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Effort continues to reintroduce red-cockaded woodpeckers to Hitchcock Woods

November 9, 2018

Nature was Barton Heitkamp’s classroom Wednesday morning.

The first-grader at Redcliffe Elementary School was in Hitchcock Woods helping with the release of eight young red-cockaded woodpeckers.

A team that included Woods Superintendent Bennett Tucker, Hitchcock Woods Foundation Board of Trustees member Randy Wolcott and biologists captured the endangered birds in Francis Marion National Forest on Tuesday and transported them around 140 miles to Aiken.

After the woodpeckers arrived, they were divided into four male/female pairs and each pair was taken to a different location in Hitchcock Woods.

Each bird then was placed in a cavity in a longleaf pine. Wire mesh screens placed over the holes and held in place with pushpins prevented the woodpeckers from leaving overnight.

Just after sunrise Wednesday, people participating in the release pulled cords that were tied onto the screens, setting the woodpeckers free.

Heitkamp, 7, was one of the cord pullers at Cuthbert Ridge Line. Assisting her was her father, Brandon Heitkamp, who is the resource manager at the Silver Bluff Audubon Center and Sanctuary.

“She did a good job; she pulled pretty hard,” Brandon said.

The woodpecker emerged immediately from its hole and flew a short distance away.

Barton, who was somewhat shy, summed up the experience in one word: “Great.”

The other Cuthbert Ridge cord puller was the City of Aiken’s Stormwater Administrator Susan Yates.

Her bird waited a while before exiting its hole.

Both woodpeckers, however, soon got together in a nearby longleaf and chirped loudly before departing in tandem to explore their new surroundings.

“It seems like they really hit it off,” said Tucker of the avian couple.

Yates enjoyed her role in the matchmaking effort.

“This was awesome,” she said.

If all goes well, the two woodpeckers will develop a long-term relationship and start producing offspring next year.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers used to thrive in Hitchcock Woods years ago, but they disappeared from the urban forest in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

The four-year project to reintroduce the birds began in the fall of 2016, when 10 woodpeckers from Francis Marion were let go in Hitchcock Woods.

In the autumn of 2017, 10 more birds from Francis Marion were released.

Some reproduced successfully, but some failed. Some remained in Hitchcock Woods for an extended period and some didn’t.

This past spring, 12 babies hatched, and eight survived long enough to complete the fledging process.

Immediately prior to the latest release, there were 20 red-cockaded woodpeckers living in Hitchcock Woods, said Mark Pavlosky of MPJ Wildlife Consulting.

On Wednesday, “everything went very smoothly,” he reported. “All eight translocated birds exited the cavities successfully. The individuals paired up and interacted together before they began to move across the landscape. I think we are seasoned pros at doing this now in Hitchcock Woods.”

Pavlosky described the initiative to reintroduce the red-cockaded woodpeckers as “very” successful.

“Seven of the eight babies that fledged earlier this year can still be accounted for here,” he said. “That retention rate is excellent.”

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