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Just the thought of catching a glimpse of the rare red-cockaded woodpecker is enough to give birdwatchers goose bumps. The endangered little bird is elusive but it has been seen here on the Northshore, home to a number of bird-rich wildlife refuges and The Great Louisiana Bird Fest.
The red-cockaded woodpecker is about 7 inches long with a 15-inch wingspan and has a black cap and white cheek patches. The male has a small red streak, called a cockade, on each side of the black cap. The non-migratory bird nests in mature pine trees and keeps the same mate for years.
There are eight species of woodpecker found in St. Tammany Parish's refuges, including the common red-headed and red-bellied varieties and the Downy. Some believe there also may be ivory-billed woodpeckers, thought extinct since the 1940s, hanging out in the area. When an LSU forestry graduate student reported seeing the species while hunting in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area a few years ago, he triggered a flurry of expeditions to the refuge and much-heated debate.
Most scientists believe what the student actually saw was the pileated woodpecker, which resembles the ivory-billed but is a common bird for the area. Common or not, the prehistoric-looking, super-sized - up to 17'' tall- pileated woodpecker is fun to see as he makes his way up the sides of a tree.
To see a variety of woodpeckers, along with many other bird species, plan a trip to one of the Northshore's forests of preserves such as Big Branch Marsh, Pearl River, Northlake Nature Center and the Abita Flatwoods Preserve. They're ripe with bird-sighting opportunities year-round. Seasonal visitors include the scarlet tanager, indigo bunting, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and a host of waterfowl species. Resident birds, besides the red-cockaded woodpecker, include great blue herons, great and snowy herons, great egrets, white ibis, numerous hawk species and hundreds, if not thousands, of others.
The lovely Northlake Nature Center, 400 woodland acres along the lovely Bayou Castine, hosts the Great Louisiana Bird Fest each April, giving visiting birders a chance to explore many of St. Tammany's most popular birding spots.
St. Tammany Parish has almost 80,000 acres of wildlife preserve, much of it accessible for recreational purposes, including fishing, swimming, kayaking, paddleboarding, sailing -- and birding.
An active birding group, the Northshore Bird Club, helps each year with the Audubon Christmas Bird Count; members in 2012 tallied more than 14,000 birds representing 142 species.