Red-headed woodpeckers are uncommon in Minnesota, but not in East Bethel, 30 minutes north of Minneapolis.
The state’s largest colony of this bird — colonial nesters of striking appearance — is at the Cedar Creek Science Reserve, just off state Hwy. 65.
This nine-square-mile site contains 400 acres of appropriate oak savanna landscape.
This has been a “very good year for the birds,” said Elena West, coordinator of an ongoing research project there. “So far, 26 of 44 nests we have been monitoring have fledged at least one young.”
This accounts for about 150 red-headed woodpeckers, about 90 nesting adults and 51 birds that fledged — successfully left the nest. Exact numbers are not possible because birds don’t line up for head counts.
“This year we’ve found more nests than any prior year,” West said. This is not because there are more birds, but because so many birds are attempting a second nest, she explained.
Second broods appear to be fairly common in this species, she said. There are 16 second attempts underway right now.
Eleven of the first-hatch juveniles were tagged with GPS devices just before they left the nest. Tracking showed that all 11 survived the very precarious two weeks after fledgling, West said.
Until a great-horned owl ate one.
“We found its leg bands and fairly intact radio in an owl pellet. The radio still works!” West said.
A red-headed woodpecker Recovery Project was begun in 2008 by the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis (ACM). It started as a citizen-science effort, expanding to include professional staff at Cedar Creek.
The project now is a collaborative effort between the ACM and Cedar Creek reserve.
Across its North American range the red-headed woodpecker population has declined an estimated 80 percent since 2004, according to the ACM. The decrease appears to be caused by severe loss of oak savanna habitat.
Savannah is grassland with a scattering of trees. The birds prefer to nest in dead oak, either trees or branches. They’re colonial nesters, meaning nests loosely grouped.
They eat acorns and other nut species. They also eat insects, flying from tree perches to nab bugs in the air. Open space for those flights is essential, which explains the preference for a savanna landscape.
The woodpecker nest from the Eastern Seaboard to the Rocky Mountains. The birds winter in southern states. Despite its extensive range, little is known about much of the bird’s basic ecology. It simply isn’t an easy species to study.
For instance, the team tagged birds last fall so winter migration routes could be followed. As obvious as that information might seem, it isn’t.
The birds marked for tracking, however, chose to not migrate. They had stored enough food to make migration unnecessary.
West, who completed her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has a team that includes research technicians and as many as 40 volunteers. West is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toledo, which is a collaborator in the larger project, and is research coordinator for the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis.
Researchers want information to guide critical conservation and management efforts throughout the woodpecker’s range.
“I think red-headed woodpeckers have a real chance to achieve more sustainable population sizes if enough work is done on habitat restoration,” West said. “We’re hopeful that the science we’re doing will broaden our understanding of habitat needs and the elements of restoration that work.”
The woodpeckers usually are viewable at Cedar Creek from the Fish Lake Nature Trail. Now is a good time to visit. The project also runs regular guided hikes to see red-heads and other species in areas of Cedar Creek that are generally closed to the public.
Dates and times are listed on the Cedar Creek website (www.cedarcreek.umn.edu) and its Facebook page.
People can find photos and updates on the project website (rhworesearch.org). There also is information about the need for contributions to support the work, and opportunities to participate as a citizen scientist.
Read Jim Williams’ birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.