The National Wildlife Refuge Services Improvement Act expressly states that wildlife conservation is the priority of system lands and that the Secretary of Interior shall ensure that the biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health of refuge lands are maintained. The first priority of each refuge is to conserve, manage, and if needed, restore fish and wildlife populations and habitats.
In keeping with this mandate, generous donations by Dr. Ed and Hilda Carney, the Friends have been able to support four interns each year. The Carney interns, under the supervision of Refuge biologists, work on a broad range of wildlife conservation activities and projects, including translocation of red-cockaded woodpeckers, endangered eastern flatwood, frosted salamanders, helping restore long leaf pines and surveying and removing invasive plant species. (read more about Carney Interns)
Longleaf Pine Restoration
In the early 1900s, the longleaf pine tree population was very expansive in the United States, covering over 90 million acres and extending from Texas to the southeastern coast. Sadly, pines now occupy only a fraction of that acreage once assumed. However, in more recent years, sites such as the Refuge are noticing a pronounced comeback and serve as models in the careful restoration of longleafs throughout the National Wildlife Refuge System.
In 2015, Dr. Bud Bailey gave a generous monetary gift to cover costs of planting 17,000 longleaf pine plants over a 9 acre range at the Refuge. Work at the Bailey site (as it has been named) is currently underway to eradicate invasive plant populations to make way for the pines. Efforts such as this can only increase the important awareness of the longleaf pine.
Locally, the historic pineland range at the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge contains a representative spectrum of longleaf pine ecotypes, ranging from xeric sandhills to mesic flatwoods and savannahs. Refuge surveys indicate that there may be 100 to 250 understory plant species found on a given acre and at least 650 species across the refuge.
Rangewide, longleaf pine communities support 34 amphibian species (including the flatwoods, frosted salamanders noted above, as well as other endangered species) and 38 reptile species. Approximately one-third of the animals in question are longleaf pine habitat specialists.
Historically, the longleaf pine has proven to be a more resilient tree than other southeastern pines, as they appear to be impacted less severely by climate change. They also show more tolerance to pests, wildfires, drought, and heavy windstorms.
Importantly, the longleaf pine proves to be a very significant habitat for red-cockaded woodpeckers (noted below and dependant on mature pine forests) and other indigenous animals at the Refuge. In addition, these pines produce large and nutrious seeds that serve as a much-needed food source for birds and other inhabitants.
Some significant characteristics of longleaf pines are the following:
- Height, reach 150'
- Needles, approximately 12"-14" in length
- Appearance, yellow-green, usually in bundles of 3
- Cone size, 10" and egg-shaped to cylindrical
(Longleaf pine photo credit, top left, Meredith McKinney, top right, David Moynahan)
Monarch / Milkweed
The Monarch-Milkweed Initiative launched at St. Marks NWR in the spring of 2015, in response to the federal initiative to “Save the Monarch!”. The main goal of the program at St. Marks is to propagate local ecotypes of native milkweed species to support the monarch butterfly population.
Monarch butterflies are an imperiled species - some estimates say as much as 98% of their population has disappeared in 20 years. Though there are many reasons for the decline, it is largely due to a lack of milkweed, the host plant for the butterfly. Monarchs need the plant to lay their eggs on, as it is the only thing their caterpillars can eat. The Monarch-Milkweed Initiative aims to propagate native species of milkweed important to the butterflies from all around Florida.
The Refuge nursery is located behind the Work Center at 7300 Coastal Highway, Crawfordville, FL, 32327. There, we have a thriving nursery complete with a greenhouse, numerous keyhole beds, and a potting bench. St. Marks NWR has pioneered the effort to restore native milkweed in Florida under Ranger Scott Davis. In 2015, we propagated over 11,000 milkweed, with a goal of doubling that amount for 2016. Most of the milkweed propagated is grown to be distributed to various organizations and institutions, allocated for conservation, education, and outreach, and utilized by program partners. The keyhole beds are designated to serve as a permanent seed source for the Refuge for years to come.
The nursery is primarily managed by volunteers, and we host work days year round for those interested in helping. Over the summer months, our workdays predominantly focus on upgrading and maintaining infrastructure, and various field surveys in order to find new populations, monitor known populations, and take important data on growing conditions such as soil composition and pH. In the Winter/Spring, much of our work entails transplanting seedlings into larger pots and sowing new seeds for the Summer.
It has been said that restoring monarch habitat is the largest restoration project attempted in history. Without support from the Friends group, this project could not be possible. To learn more or get involved, visit our Facebook Page: Monarch-Milkweed Initiative at St. Marks NWR. Also, feel free to send us an e-mail.
NOTE: Wildlife biologists with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, with the help of citizen scientists and volunteers, spend many early days at the Refuge throughout October (coinciding approximately with the annual Monarch Festival), catching and tagging monarchs. The monarch in the photo above has been tagged to help track its migratory progress. Read more about monarch tagging.
( photo credit, top left Lou Kellenberger; top right, Scott Davis)
The refuge is actively involved in the recovery of the red-cockaded woodpecker. The current Red-cockaded Woodpecker Recovery Plan (2003) has a panhandle population goal of 1,000 potential breeding groups, with a refuge goal of 71 active clusters. A cluster is the aggregate of trees that exhibit cavity excavation. A cluster may include only a few trees or an excess of 20 spread across 3 - 60 acres. The average cluster is about 10 acres.
Active refuge management of the red-cockaded woodpecker population and habitat since 1980 has not only prevented extermination within the range locally, but also fostered population growth. However, this initiative is still very active such that robust numbers of these birds take hold.
The red-cockaded woodpecker is a territorial, non-migratory species that plays an important role in the shared environment of the southern pine forests. While the RCWs may choose any pine source for nesting, the longleaf pine is preferred. Also, they are the only woodpecker that chooses living trees when they excavate.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers are primary cavity nesters, meaning they are responsible for the construction of cavities. In the Refuge longleaf pine ecosystem, there are many secondary cavity users that benefit from the RCWs work. As a result, these woodpeckers are considered a foundational species because use of their cavities by other pine forest animals contributes to species richness and diversity. Many species of vertebrates have been documented using RCW cavities, either for roosting or nesting. These vertebrates include birds, snakes, lizards, squirrels and frogs. Some of these species, for example wood ducks, only use the cavities that have been abandoned by RCWs. Abandonment usually results from cavity enlargement by pileated woodpeckers, thus making the cavity accessible to larger predators.
One reason that RCWs may choose longleaf pines is that they structurally possess small resin wells which exude sap. By intermittant excavation of these wells, the RCWs keep the sap flowing, apparently as a cavity defense mechanism against rat snakes and possibly other predators.
Recent efforts by Refuge biologist Joe Reinman to translocate RCWs to the St. Marks unit in the fall of 2015 seem to have been successful. As such, translocation may be a continued practice if woodpecker populations increase.
( photo credits, top left, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge; top right, David Moynahan, below right, Carney Intern)
From 2009 until 2016 St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge served as the winter home for young endangered whooping cranes. These captive-hatched cranes were taught to follow an ultralight aircraft piloted by costumed Operation Migration pilots on a journey of more than 1200 miles from central Wisconsin to Florida. Each spring, the young cranes, having learned the migration route, returned to the Wisconsin nesting grounds on their own.
Learn more about this project at www.operationmigration.org
Friends were honored to be part of that effort by raising funds and joining staff and other volunteers in maintaining the pen site and in tracking and monitoring the cranes. The project ended because, unfortunately, the captive-bred cranes proved unsuccessful in raising young, but some adult whooping cranes return to St. Marks each winter. Friends and volunteers are certain to be active in monitoring their activities.
If you are fortunate enough to encounter an endangered whooping crane on your visit to the Refuge please observe the following protocol to ensure their continued wild and natural behavior:
Do not approach birds on foot within 600 feet. Do not approach in a vehicle within 600 feet or, if on a public road, within 300 feet. Try to remain in your vehicle. Please remain concealed and do not speak so loudly that the birds can hear you.
( photo credit, Lou Kellenberger)