It was clear and sunny day and the forest was full of bird song. The spring was definitely in the air at the Grey Nun’s Spruce Woodlot on this Sunday. My ear caught the distance reverberating and hollow sound of a drumming Pileated Woodpecker. The sound was unmistakable and the only creature in these neck of the woods capable of producing it is the charismatic Pileated Woodpecker. I decided to try track down the woodpecker by following the drumming sound. The woodpecker was not hard to find as it was perched high up on a tree stump in a clearing. Every few minutes it got to work drumming up a loud hollow sound that traveled far through the forest. It clearly was not foraging as there was no damage to the tree. It looked like it was using the sound to communicate. What was it trying to say? Was it lonesome and looking for company or was it telling other Pileated Woodpeckers in the vicinity to stay away?
Pileated Woodpeckers hold a special place in my heart. Many years ago, long before I got into birding a friend of mine was sharing stories about his encounters with these magnificent birds. He was not a birder, he just had the fortune of seemingly bumping into Pileated Woodpeckers on a regular basis. I on the other hand, had no such luck. Through his stories and my lack of ability to spot Pileated Woodpeckers these birds became a legend. A seemingly unattainable mythical creature that continuously eluded me. It was only years later that I spotted my first Pileate Woodpecker. How things have changed. These days I not only see them on a regular basis, but I can identify them by sound, whether they are vocalizing or going to town on a tree. The sounds they produce are unmistakable. Spotting a Pileated Woodpecker is always a special treat, spotting two next to each other is an unforgettable experience. The other day two Pileate Woodpeckers were at work on the same tree trunk. Higher up the trunk a Northern Flicker was also busy working away. It must have been a particularly good woodpecker tree.
Loud banging noises were coming from the forest. It sounded like someone was hitting a tree trunk as hard as they could with a baseball bat. I knew right away what was making the noise and it certainly was not a human. As incredulous as I was I realized that the only creature capable of making such loud banging noises was a Pileated Woodpecker. I have seen and heard many Pileated Woodpeckers and I know they can be quite energetic when they go to town on a tree. I had never, however, heard one making a noise this loud. It was easy to spot the culprit. There it was, sitting on a decaying tree trunk, illuminated by the sun working on the tree like there was no tomorrow. Large chunks of the tree were flying all around it as it was digging its way into the core of the trunk. The speed at which a Pileated Woodpecker can hammer its way through a tree is truly a sight to behold. There are plenty of dead trees in the Whitmud Ravine with large cavities in them that are the work of Pileated Woodpeckers. Based on the size of some of the cavities it is only natural to come to the conclusion that it must have taken quite some time for a woodpecker to hollow it out. Once you have seen a Pileated Woodpecker in full action one realizes that it would only take a matter of minutes to hollow out one of those cavernous cavities. The efficiency of Pileated Woodpeckers makes them the industrial version of a regular woodpecker. They are truly a force to be reckoned with.
Today is my first birthday as a birder. Exactly one year ago – on December 16, 2018 – I went on my first birding outing with my brand new Nikon Monarch 5 binoculars. A 45 minutes drive took me to the Beaverhill Bird Observatory where I went for a walk through the frozen forest looking for my first species of birds. This was pre-camera days and my phone served as a camera so I mainly got landscape pictures and no bird pictures. The first bird I spotted, and the #1 entry on my life list, was a Downy Woodpecker at one of the bird feeders at the bird observatory. It is fitting that today’s picture is of a Downy that I came across in the Whitemud Ravine yesterday. Downies are the cuties of the winter – petit, fuzzy and irresistible…, yet confident and not shy around us humans. Yesterday’s Downy was busy looking for a morsel to eat on a stump right off the trail. It went about its work systematically and very energetically. It was rather scruffy looking, perhaps it was a young individual or maybe it was just having a bad feather day.
Let’s go back to the same day last year… After a few hours at the bird feeders by the bird observatory I had seen eight species. Not bad for a first-time birder. In the afternoon I went on my second outing to Hermitage Park bird feeders where I saw another four species. The day’s total count ended up being 12 species. As it turns out, the next time I would add another Canadian bird species to my life list would be number 65 over a month later…, but that is a different story.
A year and 166 species later things have obviously slowed down quite a bit in terms of adding new species to the list but now I get the satisfaction of finding and re-familiarizing myself with species that I saw during last year’s winter. The Cedar Waxwings and Snowy Owls are on top of that list. Is has been a tremendously exciting year of birding and there are many highlights that I will cherish forever. As I am looking at my life list every species on it brings back memories of that first sighting. It is quite remarkable how a list of bird species can evoke vivid memories and stories of finding little (on not so little) winged treasures. I am looking forward to my next year of birding and I cannot wait to see what birds it has in store.
It was a cloudy mild winter’s day and our walk in the Whitemud Ravine started rather uneventful. If was not long, however, before we could hear the familiar drumming sound of a woodpecker going to town on a tree. That was the beginning of a nature walk with the woodpeckers. The first woodpecker was a Pileated Woodpecker in the distance. Once you spot a Pileated Woodpecker it is hard to let it go. Another couple of birders that came by shared that there were Black-backed Woodpeckers further down the trail. This woodpecker is the least common woodpeckers in these neck of the woods, so we decided to try our luck and moved on. Sure enough. One only had to listed for the familiar drumming sound and it was not long before we were able to track down the Black-backed Woodpecker (picture will be posted in a future post). This was a special treat as I have only seen this species once before in this location. From here on, things got only better. While shooting the Black-backed Woodpecker a Brown Creeper serendipitous showed up in the view finder. Further down the trail we came across a scruffy looking Downy Woodpecker only to, moments later, come across the highlight of the day, a magnificent Pileate Woodpecker looking for a snack on a stump right off trail. Wintertime is definitely woodpecker season and some days you really luck out. A peculiar nature of most woodpeckers is that they are not shy or skittish around humans and one can quite easily get close to them. I am not sure if they just could not be bothered with our presence or if they are to busy looking for food to notice us. It sure looks like they are oblivious to our presence.
Edmonton--Whitemud Park, Edmonton, Alberta, CA
Dec 15, 2019 11:47 AM - 1:52 PM
Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) 1
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) 1
Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) 2
Common Raven (Corvus corax) 1
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) 20
White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) 2
Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) 1
I have been waiting 256 days (posts) in anticipation to be able to name a post “Pileated Woodpecker”. Up to now these charismatic woodpeckers have been eluding me. I have seen them numerous times in the distance, in flight and one can hear their calls on almost every walk in the Whitemud Ravine. To add to the frustration; on several occasions before I started my Project 366 (and before I had my Nikon P1000 camera) I got amazingly close to these magnificent birds. They certainly are not shy. Its almost as if they were aware that they are the coolest woodpecker around and they like to rub it in your face. As soon as I got my camera, however, I ran out of Pileated Woodpecker luck. Last weekend, however, luck was on my side as there was a bit of an woodpeckerpalooza going on in the Whitemud Ravine, with Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers and two adult Pileated Woodpecker busy looking for their next meal. Due to the dense understory I did not manage to get as close to the Pileated Woodpeckers as I would have liked to, but I did get pictures that, while not perfect, are the best to this date. There is always another day, so I will be back for more Pileated Woodpecker action in the near future.
Today I managed to squeeze in two nature walks. A morning visit to Centennial Park in Sherwood Park. It was a blistering cold day with temperatures down to -20C, yet the winter hardy birds were out in full force. In the afternoon I visited The Whitemud Ravine. This time it was quiet and, other than Black-capped Chickadees, I spotted a fleeting glance of a Pileated Woodpecker. I heard the characteristic monkey laugh of it first and as I started scanning for it I saw a quick flash of it landing on the back of a dead old growth tree. By the time I made my way around the tree the Pileated Woodpecker was gone, but I did find a large cavity roughly where it had landed. I suspect that the woodpecker was likely in that cavity. This is the second potential nesting site of a Pileated Woodpecker I have found at the Whitemud Ravine. I am still lacking any useful photographs of Pileate Woodpeckers, so I will need to monitor these cavities more regularly. Around 3:30 in the afternoon the sun was getting low and by 4 pm it was dusk-like and too dark for photography. The early darkness is an unexpected challenge when it comes to birding during this time of the year. Winter solstice is still several weeks away so things are looking dark (pun intended) for the next little while.
The trunk of the dead tree looks unassuming. It had withered to a light grey color and there were numerous large cavities along the trunk. If it would not have been for The Pileated Woodpecker landing on the trunk and entering one of the cavities just moments before I would have never noticed the dead tree. I was at the banks of the Whitemud Creek, at a location where I have seen beavers many times in the past. No beavers this time though. Only that Pileated Woodpecker. I waited for a long time, hoping it would come out or at least stick its head out to have a peek. It never came out. I will be returning with my camera, a tripod, a stool and some snacks for a Pileated Woodpeckers stakeout. I have seen many Pileated Woodpeckers over the last year, but I have yet to capture a good picture of one. They are large and conspicuous, but remarkably hard to photograph as they never seem to stay in the same spot for long.
I have seen my fair share of Pileated Woodpeckers in my lifetime, including some spectacularly destructive individuals that went to town on trees with such vigour that the wood chip went flying. It is always a treat to come across one these birds. They not only spectacular and impressive birds, but also quite noisy. The distinct sound when they work on a tree and their vocalizations, reminiscent of a hysterically laughing monkey, can be heard far and wide. The one thing I have not managed to do in the Pileated Woodpecker department, however, is to take a good (or at least half descent) picture of one. I have numerous out of focus and fuzzy photos that would perhaps qualify for the crap bird photography page, but they are definitely nothing to write home about. The best place to see Pileated Woodpeckers in my neck of the woods is down at the Whitemud Ravine. I regularly see them flying around and most dead standing trees have evidence of their busy work, but I have yet to snap a picture of one in action.
One of our favourite valley bottom hikes around Jasper is the Valley of the Five Lakes trail. With a name that sounds like it would come right out of the lore of Middle Earth, the hike does not disappoint. With panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains, emerald green and azure blue lakes the trail meanders through Mountain Pine Beetle ravaged pine forests, lush spruce stands and aspen groves. It is a popular trail and to beat the rush you want to be hitting the trail before 10 am. Last weekend we visited Jasper National Park and were fortunate enough to be able to do the Valley of the Fives Lakes trail twice. On our first day out we were greeted by a vocal Pileated Woodpecker and accompanied along the trail by Dark-eyed Juncos singing from the tree tops and American Robins hopping about through the understory. We found a mother bear with her cubs hiding in the bushes along the trail. As tempting as it was to linger and try to get a nice photograph of the family, we opted for a quick peek and then moved on to avoid undue stress on the new mother. The sound the cubs made was quite interesting. It was reminiscent of the cooing sounds of pigeons. So next time you heart a cooing in the forest it might be something bigger and furier than a pigeon or a dove. Often people are worried about meeting bears along the trails, and admittedly that I shared this concern once upon a time. Many bear encounter later, however, I found myself very lucky if I spot a bear. I don’t go actively looking for bears, but if our paths cross an already special day suddenly becomes unforgettable in the best of possible ways.