May 8, 2018
“Old growth forest” is a term that for many of us, especially those from the northeastern USA, conjures up images of impassable, dark tangles and massive roots waiting to trip up anyone foolish enough to enter. Something straight out of Tolkien’s Fangorn Forest or the Fire Swamp from The Princess Bride. But that kind of forest exists mostly in our imagination. Real old growth forests are more ordered and open than you might imagine, and almost every forest has been managed to some extent by humans since there have been humans.
In the southeastern US, fire has historically (and prehistorically) played the primary role in managing the landscape, and an old growth forest is much different than you might imagine.
When the so-called pioneers first started moving through the vast pine forests of the southeastern US, they commented on the openness of the forests and how it was relatively easy to transport their carriages and carts through the forest. The way trees compete for resources, such as sunlight and water, combined with regular burning, results in a landscape such as you see in these photos.
Unfortunately, nearly all the old growth forests in the US are gone, reduced to parcels like the Wade Tract, in southern Georgia (managed by Tall Timbers Research Station) [map]. I was fortunate enough to visit this landscape the day after the Florida Ornithological Society’s Spring meeting.
Of course, being an old growth forest isn’t about dense growth or tall growth. It’s about being old. This has serious implications for plant and animal communities that normally exist in various symbiotic and complementary relationships. It also extends into the soil and the microbial and chemical processes that go on there.
If you want to learn more about old growth forests, and southern pine forests in particular, visit the Tall Timbers website or have a look around the internet.
As far as birdwatching, the Wade Tract was full of birdsong and surprises. For one thing, there were no migrant birds sighted on the property. While late April is normally past the peak for songbird migration in Florida, I had expected at least some warblers or thrushes to still be making their way through the panhandle. Despite this, there were plenty of resident birds around. I’ve never seen so many Red-headed Woodpeckers in one place.
With so many trees of various sizes, you’d think there’d be no cause for squabbles for nest sites, but birds are nothing if not competitive. I saw a Red-headed Woodpecker chase a Red-bellied Woodpecker from a tree. They bickered and fluttered at each other and then the Red-bellied quickly flew into a nest hole. The Red-headed watched, perturbed, for a couple of minutes, making little annoyed calls, and eventually flew away. The Red-bellied stayed holed up for the remainder of our time by this tree and poked his head out every once in a while!
The understory of the forest is open enough to provide suitable habitat for some birds that we more commonly associate with scrub and edge habitats, like Eastern Towhees and Blue Grosbeaks.
The frequent burning keeps the palmettos at bay, encouraging native wire grasses that Bachman’s Sparrows favor. Other birds that could be seen and heard throughout the tract were Indigo Buntings, Eastern Wood-pewees, Pine Warblers, and even some Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. In fact, I saw my first natural Red-cockaded Woodpecker nest holes. Other nesting areas for this bird use artificial nest boxes to compensate for the lack of old trees with heartwood fungal decay these birds otherwise require.
Here are the eBird lists for the day, including Tall Timbers as well as the Wade Tract:
Tall Timbers Research Station (dawn):
Wade Tract list 1:
Wade Tract list 2:
After making our way through some more amazing forest vistas, we made our way back to Tall Timbers Research Station and said our goodbyes. It’s been hard to convey the awe-inspiring beauty of these spaces and what they have meant throughout history, so I hope you’ll take the time to find more information.