River swamp from the Red Hills Region, home to the largest population of red-cockaded woodpeckers on private lands, also helped.
“Even though River Creek is relatively small, it’s adjacent to the Red Hills population, which magnifies its role in the landscape,” said Burnam, who leads work with the species for DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.
The week of Oct. 16, he and DNR’s Phil Spivey and Zach Henshaw teamed with Joel Casto of Casto Environmental Services, the U.S. Forest Service, Tall Timbers Research Station and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to find eight birds at Apalachicola that hatched this year — as identified by leg bands — and mark their roost sites.
Casto, a translocation biologist on the Apalachicola, is funded by a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Longleaf Stewardship Fund grant through The Longleaf Alliance. The Fish and Wildlife Service, Southern Co. and Halliburton provided funding for the grant. Each spring, Castro monitors 127 groups of red-cockaded woodpeckers for nesting, banding chicks at 5-10 days old. This year he banded nearly 200.
On capture night for the River Creek eight, the teams put nets over the nest cavities, caught the birds, drove them to the WMA overnight and put them in the new cavities. At dawn Friday, they removed screens over the holes and the birds flew free.
Burnam said it’s not unusual for the woodpeckers to mix up biologists’ match-making. “Frequently, a female released in cluster one ends up in cluster four with a male you put in cluster two.”
He will give the newcomers their space for now, checking on them occasionally. But as spring and the breeding season nears, staff will increase monitoring to gauge how the reintroduction is going.
The initial goal is to establish seven family groups at River Creek, with up to 10 groups long-term. A family group refers to the woodpeckers in a cluster of cavity trees. The group can vary from one bird to a breeding pair and up to three helpers, usually male offspring from previous years that help feed younger siblings.
The Nongame Conservation Section works to conserve Georgia’s endangered and other wildlife not legally fished for or hunted, as well as rare plants and natural habitats. The agency depends primarily on fundraisers, grants and contributions for this vital work.
Georgians can provide vital help to conserve species such as red-cockaded woodpeckers by:
• Buying or renewing a DNR eagle or hummingbird license plate. Most money from sales and renewals is dedicated to nongame conservation. Upgrade to a “wild” tag for only $25! Details at www.georgiawildlife.com/licenseplates.
• Contributing to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund when filing state income taxes — line 26 on Form 500 or line 10 on Form 500EZ. Giving is easy and any amount helps.
• Donating directly to the agency, www.georgiawildlife.com/donations.
Learn more about nongame in Georgia at www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/AnnualReport.