Woodpecker recovery: Developer relocates endangered birds from Georgia to east Collier

Picayune Strand State Forest

2121 52nd Ave SE, Naples, FL

— The last bit of daylight was leaving a salmon pink sky with Ralph Costa perched at the top of a very skinny ladder propped up against a very tall pine tree in the Picayune Strand State Forest.

In his hand, an endangered red-cockaded woodpecker captured in Fort Stewart, Ga., the day before was about to get a new home.

The new home, a man-made hollowed out cavity in the tree’s trunk, is part of a plan to bring the birds back from the brink on Collier County’s urban edge with help from what some would consider an endangered species’ worst enemy: a developer.

In return for federal environmental permits, the developers of the City Gate business park northeast of Collier Boulevard and Interstate 75 signed a deal with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2004 to mount the woodpecker recovery plan.

Critics of such deals, called a Habitat Conservation Plan under the Endangered Species Act, say they make it too easy to write off habitat in return for too little wildlife benefit, but the City Gate HCP has been a model for how to do it right, regulators say.

With Thursday’s relocations from Fort Stewart, six in all, City Gate has relocated the last of the 28 young red-cockaded woodpeckers required under the plan, plus the two adult woodpeckers that were living in the forest that is now the business park.

“Nobody said recovery is easy,” Costa said before he climbed the sixth and final tree of the night. “One bird at a time.”

Besides relocating birds, City Gate has bought 102 acres of forest and restored it to woodpecker habitat by thinning out non-native vegetation that makes it harder for the birds to move around and forage for food. City Gate has done more restoration work on another 300 acres.

Leading the work has been red-cockaded woodpecker expert Roy DeLotelle, who has been relocating woodpeckers to Picayune Strand since 1999, creating a total of 10 new breeding groups working for City Gate and the Division of Forestry.

He’s climbed more trees than he can count, cutting in artificial cavities, relocating birds, removing vegetation and repairing damage from hurricanes and wildfires.

“It’s been a struggle, but it’s been a success,” DeLotelle said.

Relocations, called translocations by woodpecker experts, occur every fall from populations of woodpeckers with birds to spare. The relocated birds are months old, having fledged that spring.

The six birds relocated to the Picayune Strand State Forest on Thursday were among 160 birds relocated in six states this year, Costa said.

A caravan of three sport utility vehicles bumped along sandy horse trails and fire breaks to get to the relocation sites deep into the state forest south of I-75, carrying ladders on the roof and the birds in small wooden boxes in the back. Each of the birds is banded for future identification.

The relocation team stopped at three spots, known as clusters, and put one male and one female bird in separate trees in each cluster.

Buckled to a safety harness wrapped around the pine tree, Costa hoisted each box up to the artificial cavity, carefully removed the bird and gently pushed it through a 3-inch plastic pipe that serves as the front door of the artificial cavity.

A wire screen tacked across the hole keeps the bird safe from predators until the next morning, when the relocation team returns to pull off the screen with a string that reaches to the ground.

“They (the male and female) almost always join up in the morning, they don’t always stay together,” DeLotelle said.

Now retired from the Fish and Wildlife Service, Costa signed off on the City Gate plan when he was the FWS red-cockaded woodpecker recovery coordinator.

Costa said City Gate’s work has created two new red-cockaded woodpecker breeding groups and has put in preserve status a third existing breeding group in return for the loss of the woodpeckers from the City Gate site.

“Three-for-one, that’s a good deal from a woodpecker perspective,” he said.

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