Earlier this year, I ventured to the Francis Marion National Forest with Kathy Greider, current program director for the Hilton Head Island Audubon Society, along with her husband, Grant. We were on a quest to see the rare red-cockaded woodpecker. Frankly, I had never even heard of that species.
Perhaps that’s because they’re difficult to spot high in longleaf pine trees and because they are endangered. However, there are spots throughout the Lowcountry where they can be found, the Francis Marion forest among them.
Most woodpeckers build their homes in dead trees, called snags, because the wood is soft from rot. However, the red-cockaded woodpecker is the only bird in North America that excavates a cavity in living pine trees. In the southeastern United States, the longleaf pine is the preferred tree to make cavities. Unlike the outer few inches of soft sapwood, the inner portion of older longleaf pines are a very dense wood called heartwood. The woodpeckers seek out trees that are 80 to 120 years old that suffer from a fungus called red heart disease, which cause the inner wood of the tree to rot.
Once a suitable mature tree is found, it can take one to three years for the woodpecker to construct a cavity. Generally, these birds will excavate groups of cavity trees in one area, called a cluster. Because Red-cockaded woodpeckers are endangered, nesting trees often are marked with a white in wildlife management areas. Also, artificial cavities sometimes are installed to help stabilize the population, and translocation of a juvenile is used as a management technique for recovery goals.
Unfortunately, on my trip to the Francis Marion National Forest, we never saw the bird we sought.
Fast-forward to Nov. 10, when I went to James W. Webb Wildlife Center and Game Management Area in Garnett, in Hampton County. A fellow birdwatcher had given me a tip that this was a prime spot for woodpeckers. Master naturalist Rita Kernan had visited the area one time, and we were both keen on filming what would end up being a new species to add to my life list.
Rita mentioned that the red-cockaded woodpecker is a “keystone” species, meaning that the nest cavities built by the birds play a vital role in supporting 27 species of vertebrates. The list includes chickadees, bluebirds, titmice, and downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers. Larger woodpeckers, such as pileated woodpeckers and northern flickers also benefit from the red-cockaded woodpecker’s presence. The holes they leave can also be enlarged to accommodate raccoons, eastern screech owls and wood ducks. Reptiles, flying squirrels, amphibians and insects also rely on the primary cavity nester such as the red-cockaded, according to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service pamphlet published in 2002.
The birds were once considered common throughout the longleaf pine ecosystem, which encompassed 90 million acres before to European settlement. The birds inhabited open pine forests from New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and Florida, west to Texas, and north to Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky. With European settlements in the 1700s, widespread commercial timber harvesting and the turpentine industry in the 1800s, the pine trees were nearly wiped out, according to several online sources. Additionally, commercial tree farming, urbanization and farming caused further decline of the specialized habitat of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Today, it is estimated only 5,000 groups are left, with the woodpecker being extinct in several states.
The red-cockaded woodpeckers get their name from the thin, red wisp of feathers on each side of its black cap that resemble a cockade on man’s hat. (During the American Revolution, patriots from the south wore bright red feathers in their caps to show their defiance. The song "Yankee Doodle Dandy" featured a line, “stuck a feather in his cap,” to recall this practice.) The cockade typically is visible only during courtship or territorial defense, and even then it can be difficult to spot in the field. The birds are black and white with a black cap and nape that encircle white cheek patches. The birds also can be difficult to discern from hairy and slightly smaller downy woodpeckers in the field, but there are a few distinguishing characteristics. Its back is barred with black and white horizontal stripes, according to its description on the Cornell Lab or Ornithology website, unlike the downy and hairy woodpeckers, which have white backs.
At Webb, Rita and I spent five hours driving and birding around the managed forest, which is designated by the Audubon Society as an important bird area. The 5,866 acres offers 40 miles of roads and trails that wind around stands of pine trees, bottomland hardwood forests, and cypress-tupelo swamps. We saw two white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and a fox squirrel. But we were most fascinated by the lines of sap dripping down the longleaf pine trees, which are created by the red-cockaded woodpeckers chipping small holes into the bark, known as resin wells. The amber sap decorated the trees like stalactites, with little globes of gold hanging at the end, shining in the sunlight. According to the Longleaf Alliance, the wells cause gum to ooze down the tree which is a defense behavior toward rat snakes, the primary predator of the woodpeckers. The snakes are agile tree climbers, but when their scales come in contact with the sap, the snakes retreat.
After a peaceful picnic lunch alongside a swamp lined with bald cypress trees, we drove past fields, attempted to photograph minuscule birds that flitted in and out of thick shrubbery, and finally located a large stand of pine trees that were protected for woodpecker nesting. There is only one breeding pair of birds per cluster. Male helper birds from the previous nesting season participate in incubating the eggs and help raise the next generation. Throughout history, frequent fires from lightening helped maintain park-like forest floor in the longleaf pine stands, with more open land between the trees. These conditions are favorable for beetles, ants, roaches, caterpillars and wood-boring insects, which are part of the woodpecker’s diet.
Many managed forests today will schedule prescribed burns. Longleaf pine trees are resistant to fire and have seedlings that appear in the “grass stage” resembling a fountain of needles. This stage lasts five to 12 years. A long taproot grows underground, with a lateral root system forming to support the 100- to 115-feet-tall trees. The trees then go through the “rocket stage,” growing four feet per year. Because of the specialized habitat needed for red-cockaded woodpeckers to thrive, the Webb Wildlife Center will play an integral role in the success of the conservation of the species.
Without human intervention red-cockaded woodpeckers will not survive. It is my hope to create an awareness of a rare and unique bird living in South Carolina.