Pileated Dreams

Do you have a dream bird? A bird that you’ve always wanted to see? For a while my dream bird was the Pileated Woodpecker.

Pileated Woodpecker (Image by Joshlaymon via Wikipedia)

Pileated Woodpeckers are the largest woodpecker in North America. It has a distinct red crest, is black, and has white stripes going down it’s neck. Heard of the character “Woody the woodpecker”? He’s a Pileated.  They’re about the size of a crow. The first time I saw a picture of it I was in awe. A woodpecker the size of a crow? I’ve never heard of such a thing, but once I did I was hooked. I wanted to experience one in person. You can find these birds in New Jersey, but they don’t tend to frequent my neck of the woods much. Dave and I are planning on visiting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (my dream place) in the spring, and I would always tell him, “I can’t wait to go to the Lab! I hope we are lucky and see a Pileated Woodpecker while we’re there.” I had a mission, but thought that it would be awhile before I fulfilled it.

Dave and I were at Boundary Creek in November watching a Red-Tailed Hawk soar over the creek. A fellow birder joined us to observe the hawk. She asked, “Have you ever been to Rancocas Nature Center?”. I have multiple times, and she continued ” I heard that people are reporting Red-Headed and Pileated Woodpeckers there.” At that moment I perked up. I knew I had to go to the Nature Center as soon as possible.

The following weekend I went with my mom and sister to the Rancocas Nature Center. Rancocas Nature Center is a 210-acre section of the larger Rancocas State Park (total size is 1,252 acres). There are numerous habitats represented at Rancocas, include forest, wetlands, and meadows. Our goal: to spot a Pileated. Our chances were actually pretty slim, because the woodpecker could have been anywhere in the State Forest. But we felt it was worth a try.

We decided to walk on the Blue Trail, which loops around the center through the forest. We saw American Robins, Carolina Chickadees, White-breasted Nutchatches, heard some smaller woodpeckers…but not much else. About 3/4 of the way through our walk it seemed like it wasn’t going to happen.

Here’s the thing I love about birding: you never know what you’ll see. Sometimes you can go seeking a specific bird and find it, but sometimes you won’t. I was aware that there was a good chance we wouldn’t see it but figured if we didn’t at least we got a nice walk out of it. We were carefully again checking as many holes in trees as we could. Then we saw sometimes interesting.

It was a big hole. I’ve never seen one so big and for some reason I thought it looked fresh. Woodpecker holes are pretty obvious, but they don’t usually look that big where I go. “Don’t you think that hole looks kind of big to be a smaller woodpecker?” I asked. “Do you think it could be?…”


And lo and behold, there it was in all it’s glory. A magnificent Pileated Woodpecker. It was just as beautiful as I imagined it would be. The Pileated was on the other side of the tree, busily pecking another hole.

Pileated Woodpecker (sorry for the quality, I only had my iPhone on me!)

It was fascinating how it moved. It was so focused on its task and drummed evenly. Four taps, three taps, six taps. The rhythm of its drumming was so steady. Every few drums it would move side to side, as if observing its work of art and deciding where to put the next stroke.

I was so overjoyed, I wanted to jump up and down and cheer. But of course, I didn’t want to scare it by being loud, so I kept my cool but I was celebrating inside. It noticed we were there (you know how loud it is in fall when you’re stepping on hundreds of leaves) but didn’t seem to mind us, even when we moved slightly closer (don’t worry, we still kept a pretty good distance away). I felt so lucky that it let us experience it for at least 15 minutes and show us a little bit of its world. Once it felt its hole looked go enough for the moment it climbed in.

I was on a high the rest of the day. One of my birding dreams finally came true! I felt honored to be in the presence of this fascinating bird. I thought I would have to travel somewhere else to see one, but was able to see it in my own area.

I still get excited every time I think of that Pileated. It’s one of my favorite birding moments so far (and you know I have a lot of favorites!). I still want to see other Pileateds, but have a lot more dream birds to see. Dreams really can come true :-). What’s your dream bird?

Shout out to Celebrate Silence, who asked their readers to share one of their favorite Moments in Time.



Author: BirdNation

I am an avid birder, teacher, and nature lover. I primarily go birding in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but love to travel. I am currently a biology student with interests in conservation biology, ornithology, and environmental sciences. My dream is to go birding in all 50 states.

12 thoughts on “Pileated Dreams”

  1. At 54 years old, I just saw my very first Pileated woodpecker today! I was mesmerized with the bright crest on his head and his red mustache, just 20 feet outside my bedroom window. How awesome!


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