Ala. Wildlife Officials Tag Endangered Woodpeckers

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By Alabama News Network

Eric Spadgenske carefully places a noose of twine inside the cavity of a long-leaf pine and fishes out a rare thing - a red cockaded woodpecker nestling.

He balances atop a narrow, aluminum ladder, some 20 feet above the ground and carefully places the seven-day-old chick in a padded metal coffee can held in a pocket of his orange safety vest. The creak of his leather safety belt signals his attention has returned to the tree to bring out the other nestling.

Spadgenske is state coordinator of the Partners for Fish & Wildlife with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He made the trip to Chilton County on Monday from his Daphne office to band nestlings at Lake Mitchell. Alabama Power Co. owns some 1,500 acres of red cockaded woodpecker habitat. The bird has been on the endangered species list since 1973, and there are about 200 nesting pairs throughout the state, Spadgenske said.

"The reason they are endangered is they are very habitat specific," Spadgenske said, giving his Woodpecker 101 speech to a small group that has tagged along to watch the banding. The trip included a boat ride and then a hike through steep and rocky terrain to get to the nest tree. "They are the only woodpecker that nests in living trees, and they prefer the long leaf pine.

"Loss of habitat is primarily why they were placed on the endangered list."

There are 28 nesting pairs scattered among 12 clusters along the shores and on the islands of Lake Mitchell, said Chad Fitch, a biologist with Alabama Power. The banding helps track the birds, which means the viability of the clusters can be tracked, he said. Anything people can do to help tip the odds is important. Half of the fledglings die in their first year.

Once Spadgenske was back on the ground, he laid out his equipment. Each bird gets a color band showing its cluster group, and a different color band identifies which bird it is in the group. That way people with spotting scopes can come back and ID the specific bird. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service band is placed on the other leg.

As Spadgenske went about his work, the nestlings' parents scolded loudly from a nearby long-lea

"Oh, there's one of the adults," said Doug Adair, of the Alabama Wild Life Center. He pointed out to the group the adult's location before someone offered him a pair of binoculars to help verify his find. "Yes, it is one of the parents. It just went behind the back side of that tree."

After the banding is complete, Spadgenske scales the tree again and places the nestlings back into their hole.

The last time the Lake Mitchell birds were banded was 2009.

"We've been very lucky, these clusters have been very successful," Fitch said.

The red cockaded woodpecker is choosy about which trees it builds nest cavities in. Young trees - about 80 years old and below - aren't suitable. Too much sapwood and not enough heartwood, Spadgenske says. But the sap is needed for one of the few things the birds seem to have going for them these days: natural protection.

The birds wound their nest trees so the pine produces sap running down its trunk. That sap is irritating to tree climbing snakes, the primary predator of the birds.

The red cockaded woodpecker's range covers most of the Southeast, going as far north as Virginia and as far west as the Piney Woods of east Texas, according to the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds.

There once were more than 60 million acres of long leaf pine habitat throughout the bird's range, Spadgenske said. That total is now about 2 million acres.

"Habitat is key, because 30 nesting pairs need about 5,000 acres of open habitat to be successful," he said. "Throughout the 1970s, their numbers had been in a steady decline. In the 1990s there was a turnaround, and the numbers started recovering. Now those numbers have stabilized or have seen a slight increase."

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