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Red-cockaded woodpecker makes comeback in Florida

Little bird gives hope for big vision in Ocala to Osceola wildlife corridor

Red-cockaded woodpecker spotted at Camp Blanding
Red-cockaded woodpecker spotted at Camp Blanding

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A red-cockaded woodpecker captured at Camp Blanding in Clay County is evidence that a project led by North Florida Land Trust to preserve land within the Ocala to Osceola, or O2O, wildlife corridor is working.

The capture of that species of bird isn’t unexpected; the birds are known to live on the military installation. The unusual thing about this particular bird is where it came from, the Osceola National Forest 27 miles away. The bird captured at Camp Blanding was the first time this endangered species had moved between one of the national forests and the military installation since they began banding and recording the birds over 25 years ago. 

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are a federally endangered species that were once common across the Southeast but now are restricted to certain pockets where the last stands of their forest habitat remain. The birds are reliant on old-growth longleaf pine to survive, which was once common but now only exists across 3% of its original range. As the old-growth forests were cut down, the birds retreated to those few pockets of forest left, in places like the Osceola and Ocala national forests, and Camp Blanding.

The woodpeckers are nonmigratory and typically don’t go very far from their home forest stand. 

“The migration of this one little bird is a big deal because it proves the populations we have in the O2O want to move and expand over the landscape to find other red-cockaded woodpeckers to reproduce,” said Jim McCarthy, president of NFLT. “Helping them to do that is exactly the goal of our O2O Wildlife Corridor project.” 

The O2O project is a more than 100-mile-long wildlife corridor NFLT and its partners are creating to connect wildlife in Ocala National Forest in Central Florida to Osceola National Forest in North Florida by way of existing protected areas like Camp Blanding. The creation of this wildlife corridor has been a group effort with now more than 18 conservation agencies and nonprofits participating, including groups like the National Forest Service, Florida National Guard and the U.S. Agriculture Department's Natural Resource Conservation Service.

“That was a tough voyage for that woodpecker because none of it's habitat exists between here and Osceola,” said Paul Catlett, environmental manager for Camp Blanding. “It would have endured a number of nights exposed, in the open, with poor forage to survive on.” 

The O2O partnership is working together to change that for the benefit of not only the endangered woodpeckers but all wildlife in North Florida. The group is working to preserve a continuous corridor of land between Ocala and Osceola, and restore the old-growth longleaf pine habitats that used to be there, creating a ribbon of Old Florida that spans a third of the state, north to south. Wildlife would be free to migrate, forage for food and mate in a way that is natural to their species, and it will help endangered species like the woodpeckers recover.

“The reality is a number of woodpeckers have probably left Ocala, Osceola and Camp Blanding before, searching for good habitat and simply didn’t make it, Catlett said, "This bird is extremely lucky to find a place that could support it.” 

The land trust and its partners are currently working with private landowners in the O2O, either to preserve their land through conservation easements, or sales of their land for new parks and preserves. They are also working with landowners who want to restore longleaf pine forests on their land with each partner working towards that goal. 

“These public-private partnerships can have an impact that’s well beyond what the federal government could accomplish on its own,” said Russell Morgan, Florida NRCS state conservationist.

North Florida Land Trust is a nonprofit organization that champions environmental protection in its primary focus area of Baker, Bradford, Clay, Duval, Flagler, Nassau, Putnam, St. Johns, Union, Columbia and Volusia counties.