Pileated Woodpecker Wednesday!

Today is our last Woodpecker Wednesday for the autumn season. I can’t believe winter is officially only one week away! A weekly dedication to woodpeckers was really enjoyable for me to write, but I’m also looking forward to the return of Waterfowl Wednesday. Speaking of waterfowl, on Sunday Dave and I added 4 species of waterfowl to our life list at Long Beach Island. I can’t wait to tell you all about it (post will be coming soon about that).

On November 14, 2015 I achieved one of my birding dreams: to see a Pileated Woodpecker. (It was one of my best birding moments so far, and you can read about it here at Pileated Dreams). My fascination with Pileated Woodpeckers started long before I ever saw one, and has only increased over time as I eagerly await the moment I find another one. Here are some interesting facts about this awe-inspiring bird.

  • The Pileated Woodpecker is the 6th largest woodpecker in the world, and the largest in North America. It’s about the size of a crow, but despite being so big it’s more often heard than seen.
Pileated in Flight (Image by NatureMan via birdsandblooms)
  • Like the Northern Flicker, Pileateds primarily eat ants. Their diet also consists of a variety of insects, nuts, and fruit. They occasionally eat at suet feeders. (Quick side note: if you watch Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online Feeder Cam, you can sometimes see a Pileated show up at their suet feeder. It’s quite a sight!)
  • They are known for making large, rectangular cavities in dead trees. Pileateds depend on a variety of habitats, but mostly mature deciduous or coniferous forests. Cavities can be deep and up to a foot long. They use the tunnels within the cavity of catch beetle larvae with their long tongues. To hammer, Pileateds pull their necks back far from the tree and pull on the trunk with their feet to make a heavy blow.
Pileated cavity at Rancocas Nature Center, NJ (Image by BirdNation)
  • Pileateds are pretty distinctive, so they are not usually confused with other species. Sometimes they are confused with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are larger than Pileateds, and although also jet black, have large white wing patches on the outer wing. Pileateds have large white patches under their wings. The both have bright red crests, but the Pileated has malar stripes. It’s unknown if the Ivory-billed is extinct at the moment, so it’s more than likely that you’re seeing a Pileated.
  • How can you tell the difference between a male and female? The male’s red crest extends down to his upper mandible, while the female’s forehead is a dusky grayish-brown. The male’s malar stripes are red and the female’s stripes are black.
  • They hold large territories; spanning as far as one mile or more for a single pair. Pairs are usually monogamous and mate for life. They defend their territory throughout the year. Defense strategies include raising their crest, drumming, calling, and displaying the white patch under their wings.
A mated pair (male left, female right) Image by By AndrewBrownsword – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4348147

I hope you enjoyed Woodpecker Wednesday! What’s your favorite North American woodpecker? Tell me about it in the comments! The Pileated is mine (obviously! :-P)


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.