Bird brained stories!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Adventures in Birding, Part III

In a perfect world, instead of sitting here this morning typing, I'd have been somewhere in the Cache River Wildlife Refuge right now, working as part of the last search team of the season for Cornell's Ivory Bill search. The world is not perfect. For various reasons, I had to resign that spot on their team earlier this year, and some other lucky person is there in my stead. Since I had to set aside a once in a lifetime experience, I'm trying to console myself by creating another.

I know there are Pileated Woodpeckers in one of my favorite birding spots, the Hixon Forest. I've seen them. I hear them all the time. On rare occasions, I might be lucky enough to get a photo of them. Until this last stop on my birding adventure day, I'd been able to take a grand total of two photos of this elusive bird. In my entire life. I know, I know, some of you have them coming right into your yard, hanging on your feeders. No such luck here. With one rare exception reported earlier, I find them to be highly wary, soaring to the other side of a ridge at any approach. If the Ivory-Billed is anything like its more common cousin, I can understand the difficulty getting a definitive image of it. I wish "my" search team great good luck in doing so.

My consolation prize is simple, yet not simple at all. I'd like to find out where the Hixon Pileateds choose to nest, then return a few times to document their nesting season. It probably won't happen. No doubt they nest in adjacent forest, on private property. Still, it's a challenge that will occupy my time, instead of moping around, thinking all kinds of "if only" thoughts.

So as I entered the forest on this bright afternoon, I headed off to the trails where I've been most likely to spot these birds. Just as I started my ascent, I heard the familiar raucous laughter. Behind me. I'd spotted earlier woodpecker sign, a pile of chips on the ground below an excavated hole. I often see this sign, right along the forest edge near the start of the trail, and it's always fresh. I need to spend time in the early morning here, as I suspect that's when they're working this area.

As I stopped and listened for the call again, I realized they were over in another valley of the forest, and backtracked. Walking slowly, stopping every so often, I'd narrow my search. There were definitely two birds calling, and they were calling often. As I climbed a bit up the north slope of this part of the forest, I caught a flash of red. There!

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They always seem to be so distant, alert to intruders into their kingdom, and a photo like this is about the best I can hope to take. Still, photos weren't the objective today. I tried to hunker down so I could creep ever closer, see where and what she was doing and......crash! Through the forest came a cluster of runners from the nearby college. Loud runners. Yelling to each other. Grumbling internally, I knew they had just as much right to be here, and hoped maybe their movement would actually chase the birds closer to me.

Not a chance. Even more maddening was the fact that several clusters of equally noisy runners came crashing through...and they didn't just move on, but circled the same trail two or three times! I kept telling myself, you're only jealous. You used to be a runner yourself, until an injury ended your distance running days (and added inches to my butt!) Still, I was mostly one of those who subscribed to the loneliness of the long distance runner, so I was a quiet runner.

I bided my time. I knew eventually they'd be gone, and hoped the birds would not wander too far. They didn't. I found a log I could park on, and watched and listened as they flew from one area to another. There was some drumming, but not a lot. It didn't appear they were excavating a nest hole just yet. I saw both a male and female, so she isn't on a nest yet. Pileateds tend to mate for life and remain together throughout the year. They will spend days excavating a new nest hole, then take turns incubating, the female by day, the male taking the night shift. So it appeared I still have some time.

What they were doing today was still interesting. I kept seeing them near the ground, sometimes at the base of trees; other times it wasn't obvious what they were doing. I'm used to seeing them hitch up a tree, then glide to another...usually on the other side of the trunk from me. Today I couldn't quite figure out what was up, until I got this view in a beam of sunlight.

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They were ripping away dead bark on fallen trees and limbs, probably taking great delight in fresh carpenter ants, their preferred food. It was fascinating to watch as they'd tear away a strip of bark, then probe deep into the remains for ants. I spent nearly an hour on that log. This part of the forest seems to have a lot of these fallen logs, perhaps because of its damp, shady location. Someone else came through near the birds, barking dogs and chatting people, sending both birds sailing over the ridge out of sight.

I know where they like to go to eat now. I'll go back several times, checking my theories about their daily routines at different times of the day. I won't be helping to find an Ivory Billed Woodpecker, but maybe I'll succeed in finding a Pileated nest site. Even if I don't, as with the Ivory-Bill, I'll have a good time trying and get to know this elusive bird better.


  • I love the way you write and I love your photography. But it's too bad your are not doing the Cache bird refuge.

    By Blogger SageHen, at 9:33 AM  

  • Love all the details you included. Unfortunately the photos are blocked for me from work, so I won't be able to see them until I get home.

    By Blogger justjohanna, at 2:50 PM  

  • well I'm not going to tell you how to make money but (sheesh!) I can tell you're on the right path to pileated-dom. They're very smart birds, much smarter than most people give them credit for.
    Our property is teeming with carpenter ants.. one reason they hang out here so often.
    Happy woodpeckering :)

    By Anonymous Cindy, at 6:52 PM  

  • I've been so lucky this spring with the hummingbird nest in my back yard. I'm passing to you my nest-finding luck. You deserve it much more than I! I look forward to seeing your pictures of the nest. Sounds like you're hot on their trail, so I'm sure you'll find success!

    By Blogger Amy, at 8:48 AM  

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