To the consummate birder, travel equals opportunity. Any trip, be it for business, pleasure, or obligation, opens the door to the possibility of new birds. Some will be ones you’ve never seen while others just haven’t been seen for a while. In either instance, the consummate birder acts swiftly and decisively to maximize the birding benefits of travel.
Because I seek to follow the Tao of the Consummate Birder, my eyes lit up when I was invited to speak at ScienceOnline09. Apart from the obvious honor involved, along with the inevitable excitement of pressing the flesh (professionally, of course) with so many science bloggers I enjoy online relationships with, my mind turned to the potential lifers within easy distance of Research Triangle Park. Mentally cataloguing the options by rarity, aesthetics, and potential discomfort/peril (you do that too, don’t you?) I arrived at a terrific target bird: Red-cockaded Woodpecker.
The Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis) is an endangered, nonmigratory, highly localized little tree-tapper disributed throughout the southeastern United States. Similar in appearance to Ladder-backed Woodpecker, this characterful colony nester travels in modest packs and flashes a bold white cheek, stippled black, white, and gray plumage, and a tiny little red facial spot or streak that somehow translates to a cockade. Considering this pleasing picid’s rarity, any birder would be lucky to lay eyes on it.
Coincidentally, the Triangle is home to another rare bird, my friend Nathan Swick of The Drinking Bird and Nature Blog Network. While Nate and I collaborate on the NBN blog, we’ve never met in person so this trip to North Carolina was the ideal opportunity. Plus — and this is a big bonus — Nate had a cinch spot for Red-cockaded Woodpecker! As Captain Jean Luc Picard would say, “Make it so!”
My first day in North Carolina was devoted to ScienceOnline09 and my workshop on blog carnivals, which went very well, thanks for asking. That night found me hobnobbing with the world’s finest marine bloggers, an experience I recommend highly. As I was only staying one night and wanted to experience more of this remarkable science blogging conference, our only window for birding was narrow indeed. Yet, to the consummate birder, time asleep is time better spent birding. This surely explains why Nate and I rendevouzed for a precipitously pre-dawn run to the alluring Longleaf Pine habitat of Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve, about an hour away in Southern Pines.
Our plan, brilliant on paper, was to pull in to the Weymouth Woods parking lot, pop out to spot multiple Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, perhaps spy a Bachman’s Sparrow or two, and cruise back to Sigma Xi for the 9:00AM ScienceOnline09 workshop on nature blogging. I really wanted to get back for the workshop! Unfortunately, as so many battle plans do, ours fell apart almost instantly upon contact with the enemy, or more accurately lack of contact. We heard nothing from our target birds.
While we reviewed bird calls en route to Weymouth Woods, Nate astutely noted how so many of the birds in this habitat, such as Brown-headed Nuthatch and our woodpeckers, share similarly squeaky calls. Yet the only squeaks coming out of the pines came from, what else, Pine Siskins. Another very welcome species that wasn’t much of a surprise considering the conifer cover was burnished gold Pine Warbler. The feeders at Weymouth Woods sustained Chipping Sparrows, Eastern Towhees, Dark-eyed Juncos, and White-breasted Nuthatches. But the only woodpecker we spied was a sapsucker, Yellow-bellied to be precise.
In the dim dawn light, things started to heat up. American Goldfinch and Brown-headed Nuthatches came and went in the bushy canopy of longleaf pines. Carolina Chickadees cruised onto the scene. Tiny birds barraged the scrub and firegrass. Our quarry, however, remained silent… too silent.
All too soon, it was time to head back to the conference. Nate and I couldn’t let a bunch of science bloggers, no matter how talented, talk nature blogs without being on hand to represent our community, could we? Could we? It was at that moment that the true Tao of Blogging, different from the way of the Consummate Birder yet inextricably linked, struck me like a bolt from the blue. For those who are moved to blog about their passions, sometimes the blog must come first and sometimes the passion must come first. Confident that any one of you nature bloggers would have done the same in our hiking shoes, we slogged on in search of our woodpecker!
Now, if you’ve been following my adventures, such as they are, for any length of time, you know that I’ve stalked a few birds in my day. Whether it was Golden-cheeked Warbler in the Texas Hill Country or California Gnatcatcher along the Pacific Coast, the narrative tends to follow the same beats. I search and search and search. The bird eludes me. I run out of time. The bird turns up at the last possible moment, often right at the spot I began. Guess how this tale ends?
As we trudged bone-chilled and weary back to the car, we heard a promising squeak, one possessing a subtle qualitative difference from the squeaks of nuthatches or siskins. We hustled back to the feeders but saw only the same array of avians we spotted earlier. Then just as rain started to fall more vocalizations erupted, the kind of conversations that herald a wave of gregarious woodpeckers with red cockades. In no time at all, Nate (who is an outstanding birder who I had no intention at all of publicly ridiculing if we failed to find our target species) spotted a trio of woodpeckers working the bark on a dead tree. Those white cheeks looked good. That glaucous plumage looked good. The cockades… well, I couldn’t make them out in the dim, drizzly conditions, but I didn’t need to. We had tracked down Red-cockaded Woodpecker!
A bad photo of a great woodpecker!
With no time to bask in the afterglow, we hightailed it back to the conference. Unfortunately, we got back too late for the nature blogging workshop and anyway, we were in need of breakfast. After that, the conference pretty much got away from me, which I regret tremendously. On the other hand, I did rack up some sweet road birds like Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered Hawk, American Kestrel, and both Black and Turkey Vultures. Even the most consummate birder can’t get it all done at once. But by following the Tao (and Nate) the most important tasks were executed with aplomb, most especially a successful stakeout of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.