One of my greatest passions is wildlife. The work done to help protect and restore endangered populations is not only incredibly important, but… on a more selfish note… it’s also really fun. So, of course whenever I’m given the opportunity to help the wildlife biologists at Osceola National Forest, I volunteer.
The endangered red cockaded woodpecker is the species the Osceola team focuses on a lot, if not the most. The reason this woodpecker receives so much focus is due to it being a keystone species.
Male Red Cockaded Woodpecker (picture provided by Sarah Lauerman)
A keystone species has a large effect on its natural habitat and serves a critical role in its ecosystem. The red cockaded is the only woodpecker species to create cavity nests in live pine, which provides habitat to many species in the southeast.
Since arriving at Osceola, I’ve been blessed with many opportunities to help both the wildlife contractor in charge of the relocation program, Sarah Lauerman, and the forest’s wildlife biologist technician, Kim Farr. Not only is assisting them an amazing experience, but it also gives me insight into the different goals of contractors and federal employees.
With Kim I assisted her in remarking trees with cavities. We scraped off the bark at the bottom of the tree, and spray-painted white bands around the tree. This is important to signify to our fire department to clear around these trees and protect them.
Me marking a cavity tree.
We used extendable poles with cameras on the end to peep into the cavities. In some we found feathers, most likely left by our lovely woodpeckers. While in others we found the dreaded mud dauber, an insect that make the cavities uninhabitable for our woodpeckers.
Kim peeping a cavity and the footage from inside the cavity.
Some of the cavities were over forty feet high. My muscles strained as I tried to stop the swaying of the pole and insert the camera into the cavity.
Me peeping a cavity.
At some clusters we heard the twittering of the woodpeckers. Kim used her phone to play their call and attract them back to the cluster. The entire family would fly to one tree, chirping and defending their territory. This allowed us to see who made up the family.
A pair of woodpeckers defending their cluster.
Red cockaded woodpeckers live in groups of cavities called clusters. The family of woodpeckers consists of at least one breeding pair; however, ideally there will be a male “helper” birds who assist with raising the chicks, and sometimes the grownup chicks will remain to assist with the younger clutches.
We even found a new cavity! I added it to the digital map on her phone and updated the data for many of the cavities.
Kim taught me a lot about the work done to help the red cockaded woodpeckers, and the different focuses of her and Sarah.
Kim focused on collecting data on the woodpeckers already there and protecting their cavities from fires, while Sarah focused on relocating breeding pairs of woodpeckers to other forests to replenish the population. This resulted in them evaluating cavities differently.
To Kim a tree that has potential for woodpeckers to live in it would be marked as active, since her goal is to preserve as much viable habitat for the woodpeckers as possible. While Sarah will only mark cavities as active if woodpeckers are currently using it, since her goal is to relocate woodpeckers to increase the population. These differences have taught me how data categorized differently based on the goal of the researcher.
Helping Kim was a fun and educational experience, and besides the short period of time when I got lost in the woods without her and convinced myself a bear would come and eat me and no one would ever find me, it was a chill time. While helping Sarah was also fun and educational, it was not chill at all. The evening Sarah asked me to assist her was crazy.
Sarah not only runs the red cockaded woodpecker relocation program at Osceola National Forest; she also started it. Osceola has a lot of red cockaded woodpeckers. This has allowed Osceola to donate breeding pairs of woodpeckers to other forests to try to increase the population.
For the relocation program we capture one male who is not part of the breeding pair from his cluster and take one female who is also not part of the breeding pair from a different cluster. These two birds are then taken to a cluster in another forest and are released to hopefully breed together.
The attempted capture was pushed from Thursday to Wednesday due to an incoming storm. The two of up drove out to the cluster in the evening to catch a female bird. Sarah informed me that this cavity was especially high, over thirty feet above the ground, and that she really hoped she wouldn’t have to climb.
We arrived on the site and unpacked the gear. We left the net by the tree we knew our woodpecker lived in and set up the scope on the path between the tree and the truck. Sarah showed me the how to use the net and scope, explaining to me how we would catch the woodpecker.
Me holding the un-extended net. (picture provided by Sarah)
All there was left to do was wait.
The sun was low in the sky when we began to hear the woodpecker’s calls. Eventually, a woodpecker landed in a tree beside us. She sang and climbed up and down the pine, unaware of Sarah aiming the scope at her. I too watched the bird with my binoculars, admiring how beautiful she was. Sarah informed me that she had identified the bird as our female based on the bands on the bird’s legs.
Sarah followed the path towards the tree where we had left the net, careful not to startle the birds. I watched our female through the scope, waiting for her to enter the cavity. The sun continued to sink lower, and the fear that we’d have to catch the female in the dark creeped into the back of my mind.
Finally, she flew into the cavity.
I signaled to Sarah that the woodpecker was in. She stood at the base of the tree and began to extend the net into the air as quietly as she could. I watched into the dark cavity, hoping the bird wouldn’t realize the incoming trap and escape. The net inched higher and higher, and finally Sarah clamped the net over the cavity.
She called me over. I crashed through the underbrush; stealth no longer mattered. As I reached the tree, I grabbed the large wooden handle we had left there, probably torn off an axe, and I beat it against the back of the tree.
Hard swings, taps, and scrapes ricocheted up the length of the pine tree to the cavity, but the bird did not budge. Realizing the female would not fly out into our trap, Sarah told me to hold the net.
The moment I gripped it; I realized the full weight of what I was holding. It was top-heavy, long, and one small shift could send it uncontrollably swinging. Sarah played the woodpecker’s song trying to lure the bird out, but still she did not come. As small raindrops began to fall from the sky, Sarah trudged towards the truck.
I squinted up at the net, trying to focus on the cavity through the rain. The light faded as I waited. My arms and knuckles ached, as I strained to keep the net in place. The pole was not resting against the tree, but instead looped over the side, forcing me to hold the whole weight of the pole. Glancing over my shoulder, I watched as she approached the truck.
That was a mistake.
In that moment the pole swayed from one side of the tree to the other, and I jerked back forcing the net in place. However, despite my efforts the net at the end shifted slightly. It was only an inch or two to the right, but in the dim light I couldn’t tell if that was enough to uncover the cavity. I held my breath, praying I did not startle the bird and cause her to escape when I was unsure if she was covered.
I watched what I thought was the cavity, making sure the bird didn’t come out. Moments stretched on as I waited for Sarah to lug the three ladders back. Though I didn’t see the bird emerge I had the nagging fear that she had flown out when I was looking away.
Sarah’s footsteps soon landed beside me, but I did not turn to her. I told her what happened, and she took the net and rested the pole against the tree so that I didn’t have to strain to hold it in place. When I asked if the cavity was uncovered, she told me it wasn’t, and that I had done fine. I nodded in relief.
Taking the first ladder, slammed it against the tree in an attempt to scare the bird out. The bird did not budge. She buckled the ladder to the tree, strapped on her harness, and climbed. Two ladders were strapped to her back as the rains sprinkled down. When she reached the top of the ladder, she grabbed another, and slammed it on the tree.
Still no bird.
She strapped that ladder down and climbed, finally adding the third ladder and reaching the cavity. She beat the opposite side of the tree trying to scare the bird out.
She played the red cockaded woodpecker’s song trying to lure the bird out.
Sarah stuck a cord under the net and into the cavity to scare the bird out.
Had the net come uncovered when Sarah was gone? Did I let the bird escape? These fears raced through my mind as I watched in horror.
Sarah played the song one last time.
The bird bolted out into the net; frantically flapping Sarah pulled the trigger to clamp the net shut. She then used marking taped to tie the net shut, an extra security as she climbed down the ladder.
Sarah at on the top of the ladders.
Overwhelmed with relief, I slowly began to lower the poles. When Sarah reached the ground, she took the pole. It swung dramatically through the air as she lowered it.
Together we took the bird from the net and recorded the information about her capture onto a form before putting her into a bird box and attaching the form to it.
The catch had been a success. We returned to the office to meet up with the other teams. Everyone had caught their bird. In total we caught two females and two males, creating two breeding pairs. We smile and laughed, listening to the stories of everyone’s catches. Apparently, all the other birds flew into the net the moment the tree was hit, one before the tree was hit. Our bird was certainly the most stubborn, but I like to think it’s because she’s smart and has good survival instincts. I’m glad she’s passing on her genes. I just hope her new mate isn’t as stubborn as her because she’s definitely going to get her way.
Our stubborn lady.
Since then, we caught another male woodpecker, and I’ve helped Kim multiple times. Through these experiences I’ve realized my love of wildlife work and that I want to pursue it as my career. I always thought I had to work so that I can afford to enjoy my free time, but recently I’ve learned that if I’m doing what I love, I’ll get to have fun every day.
Me holding the female woodpecker. (picture provided by Sarah)
Woodpecker catching teams! I’m in the back left for both pictures.
(Pictured provided by Sarah and the Steve Saccio)
Agency: U.S Forest Service
Program: Resource Assistant Program (RAP)
Location: Osceola National Forest