Sunday, February 12, 2012

In Search of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker - Birding Palmetto-Peartree Preserve

 One of my favorite places to get away and escape is North Carolina's Outer Banks. The two-hour southeasterly drive from my home in Virginia through rural North Carolina makes it easily accessible for a long day or weekend trip. In addition to a wealth of marine life, Eastern North Carolina is home to a variety of other animals like deer, black bear, alligators and the endangered red wolf – not to mention the hundreds of bird species that live and migrate through the area.

Whitetail Buck, Bodie Island Refuge, marsh

Whitetail Buck

The Outer Banks is also home to one of my favorite events, Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival (WOW). The week-long event held each November celebrates the natural wonders of the area and offers many opportunities to explore the diversity there. Events held during the week range from birding in the historic Elizabethan Gardens to experiencing an evening out in the Alligator National Wildlife Refuge listening to howls of the endangered red wolves. Somewhere in between all that falls the outing to Palmetto-Peartree Preserve (aka P3) in search of the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

The nearly 10,000 acre preserve, located in Tyrrell County North Carolina, is home to approximately 2 dozen clusters (families) of the rare red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW). I’ve visited P3 on two separate occasions since attending the WOW festival and have been fortunate to see the RCW on both visits.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, palmetto-peartree preserve

These birds were once common throughout the southern US,  totaling more than a million clusters. Today there are fewer than 20 thousand individuals.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, palmetto-peartree preserve

Unlike most woodpeckers, the red-cockaded typically excavates nest and roost cavities in living trees (pines) and may occupy them for decades.

They leave their cavity around sunrise each morning to forage for insects in the nearby trees.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, palmetto-peartree preserve, nest cavity

Look closely at the above photo and you can see the RCW peeking out of the cavity.

RCWs limited habitat of open mature pine forest, preferring the longleaf pine above other pine species, has played a major part in its decline. Over time, the longleaf pine ecosystem slowly disappeared from much of its original range. Early European settlement, commercial tree farming, and agriculture eventually lead to the disappearance of the RCW habitat, and as a result the RCW numbers fell. They were officially listed as endangered around 1970.

Efforts to bring this bird back has been tough, but somewhat successful due to conservation efforts to restore and protect what’s left of their existing habitat.

Be sure to check out Palmetto-Peartree Preserve on the web to learn more, and find out how you can explore the wild and wonderful side of this region of North Carolina.