Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sweatin' it in the Sandhills

In one of my previous posts I wrote about my failed attempt to find the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker down in Weymouth Woods, and I pledged to return.   So, my dad and I awoke early to drive an hour south to the aptly named town of Southern Pines to revisit the nature preserve and (hopefully) tick this elusive bird.

Weymouth Woods is home to these woodpeckers because it is one of the only remaining stands of Longleaf Pine, a tree that once dominated the South's landscape.  The longleaf pine savanna is home to several amazing and unique species, including Fox Squirrel, Pine Barrens Tree Frog, Northern Pine Snake, and Bachman's Sparrow, as well as the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.  Logging for naval stores sparked the initial destruction of the longleaf and its savannas, and decades of fire suppression continued to allow the forests to turn into a distant memory (or dense Loblolly Pine stands). Today, 97% of longleaf forests have disappeared.  A new understanding of fire management and its crucial role in the environment has led to a slight rebirth of the longleaf savanna, and Weymouth Woods is one such place.  The activities of Weymouth's woodpeckers are monitored to ensure the species' survival.

We arrived at the park around 9:00 AM, but the air was already heating up.  Optimistically, we made our way through the pine barrens, through a swampy area, and back up into another longleaf savanna.  Prairie and Pine warblers were loudly singing from the treetops, but there was no sign of the Red-cockaded woodpeckers.  We spotted some holes in a live longleaf, suggesting the presence of our prize, and sat on a bench to wait and see what flew our way.  Nothing did.

It was hot.  Real hot.  It felt as though all six inches of rain Tropical Storm Andrea dumped on us were suspended in the air, slowly roasting us like clams in a steamer.  Sweat was dripping from every pore on my body, and I was miserable.  "I'm really starting to hate this place" I groaned while staring up at a tree void of any of my Picid friends.  Ugghhhh.... hot....

After trudging through even more miserable heat, I was beginning to get discouraged.  We had glimpsed what we thought might have been a Red-cockaded, but after a second look it was obviously a Downy Woodpecker, a close (and far more abundant) cousin.  We then set off down the Pine Barrens trail, hoping the slight breeze would continue.  It didn't, but we did hear what may have been our woodpecker.  It never showed itself.

A small observation area has been constructed near the visitor center to provide an overview of the pine savanna, and we decided to sit there as a last-ditch effort to see the bird before we left the park.  Almost immediately, I saw a flash land on a tree trunk.  I brought up my binoculars - the white cheek and zebra-back pattern were a dead give away.

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker, at last! This is one of only a handful of bird species truly endemic to the United States.

"There it is!" I directed my dad to where it was, and we watched the woodpecker feed for a good five minutes before it flew out of sight.  I've now seen all of North Carolina's resident woodpecker species, but I sure had to work for it.

Next week will be Indiana for me - hopefully I'll tick off a few more species that I can't see in North Carolina.

1 comment:

  1. Informative read about the longleaf forests. Congratulations on the
    Red-cockaded Woodpecker.