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Return of a bird worth saving

I feel the same foolish pride about the restoration of the local red-cockaded woodpecker population that I do about being one of the first loyal diners at the old Farmer John's Cafe.

Foolish because, of course, I had nothing to do with the success of either one. Pride because I did have sense to recognize something good right from the start.

So my day was made Tuesday morning when Vince Morris pointed from the cab of his pickup to a ridge near the northern edge of the Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest.

"That's where it all began,'' said Morris, the state Division of Forestry ecologist who supervises the restoration program.

"And you were there.''

Nine years ago on that ridge, I watched Morris install a cigar box-sized home for woodpeckers in a square hole cut in the trunk of a longleaf pine.

I remember him telling me about the plan to import woodpeckers from the large population in the Apalachicola National Forest. I also remember thinking it seemed like a lot of trouble for a few small, drab birds.

But red-cockaded woodpeckers were a federally endangered species (and still are, though they have lost that listing on the state level). In Croom, the population had dwindled to three solitary males and one viable breeding pair.

And now? Morris has counted 20 potential breeding pairs during the ongoing spring population survey.

That number has plateaued over the past year, probably because a booming population of flying squirrels has taken over so many woodpecker nests.

But peering into just a handful of cavities with a camera mounted on a telescoping pole, we were treated with the hopeful sight of four grape-sized eggs in one nest, and three tiny, pink chicks in another.

So there it was, right before our eyes: screeching, open-beaked proof of the benefit of the much-derided federal Endangered Species Act. (C'mon, now, you didn't really think you were going to get through an entire column without a dose of liberal politics, did you?)

And, because the act requires preserving the habitat of vulnerable plants and animals, even greater benefits were all around us.

We nearly lost the red-cockaded woodpeckers in this country because we nearly lost our prime pine forests. Woodpeckers nest only in mature pines. They flee their homes whenever the undergrowth of hardwoods grows tall enough to hide hawks and other predators.

That was true throughout most of Croom a decade ago. Since then, frequent controlled burns that simulate natural forest fires have reduced the tangle of medium-sized oaks to a knee-high layer of seedlings.

These are mixed with native shrubs, wiregrass and wildflowers such as the daisy-like green-eye, and tiny purple puffs called sensitive briar.

This is better for all species, including the gopher tortoise, that require longleaf pine habitat.

It's also better for hikers and everybody else who uses the forest. With the oaks gone, the terrain has a park-like feel, with tall pines growing from a carpet of green, the hills like gentle ocean swells.

Morris took it in with obvious, and well justified, pride.

"This is just spectacular habitat,'' he said.

Return of a bird worth saving 05/01/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 6, 2008 10:35am]
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photo courtesy Mikell Herrick