Monday, August 19, 2013

Hunter and the Dryocopus Pileatus - Stalking Carolina's Largest Woodpecker

If you've ever seen this "large woodpecker that wears a red cap," most likely it was a memorable experience. My initial reaction to an encounter with the pileated woodpecker is almost always a somewhat startled, "Wow, that's a big woodpecker!" Not particularly large relative to all birds, about the size of an American crow, it is the pileated's size relative to other woodpeckers which tends to grab the observer's attention.

On a recent hike in the Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve, Hunter captured these images of a solitary pileated as it foraged for insects in a tall, dead pine. It was late on a rainy afternoon with thunder rumbling and reverberating amidst the straw covered ancient sand dunes from which rose an almost pure stand of majestic long leaf pines, when we heard the telltale call of the pileated. The unmistakable "wuk, wuk, wuk ..." call series hearkened back to the wild primordial forests which dominated this land for countless millennia.

In moments like these, watching this magnificent creature at work, it is difficult not to ponder the fate of its close cousin, the ivory-billed woodpecker.
Nicknamed the "Lord God" bird in reference to the typical response from anyone who was fortunate enough to encounter one firsthand, the ivory-billed resembled the pileated, but was even larger, the third-largest woodpecker in the world. Unfortunately, it went the way of the old growth forests upon which it depended, and is most likely extinct.

The pileated has adapted better to development, and can survive in almost any wooded area that has trees large enough for nesting and roosting. In fact, it can often be seen foraging in wooded suburban backyards and visiting suet feeding stations.

Hunter stealthily approached this individual until he stood immediately below its perch on the massive old pine, and although it paused from its excavation momentarily, it quickly returned to hunting ants in advance of the encroaching darkness. 

As the rain resumed in earnest, Hunter took his leave, and the pileated called out a crisp farewell salute.

Another awesome encounter with nature, a sense of wonder renewed; what will tomorrow bring?

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