Chuck Hess arrives at the nesting cavity in the longleaf pine with capturing device
  Photos copyright of author.

Surefooted biologist climbs 40 feet into the pine trees to snatch, band endangered birds

By Michael E. Abrams

from The Tampa Tribune, Sunday, June 22, 2008

Somewhere in the forest, strapped 44 feet up in a longleaf pine tree, Chuck Hess fishes with a home-brewed noose into a three inch hole in a tree, closes the noose, and carefully draws out by its neck a frail, fleshy, chirping chick that was hatched only a few days ago.
He stashes the baby woodpecker in a well-worn binocular case, and readies for the climb down the ladder, back to the flatwood understory in the Apalachicola National Forest, 12 miles south of Hosford, 27 miles west of Tallahassee.

Liberty County has about 8,000 residents amid its trees and savannas.

This is purely rural Florida, the “other Florida” as it has been called. “This one is seven days old,” says Hess, holding the little chick, its eyes still forming, wings raw, nestling in the warmth of his open hand.

Chicks think it's feeding time

It’s a window of opportunity in the forest. The chicks at 6 to 8 days old can’t see and they stretch up for feeding when a shadow comes across the hole. That’s not mom or pop or one of the juvenile 'helpers' that mark this species' community life.

The alluring shadow is Hess,  ready to capture, band them, and return them to the nest. They stretch their necks, and he lassoes them. At 10 days, their small feathers could be pulled out by handling - so now is the time.

He and others are trying to save a woodpecker species that has almost vanished along with the longleaf forest in the southeastern United States. This endangered species is a key sign of a healthy longleaf forest. Only one percent of the woodpecker's original population is left, and only five percent of the 90 million acre longleaf forest that once stretched from Virginia to Texas, a victim of progress, misguided land policies, and the lack of the necessary fire for its survival.

The red-cockaded woodpecker nests only in mature longleaf pines. It lives in groups, with one pair of breeders, and the other birds help raise the chicks. Its genetic history tells a tale of survival. Its cavities in the longleaf pines, which can live up to 300 years, are a legacy for other animals.

Taking one to three years to make, these holes are used by secondary nesters such as redbellied woodpeckers, flycatchers, bluebirds, brown headed nuthatches, and even flying squirrels, whose homes have been made in pines with shorter life-spans in the forest.

Hess explains to a nature group how he goes
about his work in the treetops

Multi-coored bands reflect the year, section of the forest in which they were found.

Mature red-cockaded
woodpecker, photograph
courtesy of U.S. gov't.

"The most exciting thing," he deadpans, "is when a flying squirrel jumps out at you.  It's startling, and it's pretty funny."  He's known squirrels to come in and destroy the nests and take over. 

A forest of many colors
The nest today is right along the Florida Trail which winds through the forest and down the peninsula and draws hikers from around the country.

This forest’s variety of pines and wildflowers tell their story in midst of the ‘other Florida’ – near state parks like Wakulla Springs, lakes like Lake Talquin, west to the Apalachicola River and south to the Gulf.

Two rivers in the forest, six interpretive trails, historic sites and camping facilities attract thousand of visitors every year who come to fish, hike, swim, ride horseback, boat, hunt and motorbike. The forest, itself, 564,961 acres, stretches across four of Florida’s Big Bend counties in a large splash of green on the map.

May brings colors of pink and yellow coreopsis, magenta orchids and meadow beauties, green and red pitcher plants and a splash of asters, with magnolias and bay trees abloom in the woods. Deep purple irises and orange bachelor's buttons sprinkle the roadsides.

Florida blessed with an obligation

Apalachicola National Forest in Florida’s Big Bend area has the largest remaining population of the red-cockaded woodpecker, some 500 groups. The bird, known to scientists as Picoides borealis is not migratory. The group tends the nests and there are usually three or four hatchlings, though not all survive the competition for food. Of the three birds pictured above,  the small one will probably not make it.

In August, scientists and land managers will meet in Tallahassee to request juvenile birds for their own forests. At that point, the birds are several months old. “We come in the evening and catch them all the way into the night,” says Hess, who has been working with the woodpeckers for 20 years.

Purple irises and bachelor's
buttons greet woodsgoers

The night they are caught, the birds are driven to needy forests where biologists put them into readied cavities, and release them the next day.  “If you’re on the list you’ll get birds this year,” says Hess, a wildlife biologist whom you might mistake for a cracker cowboy in his western hat, shades and well-used forest service pickup truck.

That would be misleading. He blends tree climbing with some noted scholarship, and he has also trained a ton of people in his field in banding the birds.

His observation of the bird’s major diet of tree ants attracted Dr. Walter Tschinkel, famed ant scientist at Florida State University, now his major professor.

They have collaborated on a study that shows older trees have a wider variety of ants. Older trees are good for the birds.The chicks, perhaps 20 or 30 a day, are banded in May, both legs coded by band color.

Between October and December, Hess will be back in the trees, evening into night, capturing this year’s juveniles for a nightlong road trip to places such as Biloxi, Mississippi.

The trip must be quick. More than 36 hours in human hands, and the birds stress and then tend to die, he explains.
There’s the aesthetic. Then
the religious
which we call stewardship
that’s our responsibility.
Then, there’s
‘just what’s
right to do.’ 

A hurricane would be a disaster to birds

  We are down a dusty dirt road on a May noon around 12 miles south of Hosford, section 34 of the forest, where the gallberries flower, palmettos fruit, wiregrass sprouts up, and the chirp of the woodpecker is that lonely sound you hear. The woods have been burned not long ago, a prescribed burn that keeps the understory low and and helps the longleaf pines thrive. More burns in summer would help, says Hess, as 80,000 acres of the national forest habitat have been lost to turkey oaks and the like. Summer burns also promote herbaceous understory. That brings a wider variety of insects for the birds to feed on.
He carries down two chicks, each weighing about 24 grams. Wing measurement on the second bird is 18 millimeters. Colors of the bands tell which area the bird was from, and when it was banded.

The birds can’t be sexed this young, so Hess comes back in 30 days when the males have a red spot on their heads, and notes the band colors. When the birds are translocated, both male and female are taken.

Worries? Hurricanes, for one. South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest used to be one of the two top areas for these birds. Hurricane Hugo destroyed the habitat. Trees snapped, 70 percent of the birds were swept away. The saving grace is that the Apalachicola is large enough so that a hurricane couldn’t destroy everything. But there is no way to prevent such a disaster.
One of the big success stories is DeSoto National Forest near Biloxi, Mississippi, which was down to four male birds in 1991. With help, there are now 30 to 40 breeding groups in that forest.

His latest project could solve a major problem in the forest, which has 100,000 acres of slash pines. “It’s the ecological equivalent of longleaf, once it’s in the right condition,” he says. Instead of clearcutting and planting longleaf, he things selective underplanting might work. He has experimental areas in the forest.

Just 'what's right to do'

Hess's work is part of the national effort to save this endangered species.

Some may ask why it is so important to preserve this small creature that might have vanished with the longleaf pine system. The answer is locked into the history of the country, once dominated by forests.

 “This woodpecker is a management indicator for the longleaf pine tree," he explains." The longleaf pine system was the dominant ecosystem in the southeastern US.”

 “We’ve almost destroyed it and this woodpecker tells you where its in good shape and tells you a lot about the health of the system.  Yeah, you could get rid of any species you want.  You have to remember there are a lot of reasons to keep species alive.”

   “There’s the aesthetic. Then the religious which we call stewardship because that’s our responsibility. Then, there’s ‘just what’s right to do.’  It’s like a book, and you just don’t throw it away. This is the history of the genetics of that species, and you just lose all that information.”

The red-cockaded woodpecker is one of the indicators of the  health of a longleaf pine forest