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Birdwatching: Charismatic pileated woodpecker hunts for bugs

One of the most striking, interesting and sought after birds on the continent puts on a show at Willapa refuge

By Dr. Madeline Kalbach

For the Observer

Published on February 6, 2018 2:22PM

Male pileated woodpeckers have a red stripe on their cheek. Females lack this stripe. Both genders have long necks and long chisel-like bills.

MADELINE KALBACH PHOTOS

Male pileated woodpeckers have a red stripe on their cheek. Females lack this stripe. Both genders have long necks and long chisel-like bills.

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Pileated woodpeckers excavate deep oblong holes when searching for insects.

Pileated woodpeckers excavate deep oblong holes when searching for insects.

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I have written about a few of my adventures with the birds at Tarlatt of the South Bay Unit of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. Well, the birds are at again. They seem to put on a show whenever I go to Tarlatt with my camera. A few weeks ago, my friend, Susan, and I were cleaning the swallow/bluebird boxes on 85th Street in preparation for spring migration and the nesting season. We are hoping for western bluebirds this year. As we cleaned, a large dark bird flew along the tree line, landing in an old snag located on the refuge boundary.

It was the largest woodpecker native to North America, namely, the pileated woodpecker! It is always thrilling to see this very large woodpecker. The Cornell Ornithological Laboratory describes the pileated as one of the biggest, most striking forest birds on the continent. It’s nearly the size of a crow, black with bold white stripes down the neck and a flaming-red crest. The male has a red stripe on its cheek. It is considered uncommon on the refuge and the rest of the Peninsula, which means it is present, but not certain to be seen. This seems, in part, to be because this species is sparsely distributed in mature hardwood and coniferous forests, although they also will frequent younger forests if there are tall, large, dead trees scattered throughout or a large supply of fallen decaying trees. The pileated might even come to yards that have small wooded areas with large dead trees. Keeping large dead trees standing or leaving fallen snags in our yards will encourage a visit by this striking looking woodpecker.

While continuing to clean out the nesting boxes we kept one eye on the snag. Getting the boxes ready for spring was necessary so we continued the work, finishing it about three quarters of an hour later. We couldn’t take time out because the weather was warm, sunny and dry. There aren’t usually very many days like this in the dead of winter! I think the pileated must have known how thrilled we were to have seen him. He stayed put in a small area excavating oblong holes in the snag and in others close by as it searched for insects. Its favorite meal are carpenter ants, but it also likes other ants, flies, wood boring beetles, cockroaches, termites and grasshoppers.

As soon as our work was finished… out came the cameras. We could hear its characteristically loud whacking noise so we ventured toward the area where the sound was coming from. We found the pileated in no time, and he posed magnificently for us as he went about foraging for dinner! The bird was so busy, it seemed oblivious to our presence. Pileated woodpeckers perform a much-needed service to other critters such as bats, owls, ducks and pine martens. Their excavated holes provide them with shelter and even nesting cavities.

We were grateful to the pileated for giving us such a great opportunity to observe the use of its chisel-like bill in its pursuit of dinner and to see the flaming-red triangular crest. It was truly a magnificent sight to see. It was quite the show!



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