Awards: Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Mitigation Sites
The Federal Highway Administration's
2003 Environmental Excellence Awards
Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Mitigation Sites
The North Carolina Department of Transportation has taken outstanding proactive steps to protect
the natural environment and the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Piocoides borealis)
by acquiring two tracts of land in eastern North Carolina. These acquisitions have also helped
preserve one of the largest remaining longleaf pine ecosystems in the southeastern United States.
The first tract was purchased in 1999 and is a 9,732-acre habitat located in Tyrrell County. The
second, a 2,500-acre habitat acquired in late 2001, is located in Hoke County. Both sites will be
used for mitigation needs as well as maintaining the state’s valuable natural resources, including
the red-cockaded woodpecker habitat.
The federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) is one of thirty-six federally protected
animal species in North Carolina. A unique character about this species is that its habitat
requires large contiguous old growth pine or pine dominated forested stands sometimes growing
100 to 200 years in age. Unlike other woodpeckers, RCWs actually reside in cavities within live
trees. A typical cavity tree will have sap running down the side of the tree and near the cavity
entrance. The sap flows from resin wells made by the RCW, which are small holes that are chipped
into the bark of the tree. The resulting sappy surface is mostly to protect its home from snakes
and other predators. It can take the RCW up to six years to peck out a cavity in a large and mature tree.
Along with needing mature pine trees to make cavities, RCWs need adequate foraging habitat. Typical
habitat includes mature pine stands such as longleaf, pond, loblolly or shortleaf pines that are
within one half mile from the cluster. Given this distinctive and required environment, it is very
difficult to reproduce this type of habitat in a short period of time. However, NCDOT has taken a
proactive approach addressing the red-cockaded woodpecker habitat needs by purchasing these two large
tracts of protected land that possess the required habitat.
Surveying for RCWs is completed by walking transects through the stand or flying transects by
helicopter. Transects are a systematic method of surveying an area. This allows the surveyor to see
all sides of all trees. Most surveys are done on foot; however, helicopter surveys are an effective
method when groundcover is too dense. The helicopter will fly just above the tree line in order to
identify cavities and sap runoff. NCDOT has used helicopter surveying several times on both RCW preserves.
The Tyrrell County site, known as the Palmetto-Peartree Preserve, primarily consists of Mixed Pine
Hardwood Stands and is located in the northeastern corner of NC’s coastal plain along the Albemarle
Sound and Alligator Creek. This site currently has eighteen active colonies of woodpeckers. This is
the largest number in the northeastern region of the state. Through proper management the RCW
population has an extremely good chance for growth. NCDOT has partnered with Tyrrell County, Duke
University, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Conservation Fund, a private non-profit
organization committed to preserving natural resources. In 2000, NCDOT transferred ownership rights
to the Conservation Fund for management responsibilities for a period of at least five years.
Following their management, the site will be transferred to the USFWS for long-term protection.
NCDOT retains a conservation easement in perpetuity. Currently the site is accessible to the public
to help stimulate environmental related tourism in the region through bird watching and boat recreation.
The Hoke County site borders the southern boundary of the U.S. military base, Ft. Bragg, and
extends southward to U.S. 211. This site is uniquely covered with wiregrass and longleaf pines
and is currently home to at least five RCW clusters. Due to the unique groundcover and foliage
there is great potential for an increase in the RCW population. This site was acquired by NCDOT
in partnership with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), USFWS, and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources
Commission. The property is very important for its wildlife and natural resource protection in the
unique Sandhills region of North Carolina. The site also acts as an important buffer zone for
military training exercises being conducted at the adjacent military base, Ft. Bragg. Following a
survey, NCDOT will transfer the property over to The Nature Conservancy for long-term management,
in consultation with the USFWS. NCDOT has provided $600,000 to TNC for the management and enhancement
of this woodpecker habitat. The ultimate goal of the partnership is to preserve and enhance RCW
habitat and to proactively establish mitigation for unavoidable impacts to RCW habitat that may
result in future transportation projects. The property will also be used for educational purposes,
including bird watching.
Since both sites are used for mitigation needs, the RCWs have been banded for demographic monitoring
purposes. Banding allows biologists to track the movements of the birds in each group and within
the entire preserve. Adult RCWs are banded by catching them before they leave their cavity tree
in the morning or when they roost for the night. During their breeding season, April to July, the
nestlings are banded by climbing the nest tree and carefully banding each young bird. The banding
process includes putting colored bands around the RCW’s leg along with a USFWS band that uniquely
identifies each bird and its cluster. Biologists are then able to identify a RCW by noting the
color band sequence with scopes.
RCW’s are mostly endangered because of habitat degradation and fragmentation. Many stands of
pine trees left are too young to support cavity trees or the ground cover has grown too dense.
As a result, it becomes hard for the birds to breed and create new clusters. Therefore, it is
important that NCDOT and others who pose impacts, to preserve the desirable habitat and to aid in
the overall protection of this endangered species. The Hoke County and Tyrrell County preserves
will provide crucial protection of the diminishing Longleaf Pine ecosystem and the federally
endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.