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Date of Issue: October 06, 2006

Sandscript

Birds, bark, cones, old: Trees and forest primeval

A thought-to-be-extinct species of woodpecker has picked Florida as its latest roost.

Researchers have announced spotting two, and perhaps three ivory-billed woodpeckers in the swamps near the Choctawatchee River in the Florida Panhandle. The sightings come on the heels of another claim by researchers in Arkansas last year.

The ivory bill, which looks like the really big pileated woodpeckers which are found on Anna Maria Island and elsewhere in the southern states, was thought to be extinct since about 1944. There have been reports of the birds, but none were really acknowledged until some Cornell University biologists thought they saw one in the Big Woods area of Arkansas last year.

That announcement brought a firestorm of controversy, with birders either condemning the rather blurry video of the alleged birds or confirming that yes, indeed, the extinct species is alive.

There are a couple of questions about the latest Florida ivory-bill woodpecker sighting, though.

The Auburn folks recorded lots and lots of audio of what they said was the bird's calls. They also said they first saw the birds in May 2005, but didn't really get around to doing anything about it until last week.

And they never got around to getting a picture of the birds.

Oh, and by the way, the area near the Choctawatchee River where they saw the birds is right next to where the St. Joe Co. developers want to build a new airport, an airport environmentalists have decried as being a threat to the ecosystem of that part of the state.

In Arkansas, a federal judge has ruled that work on flood-controlling rivers where the ivory bills were allegedly spotted should be halted until the sightings are either confirmed or debunked.

This question isn't meant to draw the ire of environmentalists, but doesn't it seem odd that these birds that have pretty much been thought to be extinct for about 70 years are being seen near some big development projects that have been blasted for eco-wrongness?

Craig Pittman with the St. Petersburg Times spoke to Auburn University professor Geoffrey Hill, one of the guys who saw the Florida birds, about the coincidence of the birds and the airport.

"Honest to God, I didn't even hear about this airport until today," Hill said. "I'm a scientist, not a politician."

Enough evidence has been provided to prompt the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to authorize further studies in the Panhandle. A FWC press release last week said scientists with the agency were "cautiously optimistic about an Auburn University professor's recently discovered evidence of ivory-billed woodpeckers.

"There is not enough evidence to confirm the birds' presence yet," FWC Executive Director Ken Haddad said, "but the indications are promising, and we will work closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Auburn University and the Northwest Florida Water Management District to see if we can confirm the reports."

The FWC figures that, based on Hill's reports, the birds are roosting on water management land, something like 200,000 acres, which just happens to be next to that controversial airport. A water management official said that "if the existence of these endangered/extinct birds is verified, then the acquisition, protection and management of these lands since the mid-1980s reflect the district's intent and mission to preserve its water resources and habitats."

Let's hope that the next time the scientists venture into the swamp, they've got enough grant money to spring for a  camera for when they see the birds again.

 

More woods lore

While we're out in the forest, here's another tale, or perhaps the story of a new "growth" industry.

Pine-cone harvesting is apparently a big business for the Florida Division of Forestry, and this year is producing a near-bumper crop.

Now is the time when pine cones start to sprout on slash pines, with next month producing the best longleaf pine cones, according to an article in the Tampa Tribune.

"Harvesting" takes the form of a big machine which grabs the tree in a gigantic claw and shakes the bejeezus out of it, raining pine cones to the ground.

The cones are then collected by prison inmates and processed into tiny pine trees and sold to private and public agencies. The nursery in Levy County that does the growing sells about 15 million seedlings a year.

Humans have to mimic nature to get the little seeds to grow, though.

In the wild, pine cones fall to the ground and usually lay there dormant until a fire - yes, fire is a natural part of the pine prairie ecosystem - breaks the seeds away from the protective cone. Seeds to earth, trees to grow, compliments of fire.

In the nursery, the pine cones go into a kiln to do what Mother Nature can't, then they are planted and grown to a 12-inch height before sale.

Costs are up to $45 per 1,000 slash pines, up to $70 per 1,000 for the more rare longleafs.

And the machine that facilitates the process? It's specially designed and unimaginatively named as the "tree shaker."

 

Old wood, for sure

Intentions for a quick old-tree story to wrap this column up got sidetracked by some really old trees. A piece in one of the newspapers about a 2,000-plus-year-old tree sounded like it had to be the oldest living specimen. Wrong.

Apparently there is a bristlecone pine tree in California that is almost 5,000 years old.

Here's part of the story of Edmund Schulman of the University of Arizona, who became fascinated with trees in the 1930s, and eventually ended up in the high mountains of California-Colorado.

"The trees growing in the most extreme conditions, with scant soil and moisture, seemed to be the oldest," he observed. "Several trees in the 3,000 to 4,000-plus-year range were discovered. The first tree proven more than 4,000 years old he aptly named ‘Pine Alpha.' In 1957, ‘Methuselah' was found to be 4,723 years old and remains today the world's oldest known living tree."

The "old tree guy" died of a heart attack at age 49, by the way.

 

Sandscript factoid

So what's the big deal about some big woodpecker?

Birders have described the ivory bill as the Holy Grail of birddom. Its only haunt is old-growth, primeval forests, primarily in the southern United States, and its last sighting was in 1944 in Louisiana.

But maybe the ivory bill's lure is in its size and ferocity when it attacks a tree to seek out a snack. Anyone who's watched a pileated woodpecker knows the racket it can make going after a tree limb; imagine a bird quite a bit larger and much more determined to get at a worm or bug under some bark.

We're talking LOUD here.

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