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After 20 years of prepping, a piece of land is ready to host endangered woodpeckers

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Wildlife conservation can mean laboring for years without knowing if your efforts will make a difference. But recently, scientists were able to celebrate a milestone decades in the making. Here's Grant Blankenship of Georgia Public Broadcasting.

GRANT BLANKENSHIP, BYLINE: The Flint River is hidden and dark in the predawn hours, hundreds of feet below Sprewell Bluff in west Georgia, where people with birding scopes and sturdy shoes have gathered - some from hours away.

NATHAN KLAUS: OK, so we're getting ready to move out. Let me get your attention.

BLANKENSHIP: Some, like Georgia Department of Natural Resources' senior biologist Nathan Klaus, spent the early December night in the woods nearby.

N KLAUS: Thank you very much for being here. Y'all know how much I value, hopefully, the role that you played - each one of you - in getting us to this place.

BLANKENSHIP: This place is really an ecology and a goal, which many here helped Klaus recreate over 20 years. The group is here to release six federally endangered birds - red-cockaded woodpeckers - into these hills. And it took 20 years to get the birds here because first Klaus and others had to sculpt the right forest. Joyce Klaus is Nathan's wife, and she's a wildlife scientist too. She says when he first brought her to places like Sprewell Bluff, they were not much to see, at least to the ecologically informed eye.

JOYCE KLAUS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. When Nathan and I were first dating - that would have been 17 years ago - some of the places he brought me to that he was working on, I was just like, oh, that's nice, honey (laughter).

BLANKENSHIP: As a scientist, she wasn't so impressed. Nathan Klaus says there's a reason for that.

N KLAUS: The first photograph I have, it's a wall of sweet gum.

BLANKENSHIP: Sweet gums are hardwoods, and exactly the wrong trees for these woodpeckers. What they need are mature, living pines for nesting. So Klaus got to work with a very old tool...

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE CRACKLING)

BLANKENSHIP: ...Fire. Every other year for the last two decades, Klaus and a crew under his direction would set fires like this one recorded in 2019. The fire killed the hardwoods and encouraged pines to seed in these mountains. A few months ago, U.S. Fish and Wildlife said the landscape was finally right and OK'd the site for woodpeckers. Six were captured at the Army's Fort Stewart in South Georgia.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED-COCKADED WOODPECKER CHIRPING)

BLANKENSHIP: They made the more than 200-mile trip and are now closed up in human-made nesting boxes inside the pine trees. And Nathan Klaus says they may be on edge.

N KLAUS: You want to give them their space. They've already been through, basically, an alien abduction.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED-COCKADED WOODPECKER CHIRPING)

BLANKENSHIP: So why move an endangered bird from the coast to the mountains? Bob Sargent is another Georgia DNR biologist.

BOB SARGENT: This is a case of not all your eggs in one basket, right?

BLANKENSHIP: In this analogy, the eggs are birds, and the basket is the coastal plain where most red-cockaded woodpeckers live and where more disaster strikes.

SARGENT: Now we have, you know, an increase in the number of hurricanes, for instance, coming up through the Gulf.

BLANKENSHIP: Like Hurricane Michael in 2018. It devastated pine forests.

SARGENT: You can lose a lot of cavity trees and a lot of clusters all at once.

BLANKENSHIP: In the future, red-cockaded woodpeckers may be safer further north in these hills.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVES RUSTLING)

SARGENT: Yeah.

BLANKENSHIP: The sun is rising when the screens trapping the birds in their new holes are yanked away. The birds bolt, only affording people like retired DNR biologist Jim Ozier a glimpse. A glimpse of the rare birds was enough.

JIM OZIER: I dreamed it, but I didn't think I'd see it. Yeah, I dreamed a lot of things that I didn't think I'd ever see.

BLANKENSHIP: When Nathan Klaus returns to the site around Christmas, the birds are still here - evidence of a dream fulfilled.

For NPR News, I'm Grant Blankenship in Upson County, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAUSCHKA'S "SUNRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Grant came to public media after a career spent in newspaper photojournalism. As an all platform journalist he seeks to wed the values of public radio storytelling and the best of photojournalism online.