Volume 4 • Issue 5 • May 2010

All About the Bird...and its Caretaker

Clay Barnes and the Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Clay Barnes looked up at the tiny, three-inch hole in the side of the tree, 30 to 40 feet above his head. It showed all the tell-tale signs of occupation by a red-cockaded woodpecker — a small hole in a live pine tree, with hardened tree resin drips all around the hole. So Barnes started climbing, up and up and up and up.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is an endangered species, but thanks to Barnes and Senior Biologist John Skeen, the McCurtain County Wilderness Area provides a number of homes for the birds so they can stage a comeback. Every six weeks, Barnes loads his ATV with several sections of 10-foot ladder, straps on his tool belt, and climbs trees all day.

“Red-cockaded woodpeckers are particular,” said Barnes. “Once a squirrel, wasp, or other animal gets into their hole, they will abandon it. It takes a red-cockaded woodpecker eight months to a year to build a new cavity, and the adults are at greater risk the entire time they are building new homes. So we install man-made nest boxes in the trees, and we also clean out the holes they aren’t using so the birds have somewhere to go if they abandon a nest.”

To make sure the unused nests, both natural and man-made, stay open and ready for use by the woodpeckers, Barnes checks each nest every six weeks. He’s never quite sure what he’ll find inside.

“I’ve found spiders, slugs, snake skins, and dirt daubers in the cavities,” he said. “Hickory nuts and acorns [stored by squirrels] are the hardest to fish out. I have to put resin on the end of my wire to clear them out. Sometimes [clean up of the hole] goes real fast, and then other times there’s a lot of garbage in there so it takes longer.”

Clean-up of nesting cavities is one strategy used at the Wilderness Area to strengthen the numbers of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Habitat management is another.

The red-cockaded woodpecker requires open, park-like pine forests. This type of forest existed on the McCurtain County Wilderness Area in the past, but fire suppression allowed hardwoods to increase dramatically and create a much more dense forest. As the hardwoods increased, the habitat gradually became less suitable for the woodpeckers and the species numbers declined.

Work done at the McCurtain County Wilderness Area is not a typical day in the office.
Habitat management on the area has focused on restoring pine/bluestem habitat and involves hardwood thinning to open the forest canopy, which in turn promotes the growth of grasses and other “understory” plants. A little over 4,000 acres have already been thinned. Then, about every three years, controlled burns are conducted to make sure the hardwoods don’t return. The controlled burn this year, conducted with the U.S. Forest Service, covered over 7,000 acres.

“We are doing some land management by thinning to open up the canopy, to get some sunlight to the forest floor and grow new pines,” said Barnes. “The red-cockaded woodpecker doesn’t like thick understory because they disrupt its flight path and make them more susceptible to predators. They like pine trees, to live in, forage in, and raise their young.”

The woodpeckers aren’t the only species benefiting from the habitat work. Research in the Oklahoma and Arkansas Ouachitas has shown that habitat management for the woodpecker greatly benefits deer, wild turkeys, quail, and numerous non-game birds.

“The habitat that the red-cockaded woodpecker needs is better for other wildlife too. With the work we’ve already done, we’ve noticed an increase in native grasses, and in our population of deer and turkey,” said Barnes. “What’s good for the woodpecker has also been good for deer, turkey and quail.”

Funding for the woodpecker monitoring and habitat restoration comes from federal endangered species (Section 6) grants, as well as other groups like the Weyerhaeuser Foundation. The funding is having a direct impact on the population, which Skeen reports, is “very slowly increasing.” Over the past two decades, the birds have rebounded from near extinction to a current count of 15 active nest clusters (groups of trees with multiple nest cavities.)

Barnes has worked at the McCurtain County Wilderness Area since 2003, and he doesn’t just work on the land — he lives there too.

“My favorite thing about my job is being in the woods,” he said. “When I get up, I don’t have to get ready and drive to work. I get up and I’m at work. I like seeing wildlife and hearing [the sounds of] the wild.”

As a veteran tree-climber, Barnes knows the potential hazards of his job.

“My least favorite thing is the wasps! I’ve been stung all over — on the ear, shoulder and through my hat. Sometimes I look up at the hole while I’m climbing and I can see them waiting for me.”

Despite the time and effort (and potential stings) required to maintain habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker, Barnes believes the restoration work being done at McCurtain County Wilderness Area for the bird is important.

“These birds are endangered because of human impact, so it is our responsibility to get involved and restore their habitat.

Barnes and Skeen are doing just that, one nest at a time.

Written by Ben Davis. Ben is an information specialist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.


Another Thing With Horns

The Round-tailed Horned Lizard

There is a unique group of lizards found in Oklahoma of which not many people are aware. Although most people have seen a “Horny Toad”, few have seen or are aware that Oklahoma is home to more than one species of horned lizard.

The shortgrass prairie in the far northwest part of the panhandle is the home for the Round-tailed Horned Lizard.
The distribution of the Round-tailed Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma modestum) is much more restricted in Oklahoma than its more common cousin, the Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum). The Round-tailed Horned Lizard is restricted to extreme northwestern portions of the Oklahoma panhandle in Cimarron County. Because of this limited distribution, few people ever see this amazing lizard. This species is listed as a Species of Special Concern in Oklahoma and is also protected by state law and can not be removed from the wild.

There are 8 species of Horned Lizards found within the continental United States all of which are ant eaters. Although color patterns vary widely within species and local populations tend to match the color of their surrounding environment, they are fairly easy to distinguish from each other by the variation in the arrangement of the horns on their head.

If you get a chance to venture way out west into the Black Mesa Country of the panhandle, keep a look out for this remarkable reptile.

Written by Buck Ray. Buck is the environmental biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.


What's Your Summer Trip?

Northwest Oklahoma has One of the Best

I would like to cordially invite you to enter the drawing for a one-of-a-kind trip.  The trip includes a one-night gathering with more than one million bats and other visitors.  Some of these visitors include deer, Texas horned lizards, rattlesnakes, coyotes and a multitude of owls, and humans! The big group of Mexican free-tailed bats will fly out of those caves and into the evening sky near Selman Bat Cave Wildlife Management Area during mid-summer.  Yes, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation will host that trip again this year.

This year the bat watches will take place the last four weekends in July.  The cost is $10 for adults and $5 for children (12 & under).  Pre-registration is different this year with attendees being drawn lottery-style.  Given the popularity of this event, the Department is turning to a more equitable way for registering.   The specified registration period begins June 1st and ends June 7th.  To pre-register, print off the registration form beginning June 1st.  Registration is by mail only and must be postmarked no later than June 7th to be included in the drawing. Much more information and details about the Selman Bat Watch can be found on the website.  Successful registrants will receive a confirmation packet by mail.  Unsuccessful registrants will receive their returned check or money order by mail.

Our e-newsletter will continue to remind you to send in your information for the Selman Bat Watch!

Written by Lesley B. Carson. Lesley is a wildlife diversity information specialist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

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