An eerie silence penetrated the morning fog as I crested the ridge this morning. Today marked the fourth visit in as many weeks to my favorite birding haunt to conduct yet another winter bird survey. I've conducted the winter bird surveys here since 2003 when red-headed woodpeckers were so commonly encountered that we counted them by fives. Since 2007, near the beginning of rampant, unchecked development in the watershed, the wintering red-headed woodpeckers have declined. The high counts in 2003 through 2006 averaged 30 birds at 7 different locations scattered throughout the site. In 2009, I logged 4. This year, on four different trips spanning an entire day under various weather conditions, I didn't see or hear a single one.
As the sun moved from behind the hills, the rest of the wintering birds came to life: lots of red-bellieds, nuthatches with their silly "quank", yellow-rumped warblers, titmice, kinglets, a flock of about 40 cedar waxwings flapping wildly while picking off all the blue berries from a fire-pruned cedar. But no red-headeds. Barring the bald eagle, broad-winged hawk, American widgeons and gadwalls, the rest of the birds on my checklist today have all paid a visit or two to my urban backyard feeding station. No red-headeds in my backyard, either, of course.
Red headed woodpeckers (for as long as I've lived here, at least) were the signature bird of nice open woodlands in the Ozarks. So common on the landscape were they that folks living in the Ozarks saw them frequently at suet feeders. The dapper birds were so prevalent in the semi-urban white oak woods I lived in that every knothole in my storage shed housing was packed with their carefully crammed white oak acorns. They're not around that area anymore.
For the past several years, I've noted red-headed woodpeckers' presence on different watch lists--Central Hardwoods Joint Venture, Audubon. In Illinois, where only 2% of the state's land cover is in native vegetation, small little preserves are set aside in an effort to protect dwindling aspects of a once biodiverse landscape. One tract is a whopping 12 acres, an area set aside to protect one of the only known populations of compass plant. Compass plant! It's not sustainable. But the Ozark Highlands, the thousands of acres of land spread across many miles with disjunct patches of development. The St. Francois Mountains, for example, is not as open or the ideal structure for red-headeds as are the western Ozarks, but I wonder if red-headeds are hanging out around igneous knobs. Or is it something larger, problems in their breeding grounds, for example.
So, the next step is to visit other similar open woodland tracts away from the development zone (Forest Service land, for example) to see if the red-headeds are still there. It's been so long since I've seen or heard them, I hope I haven't forgotten their gurgling churl.