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Record of an Exceptionally Low Nest of a Red-bellied Woodpecker in Florida
Joshua M. Diamond

Southeastern Naturalist, Volume 17, Issue 4 (2018): N68–N71

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2018 Southeastern Naturalist Notes Vol. 17, No. 4 N68 J.M. Diamond Record of an Exceptionally Low Nest of a Red-bellied Woodpecker in Florida Joshua M. Diamond* Abstract - Woodpeckers typically excavate and nest in cavities high above the ground, avoiding predators or potential disturbances like fire or floods. I report the exceptionally low nesting attempt of a Melanerpes carolinus (Red-bellied Woodpecker) pair, 40 cm above the ground, in a small Cocos nucifera (Coconut Palm) snag in Everglades National Park, FL. I monitored the nesting progression and eventual failure with a nest camera. The placement of this nest seemed particularly disadvantageous, and I describe the setting of the nest and discuss the circumstances surrounding the nest failure. Melanerpes carolinus L. (Red-bellied Woodpecker) is the most common woodpecker species in South Florida, nesting in almost any terrestrial environment with at least some remnant woodlands (Bancroft et al. 1995, Pranty et al. 2006). Nests within cavities confer several advantages over open-cup or ground-nesting whereby the relative safety from predation allows for longer altricial development and larger clutches of eggs (Martin and Li 1992, Yom-Tov and Ar 1993). As excavators, woodpeckers select their nest sites from a variety of substrates, and typically suffer lower rates of nest failure compared with secondary cavityusers (Li and Martin 1991). In early spring of 2017, I began a project studying cavity-nesting birds in South Florida. I followed the US Forest Service protocol for monitoring cavity-nesting birds to minimize disturbance (Dudley and Saab 2003). I used an elevated video-inspection system mounted on a collapsible pole, capable of inspecting nest cavities up to 15 m above the ground (Luneau and Noel 2010). I located the unusually low nest at the edge of a primitive campground in Everglades National Park. At 1.2 m tall, the Cocos nucifera L. (Coconut Palm) snag was hardly more than a large stump (Fig. 1). The campground was located within a coastal prairie, less than 500 m from Florida Bay. Red-bellied Woodpecker nest sites are typically associated with forested areas with moderate to dense groundcover (Ingold 1989, 1994; Shackelford et al. 2000). The nest tree was located on bare earth, surrounded by grasses that are infrequently mowed. I observed this low nest in the context of a designed study on the reproductive ecology of cavity-nesting birds in South Florida, and nest trees without groundcover were common throughout this region. The low nest above the wetland surface appeared to be particularly disadvantageous to woodpeckers or other cavity-nesting birds. The 7-cm nestcavity entrance was only 40 cm above the ground. Using the camera, I estimated the floor of the cavity to be 30 cm below the entrance. Although a variety of predators in North America raid cavity nests at any height, this location put the nest well within reach of terrestrial nest predators. The nest floor was only 10 cm above the surface of a wetland that frequently floods, including during Hurricane Irma just months later. On 22 May, upon initially discovering the cavity-bearing tree, I sat nearby for several minutes, and observed a Red-bellied Woodpecker enter and exit the cavity. I subsequently inspected the cavity with the camera and found 3 Red-bellied Woodpecker eggs inside (Fig. 2A). *Department of Earth and Environment, Florida International University, Miami, FL 33199; Manuscript Editor: Douglas McNair Notes of the Southeastern Naturalist, Issue 17/4, 2018 N69 2018 Southeastern Naturalist Notes Vol. 17, No. 4 J.M. Diamond On 3 June, as I approached the nest tree, I could hear a highly vocal nestling inside. Upon inserting the camera, I observed only 1 Red-bellied Woodpecker hatchling (Fig. 2B). The other 2 eggs had disappeared. The nestling was naked, but its eyes were beginning to open, suggesting it hatched ~9 d before (~25 May; Shackelford e t al. 2000). Figure 1. Unusually low Red-bellied Woodpecker nest in a Coconut Palm in Everglades National Park, 40 cm above the ground surface. Miniature clipboard in foregrou nd measures 22 cm x 15 cm. 2018 Southeastern Naturalist Notes Vol. 17, No. 4 N70 J.M. Diamond On 8 June, as I approached the nest, I did not hear any juvenile or adult activity inside. I inserted the camera and observed 1 adult female Red-bellied Woodpecker along with the nestling. The adult female positioned herself protectively in between the nest camera and nestling (Fig. 2C). On 13 June, I did not hear any activity as I approached the nest. When I inspected the cavity, the nestling was absent. I found skeletal remains consistent with the size of a Redbellied Woodpecker hatchling. The nest cavity also contained new spider webs, indicating a lack of large-animal activity. The condition of the skeletal remains appears consistent with predation by Solenopsis spp.(fire ants; Fig. 2D). I inspected the cavity 2 more times during summer 2017, but there was no further nesting activity. On 10 September, Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida, and Everglades National Park was almost directly hit. The coastal prairie where the nest was located was flooded sufficiently to inundate the nest cavity. Among woodpeckers, the Red-bellied Woodpecker is thought of as a generalist species that nests in a variety of habitats (Shackelford et al. 2000). It has a fairly high tolerance for suburban environments in Florida where sufficient food and nesting resources are available (Kale and Maehr 1990). In Florida, typical nesting-hole heights were previously described as 2–12 m above ground surface (Bent 1939). Nest-hole entrances have been recorded as low as 2–3 m in Georgia, Kansas, and Texas, but this record is lower than previously Figure 2. The progression of the nest attempt by a Red-bellied Woodpecker. Two eggs or nestlings were lost between (A) 22 May and (B) 3 June. (C) Adult female was observed in the cavity with the nestling on 8 June 2018. (D) The skeletal remains of a hatchling were visible 13 June. The off-white flecks in panel D are insects caught in a spider web illuminated by the nest camera’s LED lights, indicative of no large-animal use in several days. N71 2018 Southeastern Naturalist Notes Vol. 17, No. 4 J.M. Diamond published accounts (Deviney 1957, Jackson 1976, Shackelford et al. 2000). Four larger Coconut Palm snags were located within a 200-m radius. Within a 1-km radius, there were dozens of snags (primarily Coconut Palms), and several were used for nesting by other Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Colaptes auratus L. (Northern Flicker), Hylatomus pileatus L. (Pileated Woodpecker), and Sturnus vulgaris L. (European Starling). Acknowledgments. I thank K. Hazler, J. Stout, and an anonymous individual for their helpful comments on the manuscript. Funding for this project was provided by the Florida International University Tropics Program and the Susan S. Levine Trust. This is publication number 872 from the Southeast Environmental Research Center at Florida International Universi ty. Literature Cited Bancroft, G.T., A.M. Strong, and M. Carrington. 1995. Deforestation and its effects on forest-nesting birds in the Florida keys. Conservation Biology 9:835–844. Bent, A.C. 1939. Life histories of North American woodpeckers. United States National Museum Bulletin 174:1–334. Deviney, E. 1957. Unusual nesting site of the Red-bellied Woodpecker. Oriole 22:29. Dudley, J., and V. Saab. 2003. A field protocol to monitor cavity-nesting birds. Research Paper RMRS-RP-44. US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fort Collins, CO. Ingold, D.J. 1989. Nesting phenology and competition for nest sites among Red-headed and Redbellied Woodpeckers and European Starlings. Auk 106:209–217. Ingold, D.J. 1994. Nest-site characteristics of Red-bellied and Red-headed Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers in east-central Ohio. Ohio Journal of Science 94:2 –7. Jackson, J.A. 1976. A comparison of some aspects of the breeding ecology of Red-headed and Redbellied Woodpeckers in Kansas. Condor 78:67–76. Kale, H.W., and D.S. Maehr. 1990. Florida’s Birds: A Handbook and Reference. Pineapple Press, Inc., Sarasota, FL. 288 pp. Li, P., and T.E. Martin. 1991. Nest-site selection and nesting success of cavity-nesting birds in highelevation forest drainages. Auk 108:405–418. Luneau, M.D., and B.L. Noel. 2010. A wireless video camera for viewing tree cavities. Journal of Field Ornithology 81:176–185. Martin, T.E., and P. Li. 1992. Life-history traits of open vs. cavity-nesting birds. Ecology 73:579–592. Pranty, B., K.A. Radamaker, and G. Kennedy. 2006. Birds of Florida. Lone Pine Publishing, Auburn, WA. 384 pp. Shackelford, C.E., R.E. Brown, and R.N. Conner. 2000. Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). No. 500, In A.F. Poole and F.B. Gill (Eds.). The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY. Available online at biblio. Accessed 23 April 2018. Yom-Tov, Y., and A. Ar. 1993. Incubation and fledging durations of woodpeckers. Condor 95:282–287.