Friday, June 24, 2011

A Pair of Pileated Peckers

Woodpeckers.  Get your mind out of the gutter.

We've lived in our house for over 7 years.  I remember within days of moving in I began hearing what would soon become the familiar calls of the Pileated woodpeckers.  These are the big guys... about the size of a crow, with the bright red mohawks that the character Woody Woodpecker was fashioned after.  They are generally reclusive birds... we hear their calls echo through the neighborhood, and recognize their signature "WHAP! WHAP! WHAP!" pecking on dead wood.

Contrary to what the cartoon shows, they do not sound like the rapidfire "rat-tat-tat-tat-tat"... around here that's the sound of a sapsucker announcing his territory.  The Pileateds are deliberate in their hunt for food, sounding more like a craftsman thudding his hammer with careful aim.  On rare occasions I've managed to sneak up and see them at work on a dead log.  They tip their head to the side, examining the wood... then they pull their head back as far as it will go and throw it forward with all their might, as if their beak were a sledgehammer.  Every time I see it, I expect them to pull their heads back and shake them, I cannot imagine how they do this without seeming to feel the least bit of pain or dizziness.  They appear entirely unaffected by the blow, and they line themselves up to do it again.

Their call is very similar to the cartoon (not the beginning laughing part, but the way Woody sings that last note over and over... ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha) though in the wild their pitch sounds more similar to a laughing hyena than the cartoon bird... "kak-kak-kak-kak-kak-kak-kak-kak!"

For 7 years they have been my backyard nemesis... the elusive Bird I Could Not Photograph.  They are the grand pooh-ba in neighborhood bird watching (at least, between my next-door-neighbor and I, who seem to be equal in our enthusiasm for the feathered critters)  Most of the times I've seen them I was unable to get my camera fast enough.  One time I saw one on a neighbor's log and I had my cell phone, but in that instance the phone would not focus (though it focused fine 2 minutes later, after the bird took flight)  Once I saw one sleeping in the tree in my front yard.  I did not want to run the risk of losing the opportunity, so I did not bother to change out of my pink pajamas... but nabbed my camera and tripod and dashed out front.  I had pictures, but as the bird was asleep in the tree, the photos only show an unrecognizable black blob on the tree bark.

Last Christmas D bought me a few bird houses for the yard, with the intent to put them up on posts this spring.  In the midst of researching the best way to put them out in the yard (to prevent marauders from gaining access) D began brainstorming squirrel baffles.  In order to test his designs, he devised a plan to put in a temporary post in the yard and hang a collection of bird feeders from it - if the squirrels cannot get up to the food that they clearly want, then the baffles will work for the birdhouses (which they should be less interested in anyway)  So he placed a bit wooden post in a corner near our patio, collected a bunch of my feeders from around the yard, and set up what is now a substantial feeding station.

The experiment has created an unexpected turn of events.  The tall wooden post, combined with a long narrow suet feeder filled with peanut-based suet, appears to be the ideal combination for pileated woodpeckers.  Within days of setting up the feeders we began noticing pileateds hanging around the yard.  I've dashed out of the house a few times to get pictures... some of them were fuzzy (low light + fast bird) and many times I've scared the birds away.  But... they keep coming back.  Daily.  They seem to have grown so accustom to us that I can approach the feeders to about 10 feet before they fly away.

They other day I noticed the feeder was almost empty, so I walked out to fill it and didn't even notice the female was on the backside of the post.  She didn't see me either, and I was 5 feet away before she took flight, landing on the side of the tree behind me.  She watched me fill the feeder, then flew immediately back to it as soon as I'd turned and walked a few steps away.

As they have come back with such frequency, I'm now referring to them as our Resident Pileateds.  I have several shots of both of them at the feeders, but I'm also trying to capture them with more of their own habitat as the surroundings.

These photos are 7 years in the making (cropped down to show both birds in one frame)  The Grand Pooh-bas of Backyard Birding:

I'm thinking the male (on the left) should be named Woody, I haven't decided what to call the female yet.


Brightdreamer said...

Seven years finally paid off... congratulations! (Seven years isn't bad, actually. Mom's been trying for a good pileated woodpecker shot for longer than I've been alive... that's half the reason for the mountain ash in the front yard.)

I thought the pileates sometimes did the rapid drilling for territorial purposes, not feeding; something big used to drill on the large power towers behind our house, having figured out it got more volume on metal. May have been a flicker, though... I don't recall us ever seeing the culprit in action.

Gino said...

i hear these guys often in georgia. they are hard to get a good look at. i can only imagine getting a decent would be harder.

one more example where wildlife photography is not much different than hunting.

Jade said...

BD - they might rapid fire for territory, I've heard it described online but never heard a recording. Every fast-hitting bird I've seen has been a smaller guy, a downy or pileated.

Gino - There was a character on the TV show "Northern Exposure" that used to hunt, then became an avid birder. He went out "hunting" birds with a modified rifle-looking set up that had a camera mounted on it. That always made me think of how similar skills are needed for both hobbies.

Pileateds are incredibly shy, I see these two daily but am still stunned they are so bold with us. They might be a young couple (I've seen larger) so maybe they don't know any better. Looking over the last year, it seems that most of my great bird shots are of juvenile birds.