Woody comes to town

Pileated Woodpecker

If you’ve never heard of a pileated woodpecker, it’s the bird that inspired the mischievous loving cartoon character Woody Woodpecker. In real life, think bowling pin with a beak and wings. When I started birding 25 years ago, this troublemaker was at the top of my “see list” before I spent six years finding one stomping through deep forests and exploring isolated ponds. Remarkably, my sighting was only a few blocks from my home on the edge of a golf course, and the bird took flight as soon as I stopped the car. Like many animals hard to see, pileated woodpeckers prefer old growth forests and are shy about human contact, making a recent encounter even more surprising.

Walking along an urban bike path with my dog and wife, my wife suddenly tapped my shoulder as we passed a small grove of trees. Her index finger stabbed at the air over my left shoulder until my eyes followed the dotted line. Twelve feet up the trunk of a rotting aspen tree sat a beautiful male pileated woodpecker. The distinctive red pointy crest at the back of his head moved back and forth as he dug into the soft wood of the trunk searching for grubs. As a birder, I know even the slightest movement can launch a bird out of sight in seconds, so I immediately froze and made my movements deliberate. It took a few seconds to get over my amazement before I ordered my hand on a slow crawl toward my cell phone. While I have trained myself to just enjoy such experiences, photography is also a hobby and this was a rare opportunity. It took two minutes to raise the cell phone into position, doing my best to emulate a slow Loris before I realized THIS pileated was used to the steady flow of people along the path and wasn’t shaken by our closeness. I breathed easy and fired away shot-after-shot without the slightest care from the bird. He obliviously pecked away pursuing his meal as our dog looked confused and annoyed. Pileated turf is easily recognized by the more square-ish holes they punch into trees rather than the rounder ones produced by other species. I watched him use his beak much as I learned to use an ax as a boy; attacking the wood from the left side, his head at an angle, before switching the angle to the right; stopping every twelve pecks or so to pull out slivers of wood to toss over a shoulder. A Northern Flicker, attracted by the activity, was bouncing around the fringe looking for opportunity. He inspected other holes until getting too close for the comfort of a rival. Suddenly, the pileated stopped and delivered a single, quick peck to the center of his chest and the flicker dropped a few inches before sailing off to watch from a safer perch.

It was then we decided to let this spectacular bird finish his meal undisturbed. Ten minutes of close observation was a treat, and the beauty of such moments evokes both the simplicity and the purity of nature we addicts crave so deeply. Animals and sunrises do what they do without sponsors, without paychecks, without schedules; and that is what keeps me hooked.

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