We sit silently waiting, hunkered in a dense understory of bamboo and tree ferns in a remnant of the Atlantic Forest in northern Argentina, intently watching the entrance of a tree cavity some 50 feet high.
This may—or may not—be the active roost hole of a Helmeted Woodpecker, one of the most rare and secretive of Neotropical woodpeckers. It is nearly dusk, and mosquitoes and other biting insects are out in force, hordes of them buzzing incessantly around us, landing on our faces and necks, crawling into our eyes and ears, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Slapping at mosquitoes might spook the woodpecker if it’s nearby, so we do our best to ignore them. But just as I’m nearing the end of my endurance, a shadow passes over and a bird swoops up to the roost tree. With its cinnamon face and vivid shock of scarlet feathers rising Mohawk-style along the top of its head, the bird is absolutely stunning. It’s the first Helmeted Woodpecker I have ever seen.
It is October 2015—spring in South America—and I’m spending two weeks with Dutch ornithologist Martjan Lammertink at his Helmeted Woodpecker study site at Cruce Caballero Provincial Park in Argentina’s Misiones Provine, This small province is just a finger of land, about 60 miles wide and 180 miles long, in the far north of the country, protruding into southern Brazil with Paraguay to the west. Lammertink moved to Argentina in 2011 specifically to study these birds and the Atlantic Forest habitat on which they depend. He works as a researcher for Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council and is an associate of the Cornell Lab. During the field season, when he’s not at his research site at Cruce Caballero, he lives with his wife and two children in the town of San Pedro, which is only 18 miles away but takes an hour and a half to reach with a fourwheel-drive pickup because the roads are so poor. The main highway is a red mud road that dwindles to a narrow track once you enter the park. But it is spectacular country, a land of dense tropical forest with prehistoric-looking araucaria trees rising umbrella-like above the canopy.
Sadly, South America’s Atlantic Forest is one of the most threatened habitats on earth. Stretching along the Brazilian coast and inland through northern Argentina and Paraguay, the Atlantic Forest was originally larger than Texas, but it has been devastated by logging, agriculture, and the increasing human population in the area. Less than 10 percent of the original forest remains. For decades, we’ve all heard of the importance of the Amazon rainforest, but few recognize the rich, unique biodiversity of the Atlantic Forest. It is home to 936 bird species, of which 104 are threatened and about 140 are found nowhere else on Earth. In addition, hundreds of tree species thrive there, plus a vast assemblage of ferns, mosses, epiphytes, orchids, lianas, and bromeliads. Some 92 percent of the Atlantic Forest’s amphibians and 21 of its primate species are endemics.
One of the endemic birds—and the perfect poster child for this remarkable place—is the Helmeted Woodpecker. Like the habitat on which it depends, the bird is in serious trouble—but just how serious is difficult to say. The species is classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but some researchers believe it should be reclassified as endangered. Estimates for the bird differ widely, ranging from only 400 individuals to more than 10,000. The uncertainty about their numbers is a measure of just how hard these secretive birds are to study.
“Except for about 10 to 20 minutes around sunrise, they almost never vocalize or drum and are one of the most cryptic woodpeckers in the world,” says Lammertink. And the subtropical forest they inhabit is dense, hot, uncomfortable, wet, and difficult to penetrate. But filling these gaps in knowledge has been Lammertink’s sole focus since 2011.
“The aim of my research is to identify the crucial tree species and tree conditions Helmeted Woodpeckers need for roosting, nesting, and foraging, and to provide guidelines for preserving and restoring these elements in logged areas,” says Lammertink. He hopes to determine at a landscape scale the minimum size of a forested area and how connected it must be to other forested areas to sustain Helmeted Woodpecker populations.
It’s not an easy job. Lammertink averages about 90 days a year in the field. And these are tough days, often involving 14-hour slogs from before dawn to well past dusk, sometimes in heavy rain.
A Life of Woodpeckers
Hardship is nothing new to Lammertink. He has been obsessed with large woodpeckers since childhood, and his fascination has taken him to many exotic places. In his late teens, he worked after school at a dairy factory for 6 months to save enough money to self-fund a four-month expedition to the mountains of eastern Cuba to search for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. That was in 1991, and he has since searched for ivory-bills twice more in Cuba as well as in the American South, where he was lead scientist in the Cornell Lab’s Ivory-billed Woodpecker Project. He has also searched multiple times for Mexico’s Imperial Woodpecker and has done extensive fieldwork on the Great Slaty Woodpecker in Southeast Asia.
Only a handful of Helmeted Woodpecker nests and roost holes have ever been found. A researcher could easily spend months in known Helmeted Woodpecker areas and only see one every six weeks. Lammertink quickly realized that the only possible solution would be to trap some of the birds and attach tiny radio-transmitters to them. Then he could follow and record their behavior throughout the day, and map out the extent of their territories.
The study began in 2011, but it was two years before Lammertink caught his first Helmeted Woodpecker. By 2013, he and field assistant Carlos Ferreyra and four macheteros had cut 39 miles of trails through the dense understory of bamboo and tree ferns. Lammertink and Ferreyra were running six trapping stations. It was frustrating work. The best they could get was an occasional fly-by. But finally, on August 8, 2013, an adult male landed in a tree nearby, and when they played a Helmeted Woodpecker call, it swooped down low, flying right into the net. They were in business.
A month later, they trapped a female right outside her roost hole—after two unsuccessful attempts in which she bounced off the mist net—and she turned out to be the mate of the male they’d already caught. They subsequently tracked the pair closely through the entire nesting cycle from the time they excavated their nest cavity until their single young fledged. Tracking this pair in 2013 yielded the most data on the natural history, behavior, and ecology of this species ever gathered. The following year the team captured three Helmeted Woodpeckers, as well as two Robust Woodpeckers and one Lineated Woodpecker—both similar, slightly larger, less endangered species. Lammertink will use the data he gathers on the two other species to make comparisons with the Helmeted Woodpecker in terms of their natural history, behavior, and habitat requirements.
To Catch a Woodpecker
When I arrived at the site in October 2015, they did not have any transmitters on Helmeted Woodpeckers yet. They had tagged one earlier in the year, but they lost the transmitter when the bird molted a tail feather. Lammertink’s field assistants this time included grad student Juan Fernández and park ranger student Sebastian Sandullo (both in their twenties), and Valdir Gularte, a man in his early 60s who cuts trails, climbs trees, and performs other feats that would be impressive for a man half his age.
After I unpacked my gear in my tent, Lammertink showed me his telemetry equipment, consisting of a receiver about the size of a walkie-talkie, with an external directional antenna, and several tiny transmitters, which he attaches to one of the central tail feathers of any Helmeted Woodpeckers he manages to trap.