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From the Field: RCW Translocation, a Firsthand Account

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Thursday, November 30, 2017

by Leslie Patrick

It was very early in the morning when we arrived at Warren Prairie Natural Area (WPNA) for the release of the translocated red-cockaded woodpeckers (RCWs). Warren Prairie was still dark, cold, and quiet. Several hours before, ANHC Chief of Research and Inventory, Bill Holimon, ANHC Land Management Specialist Patrick Solomon, and U.S Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Rebecca Peak had placed six birds from Louisiana into their new homes in Arkansas. Carrying ladders, equipment, and boxes of birds into the forest in the middle of the night must have been quite an adventure. With little or no sleep, the three of them joined ANHC Environmental Review Specialist Katie Shannon, ANHC Grants Coordinator Samantha Scheiman, ANHC Director Darrell Bowman and me to complete the mission at the break of dawn.

I was excited to have been asked to participate in the release. As the ANHC outreach specialist, field experience is always an opportunity to learn and strengthen my ability to educate others. It turned out to be a very memorable morning.

Each team member received their assignment. I was to accompany Darrell and Bill to release three RCWs; a female with a single male that has been defending a cluster and a pair in a separate cluster. The rest of the crew would release the other three birds in similar fashion.

The sky was just beginning to lighten when we arrived at the first cluster site. We didn’t have far to walk to the tree where the female bird had been placed. The entrance to her cavity box, located about 23 feet high in a large pine, was covered with a piece of wire mesh, tacked to the tree. Attached to the mesh was a long white string long enough to reach the ground. I had the pleasure of being the “string-puller”. My instructions were to yank the string, removing the mesh covering, upon cue from Bill. A resident male RCW was roosting nearby, and as the sun rose, the birds would awaken. We would wait to hear the call of the male before releasing the female.

The sunrise created an orange glow on the tall pines, and there was a faint rustle of leaves as birds began to stir and chirp. Bill identified each song - a red-bellied woodpecker, a Carolina chickadee - but no RCW yet. The translocated female, anxious to be set free, began to peck at the mesh covering. Bill heard the male and gave me the signal to yank the string. As the mesh came down, the female bird swooped directly above my head, spreading her beautiful wings. She flew to a nearby pine and the male came immediately after her. They climbed up and around the tree trunk, chattering together. We could only imagine what they might be saying! It was time to let these two get acquainted and go release the other birds.

At the second cluster site, the RCWs were not yet stirring. Bill decided to give the male RCW a wake-up call, slapping the tree trunk where he was roosting after pulling the string to remove the mesh wire from the cavity opening. The male flew out, and I pulled the string, removing the mesh barrier from the female’s cavity box. Within a minute she emerged, calling excitedly as she flew to a distant tree. The male followed in the same direction. It appeared that both releases were successful.

On our way back to meet with the others, Bill talked about the continued efforts to restore RCW habitat at Warren Prairie. More acreage has been acquired by the ANHC and partners over recent years, creating larger, connected tracts of land that RCWs and other species need for foraging. RCWs require open pine/hardwood forests. We drove past areas that were in the process of being cleared of large underbrush, to be followed with prescribed fire. Habitat restoration benefits not only RCWs, but also northern bobwhite, wild turkey, and many rare plant species.

I asked Bill how soon he would come back to check on the RCWs. He explained that the birds will spend the winter exploring, foraging, and roosting in different parts of the forest, making them difficult to track. In spring, they’ll settle down in a territory with the hopes of nesting within one of the cluster sites, making it easy to monitor them and determine who is where and with whom. I look forward to hearing how they’re doing next year.




Above Photos


Top left: ANHC Outreach Specialist Leslie Patrick

Top right: Early morning sunlight on the trees at Warren Prairie Natural Area. Photo by Leslie Patrick.

Far left (vertical photo): The string attached to the mesh screen on the artificial tree cavity. The string reaches all the way to the ground and the "string puller" pulls it to release the bird from the cavity. Photo by Leslie Patrick.

Right: The mesh screen and attached string at the opening of the RCW cavity. 

Bottom left: ANHC Chief of Research and Inventory, Bill Holimon, at Warren Prairie Natural Area during the RCW translocation. Photo by Leslie Patrick.


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