It doesn't seem to happen often enough, but that's where I was this afternoon. Near perfect weather, assignments complete for the day, and deliciously close to one of my favorite birding spots, Watchung Reservation. What else could I do? With binoculars already in the car, I was ready for a leisurely afternoon hike.
My usual target spot for an impromptu walk through nature at Watchung is the bridle path alongside Surprise Lake. Broad and well-worn, it's a safe, tick-free route for dog walkers, runners or folks like me who weren't exactly dressed or shod for a day in the woods. I wasn't sure I'd see or hear many interesting birds, given the time of day, but even a quiet walk is well worth the effort.
Finding my way to the bridle path, I considered trying to call out a Pileated Woodpecker. They're regulars, if not abundant, at Watchung, and we've heard and/or seen them several times near Surprise Lake, their loudly distinctive "WUK-WUK-WUK-WUK" being one of my favorite bird vocalizations. (Check it out here.) As a species, they prefer forests with a good choice of standing and fallen dead trees. Even if you're not lucky enough to see one, you'll probably see evidence of them in a decent-sized woods -- large chunks of bark and inner tree trunk laying on the ground where they've pecked for insects. Square-shaped holes mark where they've excavated nesting holes.
|Not the Pileated I saw today,|
but a good representation.
Just as I was thinking about imitating the "WUK-WUK-WUK" to bring one out, I saw movement at the base of a tree on the side of the trail about 10 feet ahead. Expecting to see a Robin or two, I was astounded to see two Pileateds low on the tree trunk. It was clear they'd been there a while: one was standing on a pile of wood chips it had clearly excavated from the large hole it was still pecking away at. If I didn't know better, I'd believe it was a contractor working on a new factory for the Keebler Elves. The companion Pileated seemed either to be standing watch or perhaps waiting for a few good morsels exposed by its more industrious partner. Was this a parent-child situation, with a hungry adolescent waiting for mom to provide dinner?
Then, suddenly, I heard the "WUK-WUK-WUK" sound of a third Pileated from a tree about 10 feet beyond the working pair. Seeing two at once was a treat -- three was unprecedented for me. Could this have been the other parent, or maybe another offspring? Was it possible that there were even more in the vicinity?
I stayed just a few more minutes to enjoy the activity, then left the apparent family to their dinner. It wasn't clear they'd even noticed me, but they deserved their privacy and a measure of safety. And besides, they were making such short work of that hole at the base of the tree that I couldn't be sure it wouldn't come tumbling down at some point.* For a spur-of-the-moment stop at the Reservation, I'd been nourished by a peek at nature that I won't soon forget.
*I kid, I kid. To my knowledge, no tree has ever been felled, beaver-style, by an overenthusiastic Pileated Woodpecker.