Pileated Woodpecker prize

Success!  At last I found a Pileated Woodpecker that sat still long enough for me to photograph.

Tap,thunk, bonk, just like a hammer on a hollow log — that’s what a pileated woodpecker sounds like when it is chipping away dead wood in its search for food.  I heard the bird but couldn’t find it, until I finally caught just a flash of red in the sea of brown bark.

This bird visited every broken branch in a group of large, mature oaks for about 15 minutes, but it was impossible to get a clear shot of it with all the spiny buckthorn undergrowth in the way.  Why are there always branches between me and my subject?

Compared to the rat-a-tat of downy woodpeckers, this bird’s bill operated in slow motion.  But each strike was a measured blow, like a chisel, and when that bill hit the dead wood, the chips did fly — out of the hole, onto the bird, etc.  In several of my photos, I noticed the bird pulled its nictitating membrane (thin skin located between eyelid and cornea/sclera) over the eye, making it look gray.  I assume this is for protection from flying wood particles.

I think this is a female; she has black instead of red feathers above the beak (forehead area), and she has a black chin stripe instead of a red one, as in the male.

Their body size is impressive, as are the large feet with strong toes and long nails.  All woodpeckers have two forward and two backward pointing toes which enable them to perch on vertical surfaces.  Short, stiff tail feathers offer additional support as a prop against the tree.

After the woodpecker finished excavating, chickadees came by to check out the hole and see what the woodpecker might have exposed for them to eat.

Pileated Woodpeckers are year-round residents throughout their range, and seem quite adaptable to a variety of forest types, including suburban trees.  Like northern flickers, they may specialize on ants, excavating their galleries deep in the wood and then lapping them up with their long tongues.  But when insects are in short supply, they eat fruits, nuts, berries (including poison ivy berries), and even seed from bird feeders.  I’ve seen them at my feeders already this winter and will keep looking for the perfect photo op (i.e., bird without branches.

10 thoughts on “Pileated Woodpecker prize

  1. Thanks for the intro to these cool woodpeckers, another type to add to my list of birds that I would like to see. Most of the woodpeckers I have seen so far have been Downy woodpeckers, which, as you pointed out, are quite different in terms of size and technique. Good luck with getting a clear shot–my limited experience so far with birds is that unobstructed shots are a relative rarity. When I do happen to see a bird exposed, it usually flies away before I can take the shot.

    • So true! My nature-photography friends tell me the best way to take animal photos is to sit in a blind in an area where particular types of critters hang out. Actually, I like exploring field and forest too much to do that, so…I guess I will just have to get lucky sometime for an unobstructed view.

  2. Dr. Chaplin, thank you so much for this post about two of my favorite birds! I have not been lucky enough to spot a Pileated, but have heard them hammering and observed the remnants of their destruction. If I remember correctly, they also have an interesting and unique wing beat pattern. Something like flap, flap, flap, glide I think. As for the Chickadees, they are so cute and much more clever than the rampant sparrows I have in my backyard. The Chickadees hang out in the lilac bushes while eating their seed and then flit out to the feeder to grab more before returning to the bushes.

    • You’re welcome! If you’ve heard Pileated Woodpeckers hammering on wood, and seen their holes, you have a good chance of seeing them. The pair stays together in their territory all year. Yes, they have the distinctive woodpecker flight– flap, flap, glide. If you spot big, black birds with white wing spots doing the flap-glide flight, that’s them. Good luck!

  3. Lovely pictures of your pileated. Looks like a female to me, too. We are fortunate to have a pair nesting in either our oaks or my neighbor’s. They are always here, all year around, and I love the sound of them hard at work around the yard.

    When you watch them fly, not only do they have the distinctive wing beats, but they actually close the wings rather than doing a true glide, causing the bird to dip down in flight, and rise back up when it opens the wings and flaps again. So if you trace their flight path, you see a series of scallops, more or less, instead of a straight line.

    The thing I enjoy the most is their loud, laughing call. It’s the one Woody Woodpecker’s call was based on in the old cartoons, for anyone as ancient as I, who might remember those. *grin*

    Great post, and congratulations on getting such good shots. I’ve never gotten a picture, even with them spending lots of time on the trunks of our oaks. We have just found out we are losing two of our biggest trees and might lose more over the months ahead, and one of my big worries is that the pileateds will relocate. Hope not.

  4. Congrats on getting these photos!!

    I only just started even casually birding this Fall (ok, once this summer I checked out a hummingbird that buzzed my wildflower garden), but yesterday I saw a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers in the trees around my property!

    My photos and video were absolute crap b/c I don’t have suitable equipment for shooting at a distance, but I was still super-psyched to finally see them and hope they stick around (or at least visit again).

    Thanks for sharing your photos and the story. Cheers.

      • Thank you, Sue. “My” pair of pileateds returned on Sunday and allowed me to approach more closely to photograph them. I was happy to get this shot of one of the two w/ my little point-n-shoot:

        Will be reading through your blog and looking and pics over the break here. Cheers!

        • Lucky, lucky you! Now you know where they live, and you’ll be able to follow them over the year. Usually a resident pair stays put in the same territory for most of the year (assuming there is enough food there).

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