Babcock-Webb WMA: Red-cockaded Woodpeckers
Posted by Don Crockett on March 21, 2012
I spent a couple days at Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area near Punta Gorda, FL concentrating on one area of the park with several trees with Red-cockaded Woodpecker holes (see map below). I ended up doing much better than I thought I would at getting footage of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and I've included a one-minute clip below.
I had been warned that getting good photos/video of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers was pretty challenging but Dennis Peacock told me he had a good track record of getting visitors their life Red-cockaded Woodpecker at Babcock-Webb so I took him up on his offer to show me around. Ticking a lifer and getting good photos/video are 2 different things but I was willing to give it a try even if I only ended up ticking the lifer. I've known Dennis for quite while though I had never birded with him before. Dennis is originally from Massachusetts but moved to Florida around 6 years ago. We got a late start because I was chasing Snail Kites first thing but we went to a spot where Dennis said he reliably finds the birds. The area is marked with a "RCW" sign which you'll see on your left if you take your first left after entering Babcok-Webb. There are several trees with white bands painted around their trunks in this area. The bands indicate that the trees have Red-cockaded Woodpecker cavity holes in them. Some of these marked trees also have yellow ribbons around them which indicates that the holes were recently active.
Dennis told me that he finds the birds by listening for their bark pealing and calls. And sure enough within 10 minutes of arriving at the spot Dennis had found a bird right next to the road. The bird was around 20 feet in, about 20 feet up, on the side of the tree facing the road, in nice light, the perfect opportunity to get some video. But I could not get on the bird. The batteries in my holographic red-dot sight had gone dead and I was too stressed about getting on the bird quickly to recover and use my old navigation skills to get on the bird with telephoto video. So I missed that golden opportunity. But Dennis was able to stay on the bird and after his initial guidance I was able to follow the bird for around 45 minutes. But I never got the same opportunity as that first sighting so I wasn't really satisfied with the footage I got. Dennis told me afterwards that there was a second bird following close behind me. Dennis took off after that to go back to work. I spent a couple more hours in the area videoing other birds but I was unable to relocate the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.
I came back on Friday morning but got there shortly after sunrise so I missed the Red-cockadeds exiting their holes which is the best opportunity to see them. I spent the entire morning roaming the pine woods hoping to locate the birds but was unable to. Not deterred I came back to the area around 6pm and started looking again. After a half hour of looking I was at an edge of the pine woods when a pair of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers flew in from across the open area and landed in trees less than 75 feet from me. There was a medium overcast sky blocking direct sunlight but I worked my way around the trees to get the brighter part of the sky behind me. The pair was working the trees without flying any great distance and they were mostly staying fairly low in the trees. Low enough that there wasn't any bright sky in the frame to blow out the colors. Heaven! I was within 30 feet of the birds so I could get them more than full-frame at full zoom when they were still but had to pull back on the zoom when they were foraging to keep the video from being too jerky. After around a half hour of staying within 100 feet of where they initially landed, they flew off toward the marked trees next to the road. I saw one of the birds land on a tree with a white band and a yellow ribbon, and then it disappeared. I never saw where the 2nd bird ended up.
I decided I would come back for sunrise on Saturday to get the birds when they exited their holes. A birder had told me on Friday that they had seen a bird at sunrise on a tree across the road from where I saw the bird disappear. I got there just before sunrise and Peace River Audubon had a group of around 20 birders waiting for the woodpecker to appear from this 2nd tree. The nest hole in that tree had been protected by Florida Fish & Wildlife by putting a short length of PVC pipe in the hole and some metal mesh around the hole. The PVC pipe is to prevent Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers from expanding the holes so they can occupy them. I think the wire mesh is to keep snakes from entering the hole but I am not sure. These protections make the hole look a little like a penitentiary. Not the natural background scenery I wanted to capture the woodpeckers against as far as video (the woodpeckers obviously aren't as picky :) ). So I headed back to the tree that I saw the woodpecker disappear into since that nest hole was in its natural state. When I zoomed in on the hole I could already see the woodpecker's head poking out so I just started recording. After moving a round a bit, the bird just shot out of the tree and started calling to its mate. You can see and hear this in the above video. The woodpecker that came out of "the penitentiary" hole stuck around near the hole so I was able to get some footage of that bird also.
I consider myself to have been very lucky to have been at the right place and the right time to get the footage of the birds low in the trees in medium light on Friday. I think the footage is better than the clips Cornell shows in the Macaulay Library but see if you agree. The only issue I have with the video footage I shot on Friday is that the birds were banded. I would have preferred footage without the "hand of man" included. A big "Thank You!" to Dennis Peacock for showing me the ropes on Red-cockaded Woodpeckers at Babcock-Webb!
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