Ken Hare's Natural Alabama: Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

Ken Hare's Natural Alabama: Red-Cockaded Woodpecker
An endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker in Conecuh National Forest south of Andalusia. Note Banding on its leg. (Photo Ken Hare)
An endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker in Conecuh National Forest south of Andalusia. Note Banding on its leg. (Photo Ken Hare)
An artificial nesting cavity for Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. (Photo Ken Hare)
An artificial nesting cavity for Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. (Photo Ken Hare)
The red spot near the upper cheek of male Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers that give the birds their name seldom shows. (Photo Ken Hare)
The red spot near the upper cheek of male Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers that give the birds their name seldom shows. (Photo Ken Hare)

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Alabama has eight species of woodpeckers that regularly reside in the state, and until a few weeks ago I had seen only seven of them. But a concerted effort in the past two weeks has netted me multiple sightings of the state's endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker.

Birds, of course, don't recognize state lines, so lots of species that do not normally call Alabama home can occasionally be found here. But the eight woodpecker species that regularly are found in Alabama are the Red-Cockaded, Red-Headed, Red-Bellied, Downy, Hairy and Pileated woodpeckers plus the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker and the Northern Flicker. (The Northern Flicker is sometimes called the Yellowhammer, and it is the state bird of Alabama.) 
By far the rarest of these is the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. (See photos.)

The Red-Cockaded Woodpecker (RCWO) is threatened because of the sharp decline of its highly specific nesting habitat -- mature, live Longleaf Pine trees in areas with little or no ground cover underneath the stand of the trees. Longleaf Pine forests were common across the Southeast until most were cut down in the past century for their rot-resistant wood and the areas replanted with faster growing trees.

Now the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker nests in scattered locations in a much smaller range from Florida to Virginia and to Eastern Texas. In Alabama, for the most part it can be found in Oakmulgee, Talladega, and Conecuh National Forests.

My quest 10 days ago took me to the Conecuh National Forest southwest of Andalusia. I'd visited a site there last year but had no luck, but this time I allowed time to be there at sunset. The RCWO nests in scattered small colonies, and the birds range for miles during the day to feed. But close to sunset, the birds return to their nests and I planned to be there.

But I'd also hoped to catch some of them near the nests during the day when the light was better for photography. When they have nestlings, the birds stay closer to the colony's nesting site to care for the young. However, I found no birds near the nesting sites during the day.

But about 20 minutes before sunset, I saw three likely birds fly high into the canopy of the pines, and after a few minutes two of them worked their way far enough down the trees that I could make a positive ID. The white cheek patch that helps set them apart from the similar Downy and Hairy woodpeckers was unmistakable. (The "red cockade" that gives them their name is just a tiny patch sometimes seen high on a male bird's cheek during breeding season).

Despite the dying light, I was able to get a photo of one of them to confirm the ID.

Fast forward to this past weekend. Rob O'Connell, a birding friend from Maine whose work sometimes brings him to Alabama was in town, and he had seen a Facebook posting of my find from a week ago. He did not have a RCWO on his life list and was interested. So off we went, again staking out the same area where I found them two weeks before.

Again, no luck during the day. But about a half-hour before sunset, my friend spotted three birds high in the canopy. I managed to see only two of them. Again, a couple worked their way down trees to where we could get a good look, and again I managed to photograph one of them. Again, they were not great photos because of the light but were good enough for confirmation purposes. This one had been banded -- something not uncommon for a threatened species, since scientists study them to see how best to protect them.

Federal and state conservation officials have had great success in slowing the loss of these beautiful birds by building artificial nests in Longleaf Pines designed specifically for the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. (See photo.)

While most of the state's Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers can be found on state and federal lands, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has developed a Safe Harbor program for the endangered birds that seeks to have private landowners enter a mutually beneficial agreement with the state that both protects the birds and the interests of the landowners. Landowners interested in finding out more about the program should contact non-game biologist Carrie Threadgill with the Conservation Department.


For years a hugely popular event at Fort Morgan on Mobile Bay was the bird banding project operated by the late Bob Sargent and his wife Martha. Now the banding project is set to return to the coast next week.

In addition to being a popular learning experience for the public, the work of the Sargents provided invaluable data on spring migration of birds along the Alabama coast.

Recognizing the value of continuing to gather this data, a group has been formed to continue the work. It will be a partnership of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources,  Birmingham Audubon, Mississippi State University, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, the Alabama Historical Commission, and the Mobile Bay Audubon Society.

The banding efforts will be led by Eric Soehren, an ecologist with the Alabama Conservation Department, and Dr. Scott Rush of Mississippi State University.

The banding project is designed to allow the public great access to researchers, with opportunities to discuss the science behind the surveys. But best of all, the public can get up-close looks at beautiful migratory birds.

The banding station will open for the public starting on the afternoon of Tuesday, April 18, and remain open to the public for several hours each day through Saturday morning, April 22. It is suggested that you bring water, bug spray, sunscreen and an outdoor chair if you plan to stay for an extended period. Restrooms and concessions are available next to the ferry.

All ages are welcome. The Coastal Alabama Birding Project is free, but there is the usual fee to enter the park.

For details, go to:


-- Alabama Ornithological Society: Kevin Karlson, the author of several books on birding and a professional nature guide, will be the featured speaker and lead several field trips at the AOS spring meeting on Dauphin Island April 21-23. Karlson is co-author of "Birding by Impression: A Different Approach to Knowing and Identifying Birds" and "The Shorebird Guide." He will join with another professional wildlife guide, Andrew Haffenden, to lead several field trips during the three-day weekend. To see a schedule of activities, to join AOS or to register for the meeting, go to:

-- Birmingham Audubon Mountain Workshop: This respected and wide-ranging nature workshop will turn 40 years old when it is held May 11-14 in Mentone. Classes will explore the ecology, wildlife, and culture of northeastern Alabama. Knowledgeable faculty members will lead classes and field trips on such things as animal ecology, stream biology, beginning and advanced bird identification, mammal identification, insect collection, geology, Native American culture, canoeing and more. There is also a program aimed at youth. Participants will stay at either Mentone's Alpine Camp or at nearby DeSoto State Park. For information, go to:

-- Birmingham Audubon Teaches Nature: Alabama Birding Trails, April 30, 2-4 p.m. Joe Watts, Birmingham Audubon president, will discuss the success of and plans for the Alabama Birding Trails program.  The program will be at Oak Mountain Interpretive Center. The program is free, but the usual admission to the park is required. For information, go to:

-- Birmingham Audubon field trip to Bushy Creek Lake in Bankhead National Forest, April 15, 7 a.m. - 5 p.m. Details,

-- The Alabama Birding Trails web page has developed a comprehensive list of upcoming birding and nature-related activities around the state that is much more detailed than space allows here. Most of the activities are open to the public and many are free. See it at:

Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for Feedback appreciated at To see other columns, go to:

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