2018 Spring FOS Meeting: Day 2 at the Wade Tract

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.

Mid-range camera shot of an old growth pine forest with moderately-spaced trees and ground cover made of ferns and wire grass.
The forest at dawn, with a mature ground cover and light filtering through centuries old trees. This would have been a common sight from the Carolinas through Mississippi before European colonization.

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.

Wide angle camera shot of an old growth pine forest with widely spaced trees and close-cropped ground cover, primarily of grass.
The trees in this forest may look young, but 120 year old Longleaf Pines are sometimes only 18 inches in diameter. 

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.

A towering 400 year old Longleaf Pine in the center of the frame. A group of several people look up at it from below and to the left.
A 400 year old Longleaf Pine towers over some of the FOS members.

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.

A Red-headed Woodpecker looking to the left, framed by pine branches around the center.
With plenty of snags (environmental jargon for “dead tree”), several species of woodpecker and other cavity nesters were prevalent.

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!

 

A Red-bellied Woodpecker clinging to the left side of a section of pine tree trunk while a Red-bellied Woodpecker peeks out from a nest hole in the upper-center of the frame.
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker peeking out at a Red-headed Woodpecker that chased him from a perch just moments before.

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.

 

eastern-towhee
A male Eastern Towhee watched us go by while a female (probably his mate) foraged in the ground cover, below.

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.

A woodpecker hole in a Longleaf Pine with sap dripping down above and below it. Blue sky behind.
A naturally excavated Red-cockaded Woodpecker nest. Note the sap running around the hole and that the birds use to help protect their homes from predators.

Here are the eBird lists for the day, including Tall Timbers as well as the Wade Tract:

Tall Timbers Research Station (dawn):
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45056654

Wade Tract list 1:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45061184

Wade Tract list 2:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45063409

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.

Live Oaks, draped in Spanish Moss, line the dirt driveway leading away from Tall Timbers Research Station
Live Oaks, draped in Spanish Moss, line the dirt driveway leading away from Tall Timbers Research Station

 

2018 Spring FOS Meeting: Day 1 at Tall Timbers

May 3, 2018

Last weekend was the Spring meeting of the Florida Ornithological Society. The was our first “light” meeting; previously, we had two large meetings per year, each with scientific paper presentations, keynote speakers – the works. Starting this year, we decided to have one large meeting in the Fall and a smaller Board and buisiness oriented meeting in the Spring. We met at Tall Timbers research station, just north of Tallahassee [map].

Tall Timbers is a center for the study of fire ecology – essential to the health of many southeast US ecosystems, including pine flatwoods and scrub communities – and forestry. With several plots or tracts under management, Tall Timbers is a key resource for conservation and environmentally sound land use practices.

tall-timbers1
Some of the plots at Tall Timbers are burned annually. The result is a healthy, evenly spaced pine forest with an understory of wiregrass and other ground cover. Whether due to this or the comparatively northern latitude, there are almost no palmettos or other palms. The real Florida.

The lodge grounds, where the meeting was held, has a good diversity of bird life, including Purple Martin families, many singing Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks in the adjacent forests, House Finches and Brown Thrashers that hunt on the broad, open lawn between buildings. I’ve never seen thrashers so exposed. Dave Goodwin jokes and calls them “Lawn Thrashers”.

tall-timber.jpg
Tall Timber.

The woods were full of birdsong, with numerous Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Eastern Wood-pewees, Brown-headed Nuthatches, Pine Warblers, Eastern Towhees, Bachman’s Sparrows, and more.

bachmans-sparrow
I’m thankful to have developed a good ability to bird by ear, as sometimes this is the best look you get at a bird. This male Bachman’s Sparrow was singing, so I knew where to look for him, and together with what field marks I could see, I was able to identify him.

I was surprised by two things on this trip. One, there were no almost no migrant species on this trip. Late April is near the tail-end of migration, but I expected at least some warblers to be making their way through the forest. I don’t know if it was a combination of the lateness of the season and the weather, or if these woodlands don’t support the kinds of food migrants would be looking for, but almost all the birds we saw on both days were residents.

blurry-pewee
Taking photos from a moving trailer is always challenging, but here’s a nice look at one of many Eastern Wood-pewees we encountered over the weekend.

The other surprise was the paucity of raptors. We saw no falcons or accipiters, and only a few glimpses of any buteos (one Red-shouldered Hawk that I did not see, and a Red-tailed Hawk that made a brief appearance). We also had a distant look at a lone Mississippi Kite.

red-tailed-hawk
Red-tailed Hawks prefer to hunt in open country, so it wasn’t surprising to see only one.

The highlight of the field trip was watching Jim Cox band some Brown-headed Nuthatch chicks. Bird banding helps scientists keep track of population trends and the health of individual birds and has a long history in ornithology.

baby-nuthatches
Bundles of fluffy cuteness, these Brown-headed Nuthatch chicks are about to do their part for science!

The day wound down with some good looks at White-breasted Nuthatches – a Florida first bird for me – and a few Carolina Chickadees in the mix. Then it was time to head back to the lodge for our dinner and to get rest for the morning field trip to an old growth forest just over the Florida-Georgia line.

Here are the eBird lists for Tall Timbers Research Station.

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45034722
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45043114

FOS Fall 2017 Field Trips

From the Florida Ornithological Society’s Fall meeting in Alachua County: