We love the woodpeckers north of the Woodlands

We heard the calls before we saw them, and then they flew into view, high up in the longleaf pine. These Red-cockaded woodpeckers are so endangered because they nest in living long-leaf pines. The W. G. Jones State Forest is managed for them, with thinning and fires to keep the long-leaf pines the way they should be. These are almost mystical forests, grassy and open underneath, with long, soft needles above. My longest Rice colleague and friend, Paul Harcombe, the only ecologist at Rice when I arrived, has studied these forests. His former grad students, Donna Streng, and Jeff Glitzenstein, have largely given their lives to the study of these threatened southeastern forests. They clearly have a sense of natural place stronger than my wandering one. Look at what they are up to, saving, considering each lovely forest plant.

Perhaps there is no better way to define a place than by what grows there. For Houston the arching live oaks that surround Rice University come first to mind, but how much richer are the forests and fields where I’ve had expert guides take me to individual plants, telling their history, and their own experience with the plants, tying them back through time. Exploring the northern Michigan landscape with Ed Voss, as I did with my sister a couple of summers ago, is about as intense an experience of this kind as is possible. That bug camp story will have to wait for another time, for we are still in Texas, and the woodpeckers, cardinals, titmice, and Carolina wrens were all calling.

Last Sunday morning we nearly had the place to ourselves, except for a friendly Londoner lucky enough to be sent to Houston for a month, just as migration is getting underway. He arrived at 7:30, 25 minutes before us, and said the woodpeckers had dispersed, but we still found them. He was also after the brown-headed nuthatch, which we found, complete with an active nest hole. But I was hardly alone. Cin-Ty Lee and I had brought our Bird Field Biology class, EBIO 337, and so we were accompanied by 17 sleepy but attentive undergraduates. It was only our second field trip of the semester, but they already seemed very comfortable with their binoculars, and enthusiastically looked for the birds. They are all writing bird blog entries for which they must both watch the birds in nature, and read about them. The best ones are posted on our new blog, Slow Birding. I like to teach in ways that get the students involved with teaching, particularly through various forms of social media.

We walked around the red-cockaded woodpecker loop, listening and observing in the cool morning. We heard other woodpeckers too, pileated, downy, red-bellied, missing flickers and the striking red headed woodpecker. The lone leaf cutter ant trail had a few workers straggling from their night-time labor, and a surprising number of abandoned leaves on the ground, all nicely cut. I followed the trail to a single hole near a log, so this must be a small colony. It felt great to escape the city for a few hours.

Natural parks are hard to come by around Houston, and this is a good one, also popular with hikers, bikers, and equestrians. The problem is only what you have to drive through to get there. Google maps says it is 52 minutes from Rice University, or 80 minutes with traffic to drive the 43 miles. You go straight up I 45, past the Woodlands, past 242, then turn left (west) on Farm to Market Road 1488. The headquarters are on your right about 2.3 miles down, and the red-cockaded woodpeckers are a short walk north of there. From Rice the first 30 miles or so are unending strip malls, billboards, urban and ex-urban trash. Someday I’ll take a photo every mile on the mile so you can see what I mean. Don’t worry – I’ll do it while Dave is driving.


A red-cockaded woodpecker. What we saw was the ladder pattern on the back, and those big white spots on the sides of its head.


This is a typical glimpse of a bird. Luckily this is a bluebird, and we could identify it even from this bit!


Feathery long leaves of longleaf pines, Pinus palustris.


We found a small nest of the fungus-growing, leaf-cutting ant, Atta texana, studied by Scott Solomon at Rice University.


These are graduating seniors, mostly headed to medical school. I hope they remember to love nature!


A pair of kestrels alighted here, seemingly posing for us.


See the brown-headed nuthatch hole in the middle bottom quarter of the photo? See the nuthatch herself in the top third just under the out-of-focus limb from the left?

Here is the bird list Cin-Ty compiled and posted on ebird. He always sees more than the rest of us, but I saw or heard most of these also.

Location:     W.G. Jones State Forest (UTC 036)
Observation date:     3/20/11
Number of species:     34
Double-crested Cormorant 2
Great Blue Heron 5
Black Vulture 1
American Kestrel 2
Killdeer 1
Eurasian Collared-Dove 1
Mourning Dove 2
Red-bellied Woodpecker 5
Downy Woodpecker 3
Red-cockaded Woodpecker 5
Pileated Woodpecker 1
Blue Jay 5
American Crow 10
Carolina Chickadee 20
Tufted Titmouse 10
Brown-headed Nuthatch 5
Carolina Wren 10
House Wren 2
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1
Eastern Bluebird 20
Northern Mockingbird 20
European Starling 10
Cedar Waxwing 10
Northern Parula 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 10
Yellow-throated Warbler 1
Pine Warbler 20
Chipping Sparrow 40
Northern Cardinal 20
Brown-headed Cowbird 15
Pine Siskin 4
American Goldfinch 2
House Sparrow 10

This report was generated automatically by eBird v2(http://ebird.org)


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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