I wasn’t working this morning so I decided to head to Moody Forest, a Nature Conservancy preserve a couple hours’ drive inland, for a hike. I’d heard it was an excellent place for seeing Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, one of a couple remaining birds I absolutely must add to my life list before I depart this area of the country. It did not disappoint.
Moody Forest is not a place one could stumble on accidentally; you have to want to go there. What I mean is, there are no signs for it along the way, and the last few miles are over narrow back roads of hard-packed red dirt. I suppose the isolation and obscurity helps protect it. Moody Forest is one of the most important remaining fragments of longleaf pine woodland in Georgia.
Longleaf pine was once the dominant tree in much of the southeastern U.S., and it was (and is) important for threatened species such as the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and the Gopher Tortoise. Most of this ecosystem, however, is now gone, replaced by faster-growing pine species more valuable for timber, like slash and loblolly.
The trail first passed through an open, sandy area that was, according to the interpretive pamphlet I picked up at the trail head, a good place to see the tortoises. I didn’t spot any (it may still be too early for reptiles to be out and about, although with the streak of warm weather we’ve had lately you never know) but I did see what I strongly suspect was a tortoise burrow.
Finally I arrived in the fragment of longleaf pine/wiregrass woodland: prime habitat for the federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. It only took a few minutes of lurking around, peering up into the trees, before I managed to find them, identified by their rasping call and distinctive white cheeks. Score! The pines also held Hairy, Downy, Red-bellied, and Pileated Woodpeckers, as well as Brown-headed Nuthatches, which sound like squeaky toys. (I had forgotten temporarily about the existence of Brown-headed Nuthatches and had a surreal moment of SWEET LORD WHAT ARE PYGMY NUTHATCHES DOING IN GEORGIA before I recalled the Pygmy’s eastern cousin.)
Longleaf pines live up to their name – their needles, which come in bunches of three, are more than twice as long as my hand and form characteristic round tufts at the ends of branches. Their cones are also massive.
This coming weekend I’m going camping at Manatee Springs State Park in Florida with a coworker (and, yes, hoping to see manatees), and then that will only leave Okefenokee as far as places on my must-see-before-I-leave-the-Southeast list. Hope everyone has a great week, even if it isn’t as warm and sunny as mine…!