© St. Petersburg Times, published September 28, 2001
BROOKER CREEK PRESERVE -- Standing at the edge of the pine woods, we waited for our prey.
"Quiet," Dave Sumpter cautioned. "There it is."
I waited in silence until I could bear no more.
"There what is?" I asked.
"A pileated woodpecker," Sumpter responded.
Then, a second later, the bird began the rapid drumming again ... dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum ... and this time I heard it.
"Ah. A pileated woodpecker," I said with confidence.
Sumpter smiled. "Not to be confused with the red-bellied woodpecker, also common in this area, but it makes a different sound."
The education had begun.
Woodpeckers, you see, are interesting birds. Take your typical, tranquil forest setting, introduce a woodpecker and suddenly you have a party. They are big, loud, obnoxious, lovable birds with attitude. But most important, they are easy to identify.
"The pileated's got the red head," said Sumpter, a wildlife biologist and expert birder.
"Like Woody the Woodpecker," I added, eager to share my birding knowledge.
Basic Birding, Lesson Two: Examine all the clues.
"Not so fast," Sumpter said. "That is still a subject of debate in the birding community."
Serious birdwatchers, and there will be thousands here next week for the Florida Birding Festival, consider a variety of factors before issuing a positive identification. Size, body and post, bill shape, leg length, behavior, habitat and field markings must be considered. Just because a bird has a red head does not mean it is a Dryocopus pileatus.
There are four other species of woodpeckers, Sumpter informed me, in the local woods: the red bellied, downy and hairy woodpeckers and the yellow-bellied sapsucker.
"A sapsucker is a woodpecker?" I asked.
Yes, but it didn't matter, Sumpter said, since I couldn't see either one. It was the sound they made that was really important. So I listened again for the faint tapping far off in the woods.
When I did hear it, it sounded nothing like the maniacal ha-ha-ha-ha-ha I had heard as a child. "That is a red-bellied woodpecker," Sumpter said. "See how it sounds different."
Basic Birding, Lesson Three: All clues are not equal.
Melanerpes carolinus, I would later learn, has a white belly, black and white back and red striped head. You'd think they'd call it a zebra back, but then people might confuse the bird with other species such as the gila, golden-fronted, Nuttall or ladder-back, which have the same markings.
They could have called it the Red Stripe woodpecker, but a Jamaican beer company got the name first. Red-headed woodpecker was taken too, by you guessed it, the red-headed woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus.
"Maybe Woody is a red-headed woodpecker," I postulated.
Sumpter shook his head. I was forgetting the crest. Erythrocephalus has the correct coloring, but where was the trademark pompadour?
"There is another species they are considering reintroducing to these woods," Sumpter said. "It is the red-cockaded woodpecker."
This endangered species nests only in healthy, mature pine trees. Recent conservation efforts make the Brooker Creek Preserve an ideal habitat. But this species may be hard for basic birders to identify, since it is black and white, like the downy, hairy, three-toed and black-backed woodpeckers. The small "red cockade" behind the eye of the male is seldom noticeable.
Which brings us back to Woody.
"Maybe he isn't a pileated or red-headed woodpecker," I told Sumpter. "Perhaps we have stumbled upon a new species."
Woodius cartoonus. Now that's a story.
WHEN/WHERE: Oct. 4-5; Harborview Center, Clearwater.
THINGS TO DO: View Florida's famous birds, learn how to fly-fish, stroll through a butterfly tent, hone your wildlife photography skills and more, including field trips, lectures and hands-on exhibits. Children can learn how to build birdhouses and butterfly gardens. Proceeds benefit the Pinellas County Environmental Fund. Call 1-877-FLA-BIRD or log on to www.pcef.org.
The American Power Boat Association National Championships return to St. Petersburg Oct. 5-7. Call (727) 821-2722 or log on to www.apbaoffshore nationals.com.
Tampa BayWatch needs volunteers to help with its Monofilament Cleanup on Oct. 13. Call (727) 896-5320. Don't forget the Weedon Island Power Paddle on Oct. 27. Log on to www.tampabaywatch.org for more information.