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Archive for April, 2011

I got a call from the Houston Visitors Bureau that a birder from Sweden was coming to Texas and needed a guide. Was I willing? Of course. We met for dinner to discuss his trip: Berndt was a tall, cheerful man who liked to eat. As he clutched his margarita, he peered across the table and said with a glint in his eye that he really wanted to see woodpeckers. In particular, he hoped to see the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, which occurs in the Southeastern United States and nowhere else in the world.

The next morning we headed to W. G. Jones State Forest, the best place near Houston to find this bird. We arrived soon after daylight, the prime time to find this species. The loblolly pines were mostly hidden in mist—the mist was so thick, it looked like white bed sheets pulled across the canopy, with the trees only partially woken-up. I didn’t know how likely we would be to find the Red-cockaded, as they are an endangered species. Historically, this bird was more commonly found throughout the mature savannah-like forests of loblolly, southern yellow, and long leaf pines, but due to our cutting down its homes and building our own homes and businesses and schools in its habitat, there are fewer than twelve nesting pairs left. W. G. Jones State Forest has Red-cockaded woodpeckers at all because of the Texas Forest Service’s practice of initiating controlled fires to keep the vegetation to under four feet.

As we approached the forest, we could smell fresh, living pine needles, as well as the sweet, starchy scent of fallen rotting ones becoming soil. As we crunched our way through the stillness, I buttoned my shirt against the cool. We stopped to scan high up along the trunks, though it was hard to see in the mist. Further on, the tops of pines peaked through the mist—it was as if it were sinking, rather than being “lifted.” Berndt smiled at the beauty. “I feel like you have brought me back to Sweden,” he said, and we continued.

Moments later I heard an Eastern Bluebird singing to welcome the morning, and pointed to where I saw it perched on a downward-sloping pine bough. We headed into the trees and a nasal nyet, nyet, nyet tapped out like tinny Morse code caught my attention—I put out my hand to stop our progress. Looking up, I caught three tiny Brown-headed Nuthatches pecking at the bark of a pine only a few yards away. I pointed these out to Berdnt: These were the first Brown-headed Nuthatches Berndt had ever seen. The Eastern Bluebird had been a first, as well: Berndt smiled with pleasure. “We’re off to a good start,” he said.

Soon after, we came to three tall pines with—Yes! Red-cockaded Woodpecker cavities! Unlike most other woodpeckers, which nest in dead trees, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers nest in living pines. Their cavities also look they’ve been doused with white candle wax, because Red-cockaded Woodpeckers peck away the bark surrounding their holes and cause sap to flow to deter snakes and other predators.

A squeaking chatter arose from somewhere above and I caught a flash of black-and-white as a Red-cockaded winged between two nearby pines. I pointed the bird out to Berndt, and he grabbed for his camera. In quick succession, three more Red-cockadeds arrived. Unlike most woodpeckers, which tend to be solitary, this species lives in family groups with the young of the previous year helping their parents raise their newborn brothers and sisters. The families nest in separate cavities: in the early morning, they’re eager to get back together again and join in a melee of fast chatter that sounds like a family quarrel. The happy quarreling started, and as if he understood their happiness, a grin spread across Berndt’s face. He gave me a thumbs-up: Three new species in less than ten minutes. The day would yield eighteen new species for him in all—I hope, making Berndt’s trip from Sweden worthwhile.

Post co-written by Elizabeth White.

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