Technically a birder does not chase a Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCW), but rather finds the typical old growth pine forest that they prefer and waits; patiently waits. A sighting is more a test of one’s patience than his endurance, but if you frequent the proper habitat and are lucky, you’ll find this small endangered woodpecker as Andy and I did this spring in southwest Florida.
Our first attempt ended in a smoky failure. E-bird was reporting a RCW in the Picayune State Forest near Naples several days in a row. But we were taken aback as we pulled into its parking lot. There had been an extensive controlled burn there since our prior visits and the air was currently smoke-filled, apparently from several new uncontrolled fires caused by recent lightning strikes. A ranger advised us to not venture too far from the car. Our only sightings that day were a single Red-bellied Woodpecker and two Common Ground Doves, all ignoring the smoke.
I had previously seen a RCW once but only had poor photos of it, taken in my early photography days when I still stubbornly clung to my point-and-shot camera. I wanted better pictures and Andy yearned for a new life bird, so we headed to the 80,000 acre Babcock/Webb WMA, a good bet for seeing this bird about 75 miles north, near Punta Gorda. It turned out to be a great decision and a five-woodpecker day.
RCW’s are finicky birds and this has cost them dearly. Their numbers are down 99% from the 1880’s due to habitat loss in the eastern US. They insist upon nesting in cavities in tall, old growth pines, preferably living long-needled trees, and trees standing in areas of limited understudy growth due to frequent fires.
The birds were declared endangered in the 1970’s and currently number only 14,000 survivors. All the more reason for us to see it now before it shares the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Visit Ralph Costa’s article for an in-depth discussion of the RCW and the efforts to save both it and its specific habitat. http://scholarworks.sfasu.edu/forestry/426
RCW’s are nonmigratory. When they find a suitable territory they stay put. They also have an unusual social system. An extended family composed of a breeding pair and several younger birds, usually males for some reason, stay together and all assist in incubation and feeding the new chicks. The nests are all in cavities in living pines that have ample sap. The birds create resin wells in the bark around the cavities to trap the sap, apparently to help ward off predators such as snakes. The sticky yellow resin near the hole is a good indicator of an active RCW nest.
Before you credit Andy and me as being hardy explorers, risking life and limb, trudging miles through snake infested forests looking for a rare bird, let me dispel those thoughts right now. The rangers at Babcock/Webb have conveniently painted white rings around all the trees that contain RCW cavities and have even reinforced some of these holes with PVC pipe. The designated trees are often just a short walk from the gravel road. All the birder has to do is plant himself amongst the circled trees and wait.
The Red-cockaded Woodpecker was inappropriately named by Alexander Wilson in 1810. A cockade was an ornament commonly placed on a hat in that era but the red cockade is rarely seen on the woodpecker. Instead look for the large white cheek patch and the laddered black and white bars on the back. It does not have the elongated white stripe seen on the backs of the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers. It also has an unusual and distinct call that finally led us to our birds.
Even with all these aids the RCW’s remained elusive. We stood among the white circled pines in several locations but saw nothing but a Black Vulture and a Great-crested Flycatcher. I could tell that Andy was losing patience when the conversation turned from birds to politics, the stock market, and Syracuse University basketball. I convinced him to try one more location, I think the same place I saw my first RCW several years ago.
I saw the bird fly in first. It was clearly a small woodpecker but could not see it well among the pine needles. I was able to get off a few poor shots with the camera but they were also inconclusive. Andy insisted it was just a Downy, while I favored a RCW–wishful thinking. We chased this bird several hundred yards into the pine stand, still debating its ID when Andy heard the characteristic call of an RCW coming from elsewhere. The Downy had led us to not one, but two RCW’s, likely a breeding pair, foraging and singing in fine light. Success! Hundreds of photos later we were still enamored and loathe to leave.
Along with the RCW’s and Downy, we also saw a Northern Flicker, Red-bellied, and Pilated Woodpeckers, all in the same stand; five of the seven woodpeckers possible in the area. We were only missing the Hairy and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker for a perfect woodpecker day. On the triumphant trip home we could help debating who actually saw the RCW first. No conclusion was reached, but both agreed that the RCW is an extraordinary bird and the chase was well worth it.