Photo essay: In search of the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

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Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

A retired Arkansas National Heritage Commission employee was kind enough to take me and a fellow birder out to the commission’s Pine City Natural Area to find the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker.

We searched the western part of the Pine City Natural Area, which was created in 1988 and has 1,043.21 acres overall. According to the commission, it “provides vital habitat for the only known population of the federally endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain of Arkansas.”

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The natural area also includes the “Lost Pine of Arkansas” — the loblolly pines. According to the commission, the pines are now an isolated population within the plain and, as a result, are now genetically distinct from the loblolly pines found elsewhere in the United States.

Mature southern pine forests are the main home to the Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers — one of the few bird species endemic to the United States, according to allaboutbirds.org. The birds’ “extreme habitat specificity and loss of breeding habitat” has since caused it to be listed as federally endangered.

State workers now help maintain this area to sustain the Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers’ population. The birds prefer longleaf pines, and only nest in cavities of  live pines.

The commission’s work includes placing wire around the bottom of trees with nests to keep snakes away and placing metal around the nests (below) to ensure other types of woodpeckers will not takeover the cavities.

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According to allaboutbirds.org, trees infected with red heart fungus are often selected since the fungus softens the wood, allowing the woodpeckers to dig out a cavity. The live pine tree then leaks gum around the nest hole, helping to keep tree-climbing snakes away from the nest.

The woodpeckers live in small family groups with only one breeding pair. The area we visited had about 10-15 woodpeckers living there. The commission had marked each tree with nests, and we even found an additional tree (below) that was not yet marked.

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We arrived about 4 p.m. to walk the area, find the nests and get in place for when the woodpeckers arrived. Apparently, the woodpeckers leave their nests just after dawn, have a morning rally of sorts and then head out to forage for food as far as a mile away. They head back to the nest around sunset.

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The first bird we saw was the above pictured Pileated Woodpecker, which our guide was delighted to see flying in the opposite direction. Apparently the Pileated Woodpecker wreaks damage on the Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers’ home.

Eventually, the first round of Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers arrived.

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The five to six Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers called out to each other, climbed up and down the trees with nests, and finally swooped into their nests for the night.

Their arrival, greeting and turn-in for the night was actually pretty quick. We decided to stay there a little longer just to be sure they wouldn’t come out again. For the next 20 minutes, all we heard were geese and more geese.

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We were about to head back to the car when we heard a second group of Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers arrive. Thankfully, there were no geese overhead. This group stayed out for a while, allowing us to get a pretty good glimpse of them.

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Our guide kept a record of how many birds we saw, the time they arrived and the time they went to bed to give to his old coworkers. He plans to update them on the unmarked tree we found as well as information about which birds. Most of the birds are banded — you can see the band in the above picture.

It was also interesting to learn that the commission does occasionally relocate one of these of woodpeckers to other nearby colonies, such as in Louisiana or Texas. In the past, woodpeckers were taken from these sites to help populate the Arkansas colonies.

If one of the birds are relocated, our guide said its done while the birds are young to help them adjust better to their new home. These birds are taken after they arrive home to nest at night. Workers place a soft cage next to the cavity, lightly scratch the bark and then close the door once the bird flies into the cage. The bird is then driven all night to be placed in its new nest before dawn.

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We ended up spending three hours at the Pine City Natural Area. It was fascinating — I really enjoyed the visit, which ended with a splash. I was crossing a ditch when my left foot sank deeply in mud.

For a second or two, I figured the Pine City Natural Area would gain a left boot. I was luckily able to get de-mudded without getting too wet. My boots were about knee-high and the water came to just about an inch below the top of the boots. I ended up having only my left sleeve wet. Not bad at all!

Photo essay: 1st CBC

Golden-Crowned Kinglet
Golden-Crowned Kinglet

I participated in my very first Christmas Bird Count (CBC) Saturday. It was pretty fun, especially since it allowed me to tour the restricted areas of the White River National Wildlife Refuge.

My group did not discover any rare or unusual birds, however, I was able to view two firsts for me: The Golden-Crowned Kinglet and Wild Turkeys. We also viewed thousands of Mallards, Northern Shovelers, Ruddy ducks, and geese in the refuge’s sanctuary.

Here’s some more pictures from the day:

Wild Turkey
Wild Turkey
1-5 (3) Bamboo
Bamboo, an invasive species that is spreading on the refuge.
1-5 (4) Mallards, Ross, Snow and Speckled Bellies Geese2
There were plenty of Mallards as well as Ross, Snow and Speckled Bellied Geese.
1-5 (5) Mallards, Ross, Snow and Speckled Bellies Geese1
There were plenty of Mallards as well as Ross, Snow and Speckled Bellied Geese.
White-Throated Sparrow
White-Throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow — I saw plenty at the refuge, however, this particular one was at the Stuttgart airport late Saturday afternoon.

The grey-headed woodpecker

A woodpecker with a gray head!?! What?
A woodpecker with a gray head!?! What?

I was thrown off recently when I spotted this gray-headed woodpecker. I couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on, although I knew it looked like a Red-Headed Woodpecker. I also took the picture where I’ve previously seen several other Red-Headed Woodpeckers.

Puzzled, I pulled out my bird book to learn that it’s a juvenile Red-Headed Woodpecker. Pretty neat!

 

Vermilion Flycatcher

A rare bird to Arkansas has been spotted in Arkansas County. I met up with a fellow birder late this morning to go see the female Vermilion Flycatcher. The flycatcher is presently living on the 18th hole (which doubles as the 9th hole) at the Oak Hill Country Club in DeWitt.

Luckily, we found it although we weren’t too sure of ourselves at the time. Unfortunately, the pictures are kind of out-of-focused. Still here’s two more shots of the bird.

A long way to go…

Short-Billed Dowitchers off of Hwy. 306 near Wynne

I shot this picture of Short-billed Dowitchers in a flooded field last Sunday. It was overshadowed when I went on to see Bald Eagles, mallards and Cooper’s Hawk in the following 48 hours. I began attempting to identify the Short-Billed Dowitchers this week and remembered I had similar looking birds in an Aug. 25 picture.

Silly me. I found the August picture and, well, the birds in both pictures really looked the same to me.  They’re not, although I was somewhat right in my assessment that they were sandpipers. I successfully begged for help on the Arkansas Bird Listserv today to learn that the below picture is apparently of Buff-Breasted Sandpipers.

Buff-Breasted Sandpipers at the Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge

Overall, I learned two key things today. The first is that I’m horrible at identifying birds if its not absolutely obvious (re: me thinking the birds in the above pictures were the same). The final fact is, well, I’ve photographed two new birds in Arkansas for my state bird list. Yay for me! 🙂

 

The Rufous Hummingbird

On Tuesday, I saw my first Rufous Hummingbird at a nearby house in Stuttgart. A female or immature, the Rufous had a greenish gold crown and back, a white breast and dull reddish/brown sides. The males have bright orange on the back and belly with a red throat.

I originally heard of the bird through the state’s only hummingbird bander, Tana Beasley. The owner of the house with the Rufous later dropped by my work to invite me out to her house for  a look.

I couldn’t resist. Tana said it is the closest “unusual” hummingbird (meaning not the common Ruby-Throated we have here) to the Stuttgart/ Casscoe area that she has heard about. She did attempt to capture the Rufous for banding, however, the bird was not having it.

The Rufous refused to stay where it usually sat until the cage was gone. I actually stopped by the house twice before I finally saw the Rufous: Once with the cage there and once afterwards. Ruby-Throated hummingbirds swarmed the enclosed garden area on both visits.

The Ruby-Throated hummingbirds were hoarding the feeders so much that the Rufous had taken over a portion of the garden’s flowers. It was funny to watch the Rufous sit on favored spots above this section, which it guarded fiercely.