Be Your Own Birder

Seeing the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

Some birds are incredible specialists, with detailed requirements for their food sources, shelter options, and nesting habitat. One such bird is the red-cockaded woodpecker, which has a variety of special requirements on its must-have list:

  • Prefers to nest only in longleaf pine trees, even more specifically those with very little understory (shrubby growth on the ground).
  • Nesting trees must be mature and must have red heart fungal infections that soften the interior wood for easier excavation.
  • Only live trees are suitable for nesting, and nesting cavities follow the path of the rot both above and below the entrance hole.
  • Cavity entrance holes generally face only west or southwest, and birds will not often nest in cavities facing other directions.
  • Nests in family groups called clans, with younger sons remaining with their parents for several years to raise related siblings.

With so much specialization for this bird’s preferred nesting habitat, it’s no surprise that the population has declined. While globally the red-cockaded woodpecker is listed as “near threatened” it is actually considered locally endangered in many regions. Approximately 97 percent of this bird’s native, natural habitat has been lost, and what remains has been so significantly altered by fire suppression and other land management techniques that it is a struggle for these birds to find suitable, safe nesting sites that meet their specialized requirements.

I was fortunate to visit one such popular nesting site, located withing St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park, as part of a Florida Master Naturalist Program class.

Longleaf Pine Habitat at St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park – Photo by Melissa Mayntz

The park contains more than 60 miles of trails, but fortunately the red-cockaded woodpeckers are some of the park’s star residents and rangers and naturalists will happily give directions for where to find these intriguing birds (there’s even a specific trail named for the species). It was a lengthy trek through pine forest habitat on relatively level but occasionally sandy trails, with a couple of twisty turns along the way as we ventured into suitable habitat. Eventually, we could see where trees were marked with broad painted bands as being home to nesting cavities, and trees that were home to active nests had the additional barrier of a thick sheath of tin foil (to deter snakes).

This made spotting the trees easy enough, but the birds, not so much. We looked at dozens of trees, listened, walked a bit further, listened more, noted additional trees, walked even more, stopped in a rare spot of shade, kept walking.

Finally, the woodpeckers’ insistent, squeaky chattering rang out – a lot. The noise moved between trees, grew closer than more distant, but finally, we saw them. Not just one, but at least 3-4 red-cockaded woodpeckers (consistent with a family group) were flitting about, not at all concerned about our presence and certainly not willing to interrupt their daily activities to grace us with their company. That did not, however, prevent great views, even of which nesting cavity (one of the artificial installations inserted into suitable pines) was active as adults went in and out tending to hidden but still squeaking chicks.

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker - Photo by Ed Schneider
Red-Cockaded Woodpecker – Photo by Ed Schneider

It’s a treat to see such a troubled species, a treat made even sweeter when seeing the protecting measures being taken to safeguard these birds. While being directed exactly to the location of the species, and having strong visual clues of banded trees to note, does make the sighting easier, it’s no less rewarding to add an amazing lifer to my list. It’s only a shame that it takes such dramatic measures to see a bird that was once far more widespread and easily noted, but as more people learn about these birds’ unique requirements, they may become widespread again.

At least, there’s hope for the birds. Making it a reality is up to us.

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