As you probably know by now if you read this column regularly, woodpeckers are by far my favorite birds.

Unlike hummingbirds which are unknown to these parts during the cold winter months, you can see a woodpecker most any time of year.

Many woodpeckers aren’t shy about visiting backyard birdfeeders. And they can make a ton of racket drumming on trees. Add to those charming qualities the exquisite beauty and patterns of their feathers and it’s easy to see why woodpeckers are special.

My husband, who never shared my birding passion, had his outlook changed a few years ago.

He came home from a walk exclaiming that he’d seen an ivory-billed woodpecker in our neighborhood. Most likely the bird was a pileated woodpecker, but still, whatever he saw was primordially awe-inspiring. Now my husband has his own pair of binoculars and is more likely than not using them any time he sits outside on the deck. All thanks to a woodpecker he saw a few years ago.

This past spring, a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers took over a cavity at the top of a dead tree on our property. The nest hole was perfectly visible from our deck and we spent many an afternoon watching the woodpeckers go in and out of the tree.

I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll mention it again, if a dead tree is not endangering your safety, leave it up for the birds. Dead trees provide birds with food and habitat. Also, they can provide you a great birdwatching opportunity if birds choose to nest in one.

Virginia has just announced some exciting woodpecker news. Earlier this year, a pair of federally-endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers expanded their known territory when they moved from the Piney Grove Preserve and built a nest in the Big Woods Wildlife Management Area in Sussex County.

There’s a small colony of red-cockaded woodpeckers residing in the Piney Grove Preserve and for years scientists and volunteers have been creating habitat in adjacent areas hoping those woodpeckers would outgrow their territory and inhabit new places.

It seems that the plan worked. Virginia’s Department of Inland Game and Fisheries acquired Big Woods in 2011 through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Land Acquisition Grant. Since then, DGIF and its partners, The Center for Conservation Biology and The Nature Conservancy, have been improving the habitat to attract the red-cockaded woodpecker to this area.

This species requires a very specific type of habitat — open pine savanna — for both food and nesting.

Adults consume insects and larvae that live under the bark of pine trees. In fact, 90% of the red-cockaded woodpecker’s time foraging is spent on pine trees. They even build their nests in them.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is the only woodpecker that builds its nests in living trees. They excavate their nest cavities from live pine trees, a feat which can take a year or even longer to accomplish.

Both the male and female of this pair came from the Piney Grove Preserve. The male moved to Big Woods in 2017 and the female joined him last year, although they did not breed in 2018. This year marks the very first time a pair of red-cockaded woodpeckers has bred there. Their two babies hatched last month.

Scientists banded them when they were six days old. Each weighed just three-quarters of an ounce and were completely helpless. Neither baby bird had a single feather and they had not even opened their eyes yet. After banding, they were carefully returned to their nest 40 feet high in a pine tree, and soon after the parents were feeding them once again.

Any day now those two babies should take their first flight. It’s not just a first flight for them, but also for their parents who reared them and all the people who have cheered them on, for the smart people who dreamt up the idea of reintroducing this species to places in Virginia and for the good folks who did all the hard work turning that dream into a reality.

Since 1970, the red-cockaded woodpecker has been listed as endangered. Let’s hope this first flight of 2019 will be the first of many for the red-cockaded woodpeckers in Big Woods.

Sierra Club to hold weekly wander hikes

The restorative benefits of spending time outside and enjoying nature have been proven by research time and again.

Feeling the sunshine on your skin, taking in the sights and sounds of the outdoors and exercising in fresh air can lower your blood pressure, decrease feelings of stress and anxiety and benefit your health and well-being. So, what are you waiting for?

Perhaps an invitation from the Southern Maryland Sierra Club to go hiking at one of the many parks located in the tri-county area?

Every Wednesday through Labor Day, join up with like-minded folks to explore the outdoors. The next hike will take place on June 19 at Gilbert Run Park in Dentsville, then the month ends with a hike at Elm’s Beach Park in Lexington Park on June 26.

Elm’s is located about 10 minutes south of Naval Air Station Patuxent River Gate 3, and, boy, is it worth the drive.

If you’ve never been to Elm’s Beach Park, you’re in for a real treat. There’s plenty to keep a family busy, from beachcombing along the sandy shore of the Chesapeake Bay to birdwatching along the marsh. And the expansive playground gets two thumbs up from my kids.

The only thing you won’t find there are restroom facilities (plenty of port-a-potties are located in the parking area), but you’ll probably find some inner peace after spending time outdoors. There are no fees to enter the Elm’s Beach Park on weekdays.

The other events scheduled are July 3 at Chancellor’s Run Regional Park in Great Mills, July 10 at Fifth District Park in Mechanicsville, July 17 at Dorsey Park in Leonardtown, July 24 at Salem State Forest in California, July 31 at Lancaster Park in Lexington Park, Aug. 7 at Pisgah Park in La Plata, Aug. 14 at Baggett Park in Mechanicsville, Aug. 21 at Jefferson Patterson Park in St. Leonard and Aug. 28 at Newtowne Neck State Park in Leonardtown. Those interested should meet at 10 a.m. at the trailhead (or playground if there is one), then a kid-paced hike around the park will begin at 10:15 a.m.

These events are free and all ages and abilities are welcome. For more information, contact outings leader Rosa Hance at 240-808-4233 or rosa.hance@mdsierra.org.