Chasing Red-Heads: An eBird Obsession

Photo credit: Flicker Photo Farm

“Red is the ultimate cure for sadness.” ~ Bill Blass

Obsess, Dream, Obsess

Birding is supposed to relieve stress. An escape from reality. Pretty feathers. Cute faces. Freedom in the truest sense.

Our journey of birding has been worth all the effort put into building a knowledge base in the brain. Games of strategy are played with every chase, and persistence generally pays off with the big prize (I’ve blogged about three such instances, here and here and here).

This year, the red-heads are giving me a red face. Both happen to be woodpeckers.

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker I am convinced I will never see in my lifetime. Like the Prairie Chicken or the Whooping Crane, he’s on the endangered list. The other is the Red-headed Woodpecker (RHW), the feature bird of this post.

Mr. RHW is always dressed for success in his white-and-black tuxedo and completely red-silk-scarfed head. It is redder than red, and with his bold, chunky color combination, he is the most striking of all the woodpecker species, in my humble opinion. He is worthy of ogling eyes and the long, drooling gaze of a first-time sighting. Never mind the memorializing photo or a check of the box (which is secondary). Like other woodpeckers, he prefers woodlands.

Woodlands are disappearing fast around here. He prefers tall dead trees; people, thinking them to be an eye-sore, have dead trees removed. It’s a lose-win situation, and with no potential winter homes or cache (he stores in cavities of dead trees), he simply goes elsewhere. What remains of his habitat in Houston has shrunk to pockets to the north and a handful of spotty areas to the south.

Just as I was starting to give up on him and move on with my life, this:


 *gasp* Red-Headed Woodpecker sighting!!
Credit: eBird Explore Data | Species

My bad for even checking.

Birders — probably not unlike this Judy Behrens on 11-2-2015 — are list-ers by nature. There’s the annual list, the life list, the day count…it goes on. eBird exploits this habit much as Facebook does with a love of selfies and shopping habits, or WordPress with philosophical babbling. They use people’s need to boast one-up share for building a virtual bird species database to be perused by anyone.

People like me, the obsessive-compulsive type.

I’m no stranger to listing; I even keep a current annual count right here on the blog for others to be jealous of compare with. It’s enough trouble keeping up with my kids and writing the follow-on post for birding excursions, but sharing lists and counts to be scrutinized by other birders has a distinct advantage. Counting not just species but numbers of species — particularly those who are known to be in trouble — helps conservationists make the case for troubled birds.

eBird is the bird nerd’s virtual candy shop. Until my recent obsession, I hadn’t fully recognized the usefulness of it.

The Hunt for the Red-Headed Woodpecker

Which brings me back to the check list in the screen shot. So…what don’t I know?

  1. There are no field notes on whether she counted it by sound. If so, its call can easily be mistaken for the Red-bellied Woodpecker, a much more common bird.
  2. Did she understand how special this sighting was? Houston Audubon recognizes the RHW as ‘uncommon in all seasons.’
  3. There is no way of knowing whether she ID’d it correctly. Sometimes a person will call a woodpecker with a red head (like the Pileated or Red-bellied) a ‘Red-headed Woodpecker’ for lack of knowing there’s a difference.

I knew one thing. I had to at least try and find that blasted woodpecker.  You might say Mr. RHW is an obsession of mine.

El Franco Lee Park is visible just past a wide power easement off the outer Beltway toll road. It’s full of ball parks, pavilions, paved roads, a community center…a place for people. Saving a wetlands by building human infrastructure was its purpose. I guess we should be grateful that these wetland ecosystems didn’t get back-filled with dirt and layered with concrete 20 years ago when the toll road was built. Still, wild spaces ‘created’ by building human structures around it just feels wrong. I doubt I will return to the park any time soon.

We had been battling a bad case of ‘The Crazies’ house-bound several days straight due to inclement weather. It didn’t help that a month passed since our last birding outing. (That’s two months too long, if you ask me.) It also didn’t help that we had just added the Ladder-backed Woodpecker to our list Halloween weekend, a couple we viewed right here from our yard, leaving just one woodpecker left to be checked for the year (our red-headed one).

Ditching school during the week is the easy part; when school is a 24/7 virtual environment, play in the morning is readily traded for work in the evening or made up the next day. I hurriedly packed the camera and field lenses, sending the early-morning risers to go awaken the sleeping-in teenagers. That’s what you get for having a fanatic bird-loving Mom.

Halfway into the hike, we heard a distinct woodpecker call in the distance. Hearts raced for a second with anticipation; the call was too familiar. We’d need to see our new bird to be sure, but with the sound emanating from deep within woods and dense foliage obstructing views, we were forced to give in. Without further scrutiny, we checked ‘Red-bellied Woodpecker’ (a backyard bird for us) off our list and moved on. All was relatively quiet for the remainder of the hike with the exception of our regular birds — nothing new, but no less spectacular. We never tire of them.

Mr. RHW may have been MIA, but Mother Nature never fails to reward us for sharpened senses.

Bullfrog, bigger than my hand

Can You Sssee Me?
Angie found this sssnake, sssunning along the path.

Viceroy Butterfly

Viceroy Butterfly
Hello down there, Lady!

We logged only 16 species, ho-hum when you consider what we get in our own backyard. Still, it was nice to breathe in some fresh air and stretch our legs in a different space.

As for you, you rascally woodpecker, I’ll get you yet.

What’s your birding obsession?

21 thoughts on “Chasing Red-Heads: An eBird Obsession

  1. Fun adventure, Shannon, and what a treat to see the Texas-sized creatures you did see! The beautiful red-headed woodpecker doesn’t even exist on my western side of the country, but I feel pretty lucky to have many woodpeckers where I live, and am especially fond of the pileated who I see and/or hear nearly every day. Keep on looking — and enjoy!


    1. Thanks! Snakes get such a bad rap. They really don’t want to be anywhere near humans, and almost everyone assumes a snake is venomous (when it’s more likely one is not, particularly a water variety).


  2. Congrats on your first eBird checklist!!! I love eBird and log all my days in the field. Wish you would have found a Red-headed WP! Your description of them is spot on and it makes it my favorite WP up here in Wisconsin. They truly are a stunning bird!


    1. Hey, thanks Matthew. Many of my birder friends use eBird, so I thought, why aren’t I using it too? Once I realized how useful of a tool it is, I was immediately an addict. I just recently went out with just the hubby (leaving the kids at home…yippee!) for a dusk birding trip to find a specific bird. There were conflicting reports of what I think to be the same bird seen several times. I took pictures as soon as I saw the shock of yellow, so hopefully my evidence will help clear the matter up! (Wilson’s warbler vs. Yellow warbler).

      Thus, this one will be my first eBird check list with a photo. I’m learning! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have never seen a red-headed woodpecker, only the red-bellied ones. They are quite beautiful. I love the bullfrog picture. I think sometimes we all get stir crazy and need to get out and explore and see what we can find. Looks like y’all had a great day of exploring and birding.


    1. It was a great day indeed, Sonya, but then again, any day out in the elements is for me. I am spending way too much time indoors these days! Hope you’re enjoying this sudden rush of coolness.


    1. Thanks for coming by, Marco. The story is frustrating, but all of our wildlife adventures end happily. I wish the shot were mine, but it was borrowed. I hope to ‘shoot’ my own woodpecker some day soon!


  4. I like your story :-). And your sssssnake! And congrats on your first eBird field list. Maybe some day I will be as cool as you. But for now, I will live vicariously through your coolness. BTW, I am being totally serious. And I hope you see the Red-headed Woodpecker one of these days. I saw a Red-breasted Sapsucker once. It also has a red head.


    1. Glad you liked the reptilian…they are a favorite for us, especially when we happen upon them. We are each ‘cool’ in our own ways. You yourself have amazing skills as an artist, for instance! We don’t get the Red-breasted here; another stunning bird! Thanks so much for coming by, Myriam.

      Liked by 1 person

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