SCBWF January 25, 2014: Red-cockaded Woodpeckers & More

Saturday morning was the earliest start to field trips for the entire festival, for me. We had to be sure to be ready to catch the endangered Red-cockaded woodpeckers as they woke up for the day.

Last year, we attempted to catch this species at the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area for the Central Florida Specialties trip, but were largely unsuccessful. For this particular trip this year, we were led by Maria Zondervan and Duff Swan, who are part of the ongoing management of this species in the Hal Scott Regional Preserve and Park. They had a game plan for maximizing our ability to see these birds, and proved to be excellent trip guides for us (our third leader had other issues).

The downside of stalking (or in this case, staking out) a bird that can be as shy as a Red-cockaded Woodpecker (or “RCW” as our guides refer to them) is that you have to stay a certain distance back. This meant no photographs for my camera, tough my 8×42 Carson bins were certainly up to the task.

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Typical pine flatwoods habitat. You can see some evidence for understory burning at the base of the trunks.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in family groups and are cooperative breeders. Younger birds will help their parents raise successive broods until they get their own mates and territories. As the birds wake up in their individual roosts, they’ll call out to each other to make sure everyone’s awake before they start the day.

Maria had us split into 3 groups, each staking out a different nest tree. This kept the number of people near each tree low so the birds wouldn’t feel intimidated. It was a chilly and cloudy day, and our bird, a second year female, was very reluctant to get up. Her parents called out and even flew over toward her nest hole to get her going, but like a stereotypical teenager, she was having none of it. Finally, after more woodpeckers called out and an incursion from a neighboring family group got her up and out of the nest.

We watched the birds start their day as other residents became more active. The Eastern Bluebirds were more cooperative and photogenic. We even watched a mated pair harass and chase away a Red-bellied Woodpecker that tried to commandeer their nest hole.

 photo eastern-bluebird-flight.jpg
This Eastern Bluebird’s mood was as cloudy as the weather after having his home invaded.

 photo eastern-bluebird-perch1.jpg
“Take a picture, it’ll last longer!” Umm… ok then…

We saw a lot of evidence of feral pigs (which are a real problem across most of the southeastern USA, not just Florida). They tear up sections of ground, ripping up roots and soil. It can take years for some areas to recover.

After the “RCWs” dispersed a bit for their daily foraging and inter-family bickering, we successfully stalked a Bachman’s Sparrow (it flew right past my head, so I got a very decent look at it), and had many opportunities to see other various woodpecker species, and the adorable Brown-headed Nuthatches.

My species list for this trip (15):

  • Red-cockaded Woodpecker
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • American Robin
  • Bachman’s Sparrow
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Brown-headed Nuthatch
  • Prairie Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Great Blue Heron

We ended the morning with a quick walk by part of the Little Big Econlockhatchee River, but bird activity was essentially nil. My personal belief is that one of our trip leaders was trying to rely too much on “pishing” and playing a Screech Owl call as the group walked along. Pishing and the use of calls can be effective, if used judiciously. I don’t know what was going through this man’s mind to think that a continuous play of a Screech Owl and incessant pishing would in any way enhance our ability to see the birds.

2 thoughts on “SCBWF January 25, 2014: Red-cockaded Woodpeckers & More

  1. Came across this page when looking for info on finding RCWs. I’ve been to Hal Scott but was not as interested in birding then. My son and I have started hiking more with birding photography in mind so hopefully we’ll find some RCW at Hal Scott (seems like a good place to start). Thanks for sharing and looking forward to browsing more of your site.

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