Monday, 19 November 2012

A Nemesis No Longer

Some of my childhood was spent in Ontario and I clearly remember seeing Pileated Woodpeckers a few times in the forests around Peterborough and Ottawa, mostly while out cross-country skiing.  When I started keeping track of my bird sightings a few years ago, I assumed it would be a quick addition to my Alberta list.  No such luck!  Eventually I followed some advice to Griffith Woods in early March of this year and got my "tick" - a quick disappointing flash of distinctive white underwing vanishing into the trees across the Elbow River.  With that backdrop in mind, you may understand why I was approaching this past weekend's Friends of Fish Creek Birding in Bebo Grove, where Pileateds had been reported all week, with more than the usual excitement.

View Bebo Grove in a larger map

The first thirty minutes of our outing was extremely quiet with a handful of Black-billed Magpies, Pine Grosbeaks, Black-capped Chickadees, and a flyover Sharp-shinned Hawk.
Sharp-shinned Hawk (possibly the same bird), Accipiter striatus, that we connected with later in the morning
Eventually we made it to the creek where we enjoyed the company of Brown Creepers, Boreal and Black-capped Chickadees, and Golden-crowned Kinglets.  Unnoticed by the main group, the star of the show - a Pileated Woodpecker - flew across the creek behind us and alit on a trunk right in front of three birders who had lingered by the water.  As soon as they got our attention it flew off downstream, landing among some picnic tables that were a more comfortable distance from our mob of nearly two dozen birders.
More deeply unsatisfying views of my nemesis (this is a 420mm lens) - right in the centre of the frame, apparently headless!
Given the woodpecker's tolerance of birders earlier in the week, I decided to play a hunch and headed off by myself to make a giant (and hopefully nonthreatening) loop around through the trees to get the sun behind me and hopefully to move closer to the bird.  As you can see from these photos, it worked...
Male Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus

Pileated Woodpeckers are, probably needless to say, the largest of North American woodpeckers, about the size of a crow.  They chisel away at trees with their large powerful beaks, often foraging close to the ground where they excavate rectangular holes to feed on ants and other insects inside the tree.  The whole woodpecker family has evolved a number of fascinating adaptations to enable this feeding behaviour: stout bills with an elastic layer of tissue between bill and skull bones, long barbed tongues that curl around the back the skull, nasal tuft feathers (visible above) that protect their nostrils from flying wood chips, and stiffened central tail feather shafts (visible below) that help prop the bird up on the trunk.
Going up!
That was the main excitement of the morning - certainly no Citrine Wagtail or Hepatic Tanager but a stunning bird and an important sighting for me.  We concluded our morning by heading down to the westernmost bridge in the park, on the off chance of an American Dipper, but "settled" for the first Common Redpolls of the season, along with more friendly Black-capped Chickadees and a particularly characterful Red Squirrel.
Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile atricapillus
Red Squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus

No comments:

Post a Comment