Monday, February 9, 2015

Un-cockaded

Of all of the woodpecker species in North America, the most endangered is the red-cockaded woodpecker. Back in the days when this species was first named, people could probably understand the name of this bird without consulting a dictionary or the internet. The so-called "cockade" on this bird is the small red spot behind each cheek of male birds. These days no living soul seems to know what you are talking about when you use the word cockade, and the term seems to live only in scratchy old text in scratchy old tomes and in the name of this bird. The species epithet is curious as well, borealis, which would suggest it was a northern bird rather than a southern one.

I did not initially realize how lucky I was to be based right next to one of the few strongholds of the species in the world at the Croom section of Withlacoochee State Forest. Though pine forests are not uncommon, this woodpecker is extremely picky on the specifics, and the habitat has to be fairly large to begin with to sustain the species for any decent time. If there are too many of the wrong tree, the trees are not old enough or spaced far enough apart (but not spaced too far apart), if the shrubs are too high, it is no longer suitable for the species. Because the specific habitat it requires takes many decades to form in the first place, the clearing of this habitat is very costly for the future of the species, hence its current scarcity.

As a rare species, it is quite difficult to find information on where to find them to avoid disturbance by overzealous hobbyists (whether it be egg collectors or unethical birdwatchers, which unfortunately are far more common than this woodpecker). I found a sort of a lead when I discovered a field trip report that was several years old. However, it was not much: it merely detailed a trail number.

So that was how I ended up on this remote road, next to a white marker that had different numbers painted on each side, one of which that said "7". There were many of these markers, sometimes just randomly beside the road, and I still don't know to this day whether they were actually trail markers or something else. The big official trail map I obtained for the forest had no numbers marked anywhere. At least the habitat looked correct.

Looks inviting. right?

Not very far down the path I had already heard both red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers in the trees above, but little else. Save the occasional calls of these two birds, and the distant song of pine warblers, it could have been described as "pitch silent". By chance I happened upon this interesting autumnal looking specimen of Rhus copallinum:


A while after walking through silence, I noted a pale tree far away, gathered between its darker brethren. This tree was my first clue to this woodpecker's presence, and a useful landmark. As part of a conservation effort to keep snakes out of nests, conservationists shave the bark off known woodpecker nesting trees from the ground up to about two thirds up.


And if there was any doubt that this was a nesting tree...

Look, a hole!
There was one thing missing from this secret wooded glade, see if you can guess what that was. Either way it was a nice diversion, even if it was only for this moth which I happened upon by chance:

The geometrid moth Pseudanthracia coracias.
And another moth down the path:

Uresiphita reversalis. A more stunning moth if you see the wings spread out, unfortunately too skittish this time around
to capture.
Eventually, after a few miles of walking, I finally heard a rather raucous sound up in the pine canopy. It sounded more like a squeaky toy than a bird, and more like a parrot or parakeet. I noticed a small black and white woodpecker moving its way up a tree: just a downy woodpecker, but that was certainly not the bird that made that sound. A bit more searching and another woodpecker silhouette peeked its head from around the trunk of a tree, flashed its white cheeks, and there was my red-cockaded woodpecker. I took a few photographs of the speck-sized bird over a long distance, but at least it shows up in the pictures. It flew off after my third or so shot and rattled across the forest. A wonderful sighting despite the distance.

When the sun decided to peek through the clouds a few dogface butterflies drifted about the sunny vegetation, eternally expressing their habit of never landing. Other birds started picking up, including two very bright yellow palm warblers. One bird flew towards the tree beside me and landed a mere three feet or so above my head. Wait -- surely not? I had to take a few steps back but there was no doubt there--America's rarest woodpecker had flown across the pines and set down on the tree right beside. Despite its poor positioning with regards to light, no one could have asked for any better.

This bird was banded with the colour code WRW PBR. As a female, this
is not the most red-cockaded of red-cockaded woodpeckers. In fact it is quite un-cockaded.

Based on the time stamps of my photographs, this bird was on this tree for nearly 10 minutes. In that time it not only showed impeccably, but even hopped down the tree to head-height level, behaviour I had not seen from a woodpecker before. Even after it had left I was standing quite still, captivated by what had once been.

On the return path I encountered a stunning member of an already stunning family of tiger moths, Utetheisa ornatrix. In flight this species reveals its vibrantly red hindwings and orange underwings, though at rest it is more unassuming:


I had to temporarily hold it in a box to get non-flight views of its stunning colouration on the hindwings, as well as underneath.


I also cruised into this neat spider while traversing the brush. This spider is a nice tropical equivalent of the more temperate garden spider, and interesting to look at it:


And then finished off the day with my first snake on this trip so far: a black racer that I kicked up while walking off the path. I managed to relocate it hiding under a bush nearby for some better photographs. Remember kids, the first rule of encountering a snake is to get as close as you can. (Really -- don't do that).