January 13, 2019: We found a delightful breakfast place in downtown Leesville, always an encouraging way to start the day. The people were friendly, the food was good, and we were given helpful directions for finding accessible sections of the national forest. Of course, we had checked e-bird for locations where Red-cockaded Woodpeckers had recently been seen, but we knew we were in for a long search. The forest roads led in all directions and appropriate habitat seemed to be everywhere. We explored for most of the morning without any success. Eventually, we decided to try a change of scenery and headed off to the Dove Field Recreation Area, a large wildlife management area of open fields, known to be especially good for raptors and sparrows. We got there around 1:00 in the afternoon and in a little over an hour mustered up 14 species. Among them, were an immature Northern Harrier, 2 American Kestrels, 2 Savannah Sparrows and at least 15 Chipping Sparrows. The habitat was so enticing, however, that we resolved to come back the next morning if we had time.
We started back to the piney woods to try again for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. On the way, in the small town of Fullerton, we chanced upon a flurry of bird activity. There was a field separated from the road by a wall or some kind of fence. There were two or three small trees in the field close to the fence. Some woods ran along one side of the field. We pulled over to the side of the road and parked. In the space of ten minutes, we found 3 Turkey Vultures, one Red-shouldered Hawk, an American Kestrel, a Pileated Woodpecker, 2 Eastern Phoebes, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 2 Eastern Bluebirds and an estimated 20 American Robins. It was one of those unanticipated moments of excitement that birdwatchers love.
We proceeded on to the national forest to renew our search for the elusive Red-cockaded Woodpecker. This time we were successful. My checklist gives the time as 3:55 PM and the location as the Calcasieu Ranger District (Vernon Unit) of the Kisatchie National Forest. I doubt I could find the exact location again, even with the help of a map and a compass. The forest in this area is carefully managed to preserve the Longleaf Pines so favored by our target bird. The woods stretch on for many miles. Clumps of marked nest trees beckon in all directions. It was just a matter of time before we would encounter foraging birds. I think it might have been the robins and bluebirds that first caught our attention. These species are often found in open pine woods with grassy undergrowth. Perhaps it was the Pine Warblers and the more numerous Yellow-rumped Warblers. In any case, presently Pat spotted (or heard) woodpeckers. Adrenalin started flowing, my aging legs started creaking. Pat was shouting, I was stumbling. Eventually, I got two birds in my binoculars. I could see the broad white cheek patch and the barred black and white back. Years ago, when I first found these birds in Florida, I did so with coolness and confidence. Today, it was a desperate struggle with age. Our checklist totals tell the full story: 15 American Robins, 4 Eastern Bluebirds, 12 Yellow-rumped Warblers, 2 Pine Warblers, and 2 Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.