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Endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers now in ACE Basin

Picture1There was good news on many fronts during the recent 25th Anniversary celebration for the ACE Basin at Nemours Plantation. The natural resources running along and in between the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto Rivers consist of a large ecosystem that is able to sustain both plant and wildlife diversity. New to the mix this month is the red-cockaded woodpecker, brought in to Colleton County by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The November 2 celebration for conservation brought the U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Mr. Robert Bonnie to Nemours, along with several other dignitaries from Ducks Unlimited and other local conservation groups. Dr. Ernie Wiggers is the CEO of the Nemours Wildlife Foundation and he addressed the crowd saying that red-cockaded woodpeckers are coming to private lands in the ACE Basin this fall. These birds will join a distinguished flock that includes visiting Whooping cranes and secretive black rails.

It was back in the Spring 2008 ACE Basin newsletter when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that there was potential to introduce the red-cockaded woodpeckers onto suitable private properties. I attended a landowner meeting at Chehaw Combahee Plantation a year earlier for those interested in learning about the Safe Harbor program that the federal government enacted to help landowners to steward these endangered woodpeckers.

The ACE Basin makes sense for red-cockaded woodpecker restoration efforts for many reasons. The red-cockaded woodpeckers have been on the endangered species list since 1970 suffering from a loss of habitat. These woodpeckers prefer mature pines that are both old and wide, providing a suitable tree to peck out a nesting cavity. Their range extends through the Southeastern states but their coverage is spotty, and the ACE Basin will once again be part of their territory.

The South Carolina coastal plain is home to at least two strong and distinct populations of red-cockaded woodpeckers (RCW’s) in the Francis Marion National Forest and the Savannah River / South Lowcountry Focus Area. Modern technology comes into play since the woodpeckers are moved into artificial nesting cavities in the ACE Basin, and then they can choose whether to occupy them or to set out and create new natural cavities.

A total of 20 red-cockaded woodpeckers, or ten pairs, were introduced into Colleton County on November 6, 2014. In the seven years since the ACE Basin was identified for future RCW reintroduction, many properties have improved the quality of their pine stands to create an open understory or pine savannah. This proverbial welcome mat will give the woodpeckers opportunities to expand into Beaufort County or Charleston County over time, letting the birds select their own niche in the ecosystem.

As a lifelong birdwatcher I can tell you that it’s not easy to view or identify a red-cockaded woodpecker. They are small, carry very little in the way of markings save one little red spot, and they aren’t particularly noisy. They do have one calling card since over time they peck into the pine tree they select for nesting, causing white sap to coat the tree and offer a sticky defense against predators like snakes. These trees stand out from the rest and are a sure sign of the presence a red-cockaded woodpecker.

During a media interview at the Nemours celebration, I sat down with Undersecretary Bonnie to discuss the RCW efforts. “This is another project where the ACE Basin will have influence on others far past the South Carolina border,” said Bonnie. “Demand for Red-cockaded woodpecker restoration has exceeded the supply of available birds. The ACE Basin will receive RCW’s that come from the Francis Marion National Forest, which has always been an RCW stronghold. Hurricane Hugo flattened many RCW trees there but this actually accelerated the RCW restoration program because artificial nesting cavity experiments in the aftermath proved very successful.”

The Lowcountry is well served by Undersecretary Bonnie since his family owns a large plantation along the Savannah River, where they enjoy hunting and the outdoors. Using a conservation easement to protect their bottomland hardwoods in perpetuity was a nod to the formula for success during the first 25 years of the ACE Basin. Red-cockaded woodpeckers are now present in the ACE Basin, and the blessings of a wild and natural coastal area have increased by one more species.

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com


Jeff Dennis, Contributor (385 Posts)

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com