Florida CBC Fun in Charlotte County
Babcock Webb is primarily pine-flatwoods habitat broken up by marsh areas in low spots. It is known as the best spot to see federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Brown-headed Nuthatches, & Bachman's Sparrows along the entire central to southern Gulf coast and certainly the southernmost location for the RCW! As such, it was not surprising that at first light my fellow bird counters and I headed directly for the closest Woodpecker roost site to insure we tallied this bird on the count. They are comparatively easy to see at first light when they leave the roost and socialize a bit before heading off to feed in the open woodlands. After this they could be wandering anywhere in a sea of pines.
It was overcast and as we waited for them to make an appearance, we began tallying other species like fly over American Goldfinches, American Robins, and Common Grackles, among others. I managed to locate a single Bachman's Sparrow which (as usual) was very uncooperative and skulky. I was able to see movement in the palmettos, hear it's high-pitched call notes, and even hear the rustle of the dead fronds, but never really saw it. This is not atypical at all for this species in winter though... they are so much kinder after February when they actually come out of hiding and will tee up to sing their melodic phrases! Then some Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaked in the trees overhead following a fast moving flock of Eastern Bluebirds, mixed with handfuls of Pine, Palm, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. So far the birds were not offering good views but again this isn't unexpected of birds first waking up.
A distant Downy Woodpecker let out a descending "De-de-de-de-de-de-dee!" and two Red-bellied Woodpeckers "churred!" to our right. The harsh "Kiyoo!" of a Northern Flicker helped to round out our woodpecker list that morning, but we were still waiting on the rarest one.
Surely these other woodpeckers waking up was a good sign though, I thought. In the distance there was a noise, "Was that it?!?..." I cocked my head and strained my ears to the gentle breeze. Yes! a high shrill, "Kiir!" followed by an answer. Our Red-cockaded Woodpecker couple had left their roost holes and were saying "Good morning!" (or at least that's the way I took it). They were on the opposite side of the road from where I was still struggling to get the Bachman's Sparrow to cooperate. I quickly gave up on this mouse of a bird and dashed back to the road. I spied the woodpecker marked by its large white circular face patch as it hitched up a tree not far off the road, then quickly trained the scope on it and leapt out of the way so Larry in our group could add this stunning bird to his lifelist. It was a brief view but definitive as the bird flew much further back and joined another on a more distant tree. I swung the scope around again and ran the zoom up a bit and once again surrendered the scope so Larry could enjoy his first views of this bird once again.
By now it was well past 7 AM and I was real surprised to hear the staccato trill of an eastern Screech-Owl, both because it was so light at this point and in my quarter century of birding I'd never encountered them in habitat like this. The pines here are separated by 20 feet at least on average and it is a VERY open habitat. I've always seen Screech-Owls in dense thickets in the past. Of course, this is what makes birding so fun and interesting as well; the surprises never end. One thing that was certain was that if this bird kept singing it would be cinch to find. There were very few dead snags large enough to accommodate this bird for one thing and second the woods are so open you can easily see hundreds of feet in any given direction.