May 2013: The Pileated Woodpecker
With its vibrant red crest, large black body and loud laughing call, the Pileated Woodpecker is an impressive force in Alberta forests . While they are fairly common in Calgary parks, I do not get a chance to see or photograph them very often, so when I saw a total of five in one outing last May, I was ridiculously excited…
I went for a walk in Weaselhead with the Pileated as a target species in my mind, but content in knowing it would be a beautiful walk regardless. About half way along my usual route, I heard the tell-tale pecking. I can’t say I’m experienced enough to know the type of woodpecker based on pecking alone, but this louder, faster and more ‘hollow’ sound gave me a strong Pileated vibe.
I veered off the main path onto a small dirt trail and followed the sound. Sure enough, I saw the bouncing around of the red head in the distance, circling a stump. Adrenaline started pumping as I tried to get closer, but disappointment settled in when the bird flew off before I could get any pictures. I tried to follow the direction it seemed to go in the trees, but soon gave up and turned around. Then I heard the laughing call, and not one, but two Pileated Woodpeckers flew onto a bare branch and starting mating right in front of me. They were a ways off, but still close enough to grab a few pics. Needless to say, I was pretty excited.
I continued my walk through Weaselhead, not really expecting to see any more. I often wander off the beaten path a bit and sit in a small clearing amongst the trees to relax and absorb the surrounds. In the midst of this, I heard the ‘laugh’ again and sure enough, another Pileated landed in a tree about 40 feet away. I jumped up and proceeded to stalk it. They are often high up in the trees and hidden by branches so can be hard to photograph, but this one eventually landed in a better position on the side. Three Pileated Woodpeckers in one outing!
I started walking back towards the main path and could not believe my eyes/ears when I simultaneously heard the pecking and saw two bouncing red heads. There were another two working away on a stump in the distance. This time I was determined to get closer. I crouched down and crept closer, taking cover from the trees and basically crawling along the ground. One of them flew off, but the other just kept working away on the stump. I managed to get within about 15 to 20 feet away from the bird and position myself behind a tree to grab a few close-ups.
I was happy to see when I reviewed my pictures later that I captured one with the woodpecker’s tongue out. I later learned that when the tongue is retracted, it is so long that it actually curves around the back of the eye cavity.
Like the Boheminan Waxwings, the Pileated Woodpecker is largely responsible for my fascination with photographing birds. In June of 2011, I was once again walking in Weaselhead when I heard the laugh and saw the flash of red. The Pileated flew in and landed on a stump right in front of me, and even though I had my old, slow-focusing compact camera, I managed to get a pretty good shot.
In Calgary, Weaselhead, Carburn park and Fish Creek park seem to be good spots for Pileated Woodpeckers. The male and female look similar, but the male has a red ‘mustache’ just off the beak.
When out and about, if you hear pecking, there are a number of other birds that could be making the sound. Other common woodpeckers in Calgary include Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Sometimes I hear loud-ish pecking only to discover that it’s not coming from a woodpecker at all – Red and White-breasted Nuthatches are tiny, but have a surprisingly loud and aggressive peck.
That is it for this time. Please watch for my next post: June 2013: Calliope and Rufus Hummingbirds.