At Fellsmere, Florida
More than 10 years ago I devoted two mornings searching for the red-cockaded woodpecker in ideal pine forest habitat in north Florida. I don’t recall seeing a woodpecker either time, never mind the red-cockaded, which is an endangered species now found in only 11 states mostly in the southeastern U. S. The U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates there are perhaps 14,000 of the birds, a tiny fraction of what their numbers were centuries ago and a dangerously small number for a bird species.
I decided to give the red-cockaded another try on my latest Florida visit. While many birders would love to see every species in, say, the U. S. A. and Canada – there are more than 900 – most of us know it isn’t going to happen. We may over time see 400 or 500 species, but getting to 900 requires an extraordinary commitment of time and money. I won’t come close. But seeing every North American woodpecker species? Possible. A couple of years ago I set myself that modest goal, which is manageable. Why woodpeckers? Maybe because I’ve seen quite a few of them already, and seeing the rest of them might happen in just a few years, assuming I take a vacation or two or three in the West, where there are easily a half dozen species I’ve yet to see. After the woodpeckers? Maybe all the ducks or owls or sandpipers. For now, finding the endangered red-cockaded would be a great addition to my woodpecker list.
Searching the Internet, I learned of a state park where the red-cockaded might be seen. It was not much more than an hour from where I am staying. I arrived at the Saint Sebastian River Preserve State Park in Fellsmere late morning and stopped by the park office, where I was told the odds of seeing the birds were best along the trail blazed in yellow, one of four major hiking trails in the preserve. The woman I spoke with said the birds were most often seen very early in the day.
Never mind if I was a little late on the scene, if I had driven this far I was looking for the red-cockaded. Anyway, for a birder, part of the thrill in adding another bird to one’s Life List of species seen is the pursuit. If finding a new species involves some real effort, perhaps some research into habitat and habits, too, that just makes discovery that much more satisfying. I also think, from experience, that the birds that require time and concentration leave the most indelible memories. You learn the bird. You remember exactly where and when you saw it, somehow come away with a feel for the species. Travel with a group to some distant place where a guide takes you straight to this or that otherwise hard-to-find species and the experience isn’t as rewarding. You don’t truly learn the bird; it is figuratively put before you on a platter, no further thought required. I wanted to find the red-cockaded woodpecker on my own, on what now was my third day looking for the species. It was unusually cool for a late February day in south-central Florida, and windy as well. A wore a long-sleeve shirt with a chamois shirt over it. An advantage of the cool day was that I largely had this expansive park to myself. If there were red-cockaded woodpeckers along the trail, it was unlikely some other hiker would spook them before I came along.
Much of the preserve is a forest of longleaf pines, widely spaced, the habitat the red-cockaded needs and a habitat that, like the woodpecker itself, is but a fraction of what it once was in the southeast. The trail was sandy and wide, almost like a beach in places. I took the recommended yellow trail, and a spur that passes through a section of forest where the birds are known to nest in the spring. I walked perhaps 2 1/4 miles with no sign of the birds before turning around to retrace my steps. I had the feeling this was to be another day without seeing the red-cockaded. I told myself I should be pleased that I had seen a crested caracara. But about 90 minutes into my hike several birds flew across the trail and into the pines. They were a good distance away, but I saw the undulating flight pattern common to so many woodpeckers. Off the trail I went, raising the binoculars. The field guides point out that the red-cockaded has distinctive white cheeks with a black and white ladder pattern on the back. I got a reasonably good look at one bird. White cheeks. Ladder back. No mistaking this bird. The red-cockaded is not a particularly colorful bird despite its name. It is a black-and-white bird, though the male has a very small red “cockade” that is not often seen, according to the field guides. I saw nothing but black and white. The red-cockaded in fact is not all that different from two other mostly black and white woodpeckers of the East, the downy and the hairy. But with its ladder back and white cheeks, the red-cockaded is just different enough, never mind its very specific habitat needs. So, I was not just seeing another monochrome woodpecker, I saw a species that over many centuries evolved in a habitat once dominant in the southeast.
I saw three of the birds, and, I think, another two or three nearby though I did not get a good look at those birds. All the birds were wary and moved anytime I approached closer than 40 feet or so. But, with a 500mm telephoto lens, I even got a photo.
And a real sense of the red-cockaded.