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Red-headed woodpecker in cavity. Photo by Steve Dietz.

Sightings of red-headed woodpeckers (RHWO) in Minnesota—particularly during the breeding season—are not unheard of, despite the species' drastic decline over the last 30 years. The majority of these sightings however, are often reports of individual birds, or small clusters, defined as two or more nesting pairs within a quarter mile of each other. Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve and Camp Ripley are two existing oak savanna sites where presumably stable populations of breeding red-headed woodpeckers occur. It’s time to track other potential RHWO cluster locations, find sites where these birds are nesting, breeding, and roosting, and document habitat areas suitable for their recovery. It's largely unknown where additional clusters of red-headed woodpeckers in Minnesota may be nesting. To tackle this question, the Red-headed Woodpecker Recovery Project (RhWP), an initiative of the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis, is currently seeking volunteers interested in "sleuthing" for nesting RHWO throughout the state. These investigations will complement on-going research at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve and the habitat preservation collaborations conducted with existing habitat partner organizations.

So, what’s “sleuthing” about?

The sleuthing initiative is about expanding the search for breeding and roosting (habitat) to locate RHWO cluster sites, which may be in oak savannas or areas that have experienced flooding or storm damage, resulting in large numbers of dead or downed trees. Fragmented patches of oak savanna and flooded/storm-damaged areas exist across the state, and part of this effort is aimed at following up on the periodic sightings of red-headed woodpeckers in these areas, which occur on both public and private lands. Documentation of the habitat where these birds may be nesting is an important aspect of working to restore these areas and recover the species in Minnesota. Finding actual clusters of birds would be a terrific bonus. Sleuthing also offers opportunities to engage land managers and private land owners on best practices to help red-headed woodpeckers, sustain and create the oak savanna habitat they seem to prefer, long-term goals of the RhWP.

Exciting news from a recent sleuthing effort

Sleuthing efforts don't always result in RHWO sightings. But it's exciting when they do. A recent survey of Nerstrand Big Woods State Park by RhWP volunteers was a great success. Nerstrand is experiencing heavier, more frequent rainfall in recent years, resulting in low-lying areas of the park to retain more water, which has led to substantial forest death (Minnesota DNR). Volunteers noted a breeding pair foraging with a juvenile (the presence of adults with juveniles this time of year is a strong indication of nesting in the area), and two other adult RHWO along the park's Maple Trail. The park's campsite hosts also noted that an RHWO pair regularly visits their bird feeder and they had a recent visit by a juvenile. These RhWP volunteers plan to expand their survey area next spring to include the Big Woods, Ironwood, Fox and Prairie trails. It appears that the upside of a bad situation for Nerstrand forests may be an increase in the habitat that RHWO prefer. Please get in touch (see below) with the RhWP if you're interested in joining this effort!

How to get involved in the RHWO sleuthing project

You might do your sleuthing by following up leads that surface through your regular birding efforts. Keep your ear to the ground and let friends and fellow birders know you are searching for multiple RHWO sittings.

Follow up with the RhWP as soon as possible to provide details on your findings. See below for contact info.

Please provide the following information:

-Your mailing address and/or email address

-Part of the state or the area you are interested in sleuthing

-Distance in miles from your home address you would drive to sleuth, and how often

-Also e-mail us if you have an interest in sleuthing areas we can recommend

Once you have a location, use the Red-headed Woodpecker Suspected Nest Survey Form. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see birds. Not finding birds is very important information because it helps eliminate areas from future searches.

To get started, get survey forms, learn about upcoming trainings, or if you have questions, please contact: Jim Stengel or Tom Beer

Happy Sleuthing!


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