Illustration by Kat McCall
To this day, I can vividly recall a scene I witnessed as a child while returning to Augusta from a family vacation on the South Carolina coast. The sun had set, and there was little to light our way other than the moon and stars as my dad drove along the piney Carolina backroads. As we passed through Savannah River Site (SRS), dancing points of red light pierced the darkness surrounding the minivan. These points grew brighter, soon revealing hundreds of fires on the forest floor. It felt like we had stumbled back in time and happened upon the massed campfires of Sherman’s armies, bivouacked during their 1865 march across the Carolinas. We drove through the eerie scene in silence as the fires licked the bases of the pines. Little did I know at the time, but the otherworldly spectacle we witnessed was the management of longleaf pine forest for the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker.
This threatened but tenacious bird, affectionately referred to by its “RCW” abbreviation, tells a uniquely Southern story, its rise and fall intimately linked to the dominance and disappearance of the once-mighty longleaf wiregrass ecosystem. Its story also encapsulates determined recovery attempts beginning in the 1970s, uniting conservationists from a variety of institutions, including Aiken’s Hitchcock Woods, SRS and Fort Gordon. Perhaps most importantly, the RCW emphatically underscores the revitalizing power of fire upon forest ecosystems, a cleansing influence that has often been suppressed in the centuries since European settlement.
Red-cockaded Woodpeckers evolved as pine specialists, meticulously selective in their habitat preferences. To better understand RCW specialization, I paid a visit to Steven Camp, wildlife biologist at Fort Gordon. A Harlem native and graduate of the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry, Camp lays claim to something which many of us can envy – his dream job.
His father took the role of biologist at Fort Gordon when the position was first created in the 1960s. Camp grew up hoping to one day do the same, and he achieved this goal in 1996. Camp drove me around the post in his truck, pointing out tracts of forest capable of hosting RCWs. RCWs are the only woodpecker species which nest exclusively within living pine trees. The trees most conducive to RCW cavity formation are older and afflicted with red heart disease, which kills and softens their heartwood, easing the back-breaking process of excavation into living wood. This preference for living trees pays serious dividends once the cavity has been constructed; sap exuding from the wounded tree forms a protective barrier around the entrance, thwarting snakes and other predators. The birds are cooperative breeders, meaning that a breeding pair will also have several accompanying “helpers.” Each bird requires a separate cavity to roost in at night. Consequently, attractive breeding locations must have upwards of four suitable nesting cavities.
The RCW’s need for large, old pines inextricably intertwined its destiny with that of the longleaf wiregrass ecosystem. Once upon a time, this system was the defining characteristic of the American Southeast. Longleaf forests blanketed the landscape from Virginia to Texas, covering some 93 million acres. Among the most diverse ecosystems in the entire world, its plant life rivaled that of the Amazon. Biologists at Fort Gordon have identified more than 40 plant species residing in a single square meter of healthy forest floor, an astonishingly high level of biodiversity.
The first component of this system is the eponymous longleaf pine, which grows tall, ramrod-straight and old, composing the forest upperstory. The second necessary component is a diverse understory hosting a variety of groundcover, including the namesake wiregrass. In reality, wiregrass is only the most well-known of over 200 species that thrive on the forest floor. Important to note is the lack of a midstory: A healthy longleaf wiregrass system is two-layered, with a longleaf canopy and wiregrass understory. Finally, the keystone component of the longleaf system is frequent fire, which ensures continuity, revitalizing its native inhabitants and countering potential invaders.
In their heyday, the longleaf stands of the American Southeast burned every one to three years in fires set by lightning or Native Americans. Fire weeds out hardwoods that would otherwise create a constricting midstory and block sunlight to the forest floor, eliminating groundcover. Furthermore, fire creates and provides access to mineral soil, ripe for the growth of wiregrass and longleaf seedlings. Camp vividly noted that “Fire is to wiregrass what nitrogen is to wheat.”
The longleaf wiregrass ecosystem perfectly suited the RCW, and this co-dependency would lead to its downfall and near-extinction. The arrival of Europeans marked the beginning of a fundamentally altered relationship between humans and longleaf. Widespread logging and exploitation of longleaf stands for the naval stores industry cleared all virgin forests by 1920. Much more concerning, however, was the fact that the felled longleaf stands failed to reproduce themselves.
The European settlers had brought with them an unhealthy aversion to fire. Fire suppression forced longleaf saplings to compete with other species typically killed off by frequent burns. This, combined with the predation of feral hogs upon seedlings, created conditions highly hostile to the growth of new longleaf trees (Frost, 1993). By the latter half of the 20th century, longleaf forests covered a mere 3% of their presettlement range. RCW populations fell in lockstep with the collapse of their chosen ecosystem. By the 1970s, there were only 10,000 birds remaining. Estimates of the presettlement population range from 920,000 to 1.5 million breeding pairs, yielding an estimated decline of over 99% (Shunk, 2016).
The RCW was among the first species to receive protection under the landmark Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973. By this time, most remaining longleaf stands and attendant RCW populations were located on public land. Given the disproportionate prevalence of military bases in the Southeast, many of these remnant populations were located at Army installations including Forts Benning, Stewart and Bragg. Due to this symbiosis between quality terrain for military maneuvers and suitable woodpecker habitat, the Department of the Army has played a decisive role in conservation efforts. At Fort Gordon, where the RCW population had been extirpated, serious efforts to manage land for RCWs began in the early ‘90s. Much of the former range of the longleaf was now covered by mixed growth, including hardwoods and loblolly pines.
Reclaiming habitat in this degraded state is no easy task. Mature hardwoods and loblollies must be harvested, longleaf must be planted, and regular fire reintroduced. Camp recalls when the nascent efforts at Fort Gordon met success with the arrival of a single male RCW from SRS in 1996. This first resident was followed by birds translocated from Fort Stewart, establishing the first breeding group in 1998. Over the next 20 years, birds were introduced on a yearly basis from other Southern populations. Today, some 100 birds call the base home.
Camp’s team fights an unending battle to keep reclaimed longleaf stands in good condition, using fire as the weapon of choice; without frequent burns, hardwoods will reemerge and degrade the habitat. These controlled burns serve an additional purpose; they also reduce latent fuel for forest fires. Consequently, when accidental fires do occur, they lack the fuel to grow to catastrophic strength. Camp summarized his mission as twofold: “We’re fighting fire with fire, and we’re also using fire to improve habitat.” Camp also mentioned that some of the best longleaf on post counterintuitively lies within live-fire artillery ranges due to the use of tracer rounds, which frequently set the range afire.
The success seen at Fort Gordon has been replicated by other agencies in the Augusta area. One good friend of mine, Sam Murray, spends his summers counting and banding the RCWs of the SRS population. Murray described their success in similar terms as the population has grown, providing the seed birds for a 2016 reintroduction program at Hitchcock Woods.
Today, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is on the comeback trail thanks to the determined efforts of conservationists across the South like Camp and Murray. However, it’s not out of the woods yet (pun intended). There are difficulties inherent in its current state of existence as a constellation of isolated populations, including genetic diversity. Ideally, RCW advocates would like to see an expansion of populations on private lands, where RCW existence is currently minimal. Safe-harbor agreements are available for landowners who may be interested in hosting some of these birds but concerned about potential regulatory implications. These covenants essentially provide for the suspension of a landowner’s ESA responsibilities in return for a commitment to support RCW habitat.
If you or someone you know might be interested in hosting RCWs on your property, please reach out to me. Although the vast longleaf stands will not return in the foreseeable future, you can absolutely help preserve remnants of this Southern ecosystem and ensure the survival of a beautiful and uniquely specialized bird.
Appears in the October 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.