In Michael’s Wake, help for rare woodpeckers at Silver Lake

Published 3:57 pm Tuesday, February 26, 2019

An endangered bird is receiving emergency help in Georgia following Hurricane Michael, thanks to a timely grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Pine woodlands on what is now the state-owned Silver Lake Wildlife Management Area have long been a refuge for red-cockaded woodpeckers, federally listed as endangered since 1970. But as in much of the Florida Panhandle and southwest Georgia, neither this 9,200-acre WMA along Lake Seminole nor the small woodpeckers best known for carving nests in live pines were spared when Michael hit in October.

Winds topping 116 mph wiped out almost half of Silver Lake’s 272 trees with red-cockaded woodpecker nest cavities. The hurricane also left behind acres of downed trees and limbs that threaten the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ ability to conduct prescribed fires to restore the bird’s habitats.

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“Our biologists quickly assessed the situation and developed a plan to stabilize the population by creating new nest cavities and reducing woody debris to protect remaining trees during prescribed burns,” said Dr. Jon Ambrose, chief of DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section. “But we did not have the resources to fully implement the plan.”

That’s when the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation stepped in. Founded by Congress to connect federal, corporate and other partners for conservation, the organization known as NFWF provided nearly $100,000 to restore habitat and steady Silver Lake’s red-cockaded woodpecker population.

“NFWF and our partners have a long history of supporting longleaf pine habitat restoration and wildlife conservation throughout the region impacted by Hurricane Michael, including Silver Lake,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of the foundation. “Quick assessments by Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources helped us and our funding partners expedite a grant to mitigate the loss of nest cavities that are vital to the survival of red-cockaded woodpeckers.”

Southern Company and International Paper funded the grant. Both have deep roots at Silver Lake.

International Paper is the former owner and operated its Southlands Experimental Station there from 1948 to 2007. The company worked to restore red-cockaded woodpeckers, increasing their number from two to about 50 before selling the land to DNR. Silver Lake is Georgia’s first WMA with the rare birds.

Tom Cleves, International Paper vice president of global citizenship, said the company’s “entire business depends on the sustainability of forests.” “Because of our history on this property, we support the habitat restoration at Silver Lake WMA. We are committed to addressing disaster recovery needs in the communities where our employees live and work, including supporting this important habitat restoration project through our Forestland Stewards partnership with NFWF.”

Southern Company provided conservation funding through NFWF to help the state buy Silver Lake in 2008. A 2013 grant from the foundation and Southern’s Power of Flight Partnership also funded habitat work for quail, turkeys and other wildlife at the southwest Georgia WMA.

“It’s our privilege to support this critical recovery at Silver Lake WMA and help DNR protect and conserve Georgia’s diverse wildlife populations,” said Southern Company Environmental and System Planning Vice President Jeff Burleson. “This support is part of Southern Company’s longstanding commitment to environmental stewardship and to making lives and communities better because we are there—for everyone. The iconic longleaf ecosystem, healthy red-cockaded woodpecker populations and the suite of species that depend on them are deeply connected to the culture and economic growth of our region.”

The grant will boost ongoing work by DNR and partners at Silver Lake. With the support, the state plans to:

Install more than 100 artificial nest cavities (it can take woodpeckers a year or more to create one).

Clear storm debris from about 40 clusters of woodpecker cavity trees, reducing wildfire risks to the areas.

Remove debris along 5.5 miles of roads and nearly 3 miles of fire breaks to improve conditions for prescribed fire and access to red-cockaded woodpecker nests.

Buy material to build almost 400 nest “inserts,” replenishing DNR’s stock for red-cockaded woodpecker cavities at Silver Lake and other public and private sites for the birds across the region.

Resurvey red-cockaded nest trees to create a post-hurricane map of Silver Lake sites.

The recovery effort will help other wildlife, as well. Red-cockaded woodpeckers are a keystone species, providing habitat for dozens of animals. Gopher tortoises, bobwhite quail, Bachman’s sparrows and other species also benefit from the habitat restoration and management best provided by prescribed fire.

Removing and reducing debris will help local communities, too, lessening wildfire risks and limiting smoke management issues. A key part of that work will involve mulching, explained Alan Isler, region supervisor for DNR’s Game Management Section. “Mulching is a proven tool that will be used to reduce the bulk of ground debris, restoring access and helping reduce fire intensity during prescribed burning operations.”

In the end, hunters, anglers, hikers, birders and other outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy more vibrant woodlands and easier access at one of south Georgia’s more popular WMAs and public fishing areas.

And an iconic bird of southern pine forests will have better odds of surviving and thriving at Silver Lake.