I love looking at birds close-up through binoculars and seeing just how beautiful they are, even the drabbest little brown sparrow. I find it interesting to observe birds and to learn about their feeding, courtship, and nesting behaviors. Apparently, I’ve become a birder.
An Addictive Hobby
Little did I know how addictive this hobby would become. Sometimes, it borders on obsession. Consider, for example, our winter-long quest for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, an endangered bird found only in the southeastern U.S. A reputedly good place to see the woodpeckers is Ochlockonee River State Park in the Florida Panhandle.
On four separate occasions, we camped at Ochlockonee in an attempt to find this elusive woodpecker. Of course, we did plenty of other fun things while we were there—hiking, biking, and kayaking—but we always kept an eye out for the woodpecker. We saw Red-bellied, Pileated, and Downy Woodpeckers, but the Red-cockaded Woodpecker eluded us.
Why The Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Is So Hard To Find
It’s not surprising that we had difficulties finding the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. The number of birds has decreased from 1.5 million to about 12,500—less than one percent of the original number. They’re in trouble because the old-growth longleaf pine forests that they need for nesting and foraging have been steadily disappearing.
Large stands of longleaf pine are protected at Ochlockonee River State Park, and artificial nest cavities are placed in trees throughout the park to lure the birds to nest. This helps the woodpeckers because it can take them up to three years to excavate a nest cavity. They have the unusual habit of excavating their nest cavities in live trees. The sap exuding from the nest hole helps to keep predators at bay.
In our attempt to find the woodpeckers, we hiked and biked past the nesting trees numerous times. No luck. And then finally, on our last visit to Ochlockonee State Park in late March, we were setting up camp when a ruckus overhead accompanied by bits of flying bark caught our attention. A pair of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers foraged in the pines just above us, and we enjoyed a wonderful half-hour of observing their behavior. We tried to find them again during our couple of days in the park, with no luck. But we were delighted that they paid us a visit, however unintentional.
More Birding Nearby
On the same trip, we enjoyed two days of birding at nearby St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, established in 1931 and one of the oldest refuges in the country. Biking the dike trails is a terrific way to explore the backcountry of the refuge, and we were rewarded with scores of wading birds, shorebirds, and ducks.
For the first time, we camped at Newport Campground, a nearby Wakulla county park with full hookups just a few miles from the refuge. An added bonus is that a kayak launch for the St. Marks River is located right next to the campground. It was the perfect spot to spend a couple of days immersed in exploring the refuge.