Rain sinks Harden hunt for rare red-cockaded woodpecker

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We did not catch a glimpse of the red-cockaded woodpecker on our travels through Florida. Photo courtesy Audubon.org

During our January 2016 birding adventures in Florida, we wanted to see a red-cockaded woodpecker. It is an endangered species found only in the extreme southeast corner of the United States, mostly in northern Florida.

Ornithologists estimate there are only a few thousand of these birds remaining in the world, about 1 percent of their original numbers.

The first place we planned to search was the Okeenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge near the Georgia-Florida border. But the day we were there, it was pouring rain. We were wearing rain ponchos and had waterproof boots, but our pants from knees to boots got soaked, and the water ran into the tops of our boots.

We walked on a boardwalk over the swamp through perfect woodpecker habitat, but no birds were moving. They were smarter than we and were staying out of the rain.

My wife, Margaret, has a theory that the best place to see birds is in a parking lot. Here the birds are used to people, noise and the occasional bits of dropped food. In the grassy area around the lot’s asphalt, there was a flock of maybe 50 robins feeding as the rain poured down.

Leucistic robin in foreground, robin with normal coloration in background
Leucistic robin in foreground, robin with normal coloration in background

In the flock we noticed an unusual bird that looked different. My first thought was that it was a gull or a tern. We looked closer and decided it was a partially albino robin. Some sections on the back were a dark color, and there was some orange coloration on the bird’s breast.

It was a leucistic robin, an unusual occurrence. We carefully covered our cameras with our ponchos and walked around the parking lot taking pictures of the bird and getting even more soaked. The parking lot theory worked.

The rain continued during our scheduled boat ride through the swamp’s canals. The boat was covered, but the rain still blew in through the open sides.

American bittern. Photo courtesy www.animalspot.net
American bittern. Photo courtesy www.animalspot.net

Our boat driver pointed out two American bitterns that were stalking prey in the tall cord grass. Another great bird discovery, but no red-cockaded woodpeckers were seen.

The next day we tried looking for the endangered woodpecker in Osceola National Forest at the Olustree Civil War Battle Field Park. The guide books said the park was a perfect place to see the woodpecker we were seeking.

There were tall longleaf pine trees, many that had been damaged by fire, causing some of the stumps to become rotten. There was a very small amount of undergrowth the woodpecker is partial to.

Red-headed woodpecker
Pileated woodpecker

Margaret and I walked along the battlefield trail for more than an hour, reading the signs about the battle as we scanned the trees above the ground.

We did not see a red-cockaded woodpecker, but we saw a redheaded woodpecker, a red-bellied woodpecker, and a pileated woodpecker.

The dead and rotting trees provided food for insects, and the birds were feeding on the insects.

However, our hunt was not a complete loss. While we were photographing the redheaded woodpecker, I noticed a much smaller bird following it from one tree to the next.

Brown-headed nuthatch
Brown-headed nuthatch

It seemed like the larger woodpecker was scaring up insects for the smaller bird. The big bird worked the bark on top of the tree limb while the smaller bird followed behind on the underside of the limb, hanging on in an upside-down position.

We took pictures of the little bird and later identified it as a brown-headed nuthatch, similar to the white-breasted nuthatch that lives in Iowa.

This was a new species of bird to add to our life list. We did not see the red-cockaded woodpecker, so this gives us a reason to go back to Florida next winter and continue our search.

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