Red-cockaded woodpeckers in Stanton Energy Center’s conservation area are banded as hatchlings.

To OUC, there is much more to conservation than saving energy and water. Conservation also means protecting the sustainability of the natural habitat for wildlife living in woodlands surrounding the 3,200-acre site of the Stanton Energy Center (SEC) in East Orlando.

One resident in particular, the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW), gets extra special attention due to its unfortunate placement on the endangered species list. The tiny non-migratory bird’s preferred habitat of open woods with Longleaf Pines and Wiregrass has been disappearing across the Southeast and in some states to the west since European settlers arrived about 300 years ago. Today, an estimated 15,000 red-cockaded woodpeckers are spread out from Florida to Virginia and west to southeast Oklahoma and eastern Texas.

When OUC Senior Professional Engineer Charlie Doud took over the wildlife habitat management program in 1994, only 11 red-cockaded woodpeckers were living among the thousands of Longleaf Pines in the 2.400-acre refuge. “Today, we have over 25,” Doud said on April 22, 2021.

“Clearly, we’ve seen tremendous success with our management program. It’s a year-round commitment to maintain critical habitat for the endangered RCW and, as an associated benefit, an environment that is suitable for other indigenous wildlife on the property,” he said.

OUC’s conservation management program includes annual prescribed burns as required by federal and state agencies.

The key component to preserving the critical habitat is the prescribed burning program. Doud’s team conducts annual prescribed burns in the preserve using a back-burn firing technique that ensures survival of mature Longleaf Pine trees, which are necessary for RCW nest cavities. The burns also promote regeneration of Longleaf Pine seedlings and saplings, perpetuate Wiregrass vegetation, reduce the taller brush, and suppress growth of some invasive plants.

Twice a year – in the spring during nesting season and in the winter – an environmental consultant working with OUC takes a census of the birds. Chris Harrington, Associate Scientist with Breedlove, Dennis & Associates of Winter Park, has been keeping tabs on the birds since 2009.

A ‘peeper scope’ digital camera inserted into a tree cavity finds a nest with four eggs.

Beginning in April, he looks for nests inside cavities burrowed high up in pine trees. There are 171 cavities anywhere from 20 to 60 feet up in the towering pine trees, and he knows where each is located.

Using a long extension pole, Harrington inserts a “peeper scope” digital camera into a cavity to see whether it has a nest with eggs. On his rounds on April 22, he found one nest with four eggs. To protect the eggs from predators that could scale the tree from the ground, Harrington wrapped six feet of the trunk in aluminum foil.

An average nesting season yields 20 eggs, of which 10 hatch and five hatchlings fledge. Of the five that fledge, usually only two survive or remain in the refuge, said Doud.

Harrington’s search for – and counting of — eggs and hatchlings will continue as nesting season stretches into June and possibly July. When hatchlings are between a week and 10 days old, he climbs an extension ladder secured by safety straps to the tree and delicately removes them. On the ground, the featherless chicks are weighed and banded on a leg with tracking identification, then returned to their homes.

Hatchlings are banded when they’re between five and 10 days old.

In December, Harrington will return with a spotting scope to conduct the year-end census of the birds. Growth in the number of the species in SEC’s conservation area is impacted by severe weather events like hurricanes, predators, their mortality and relocation to neighboring lands with Longleaf Pines.

“Our job is to ensure they have the critical habitat necessary for them to thrive on our grounds,” said Doud. “We do our best to maintain these woods for their survival and the survival of all the other species that live among them.”

Aluminum foil prevents predators on the ground from scaling this tree to eat a red-cockaded woodpecker’s eggs.