Thursday, March 7, 2013

Close Encounters of the Pileated Kind

As I have stated before, I am not a "birder".  I like watching them.  I enjoy feeding them.  It makes me happy to see them using nest boxes that I built.  I even have a couple "favorite" species.

But.  It takes a lot to get me excited about a bird.  You can tell me you just found a "Lesser Disapproving Short-Tailed Fingerwagger" in your backyard and it's five thousand miles outside its normal range!  If it's just a little brown bird, I'm probably not going to rush over and see it.  If it shows up in my yard I might be mildly excited, and I might call you so you can rush over to see it.

There are a few species of birds that do get me excited - even if they are not necessarily my favorite birds.  Bald Eagles.  Ravens.  Sandhill Cranes.  Red-headed Woodpeckers.  Pileated Woodpeckers.  Especially Pileated Woodpeckers. 

The Pileated Woodpecker.  Dryocopus pileatus.   Any woodpecker that is the size of a crow is awesome in my book.  Literally, this bird inspires awe and admiration in me.  (I can understand why the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was known as the "Lord God Bird".) 

I have seen lots of Pileated Woodpeckers, sometimes more than one at a time - a nest on Isle Royale National Park, a family one of five in one tree at one of the local parks.  I have never taken taken a good photograph of one, until yesterday.

I went to Mission Creek Woodland Park in Mt. Pleasant to look for Skunk Cabbage poking up through the snow in the cedar swamp there.  After finding some Skunk Cabbage and taking some photos, I was headed back to the car.  Along the way I noticed some dead trees that woodpeckers had been working on.  As I walked further along the trail I heard a laughing "wuk-wuk-wuk-wuk-wuk-wuk" coming through the trees.  A Pileated Woodpecker landed in a tree on a steep hillside 20 yards further down the trail.  I took a couple quick photos thinking the bird would fly away as soon as it noticed me.  They were my usual bad Pileated photos.

My typical Pileated Woodpecker photo - long distance, through branches, blurry

Amazingly, the bird did not leave but started to feed.  Pecking at the tree.  Maybe I could sneak closer.  There were some trees directly in line between me and the bird.  Closer...

Better.  There are still branches in the way.

The woodpecker knows where I am.  It is watching me, but it is still feeding.  This is the closest I have ever been to one with a camera in my hand, but there are still branches in the way.  Should I press my luck?  There is another tree up ahead...

Where are you, Mr Beetle Larva? 

This is AWESOME!  This is a wild woodpecker, not a habituated backyard feeder bird.  I am less than 30 feet away from a woodpecker the size of a crow!  There is no way I can top this.

That tree over to the left has a clear view and it's closer, but there is no cover between here and there.  Maybe... Off I go...

I see you over there with the camera!

Look at the power running through him as he slams his beak into the tree.
Still keeping my eye on you!

The distance is down to about 18 - 20 foot now.  Clear unobstructed view.  I take over 150 photos from this spot.  The woodpecker is getting a little jumpy now, but he is still working hard at digging insects out of the tree.  I can tell the woodpecker is a "he" from his red forehead and mustache.  At this distance I can see his amazing zygodactyl feet - with two toes pointed forward and two pointed backwards.  These let him hang onto the sides of trees for so long.  He uses his long stiff tail feathers as a prop to lean against.   His red crest of feathers is a sight to see - according to Anishinaabe legend he was awarded his red crest for giving the Anishinaabe cultural hero Nanaboozhoo (also spelled Nanabush, Wenaboso, etc.) advice on how to kill a giant.

There is no way for me to get closer.  Is there?  There is a tree a little way down the steep slope of the hill.  Maybe...

The woodpecker is getting tired of me.  He circles around to the opposite side of the tree.

By now I am only about 12 feet away from the woodpecker.  I am in a situation that I couldn't have dreamed of before this.  I might actually be too close to one of my favorite birds!  When it rears back to peck at the tree, its head exits the frame of the photo!  I am doing my best to keep the camera steady and on the bird, while trying not to slide down a slippery hillside.

This is amazing!  You can keep your "Lesser Disapproving Short-tailed Fingerwagger" that you can only see with binoculars at the top of a spruce tree.  I have a crow-sized woodpecker within spitting distance!

Hey!  There's something interesting over there!  Why don't you go look over there!
Okay!  Enough of this photography stuff.
Do you mind.  I have some work to do.
Sixteen minutes (and 369 photos) after I first heard the woodpecker fly into the tree, I decided it was time to stop taking photos.  When I walked back up the slope, he retreated back around the tree and stayed there until I left.  His photoshoot was over, but he still had work to do at that tree.  There was one thing that I was able to see about this woodpecker, but not get a photograph of - his amazing barbed tongue.  There is a good photo and write-up of this adaptation on the Lansing Wild Birds Unlimited blog. 

For more information on the Pileated Woodpecker check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


  1. Good blog post, great photos. I had an encounter with a few Pileated Woodpeckers several months ago and was dismayed when I got home and saw all the branches in the way on my 'best' photos. You've done good job explaining why these birds are so tough to capture.

  2. really nice shots, he is going to town on that tree. Great series of shots.

    I finally got one picture of our Pileated Woodpecker that lives near our home here in South Carolina. They are huge and fast.

    Nice iste and some really nice pitures too!

    take a look at my picture.
    Pileated Woodpeckers