Machetes for Woodpeckers

Photos by David Krantz

BIG CYPRESS NATIONAL PRESERVE, Fla. (March 20, 2013) – “If this flares up,” says Matt Heinz, chopping a saw-palmetto bush with his machete, “It will put a lot of heat on this tree.”

Matt, a forestry technician with the preserve, has just driven us for the past hour in a swamp buggie – think of a four wheeler on steroids, with tires about 3.5 feet tall – along the Rock Road Offroad Vehicle Trail. The land on which we’re standing is scheduled to be burned in a controlled fire this summer.

“By doing the prescribed fires,” Matt says, “we can limit the number of big fires that we have.”

Our goal in this remote part of the park is to clear the space around the bases of slash-pine trees with nests of red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species. The trees have evolved to survive regular fires – they are about 60 feet tall with no branches until their top canopy – but with less frequent fires, more underbush grows between fires, leading to more intense heat that can damage the trees, and the woodpecker nests inside.

Armed with machetes, loopers, hoes and rakes, we are clearing saw-palmetto bushes, wax-myrtle shrubs and tall grasses from beneath about 20 trees, each of which is home to a nesting pair of red-cockaded woodpeckers. Saving the birds’ nests means saving the birds, since it can take up to two years for red-cockaded woodpeckers to dig out cavities in trees for their nests.

“It’s doing something that matters,” says one of my fellow participants, Emma Donachie, an environmental-studies University of Kansas student from Texas. “Doing yardwork for the little woodpecker.”

Another fellow participant, D.J. Howard, a native Arkansasian studying agricultural business at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, feels the same way.

“We get to help a species of animal that most people don’t even know about,” he says. “Two thumbs up.”