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Areas of Withlacoochee State Forest named Global Important Bird Areas

You can find out about one of the newest Global Important Bird Areas — and the first in Hernando County — by looking at the BirdLife International website: birdlife.org.

Or, as I'd recommend, you can drive east from Brooksville into the Withlacoochee State Forest and look for "candle trees."

These are the homes of red-cockaded woodpeckers, which peck relentlessly at the bark around their holes. Resin flows, covers the trunk and hardens like cooled wax, except that it's sticky enough to stop climbing, egg-eating snakes.

Do it this way — get out into the Croom or Citrus tracts of the forest — and you'll get the added benefit of seeing some of Central Florida's most impressive stands of straight, tall longleaf pines.

The clutter of medium-sized hardwoods has been cleared by years of prescribed burning. There's enough light to support a knee-high layer of ferns, grasses, sunflowers and bean and berry plants. There's enough space "for those beautiful open vistas, where you can see for hundreds of feet at least," said Marianne Korosy, the Important Bird Area coordinator for Audubon of Florida.

The Croom and Citrus tracts, along with the Dry Tortugas National Park, are the most recent addition to the list of 37 Global Important Bird Areas in the state. They made it because of sustainable populations of federally endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers — 23 in Croom and 66 in the Citrus.

But what's good for the woodpeckers is good for every plant and animal species that lives in longleaf forests, good for the forests themselves. And good for human visitors. Good, even, for the economy.

Birders are already common in the Withlacoochee.

"We have floppy-hatters rolling in here all the time," said Vince Morris, a state Forest Service ecologist who, along with Korosy, led me and Times photographer Octavio Jones on a tour of prime woodpecker habitat on Monday.

The forest's naming as an Important Bird Area should bring in even more.

The list of these areas is included in the state's Great Florida Birding Trail guide, which birders depend on to lead them to the best viewing spots in the state. Tammy Heon, the county's tourism development coordinator, said her office is redesigning its website, and she plans to give good play to the new designation.

This is also an "advocacy tool," Korosy said, meaning Audubon and other groups can use the Important Bird Area distinction to argue that these places need to stay as they are, to apply pressure to lawmakers and bureaucrats who decide how much money is available for preserving wild areas and how it's spent.

That may not be a major issue with the Forest Service right now. The money available for keeping up habitat has dropped in the past four years, from more than $23 million to about $16 million a year. But that's mostly due to the decline in the main funding source, document stamps that are applied to property sales, and not because the Forest Service is any less committed to maintaining its land, said director James Karels.

But generally, yes, it's a big concern. Look at how the Southwest Florida Water Management District dumped some of its best and most committed land managers over the past year.

And, to understand the value of such programs, consider what Croom used to look like as recently as 15 years ago, before the state approved the intensive schedule of burns designed to help woodpeckers.

Back then, nobody would have called it an important bird area. The red-cockaded population had dwindled to one breeding pair and three solitary males.

Go back a little further, into the late 1980s, and the county's landfill was still in the state forest. And the folks who didn't want to pay to dump their old couches and refrigerators? Well, it seemed, just about any forest clearing would do. Maybe it was natural for some people to view it as a wasteland; much of it was as overgrown as a vacant and neglected lot.

The increased burning made it better for mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding, for watching not only woodpeckers but bobwhite quail and Bachman's sparrows all made it an Globally Important Bird Area and, locally, a very important human area.

Areas of Withlacoochee State Forest named Global Important Bird Areas 08/07/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 7, 2012 8:24pm]
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