Red Cockaded Woodpeckers Thrive in Dwindling Longleaf Pine Ecosystem

When I got a chance to visit Brosnan Forest last week with Audubon South Carolina to see if we could find red-cockaded woodpeckers, I was all in!  This small woodpecker is one we rarely see, because it’s dependent on large swaths of Longleaf Pine.  Longleaf pine thrives further inland than Loblolly, (the predominant barrier island pine), which means I NEVER get to see Red Cockaded woodpeckers unless I am traveling a little farther afield. And these little woodpeckers are so endearing!

  • Unlike other woodpeckers, they build their nests in live trees.  This causes the sticky tree resin to seep out and provide a protective barrier against snakes.
  • They stay in family groups, and with younger generations assisting with excavating nest holes and raising young.
  • They sleep alone in their own tree cavities.
  • The Alpha male gets the best cavity, but he allows the Alpha female (who has been in the second best cavity) to nest there when it’s time.  
  • The red “cockade” is hard to see most of the time; their faces look black and white.

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker ID

Red-cockaded woodpeckers look a little like downy woodpeckers, but there are some ID clues to help you tell them apart.

  • The size.  Red Cockaded Woodpeckers are a little bigger.
  • The cheek. Red Cockaded Woodpeckers have a bright white patch on their cheek, framed with a black cap and stripe from the bill, whereas the Downy has a black cheek framed with white.
  • The back.  Red Cockadeds have a ladder-striped back, but the Downy has a white patch on the back.
  • The chest on the Red Cockaded seems a little more speckly to me.
  • The habitat: Red Cockaded woodpeckers nest in living Longleaf pine trees in large expanses of intact forest.  

Longleaf Pine: a Habitat and a Legacy

In order to see Red-Cockaded woodpeckers, you need a big stretch of Longleaf pine forest. This open ecosystem with tall pines and sparse understory once covered over 90 million acres on the Eastern Seaboard, and it’s estimated that less than 3% of that remains. This article from Orion magazine does an amazing job of describing the ecosystem, it’s economic advantages to early colonists, the Native Americans who nurtured it, and the scale of this change, “

“The loss of the longleaf pine ecosystem has been greater, in terms of percentage, than the loss of the Amazon rainforest…”

Longleaf pine has evolved some interesting strategies to cope with frequent forest fires: one of which is to have a long first “grass” stage of development.  This grass stage withstands fire, and eventually will shoot up rather quickly before slowing growth again.  

I found some interesting videos about the identification and management of Longleaf pine. 

Dewees Island borders the Francis Marion National Forest, so we’re not far from this interesting and specific habitat. When the European settlers first got to our shores, they were struck by the tall pines with sparse undergrowth.   The Longleaf pines are specifically adapted to fire prone ecosystems, so that when forest fires occur, young hardwood trees are eliminated but the pines continue to grow.  Foresters now conduct prescribed burns in this habitat to manage it, and we can see the smoke from here at times.  The charring on these trees in the Francis Marion shows you this is a fire-maintained ecosystem.

The Naval Stores Industry

When the European colonists first arrived to the Carolinas, they were looking for economically viable resources to ship back home.  The shipbuilding industry harvested many of the trees: live oaks provided knee braces and curved trusses , Eastern Red Cedar was used for trim, but Longleaf pine could be used for both lumber and resin.  The trees were burned underground in tar kilns; a long, slow process that extracted pitch and rosin and turpentine that could be used to waterproof wood. This export was so valuable to the English that they offered a bounty for production of pitch, tar, and turpentine. (If you’re a Tar Heels fan, you can read about how that historic name evolved here)

Dewees Island has a relic from this industry: a huge chunk of resin that washed up on the beach.  Our island ecologist found it about 10 years ago, and it resides in the archives collection.

Between clearing areas for development, harvesting the resources for economic gain, and a generation of suppressing fires in the ecosystem, the amount of Longleaf pine habitat is but a fraction of what it once was.  The Post and Courier recently published this article about a new neighborhood that cleared a forest and removed the homes of 11 different family clusters of Red Cockaded Woodpeckers.

Brosnan Forest: the largest privately held Longleaf Pine Forest habitat

 Brosnan Forest is owned by Norfolk Southern Railroad, and is the largest swath of Longleaf Pine Savanna on private land in the country.  It’s in Dorchester, near Four Holes Swamp, where Audubon’s Beidler Forest is located, and it’s private.  So when I was offered a chance to check it out, I jumped at the chance to join this bird walk and tell the conservation story of these trees and this fragile species.  And it’s always exciting to get a glimpse of this diminutive woodpecker.  Our group of birders scanned the nearby trees, and we could hear the calls of a mixed flock of red-cockaded woodpeckers!

Trees with active woodpecker cavities are marked with a white blaze.
An active woodpecker cavity: resin is oozing down the tree.
beginning holes in live trees

They will sometimes feed in mixed flocks with other songbirds like Eastern Bluebirds, Brown Headed Nuthatches, Tufted Titmice, Chickadees, etc.  We were lucky to find one of these busy flocks!

red cockaded woodpecker
Woodpecker peeking through longleaf pine
the ladder back of the red-cocckaded woodpecker
Eastern Bluebird
White Breasted Nuthatch
A quick glimpse of a Brown Headed Nuthatch

It's all connected: the pines and woodpeckers attract other organisms to the habitat.

I think one of the most interesting things about the woodpecker/pine situation is the fact that because the woodpeckers use live pine trees, the trees bleed sap (resin) which helps keep predators like snakes out.  The woodpeckers almost always choose trees that have a sort of heart rot that makes the core of the tree very soft and easier for the birds to excavate cavities.  They’ll even create small abrasions in other spots in the tree to bleed more sap. Eventually the tree will die of the heart rot and the woodpeckers will move to other trees.  Their cavities in the now dead pines will be used by other species of woodpecker, or enlarged by pileated woodpeckers and used by birds like screech owls and even wood ducks! At Brosnan Forest, they have documented 30 other species using old cavities!

tufted titmouse
fox squirrel
red bellied woodpecker

And the wide open understory of the Longleaf savanna plays host to a wide variety of other interesting species that thrive beneath the pines.  Some pines in the Francis Marion National Forest  ring Carolina Bays, which host an amazing series of carnivorous plants like pitcher plants, flytraps, and sundews.  When I visited that spot with my master naturalist class, I was fascinated by plants like hatpins and fetterbush.  Huckleberry, Bracken fern and wiregrass also thrive.

hatpins and longleaf pine
Pitcher plants

It's all our backyard

The whole experience reminded me to get out there, to see how incredibly interconnected it all is, and to share my amazement at seeing these sweet little birds up close in the context of this forested ecosystem.  Even if you’re not at the edge of a big deep forest, you’ll find micro habitats in your own yard that are worth exploring!