Our trip last month to North Carolina wasn't necessarily a birding trip, but we did look for some nearby trails that would be easy and that might offer some good bird opportunities. So when we reviewed this Carteret County Trail Guide and found an easy 1.75 mile trail that offered up the potential of seeing Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, my interest was piqued and I was ready to go.
The Red-cockaded Woodpecker is listed as ENDANGERED on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Endangered Species list. I guess I first became aware of the plight of this bird in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina. I remember hearing how the population of red-cockadeds in the area was decimated and nesting cavities destroyed as a result of the hurricane.
In fact, the USDA Forest Service's Southern Research Station reported that "before the storm, 477 groups of birds had been counted and after the storm, an estimated 65% of the birds were dead or missing." Furthermore, "of 1,765 cavities, 87% were destroyed."
Before we headed out, I reviewed my Peterson Guide so we would know what to look for:
- 8-1/2" (bigger than our downies; smaller than our hairies; about the size of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers)
- Zebra-backed (kind of like a red-bellied)
- Black cap
- Obvious white cheek
- Male's tiny red cockade will be hard to see
- Voice a rasping sripp or zhilp
So we headed off to nearby Patsy Pond Trail, which is part of the Croatan National Forest. Shortly after starting out, we ran into a group on their way out. They had seen a number of red-cockadeds, making it sound like it would be no big deal to see them. There was not shortage of trees with red-cockaded cavities either; they were all marked with a painted white band.
I was surpised by the openness of the forest, nothing like our mixed forests of the northeast. It was an open woodland of old, longleaf pines, just the habitat preferred by Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. It was easy to hear and find birds; no thick canopy hiding warblers in the tree-tops.
Sure enough, we saw our Red-cockaded Woodpecker, seeing individuals probably 4 times during our walk. As this individual foraged, it seemed to turn an ear to the tree, presumably to listen for the insects it feeds upon.
I found it interesting to read that red-cockadeds are colonial, maintaining a group of up to 6 birds. The breeding pair is assisted by helper birds, usually male and usually from their previous broods.
The individual that I got some pictures of was banded with two yellow bands on the right leg and one metal band on the left. And we were not able to catch any sign of the signature red cockade, though that was to be expected.
I was thrilled to see this special bird, but it was only HALF of our red-themed endangered species sightings from our North Carolina trip. More on the other half in a future post.