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Georgia Wild E-Newsletter

Twister wipes out rare woodpecker habitat

By Phil Spivey

The coverage of longleaf forests throughout the southern landscape is a tiny fraction of historic levels, with less than 10,000 acres that may be considered old-growth. Some of the best remaining examples of old-growth longleaf stands are found in the Red Hills quail hunting properties of Thomas and Grady counties in southwest Georgia.

Natural longleaf pine forests are unique from other southern pines in many ways. For example, they may live for centuries, while all other southern pines rarely exceed more than 150 years old.  Longleaf is dependent upon fire to keep seedlings of other pines and hardwood sprouts at bay. And, longleaf usually occurs in uneven-aged stands with regeneration of younger trees occurring in canopy gaps created by some disturbance. The cause of these disturbances may be the death of an individual tree from a lightening strike or the toppling of hundreds of acres from a hurricane or tornado.

Much of the wildlife that calls longleaf pine forests home are likewise unique, from the fossorial animals like the pocket gopher and gopher tortoise that make their homes below ground to escape the flames to the red cockaded woodpecker that builds cavities in live trees high above the reach of fires.

In the very early morning hours of Feb. 19, the Red Hills lost examples of both a rare forest habitat and a rare species. In the darkness, a tornado touched down in eastern Grady County, cutting a 500-yard wide swath for more than eight miles reaching into Thomas County and crossing several historic properties. Myrtlewood and Sinkola plantations both suffered severe damage. Overall, about 200 acres of true old-growth longleaf was erased from the landscape, along with four red cockaded woodpecker clusters.

These four woodpecker clusters had a total of 27 cavity trees before the storm. Only one single cavity tree remained standing in the aftermath.
Hundreds of giant longleaf, some approaching 300 years old, were twisted off at the ground.  While this is a completely natural process, it is difficult to comprehend. Initial reports of the impact listed at least $10 million in damages in Thomas and Grady, with more than 100 homes, a private school, Southwestern State Hospital and other buildings hit.

Normally, biologists create new artificial cavities following wind damage to a red-cockaded woodpecker cluster. But in this situation the destruction was nearly complete with too few trees remaining to replace cavities.

The hope is these homeless woodpeckers will find new homes by becoming part of other family groups in the area. Within just a few miles of the lost clusters, there are 190 other red-cockaded woodpecker groups, making this population the largest on private land anywhere.

Phil Spivey is a wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Resources Division's Nongame Conservation Section.

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