Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker at Jesse Jones State Forest

Do you know we have a true living forest next to The Woodlands, Texas? There are 43 counties containing parts of the East Texas forest system. The significance of this conservation next to us is quite important. When entering the forest, you will recognize a vast difference between going into the managed logging forests such as The Woodlands and this managed forest.You generally won't find the same along Spring Creek either, because much of it was part of the logging forests, or fires have been prevented and there are no clearings. In the logging forests, the short needle pines were planted in place of the native Long Leaf pines. Those pines are faster growing and produce more wood, giving investors a higher return on their investments. We do find the Long Leaf Pine in some places, but the predominate species in our area now is the Loblolly Pine.

The Long Leaf Pine is more susceptible to disease than its brother the Loblolly. Jesse Jones National Forest is populated with the Long Leaf. The forest is "fire maintained". That is, the density of the forest is controlled with planned clearings to enable the sun to reach the ground, a necessary condition to maintain the natural native ecology. Various species of creatures depend on the natural ecology and native plants which thrive within the boundaries of this forest. It is believed that there were many frequent fires in the forests which continuously reconstructed the ecology that is now maintained through a forest management process within Jesse Jones.

One such creature is the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker (RCW). It is one of eight native species of woodpeckers in our East Texas forests. It shares its habitat with the Red-Headed Woodpecker and other woodpeckers we see right here in The Woodlands. It is unlikely but possible to see the RCW in The Woodlands, since Jesse Jones Forest is so close. The bird is found on private lands and in some areas along Spring Creek. However, there are no places for the bird to nest here. Each year, there is a formal national bird count conducted in December to watch and mitigate extinction. It's range in Texas was the entire East Texas forest system. Today, only 13 counties report significant sightings of nests; 15 counties no longer have the birds at all. This woodpecker is found and protected in several southeastern states. Some 6500 birds survive the wild today.

This woodpecker species is on the endangered list. In past centuries, it inhabited all the East Texas forest. Then, forest consisted primarily of Long Leaf pines, with an understory of grass on the forest floor. There were not many hardwoods in the forest, primarily due to frequent fires. RCW (Red-Cockaded Woodpecker) requires a mature pine tree with a disease that comes in that maturity. It does not nest near a hardwood. The disease is "red heart disease, a fungal infection that causes the core of the tree to rot. In Longleaf pines, trees do not begin to suffer from red-heart fungus until their age averages 80 - 120 years old. Once a suitable, mature tree is found, it generally takes an RCW 1-3 years to construct a cavity. Generally these birds will excavate groups of cavity trees in an area (called a cluster)."1 The disease softens the core, enabling the bird to carve out a cavity for its nest.

This photograph was taken of a nesting tree in Jesse JOnes Forest right after a family of the birds fledged from the nest in 2009. This Longleaf at this location is found among several of one cluster in the park. Note the holes about 30 - 35 feet high on the tree. Only one of the holes was the nest of a family this season. All of the baby birds have left the nests but will be building new ones for next year. Sap produced by the tree is released by the excavation of the cavity and said to be a natural barrier to the birds' enemies. If a hardwood is nearby, there is danger of a Rat Snake climbing up into the nest, discouraging parents from raising a family in the tree.

So we see a little bird with a specific ecological need, being protected in Jesse Jones Forest, right next door. Hopefully I will acquire a photo of this shy little bird in the near future and expand on this subject.


1 The Long Leaf Alliance, "A Family of Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers Makes a Home in a Mature Longleaf Pine Tree",