Alabama Power partners with state and federal agencies to enhance the habitat for red-cockaded woodpeckers and longleaf pines.

A week-old hatchling steadies itself, with no awareness that the new bands on its legs are helping rebuild the national population of an endangered species.

Through a continuing partnership of Alabama Power, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the red-cockaded woodpecker is making a comeback along the shores of Lake Mitchell. The bird has been on the Endangered Species List since it was begun in 1970, in part because of the degradation of the longleaf pine forests where the bird lives.

Longleaf forests once covered 92 million acres from Virginia to Texas to Florida. Years of intense industrial timber cutting reduced the expanse to 3 percent of its original size.

“There are literally hundreds of plants that occur in the longleaf pine ecosystem,” said Eric Spadgenske, an FWS biologist. “It’s as diverse as the rain forest. It’s as diverse as anything in the world. Many studies have shown well over 100 different species of plants in a square meter.”

The longleaf pine is where the red-cockaded makes its home in tree cavities, and the surrounding open habitat provides a life cycle of bugs and plants on which the ecosystem thrives.

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“The really important thing about the longleaf pine ecosystem isn’t even the longleaf pine,” said Spadgenske. “It’s the ground cover, the grasses and the forbs that are encouraged by fires. A lot of these plants don’t reproduce without fire.”

Most of the birds, amphibians and reptiles that depend on this ecosystem are in decline because of the loss of habitat carved down to small areas, mostly in national and state forests.

“All of the species that were dependent on that ecosystem — the red-cockaded woodpecker included — have declined precipitously,” said Spadgenske. “Many of them have become endangered, and at some level imperiled, because of the loss of this ecosystem. And it’s fragmented; fragmentation is an important component of this habitat loss.”

Only six longleaf forests remain in Alabama, and one of those is on Alabama Power land at Lake Mitchell. About 15 years ago, company employees teamed up with the FWS and ADCNR to enhance the habitat and help the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker through the Longleaf Alliance.

“This is definitely a success story here with Alabama Power,” Spadgenske said. “I started coming out here in 2004, after a tornado, and I couldn’t believe there were any woodpeckers here. It was so thick with hardwood trees. You couldn’t see through the woods at all. We had a meeting with Alabama Power and they asked what it would take. I told them we needed artificial cavities, to start burning, and to start getting rid of this hardwood midstory and pine midstory. They started after it, and you can tell.”

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One of the ways Alabama Power supports the habitat is through controlled burns every two years.

“If you don’t burn regularly, the seeds can’t ever get to the soil, and you get a forest that will ultimately just be a hardwood forest, the grass will be shaded out and there won’t be anything for the bugs, snakes, salamanders and animals that depend on this system to eat. Fire is critical,” said Spadgenske.

Alabama Power employees perform prescribed burning, harvest timber, clear the midstory and track the birds to maintain the habitat. Because the red-cockaded woodpecker is the only bird in North America that excavates its cavities in living pine trees, this habitat enhancement is crucial for its survival.

The man-made cavities can be installed in about 40 minutes and are the size of a 16-ounce can with an entrance tunnel that is about 1 1/2 inches wide. The artificial cavities became popular after Hurricane Hugo hit the Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina in 1989, destroying more than half of the red-cockaded nests.

The birds on their own can take anywhere from six months to six years to excavate cavities, drilling through the sapwood on the outside of the tree to lay their eggs and live inside.

“They have a big investment in that cavity,” said Spadgenske. “The trees have to be very old, at least 80 years old, so that the heartwood and sapwood ratio is correct.”

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A family group, usually two to six birds, lives in a cluster of cavity trees, each in its own cavity. There may be up to a dozen cavity trees in the area, and the family group will defend that territory from other red-cockaded woodpeckers.

“In an area that is critically small like this, when you lose a nest in this population, it’s a big deal because there are only 15 groups of birds here altogether,” said Spadgenske. “If the birds don’t re-nest, they have no reproduction for that year, they can’t fill breeding vacancies and you may lose an active cluster that year because you’ve lost that year’s reproduction.”

Mating season is from April to June. Females lay four eggs in the cavity and both females and males incubate them. Eggs are laid over four days and it takes 11 days for them to hatch. The hatchlings eat bugs — ants, beetle larvae, spiders, roaches, worms — that are caught by the parents on the side of the pine trees (and live in the grass areas crucial to the habitat).

Biologists climb ladders to remove the week-old nestlings using flexible tubing that is slid into the cavities.

“Once I get the birds to the bottom of the tree, I have prearranged some unique color combinations for each bird and an aluminum band that has a unique band that is recorded at the bird-banding lab in Maryland so that we can identify it and follow it through its life span,” said Spadgenske.

When banding is complete, the biologists return the nestlings to the cavities. The birds can then be tracked through field glasses without ever being caught again.

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Red-cockaded woodpeckers can live up to 15 years in the wild. However, most of them don’t make it through their first summer. If they make it past that first year, many will live five to eight years.

“At the end of nesting season, we will document the number of birds that live at each cluster and, if the number of birds exceeds the number of cavities, then we will install artificial cavities to ensure that each bird will have a place to live,” said Chad Fitch, Environmental Affairs specialist at Alabama Power.

The efforts of Alabama Power, ADCNR and FWS are paying dividends. Alabama’s red-cockaded woodpecker population has grown to about 250 breeding groups
and there are some 5,000-6,000 groups rangewide.

“We make stewardship a priority and are very proud to partner with ADCNR and FWS on this effort,” said Fitch. “We want to enhance the red-cockaded woodpecker habitat but also enhance the longleaf pine ecosystem. This partnership enables us to do that.”

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Each year, the teams evaluate the birds’ progress and the team’s best practices to continue improving conditions for the red-cockaded woodpecker and the longleaf
pine ecosystem.

“Alabama Power is a critical partner in endangered species recovery,” Spadgenske said. “If Alabama Power wasn’t an active participant in the management of this bird, they would have been lost and we would have lost these birds forever. They have been an integral partner and taken on a large load in helping manage these birds and their habitat.”

– Allison Westlake

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