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Hurricane Florence, one of the costliest storms ever to hit the U.S., damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes when it made landfall in September. Not all of them belonged to humans.
Days of wind and torrential rain snapped or toppled trees throughout the Croatan National Forest and on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, both near the coast. Among the trees felled were long leaf pines that were home to some of the forests’ most celebrated residents: endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers.
The 160,000-acre forest, stretching across Carteret, Jones and Craven counties, is home to about 112 “clusters” of the little black-and-white birds. A cluster usually consists of a mating pair and up to four of the previous year’s offspring. Researchers believe the Croatan has about 300 individual birds, making it the largest site that far east and west. There are an estimated 16,250 red-cockaded woodpeckers total across 11 states, with the largest population being on Fort Bragg.
It takes a lot of trees to support a population of red-cockaded woodpeckers; while they live in social groups, each bird likes to retire at night to its own cavity in its own tree. The birds prefer to build their cavities in long leaf pines and, unlike other woodpeckers, they only build in live trees, presumably in the hope that their homes will outlast models built by birds who use deadwood. Carving out a niche in a living tree with nothing but the tip of a beak is a slow process.
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Long leaf pines, once plentiful across the Southeast but now relatively unusual due to over-harvesting and decades of fire suppression, have to be mature before a red-cockaded will use them to set up house, and the bird-house construction process usually takes two to five years.
In the meantime, a homeless red-cockaded woodpecker often will sleep in the crook of a tree or some other spot out in the open, where it’s subject to being preyed on by owls and other animals.
Hugo Cobos, wildlife biologist for the Croatan and Uwharrie national forests, said Florence took out an average of one tree per active woodpecker cluster in the Croatan. So after the storm passed, he organized a rebuilding effort to rival those that help human storm victims quickly get back into their flood- or wind-damaged homes.
“Losing one of these trees is somewhat of a big deal,” Cobos said, especially in September, when red-cockadeds are “dispersing,” with some of the young leaving the parental cluster to begin a new cluster of their own.
As soon as they were able to survey the damage, Cobos and his colleagues knew what to do. After Hurricane Hugo in 1989 took out almost 90 percent of the red-cockaded woodpeckers’ habitat throughout the Francis Marion National Forest north of Charleston, S.C., researchers had developed two ways to help the birds get a fresh start. One technique involves using gas-powered drills to excavate cavities in standing long leaf pines similar to those the birds build for themselves.
The other, developed by Dave Allen, who now works for the N.C. Division of Wildlife Resources, involves carving out a cavity inside a block of wood that’s about 10 inches high, 4 inches wide and 6 inches deep, then cutting into a long leaf pine with a chain saw, inserting the block, shimming it up and camouflaging it with spray paint to look like natural habitat.
Both techniques require foresters to climb a ladder and work with power tools 10 to 20 feet off the ground.
“Anybody with a little bit of physical capability could be taught to do it, but it’s not easy,” Allen said.
A man in South Carolina built the inserts, Cobos said, and in the weeks after the storm, Cobos and three others placed 112 of them in live trees.
“If you’re not paying attention, they look really natural,” Cobos said. “The birds like them. They’re already using them.”