Four Endgangered Species Day

When you go birding in Florida, frost is not what you expect to have to deal with. Before I headed to Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, I was sent emails regarding the weather. I noticed that the lows were in the thirties with highs in the 50s, but after dealing with -21, I figured I could take it. However, Florida ended up being a bit colder than I expected, apparently it was a record cold snap, the likes of which haven't been seen for 14 years. The field trip I signed up for was called the South Brevard County, and the timing was brutal: the bus left at 4: 30 am and returned at 4:30 pm--couple that with temperatures in the twenties, it made for a rough morning. I needed to be on this trip, there were two birds in particular that I wanted to see: Florida scrub-jay and red-cockaded woodpecker. I think sometimes people assume birders love getting up early to watch birds. I think for quite a few of us, we don't love getting up early. The hotel had a breakfast area set up for us starting at 3:30 am, but who wants to eat at that hour? At 3:45 am, I found myself staring into a bowl of Raising Bran, thinking, "What the hell am I doing with my life, why the hell am I here? What is wrong with me?"

But we had to bundle up. I did not bring my winter coat with me, but I did have a sweater and a couple of fleeces. I also stopped in to the local big box store's hunting and fishing section and picked up some hand warmers and proper gloves. Keep that in mind, folks, when you travel--if you need gloves or other outerwear to keep warm and the stores are telling you they have clearanced out winter because it's spring (even though the calendar reads January), you kind sensible outdoor gear in the hunting and fishing section.

Our tour bus headed to St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park, a small patch of habitat suitable for both of my target species. When we arrived, they let the group into the visitor center. The naturalists said that with the cold temperatures, even the woodpeckers found it more sensible to sleep in a little later, tucked into their tree cavities. As the sun started to peak up from below the horizon, it was time to head out. Because of the rough terrain, the tour bus could not take us to the red-cockaded woodpecker spot, it was quite a distance to walk and not all of our group would have been able to make the walk, so they loaded us into the backs of pick up trucks and we bounced our way there in the cold air.

We stopped at a group of trees known to be cavities of red-cockaded woodpecker. After about 10 minutes, one poked its head out, looking as though he felt the way I had felt a few hours earlier. This woodpecker is an endangered species. The cavity above is actually a "human made" cavity. The naturalists explained how the woodpeckers will reuse previously made cavities for years and they have devised a way of implanting a fake cavity into a live tree--without killing the tree. The red-cockaded specializes in mature open pine forest. Most of the woodpeckers we see in the US tend to go after dead and dying trees, this ambitious species makes it roost and nest cavity in a live tree (although the pine needs to have red-heart fungus, that does make it a bit softer). Now, that would not be a big deal if the bird had a beak like a pileated woodpecker, but this bird has a tiny beak, not unlike a downy woodpecker.

Above is a cross-section of a cavity pecked by an actual red-cockaded woodpecker. It's kinda tiny. The tree came down in a storm and the park uses it as a display. The tree needs to still be alive because the adult will peck holes around the cavity entrance, causing sap to flow, and making it harder for predators like snakes to slither up to the cavity.

The woodpeckers eventually came out of their cavities, but did not seem to want to stay in one spot. Much like humans, it's easier to move around and stay warm than just stand still. I didn't get the best photo, but it was still a treat to see this endangered species and you get an idea of what it looks like. Now, if you're like me, you might be wondering what the heck the red-cockaded means in the birds name. Boy-oh-boy-oh-boy, it's up there with the red-bellied woodpecker! First, a cockade is a knot of ribbons, usually on a hat. So, where is the red that would indicate the red-cockade on the woodpecker? Well, if you hold a red-cockaded woodpecker six inches from your face, you can see a tiny dot of red on the edge of the white cheekc patch where it meet the black on its nape (only on the male).

After watching the red-cockaded, we headed to more open scrubby area with shrub oaks and palmettos, habitat of the Florida scrub-jay. This particular species needs very specific habitat that Birds of North America Online describes as, "Extremely habitat-restricted, occurring only in scrub and scrubby flatwoods of Florida." Some of the essentials include: myrtle oak, runner oak, rusty lyonia, and Florida rosemary. The ground cover needs to be sparce, dominated by palmettos. The open sandy patches are needed for the scrub-jay to hide its cache of acorns. Very, very specific needs for this particular species.

But a very beautiful and cooperative one! The scrub-jays would pop up and just pose in the sun--much easier to digiscope than the red-cockaded woodpecker. The sun was getting higher at this point, the air was getting warmer. Looking at this gorgeous blue creature, I found myself answering the question I asked at 3:45 am, this is what I'm doing with my life. As I was watching my second endangered species of the day, I started to think about how it's incredibly unsafe to be inflexible. Florida is a study of inflexible creatures. Red-cockade woodpeckers have carved our a niche in a specific type of tree--so specific, the tree must have a specific type of fungus. The scrub-jay needs specific shrubs, but also specific spacing to store their food. Or think of the snail kite that only eats a certain type of snail. For species survival, it does not pay to be inflexible. It's important to get out of that comfort zone and generalize--hence the rock pigeon.

We did see several other species on our trip, like great views at a red-shouldered hawk above. If it looks weird, that's because its nictitating membrane is over the eye. Our local field trip leader was David Simpson and he was a good low key guide. Since it was a long field trip, he did a great job of setting our pace and birding so we could get good looks at the birds and more importantly, not get completely worn out. If you're ever looking for a good Florida bird guide, you should check him out.

Because it was so cold, the naturalists told us that we would probably see manatees if we went to the canal, the water was deeper and would be warmer. We headed over that way and there looked to be at least 60 manatees in the water, bobbing up and down, spraying water, and occassionally splashing their tails. That was the third endangered species of the day! After our field trip was done, I was heading back to my hotel and a wood stork ran in front of the road (well, as much as a wood stork can run). That was endangered species number four. I did not get a photo, because I was driving and concentrating on not hitting the stork or surrounding vehicles. But I do think that this is the first time I have seen four endangered species in one day.