Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Six Woodpeckers

You’ll have to forgive my being a little cocky today but in all my years of birding I’ve never had a day like Saturday.

A six-woodpecker day.

I have been known to find six warblers in a day, which is a big deal to me. I have also seen six types of sparrows in one day. But there are many more than six of these seen in this state at any given time.

The six woodpeckers commonly found in my area of New Jersey aren’t all that easy to find, particularly on the same day.

(A seventh - the redheaded woodpecker - is a southern bird that needs specific habitat to survive, in this case stands of dead trees. With the suburban penchant for cutting down any inconvenient tree dead or alive, you have to seek it in a Known Redheaded Woodpecker Location such as the Great Swamp. I usually seem them in winter.)

I was lucky enough to be in the right places at the right times, and it is this combination of luck and surprise with just enough knowledge to make identification possible that makes birding such a joy.

Three of the woodpeckers were gimmes. In the afternoon my feeders brought the six-inch downy, which was chased off by the nine-inch hairy, which was chased off by the comparably sized redbellied woodpecker, like the one here. For more on these go to
Usually these three are all I see. But not yesterday.

I went walking early into the nearby Central Park of Morris County, once known as the Greystone property. (There is still a Greystone property but it is on the western edge and owned by the state. Where I was is now owned by the county.)

Besides the expected birds I heard the distinctive call of a flicker, a cackling “ahhhrrr.” Flickers are usually seen on the ground and are mostly brown to blend in. I couldn’t find it.

So that’s four woodpeckers.

As I headed home from this walk I stopped when I heard what sounded like the breathy “Wha-wha-wha” of the pileated woodpecker, the largest of the six. It is about the size of a crow and has a most distinctive red crest and black and white body.

These are great to see up close, like the female I saw on a neighbor’s tree, whacking away at it to scoop up the carpenter ants within.

No surprise, that tree rotted and fell over in a storm less than two years later.

If you are old enough to remember the Woody Woodpecker cartoon, his laugh and look were based on the pileated.

Anyway, I stopped and listened. It called, then it called again. I have found pileateds in Greystone before, one mere feet away. So I knew what it was.

That’s five woodpeckers.

Here is where luck morphed into transcendence.

Every winter my husband and I go through the marriage-testing experience of clearing the lower house gutters of fallen leaves. (We don’t do the higher gutters because we want to live to a comfortable old age, and any spillover comes into the lower gutters anyway.)

There I was, not long after the morning walk, holding the large, metal ladder on which MH, bad knees and all, was trying to pull out wet leaves.

Behind me I heard a whinny. Could it be? I heard it again. Yes it was! A yellow-bellied sapsucker!

“Pay attention to the ladder,” MH yelled, somehow sensing I wasn‘t giving 100 percent.

“But it’s a sapsucker!” I responded. “That’s my sixth woodpecker of the day.”

For some reason, perhaps being 15 feet above the ground, he wasn‘t as impressed. “No reckless birding! Concentrate,” he retorted.

At which point the calling bird flew from its tree next door and across the road, out of sight, allowing me to turn back and focus on not becoming a widow.

The sapsucker is a very different type of woodpecker. It has red on the top of its head, like some of the others, but distinctively on its “chin,” too. It drills small, shallow holes in trees, not to pull out insects but to draw the sap on which it feeds. This sap also draws a lot insects, which feeds all the birds. (The sap also feeds hummingbirds when they first arrive during spring migration.)

In spring these shy birds announce their territory as loudly as any other woodpecker, an activity known as drumming.

It’s a simple process: hammer on a branch (or a wood-shingled house) with your sturdy bill to loudy announce “I am here and if you are another woodpecker stay away.”

Find the right sounding board and your message will go far.

And that was the sixth. Does it make me a better birder? No, but it reminds me why I enjoy birding.

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