Birding Notes

Reflections on birds and other wildlife on the edge of a southern woodland

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Pileated Woodpecker on Thanksgiving Day

The dead pines clustered in one section of the woods behind our house continue to attract woodpeckers, including Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied – and early this afternoon a Pileated Woodpecker that spent more than an hour working on one trunk after another. I heard its traveling call as it moved through the trees down near the creek, and about 15 minutes later, heard the sound of loud whacks nearby, and found it about three-quarters of the way up the trunk of one of the larger dead trees. It was a male, with a full red crest and thin red moustache stripe punctuating the white and black stripes on its face.

He worked hard and steadily, turning his head on the snake-like neck to chop at the bark sideways, and using his bill to flick off huge slabs that went flying. Then he struck the bared bark more directly and occasionally seemed to find something to eat. I couldn’t see well enough to see the barbed tongue coming out to lick up the ants or grubs he was probably finding. He made his way up the trunk, staying longer in some spots than in others, and leaving rectangular patches stripped of bark behind him. As he hitched his way up, his big gray claws made scratching sounds. He stayed remarkably focused on the task, not often looking around, but turning his head to flip off chunks of bark and then pounding straight into the cleared spots.

It was a clear, colorful day, warm in the sunshine, cool in the shade, with a soft blue sky and faint breezes. Brown-headed Nuthatches, Chickadees and Titmice carried on a lively chatter in the green pines and hardwoods, and Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted from place to place. Two or three Carolina Wrens sang and fussed somewhere nearby, and one Ruby-crowned Kinglet made its dry, staccato call as it moved through a dogwood and the dry, red-brown leaves of an oak.

After several minutes, the Pileated Woodpecker hopped to another dead pine close by, spreading its wings enough to show dramatic flashes of white. From there, he moved to another tree fairly soon, then to another and another, each time trying out several spots on the trunk, fiercely clearing off patches of bark, but apparently not finding much of interest, and moving on. Finally, he found a spot about midway up another tree that seemed to his liking, and stayed there working for a good while. In this tree, he was often in perfect profile against the blue sky, showing off the broad black back and tail, the large head and powerful bill, the long ribbon of white on the black neck, and the pure, clear scarlet of his crest.

Pileated Woodpeckers are considerably less common here than they were only a few years ago, so I’m particularly happy when I get the chance to watch one for a while like this. This one was still working in the dead pines when I finally had to go back inside – one thing among many to be thankful for on a beautiful, peaceful Thanksgiving Day.


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