How to Peep a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

Currently, I am an intern at the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, located near McBee, South Carolina. I spend my days working with the biologists to study red-cockaded woodpeckers, an endangered species. These are pretty awesome birds, and it is very exciting to spend every day running around in the pines looking at a bird species that many people have never seen.

A bad picture of an adult Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

Here are step-by-step instructions for how to peep a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker (RCW for short):

1). Assemble your equipment. This includes a peeper (see picture) and battery, a massive 4-wheel drive government truck, a map, a compass, a notebook and a pencil. Water and food are also advisable, because you will be out all day. Also a radio or cell phone so when you get lost you can call someone.

  • Note: everything will become covered with sap from the pine trees. Everything. It does come off, eventually.
A peeper. It is leaning on a RCW cavity tree, marked with white paint and a numbered metal tag. There is another RCW tree in the background.
This thing is a beast. I have yet to come up with an appropriate name. I have also yet to get stuck, though not for lack of trying. Apparently I am not very good at choosing places to turn around. 4-wheel drive rocks. Hard.

2). Using your map, locate and drive to your first cluster of RCW cavities.

  • Note: the scale on the map is not what one would call accurate. Nor are the trees placed on the map in their exact locations in relation to the road or the other trees in the cluster. Sometimes the trees will not be on the map at all. All of the cavity trees are marked with a stripe of white paint at about chest height, but this does not necessarily make them easy to find, especially when the turkey oak has grown up to exactly the height of the stripes. In this instance you will make an educated guess as to what direction to go in and head that way. You will probably be wandering around in the woods searching for trees for at least 20-odd minutes. You may not find some of the trees until you have given up and decided to head back to the truck. Also: It is helpful to remember where you left the truck, so you can find your way back at some point. The compass comes in handy for this.
This is compartment 9. There are 21 total compartments, with usually around 12 clusters (the red circles) of RCW cavities in each compartment.
  • You will not find all of the trees, even when you are standing exactly where the tree should be according to the map. As previously mentioned, the map is occasionally wrong about tree placement, or omits trees altogether. Frustration levels directly correlate with the humidity/temperature and blood sugar levels. Foul words will emit from your mouth.
I hate cluster 7. Hate. With a passion.
I was searching for tree 109, which it turns out is not in front of tree 64, as shown on the map, but instead a good quarter-mile behind it, right next to tree 98, which was also not on the map. I penciled them in after I eventually found them on Friday. When you stand in front of tree 64, where tree 109 should be, you can see all the other trees, but not 109 (because it’s actually a quarter-mile behind you, hidden in the pine plantation). The first time I went looking for tree 109 it was late in the afternoon, I was hungry, and I was this close to kicking a tree or throwing myself on the ground and having a minor temper-tantrum. But that would hurt, and I’m not a fan of poison ivy, so instead I went back to the truck, turned on the A/C, and blasted the radio. Carry On Wayward Son by Kansas does wonders.
  • Also note: foul words will frequently emit from your vocal chords, so perhaps it’s a good thing that you’re sent out alone to find the RCW trees.

3). Once you have arrived at the first tree to peep:

  • First bang on the bottom of the tree with a stick, so that if a RCW is in the cavity it will vacate so you can stick in the camera. As the agitated RCW parent flies out of the cavity, assure them you will be quick and not hurt their babies/eggs. Continue talking to RCW’s in area for duration of time at tree. Again, it’s perhaps a good thing you were sent out alone in the woods.
  • Next, extend the telescoping pole with the camera up to the cavity and stick the camera in the hole.
  • Note: if the hole is 20 feet or lower, it will be relatively easy and you will feel overconfident of your abilities to peep. If the cavity is 20 feet or higher, it will be much harder to get the camera into the cavity. It will also be windy, especially if the cavity you are trying to peep is 30+ feet. The sun will also be shining directly into your eyes as you look up at the tree to direct the small, fist-sized camera into the woodpecker cavity. If you are really lucky, it will be both windy and sunny, and the cavity will be slightly higher than 35 feet, which is the total length of your telescoping pole, so you’ll have to lift the whole thing to get it up that few extra inches.
  • Also, the higher and more difficult the cavity to reach with the peeper (i.e., branches in the way you have to maneuver around) the greater likelihood the battery in the camera will die by the time you get it into the cavity. The battery will only run out of juice once you’ve extended the peeper, not while on the ground when it would be easy to change. Some of the batteries will last a day and a half, others will not. They all look the same, and there is no way to tell how long the battery will last. However, it will always run out at an inopportune moment.
  • Also note: the peeper is a $3,000 piece of equipment, which costs more than all of the possessions you brought with you, including your car, laptop, and rock climbing/camping equipment. So while you are stumbling around in the woods looking for RCW trees, don’t hit it on anything, or drop it, or let it get wet when it rains, and when you’re driving around on the bumpy “roads” on the refuge, make sure it doesn’t jostle around in the truck. The $1.87/hr you make ($75/week, 40hrs/week) for this internship will not go very far towards a new one. So be careful.

4). The wireless camera on the end of the pole will transmit an image to the LCD screen at the peeper base, where you are. You will probably have to jiggle the antenna around in order to get a clear image of what is in the cavity.

5). Write down what you see in the cavity (chips, eggs, nestlings, flying squirrels, RCW’s, nothing) in your notebook.

Adult RCW on eggs, refusing to budge out of the cavity so I can see how many. Not cool dude, not cool.
Three RCW fledglings. Baby woodpeckers are not cute, they are featherless little blobs with giant heads and they flail about helplessly, trying to hide under each other when you stick the camera in.

Below is a video I took of some flying squirrels all piled up in a RCW cavity. I’ve only ever been able to see three at a time, but I’m sure they pack themselves in pretty good. I guess the ones on the top are the low guys on the totem pole, because they’re the ones that would get picked off first if someone tries to reach in there for a flying squirrel snack during the day.

Four RCW eggs in a cavity.

6). Pull the camera down, and get your hands covered in sap. Somehow throughout the day you will get sap on your hands, shirt, pants, shoes, notebook, pencil, water bottle, steering wheel, and sunglasses. Periodically worry about it getting into your hair and having to cut it out/shave your head. Then decide that this might be the way to go, as it’d probably be pretty cool (temperature-wise, not in any other -wise) in the summer.

7). Drop your pencil in the poison ivy/oak growing everywhere around base of tree (this step is optional, and highly probable).

8). Gather up all your things, variously forgetting the battery, maps, beating stick, and pencil at different trees.

  • Note: the peeper is not exactly heavy, but throughout the day starts to weigh more and more. When you have extensive hikes, it is recommended to switch shoulders, unless you prefer to cultivate a permanent bruise on just one shoulder. Your shoulder will most likely be tender for the next 10 weeks of the internship.

9). Once in the truck, buckle in the peeper for the ride to the next cluster.

10). Forget you probably have poison ivy all over your hands and rub your face/eat lunch without washing hands.

11). Repeat until 4 p.m., when you’re done for the day.

This is pretty much how I spend my days. Even when I’m lost, hot, sweaty, covered in sap and being bitten by flies, I still can’t get over how lucky I am to get to do things like this. Being a field biologist (or intern) is the best job ever!