22 February 2010


In August of 1989, my then-partner and I moved to Charleston, SC. One month later, our suburban community, Mount Pleasant, was at the precise center of the path of Hurricane Hugo as it arrowed inland from the southeast. The entire populace of Charleston was ordered by the governor to evacuate inland. We secured our house as best we could, packed essentials into our two cars, and headed up the only interstate highway toward Columbia -- along with about 100,000 other vehicles. Imagine a 45 mile long traffic jam, moving at a crawl.
The hurricane hit Charleston at high tide, in the wee early morning hours of 22 September. The resulting storm surge devasted communities and marinas along the coast, particularly on the barrier islands. Given Hugo's intense winds (peaking at 150 mph), and its counter-clockwise rotation, the greatest damage to homes and the neighboring Francis Marion National Forest along the right (northeast) side of the storm's path.

It was three days before authorities lifted travel restrictions and allowed Charleston residents to return. We were so lucky -- the magnificent Cooper River Bridge had survived, and even though the area looked like the aftermath of an atom bomb blast, our house somehow survived intact, though we were without electricity for several weeks.

Not so the forest. The landscape was surreal -- hundreds of thousands of trees snapped off a few feet above the ground, all pointing in the same direction (away from the wind). As chance would have it, that part of the national forest was home to a population of the endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker (RCW). Many of the birds' cavity trees had been snapped in two, leavng them homeless. The US Forest Service put out an emergency job announcement for wildlife techs to be trained in habitat restoration. I was one of eight from around the nation to be selected (being a local resident helped my chances immensely). Four of us were trained to use large gas-powered drills to excavate artificial cavities imitating the original, and the other four (including me) were trained to use chainsaws to excavate holes to accomodate prefabricated nesting boxes to serve as artificial cavities.

RCWs are unique among woodpeckers, in that they peck out their nesting cavities in living trees, rather than in dead ones. Longleaf pines are favored (see photo above for typical habitat before the hurricane struck) -- the pines are subject to a fungus infection called red heart rot, which attacks and softens the center of the tree trunk, making an ideal nesting place. Further, RCWs ingeniously discourage predation from rat snakes (which can quite adeptly climb a vertical tree trunk) by drilling quarter-sized resin wells around the cavity entrance. Sap oozes from the holes, forming a protective sill or shield which the snakes are repelled by, partly by its stickiness and partly because the sap may contain an irritating toxin (see sill photo below - the bird is partially obscuring the entrance hole).

Further, RCWs are gregariously social, nesting in family colonies called clans. Thus part of our work involved creating artificial nesting cavities at known colony sites, and also included doing sunrise and sunset clan counts to ascertain the population status of the birds. It was an arduous and priceless year -- hauling up to 60 lb. of gear (chainsaws, cavity boxes, Swedish ladders, climbing harness, tools) from the nearest forest service road through miles of thick underbrush, downed trees and swamp. A summer workday might begin at 3:30 a.m. when the alarm went off, and end around 9 p.m. with the last clan count. But it was glorious -- doing important work to help an endangered species, and seeing exotic birds, plants, snakes and other critters for the first time.

I've long wondered how the RCWs are doing. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover this environmental video in today's NYTimes online, describing how RCWs and other species are flourishing on the large tracts of land that make up military bases. In the 1990s the military became gradually more attuned to environmental issues, and RCWs have benefitted. They still face ongoing loss of habitat to the timber industry and to the spread of human "development". But my little birds are tough and resilient, and I am mightily pleased. Here is a map showing the RCW's historic and current ranges. (Click on any image to enlarge.)

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