Sunday, April 4, 2010

Fire Birds

A Brown-headed Nuthatch in Ocala National Forest

One of my favorite Alachua Audubon field trips last year was the spring trip to Ocala National Forest, where I got my life sightings of Bachman's Sparrows and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Glenn wasn't here to join me then, but he is now—and yesterday 's trip back to Ocala National Forest was his turn to discover these birds for the first time.

The trip started auspiciously: One of the first birds we spotted as we entered the forest was a Florida Scrub Jay. These rare birds are growing ever rarer, but when they're around, they're surprisingly easy to see. This is because they're obsessively curious and nearly fearless: almost every time I've stopped to check one out, it would fly in closer to check me out. And yesterday's bird did exactly that: he flew and hopped until he was just feet away, at eye level.

We parked our cars and started the main part of our walk in the same place we explored last year—in a sunny, grassy stand of pines where the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers were known to be nesting. An unfamiliar but very pretty song rang out repeatedly from the pines—our guide identified it as our Bachman's Sparrow. The birds only like open grasslands and recently burned areas, which is why I haven't seen them in my usual birding spots in town, but they were clearly here in big numbers:

It didn't take us long to find the stand of nesting trees favored by the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers: trees with nest holes are clearly marked with white paint around their trunks. But the white-painted trees were quiet, except for the songs of Pine Warblers and the call notes of Palm Warblers.

We moved on to an area that had undergone a controlled burn just the week before. Black, ashy twigs crumbled under our feet and pale, limp cactus paddles caught in the fire looked as though they had been steamed to death—which they probably were. I didn't think it looked too promising for birds—but then a faint chorus of squeaks, like the sounds of a dog's plastic chew toy, grew louder in the trees: the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers! Several of them were flying around, chasing each other and squeaking loudly.

And just like last year, they were too fast and too high to be photographed. But they were there, and they were very cool.

Also squeaking loudly were several Brown-headed Nuthatches, who stayed low to the ground and were a lot more cooperative for photos.

We stood in the burnt-out area for the better part of an hour, watching the birds chase each other. The controlled fires keep the underbrush low and promote the kind of open pine woods and grassy undercover that birds such as Bachman's Sparrows and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers like.

Out of the destruction comes life for vulnerable birds: we had discovered a strangely appropriate place to bird on the day before Easter.

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