I’m wrapping up my trip to Texas. It’s been a great trip, but I’m ready to go home and spend some time with my family. Before I flew back to Seattle, though, I had some unfinished business with a woodpecker. There are 22 regularly occurring species of woodpeckers in the US and Canada. I’d seen 21 since my big year began last June. The remaining one is the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, an endangered species found in a few scattered pockets around the southeastern US. One of those pockets is in the pine woods of W.G. Jones State Forest, north of Houston.
Like many endangered species, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a habitat specialist. It only lives in relatively mature pine forests, preferring areas where red heart disease (a fungus) has weakened some of the older trees so that nesting cavities are easier to excavate. At Jones State Forest, nest trees are clearly marked with green paint. This is not the nesting season though, so no peckers were pecking at this tree.
Habitat specialists have evolved to thrive in their own unique habitat, making them very successful – until that habitat is altered or destroyed. Large scale deforestation of the South to make way for agriculture and urban growth in the last three centuries has cleared almost all of the RC Woodpecker’s preferred habitat, resulting in a population decline of about 99%. The Woodpecker holds on in a few areas, with the pine forests north of Houston being one of them. This story is unfortunately similar to that of Kirtland’s Warbler, another habitat specialist I visited last summer in Michigan. Kirtland’s Warbler needs fire-regenerated young Jack Pines forests, which were all but eliminated due to 20th Century forestry policies of extinguishing all wildfires. Controlled burns are helping to bring the warbler back.
Controlled fire is also being used here at Jones, not to regenerate young trees (this woodpecker needs big, mature ones) but to clear out underbrush and new deciduous growth that could crowd and choke the open pine forest.
I enjoyed walking through the damp woods. The weather had turned cool and misty, a nice change from the 90s of the Valley.
Something told me I was getting closer.
It was this nice yellow and black sign. And soon I could see them, a group of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers chasing each other through the forest. The red ‘cockade,’ a small mark on the head, is all but invisible. But I had pretty good looks at the rest of them as these charismatic little birds chipped and pecked their way around a cluster of trees.
I didn’t get close enough for a good picture (these are endangered birds, after all, and I didn’t want to bother them). But they were plenty close to enjoy through binoculars. After 15 minutes of watching this merry little group, the woodpeckers flew off to another part of the forest and the rain began to strengthen. I beat a hasty retreat to my car, having seen all of the woodpeckers of North America within the last year.