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May 8, 2009

Prescribed burning protects Lewis Ocean Bay red-cockaded woodpeckers

The use of prescribed fire as a land management tool by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has a long history and the benefits were demonstrated during the recent wildfires at Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve. Prescribed burning and a relatively new machine called Gyro-Trac were directly responsible for saving 83 of 85 trees with active red-cockaded woodpeckers (RCW) by reducing the understory and mid-story fuels in the preserve. 

Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve (HP) in Horry County was hit hard with 8,000 of the nearly 9,700-acre preserve ravaged by fire. Due to safety concerns and ongoing mop-up of smoldering areas, Lewis Ocean Bay will be closed to public access until further notice.

In one instance at Lewis Ocean Bay, a RCW tree was completely protected from wildfire by Gyro-Trac work that cleared the understory in a radius around it. In several red-cockaded woodpecker clusters, because of the previous use of Gyro-Trac mulching and/or prescribed fire, the wildfire made an impact equivalent to only that of a prescribed burn.

Prescribed or controlled fires reduce or even eliminate fuel loads, thereby making wildfire on that area impossible or unlikely for some time afterwards. And wildfires are less destructive on areas that have been prescribed burned. Wildfires often either lose intensity or go out when they reach areas that have been prescribed burned. Gyro-Trac is a tracked mulching vehicle that devours trees and brush leaving behind only mulch. The mulch is a much lower fire risk than is underbrush.

The red-cockaded is a territorial, non-migratory species. The RCW's social system is more complex than most species of birds; individuals live in groups normally consisting of a breeding pair and zero to four male (rarely female) offspring from previous years. In mid-April, the female RCW usually lays a clutch of three to five white eggs in the breeding male's roost cavity. Eggs hatch after 10-12 days of incubation (among the shortest incubation in birds) and nestlings fledge from the nest cavity 24-27 days after hatching. Although re-nesting may occur if a clutch or brood is lost, RCWs typically have only one successful nesting attempt annually.

The RCW is the only North American woodpecker to excavate roost and nest cavities in living pine trees. While longleaf pine is the preferred species for excavation, other species such as loblolly, shortleaf, slash and pond pine are also used depending on the local forest type and tree species availability. The use of live pines as roosting and nesting sites may have evolved in response to living in a fire maintained ecosystem where frequent fires, primarily in the growing season, eliminated most standing dead pines (snags). Longleaf pine is thought to be preferred by the woodpeckers because it is the most fire-adapted of the pines. A healthy, productive RCW population is also an indicator of a healthy southern pine ecosystem. RCWs and southern pines both evolved in a fire-dominated system.
The DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are working together to make the best decisions for the red-cockaded woodpeckers at Lewis Ocean Bay HP in the aftermath of the wildfire.

DNR protects and manages South Carolina’s natural resources by making wise and balanced decisions for the benefit of the state’s natural resources and its people.

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