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Inside one of Florida’s conservation areas

02/07/2011 11:39

It’s not particularly a fun place to be, on a bright and sunny Wednesday morning, flying insects cuddling your neck, and mosquitoes hovering round your head. Around are slash pine trees, generally older than 65, with their leaves forming a cluster at the top. They offer a bucolic scene worthy of a postcard.


As the swamp buggy came to a halt, its humming sound was taken over by the distinct rasp song of the Red-cockaded woodpeckers, who take shelter under the leaves. The herbaceous groundcover path is the only way around, with prickle shrubs forming part of the bushy path into the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area, in the outskirts of West Palm Beach, Fla.


Florida is home to about 25 per cent of the U.S. red-cockaded woodpecker population, and the conservation area is where many of the state’s red-cockaded woodpecker population is being carefully managed.


It was a necessary path to a story I worked on, on the birds, which have been endangered since 1970. I had interviewed biologists at wildlife organizations like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Big Cypress National Preserve. But it was time to see a habitat where the birds were being preserved. 



It was my very first time of being in a conservation area, and one that was filled with many new things to learn, both as a journalist writing on environmental issues, and as a lover of nature. My guide was Michael Baranski, biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who for the past four years has closely monitored population of the red-cockaded woodpeckers, in order to aid full recovery and delisting as endangered species. 


“The birds are unique among North American woodpeckers,” he said. “They are the only species that excavate and use cavities in old, live pine trees.”


Such cavities I discovered could be as large as the size of a gulf hole, bored into the bark of the pine trees. It’s where the birds nest and roost. The back and top of the head are black, with ladder-like patterns of white spots arranged in a horizontal pattern on the back and wings. Its distinguishing feature is a black cap, which looks like a cockade. Unlike the females, the males have red spots on each side of the nape.


To protect themselves from predators like snakes, the birds peck the bark of the trees, which produces resin that flow down, making it difficult for such predators to climb up into the cavities. 


It was no doubt, an enlightening experience for me, being in the woods for about four hours with him. Watching him use the peeper camera to peep into the artificial cavities, and driving round the conservation area in the swamp buggy, seemed like a once-in-a-life-time experience.


The most interesting aspect for me was perhaps, the short documentary I made, documenting the experience. It was like making a video for National Geographic.



- Your Pal


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