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Endangered woodpeckers return to Hitchcock Woods

November 20, 2016

AIKEN, S.C. (AP) — As the sun rose above Hitchcock Woods early Thursday morning, Anne Kiser tugged on a cord, pulling a wire mesh screen off a hole about 20 feet above the ground in the trunk of a longleaf pine.

Nothing happened at first, but then a female red-cockaded woodpecker suddenly appeared, and she immediately flew away.

“Yes!” shouted Kiser as she watched the bird soaring into the clear blue sky.

Nearby on Warbler Ridge, under another pine, Randy Wolcott yanked on his cord to release a male woodpecker, which took even longer than the female to emerge.

The two birds, however, quickly found each other, and they stayed close together as they explored the area.

“They seem to be bonding a little bit,” Wolcott said. “Hopefully, they will become a breeding pair. That’s our goal.”

Wolcott and Kiser are members of the Hitchcock Woods Foundation’s Board of Trustees, which has been working for five years to bring endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers back to the urban forest.

Wolcott spearheaded effort.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers disappeared from Hitchcock Woods during the late 1960s or early 1970s, probably because the environment in Hitchcock Woods wasn’t suitable anymore.

In the late 1990s, however, the Foundation approved a management strategy to restore the longleaf pine ecosystem that the woodpeckers adore.

“We’ve been able to create enough habitat for them again, and the forest is in good health,” Wolcott said.

In all, 10 woodpeckers — five males and five females — were turned loose in five different parts of Hitchcock Woods. They were captured in the Francis Marion National Forest, which is north of Charleston, on Wednesday around dusk and transported to Aiken.

To prepare for the birds’ arrival, the Foundation hired Mark Pavlosky Jr., of MPJ Wildlife Consulting LLC, to develop a management plan for red-cockaded woodpeckers.

In October, 36 artificial nest boxes, or inserts, were installed in longleaf pines in Hitchcock Woods. There are nine locations, and there is a cluster of four inserts at each.

The woodpeckers were placed in the inserts late Wednesday night. About a dozen biologists from various agencies helped the Foundation’s staff relocate the birds.

All of the woodpeckers were juveniles that were born in the spring.

“I think of them as teenagers,” said Ralph Costa, a Mountain Rest-based biologist who has a red-cockaded woodpeckers consulting business. “All of a sudden, they’re in a neighborhood together. Most of them don’t stay where we put them, and they don’t always stay with the bird that we paired them up with. They fly around and they mix and match while figuring out who they want to date.”

Based on his past experiences, Costa expects about half of the red-cockaded woodpeckers to remain in in Hitchcock Woods while the others will leave and settle down in other places.

“There should be one or two pairs breeding here next spring,” he said.

For Kiser, the release of the red-cockaded woodpeckers was an emotional experience.

“I cried,” she said. “I used to work in the Francis Marion National Forest as a forester, so I know exactly where these birds came from. Now they’re here, and it’s wonderful.”

For Wolcott, the release was the realization of a dream.

“I’ve been thinking about this for 15 years,” he said. “It’s hard to believe that it’s actually happened. It hasn’t quite sunk in yet.”


Information from: Aiken Standard, http://www.aikenstandard.com