Thursday, July 16, 2015

Pileated Woodpeckers: the excavation professionals

Ever have one of those days when your work brings you onto the road a little earlier than usual, the weather is clear and balmy and you find yourself driving near one of your favorite places? The coincidence is just too good to pass up a visit.

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.
You may be wondering what the big deal is about Pileated Woodpeckers. Quite simply put, they're huge, and they look like an old school Woody Woodpecker. At an average of 16 inches long, with a large, powerful bill and distinctive red crest, they're more than twice as big as the Downy Woodpeckers you might see on a backyard tree. And rather than drilling in a rapid-fire pecking motion, they chip rather deliberately at their target tree trunks, cocking their heads as if contemplating the perfect angle to get to the inects beneath.

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?

Post-Pileated damage.
Whatever their work plan and relationship, they made for fascinating watching. My plans to go any further down the trail evaporated instantly as I set to watch one of my favorite species from the closest vantage point I'd ever had. It's not often you can view woodpeckers situated closer to the ground than you are! As the excavator continued his work, the other bird alternately turned up bits of piled detritus or hid around the side of the tree, his head occasionally popping up in a somewhat startled-looking "peekaboo" fashion.

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.

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