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Woodpecker Quest (or, one closer to 10,000, pt 2)

December 9, 2010

Nearly two years ago I took Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds, visiting North Carolina to take part in the Science Online conference, on a quest to the Sandhills to find his lifer Red-cockaded Woodpecker.  The woodpeckers are pretty easy down there, a sure thing if you have time to look for them, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll be beating them off with sticks or anything.  It is an endangered species after all.

Even though I liked our chances, I couldn’t help thinking about the other side of the search.  No doubt every birder can sympathize with the desire to see a rare bird, especially if you’re making a special trip specifically to see said bird, but less discussed, despite the fact that the pressure may well be more intense, is the responsibility of the show-er of the bird.  My reputation as a birder and as a local expert is on the line.  If that Red-cockaded Woodpecker doesn’t show up, it reflects on me.  Mike may have said he well-understood the vagaries of birding, that the birds themselves are rarely as cooperative as we’d prefer from time to time.  But I knew it would be a long car ride home if that bird failed to show.  Thankfully, that bullet was well dodged.

Let it not be said I don’t learn from my near mistakes.  When Corey Finger, also of 10,000 Birds and a fellow member of the infamous Bloggerhead Kingbirds, told me he was going to be in my part of the world and would I like to take a day to show him Red-cockaded Woodpecker and maybe if we’re really lucky Bachman’s Sparrow, I said yeah, of course.  Corey is a friend and a person I’ve enjoyed birding with in the past, and even if he wasn’t I like going birding and especially birding to get people lifers.  If I can’t get them myself it’s the next best thing.  So Monday morning, after dropping my son off at daycare, I headed off to the Sandhills, by way of picking Corey up in Apex, to look at some birds.

As with Mike, the Woodpeckers were not immediately forthcoming.  Instead of leading Corey out on a wild goose chase around the park chasing a handful of what are small and mostly quiet birds, we sat tight at the feeders in the hopes that the RCWs would make it easier for us and come in.  I tried to hode it, but this was not much of a plan.  No matter how often Corey politely tried to convince me that the Pine Warblers, including multiple stunning males, were worth it I knew that these were not birds one travels from New York to see.  Even the white-eyed version of the Eastern Towhee, a southeastern specialty that reaches the northern limit of it’s range in central North Carolina, while being spookily fascinating, is not going to cut it.

So with the feeders slow and white-eyed Towhee aside, I suggested we break ranks and walk around the park.  The wind picked up, suppressing the little bird activity but we still found some goodies like Pileated and Red-headed Woodpeckers, even if they were the wrong Picids.  Best bird for me was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet that refused to budge from the trail no matter how close we got, eventually convincing me to pull my camera out.  When they’re practically begging like this, how can you say no?

But the RCWs called, and by that I mean the hope of finding them tugged at our birder’s psyche.  The birds themselves were frustratingly silent.  So as we headed back to the visitor’s center, I began taking stock of our situation.  If the RCWs were not here, we needed to go into the Sandhills Gamelands to the south and try to find a nest tree.  There are more birds down there, but the habitat is pretty extensive and it’s easy to get lost on the dirt roads that criss-cross the tract, but I didn’t see how we had any other opti…

Corey held up.  He’d heard a bizarre call note he didn’t recognize.  A chip like a roided up Song Sparrow.

So I stopped too, making my way around a giant old Longleaf Pine to find a woodpecker working the far side, flaking off chunks of bark as it slowly spiraled up the trunk.

And suddenly the nerves were gone as we set up to watch the bird do its thing.  Corey broke out his digi-scoping rig and got some photos that he will no doubt share on 10,000 Birds and I enjoyed one of the nicest RCW experiences I’d ever had.  I even imagined at one point I’d seen the name-sake cockade, a miniscule spot of red on the rear of the cheek.

Now that our target had been acquired, we were free to loose ourselves on the counties themselves and Corey indulged me in some county work as we cruised around some of the lakes in the area, finding little but Pied-billed Grebes and Coots, before eventually heading south in to the Gamelands mostly for the longshot Bachman’s Sparrow, which we didn’t get, but lots of other birds besides. I’ll leave that part of the story to be concluded by Corey on his own time, mostly because I put my camera down and didn’t pick it back up.  This is why it’s nice to go birding with an avid and skilled digi-scoper.

But the day was an unqualified success, if for no other reason than because I kept my unblemished record when taking 10,000 Birds bloggers to find Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, and if Charlie ever makes it back to the US, I can go for the trifecta.

So c’mon Charlie.  Fancy a woodpecker?

  1. Charlie Moores permalink
    December 9, 2010 8:05 am

    Yes, yes I do!

  2. December 9, 2010 8:07 am

    Whatever you do make sure that you do not take that last line out of context…

  3. Nate permalink*
    December 9, 2010 8:49 am

    @Charlie- Next time you’re in NC. 😉

    @Corey- Perhaps I wasn’t clear about the traditional way to celebrate finding this bird…

  4. December 9, 2010 2:08 pm

    Nice story. That’s why I am hesitating when someone asks me “would you take me birding?” What if all we see and hear is chickadees? Most of my success are due to luck, walking about, keeping your eyes and ears open and not be distracted by an eager companion who you don’t want to disappoint.

  5. December 10, 2010 2:25 am

    Well Nate, if I ever make it back to North Carolina, I will definitely be looking you up! I could use a good viewing of a Red-cockaded Woodpecker!

    Beautiful shots of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet too. One of my favorites. You will never convince me that he just perched there and posed for you though, unless it was for, maybe, half a second.

  6. December 10, 2010 7:22 pm

    That White-eyed Towhee is something else! I guess I had never heard about them before.

    Well, turns out I won’t be coming to North Carolina after all. My company just asked me to take a totally different position in Salt Lake City. I’m gonna miss some great east coast birding! Maybe at another time in life.

  7. Nate permalink*
    December 11, 2010 9:50 am

    @Hilke- I always volunteer to take people birding if I have the time to do so. And I’m always mostly confident we’ll find the birds we’re looking for, but that doesn’t take the anxiety away completely. I’ve found most people are just happy to get out in a new place.

    @Larry- Thanks! That RC Kingley was ridiculous. I’ve never had one so accommodating. And feel free to look me up, I love showing these little woodpeckers off.

    @Robert (BiF) – Too bad! Sorry we couldn’t get together while you were around down here. Utah is a nice place too, and one desperately in need of a birding blog. I hope your family enjoys it there. And be sure to find some Himalayan Snowcocks!


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