I found it on the way home from Florida. Without success, I had looked for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker in South Carolina’s Cheraw State Park. I had also searched extensively for the rare bird in the tall pines of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near Folkston, Georgia.
Since we would pass by Cheraw State Park on the return trip to Virginia, I decided to try again. We had the time, and I needed to stretch my legs and aching back. I stopped at the park’s welcome center and spoke with a ranger about where to look for the woodpecker. He gave me precise instructions, and I was where I needed to be in five minutes.
When my wife and I exited the van, we heard woodpeckers chipping, calling, and flitting high in the pines overhead. Were they the ubiquitous Downy Woodpeckers found in every state, or were they my nemesis bird? It turned out they were both.
To protect the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, scientists mark their cavity trees with rings of whitewash a few feet off the ground. That enables them to keep a close eye on the welfare of the rare birds. Look up, and the entrances to their nests are easy to find. Spotting the elusive woodpecker is a bit harder.
I was careful to stroll, always alert for any sound or sight of birds foraging. It didn’t take me long. Straight above me, a handful of small woodpeckers moved from limb to limb, pinecone to pinecone, searching for any moving insect protein.
I raised my binoculars and spotted what I was sure was a Red-cockaded Woodpecker. But birding alone is iffy, especially in search of rare birds. I briefly saw the big white patch on the bird’s cheek, a reliable field mark. But I had no one else to verify it was a Red-cockaded. That is protocol in IDing rare birds. My wife is not a birder, so I could not use her observations.
Soon, other small woodpeckers appeared and chased the Red-cockaded back to its nesting tree. Even with binoculars, it was hard to distinguish the Downys from the Red-cockaded. I took a few photos, hoping the rare bird was in one of them.
Still, I submitted my observations to eBird, the preferred app of birders. Of course, it flagged the Red-cockaded and told me what I already knew. My find was a rarity.
It wasn’t until we returned home, unpacked, and settled in that I could finally download my images to my laptop. With that done, I could enlarge the photos and see what I had captured digitally. My heart sank when I spotted not one but three different Downy Woodpeckers feeding in the treetops amid shadows and filtered sunlight.
However, one photo, taken without the zoom lens, clearly showed a large white patch on the bird’s cheek. About then, I got an email from a regional volunteer reviewer for eBird. He politely questioned my sightings and asked me to add details to verify my sighting. I did just that and added the two photos you see here.
That evening, the reviewer replied via email and thanked me for the additional information and photos. He certified that I had indeed seen a Red-cockaded Woodpecker! I was thrilled.
What’s the next rare bird on the list to find? The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, of course! (For you non-birders, that’s a joke. The Ivory-billed has been declared extinct, though a few supposed sightings occasionally pop up. None have produced evidence of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker).
© Bruce Stambaugh 2023
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