Willet from my stock - click for bigger image
The afternoon was dedicated to a search for the Red-cockaded woodpecker in the Holly Shelter Forest. I was met at the gate by local birders Suzanne and Rick and wildlife biologist Carson Wood of the Coastal Plain Conservation Group. Carson appears to be THE go to guy around here if one wants know anything about Red-cockaded woodpeckers, or RCWs, as he calls them. His friend James, who also works on RCW conservation, joined us a bit later and brought yet more expertise to the outing.
Today I learned that RCWs nest in familial clusters that are headed up by a single patriarchal bird. He mates with a specific female, and the other members of the family group help to raise the young. This behavior is apparently unique to RCWs. These birds also have very specific habitat requirements. They are actually the only North American woodpeckers to make their nest cavities in live trees (always pines of some sort). Today were were looking for them in a longleaf pine area. These birds like open an forest with lost of space between the trees; grasses covering the ground below are also a must. I have seen this bird once before in Florida, and it was in habitat identical to what I saw today. I also learned that longleaf pine forests like the one pictured below take an incredibly long time to develop. This means that when an area that supports RCWs is cut, it could take a hundred years to return to the point where it could again support the birds. Right now the RCW is listed as a federally endangered species, and the entire population is estimated at ~15,000 birds. After several hours of midday searching (which is the worst time to find these birds when they aren't nesting), we did located a group of 5 birds (#149). They didn't stick around for long, but I was able to snap a quick photo of one of them. The red cockade of the male, which is located where you might imagine his ear to be, is only visible when he gets agitated and fluffs up his head feathers. Ruby-crowned kinglet checked in just before the RCWs at #148.
*Click pics for bigger images*
RCW nest cavity in living longleaf pine
Carson, Rick, James
In short, today was a great day. Tomorrow I am going to stick around Wilmington and do some local birding. I hope to pick up a few more shorebirds and maybe the Virginia rail that has been skulking around in a small park just down the street.