Monday, November 16, 2015

The White-cheeked Woodpecker! - 13 Nov 2015

After a somewhat disappointing yesterday I was trying to figure out where to go today. Checking the North Carolina Birding Trail, Piedmont Trail Guide I decided to expand my search radius and look outwards for a promising destination. About an hour and a half SW of Raleigh, in Moore Co., next to historic Fort Bragg, lies The Sandhills region that is home to the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker! So, I grabbed my gear and headed for the 930-acre Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve in Southern Pines, NC.

I arrived at the Visitor's Center shortly before 9 am and inquired about the possibility of seeing a RCWP. The nice lady behind the visitor's desk was gracious enough to walk me outside to the back of the Visitor's Center and point out several trees where a pair had nested this year and could be seen daily. Of course, they were nowhere to be seen... We then headed around to the front of the Center and listened for their mouse-like squeaks, which we did not hear, either. But she pointed me to the trails and promised that they would be back around 5:30 pm this evening. I had hoped to see one a bit sooner as I needed to be back in Raleigh by mid-afternoon. So, I thanked her profusely and headed out on the Pine Barrens Trail with the hopes of seeing at least a glimpse of one of these endangered birds.

This place is gorgeous! Long-leaf Pines, Red Oaks, and rolling hills made for a lovely-but-quiet walk. The squeaky-toy call of Brown-headed Nuthatches was a welcome clue to avian presence, but even they were high up in the pine canopy out of sight. A barely audible pecking nearby had me hoping for a woodpecker that would go unseen. So I would continue along the service trail and circle back toward the Visitor's Center with nothing but a few pics of the surrounding landscape.

Too soon to admit defeat I headed back to the Pine Barrens Trail with the plan to hike down to James Creek via the Gum Swamp Trail. Things started well with a flock of Carolina Chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches foraging overhead. A Pileated Woodpecker appeared through the trees and allowed a few record pics to be taken. When it flew to the the tree branches and began to peck at the crotch of a tree I decided to take some long-distanced digiscoped images. I headed toward the Pileated but it flew off, so I began the trek to find a Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

I stopped every 100 yds or so and did point surveys, but heard and saw nothing. Still, I enjoyed the scenery and felt at home on the trails. Near the creek the trees opened enough to reveal some large snags with numerous cavities. A pair of Pileated Woodpeckers belted out their loud "Wik-Wik-Wik" call, but would not appear close enough for pics.

At one point I heard light tapping overhead and looked up to see a Brown-headed Nuthatch pecking away at a pine cone. I was finally able to get a few pics of this, another target bird. A small woodpecker flew in, and I thought I might finally get to see THE target bird, but I had to settle for another Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Now that I was near the Visitor's Center again I decided to check the feeders for at least some chickadee and nuthatch pics. I was happy to hear the squeaky-toy calls of Brown-headed Nuthatches and see birds flying into the feeders. But then I heard higher-pitched squeaks of a woodpecker, and looked up to see a black-and-white woodpecker with bright white cheeks. Score! Red-cockaded Woodpecker on the trunk of a pine just 20' away. Two more flew in moments later. I managed to get a few pics with the Nikon D7100 and 300/2.8 VRII before the phone rang.

Yep, the phone rang. It always rings when a great bird is found, so I immediately felt validated. Thanks for the call, Dan! Luckily it was only a few second call from work, and even though the woodpecker posed in the mid-morning sunlight that was streaming through the trees, I at least could soak it in while desperately trying to hang up.

As it flew off to higher branches I quickly grabbed the scope and attempted some long-distance digiscoped images. Lighting was not good as the bird disappeared into shadows. I would have to open the camera almost 3 full stops to get some keepers.

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker then flew to the side of a Long-leaf Pine next to the trail, and oddly, seemed to hug the trunk and try to blend in. For the next ten minutes or so, it did not move, and provided me enough time to walk over and digiscope it from 30' away. I probably have about 300 photos of the pose shown at left since the bird appeared catatonic. But, it eventually started picking at the bark and gave me a few more angles.

Given my proximity and the height of the bird up the tree I was lucky that the Jobu Jr. tilted back far enough for me to get the scope on the bird. However, the scope angle required me to squat low enough to operate the Nikon V3 camera for the next 15min. 800 pics later my gluts were screaming and the woodpecker finally flew off. At least it had finally moved around so that I could digiscope it against some blue skies.

Thrilled that I had finally gotten pics of one of North America's rare and endemic birds I did what everyone does in a situation like this. I ran into the Visitor's Center and bought a sweatshirt and coffee mug!

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker gets its name from a tiny red spot (or "cockade") that is located on its cheek under its eye. The spot is virtually invisible in the field so a better name may be White-cheeked Woodpecker, which is the distinctive field mark that differentiates it from other black-n-white woodpeckers. The birds are cooperative breeders, with breeding pairs assisted by former offspring (usually males) that help excavate cavities in live pine trees. Sap from the holes help discourage snakes and other cavity nesters from competing for the holes (like Eastern Bluebirds).

Many thanks to the good folks at Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve for helping me locate and know what to look for when chasing these birds.

1 comment:

Cody said...

Nice post, Jerry! I have fond memories of that place. I got my lifer Red-cockaded there about two years ago exactly.

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