Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Woodpecker Morning

    A pileated woodpecker called from the southwest, his voice punching through a cacophony of crows somewhere not too deep in the woods. It was midmorning and I was meandering around the farm. Camera in hand, I was not acting like a bird photographer. Listening, walking, stopping occasionally for some sparrow or another, but not stalking, not hiding, not waiting.
Pileated woodpeckers are residents at the farm, and I hear them daily. One of these days I will set my sights on getting a good photograph of one, but that takes work and I was not of a mind for work this morning.
Circling around the old vineyard, I paused to watch a couple cardinals.  A sparrow disappeared into the overgrown vines before I could get a good look, and I moved on.
By the time I reached the small pasture below the house, the voices of crows and woodpeckers were replaced by the smaller, raspy notes of tufted titmice and Carolina chickadees celebrating a mother lode of sunflower seeds in the feeders. Soon, there would be fifty pine siskins dominating the scene, but for now it was all theirs.
Breakfast was past due, and I turned toward a break in the fence that would allow entrance to the yard, but before I made it to the fencerow, another voice stopped me. At first, I thought it was the red-shouldered hawk I had seen earlier in the morning. Then it called again. No hawk. It was clearly a yellow-bellied woodpecker–another regular around the farm. Just as I spotted her in a small maple by the fence, she bid me her leave. I watched her swoop over the house and out of sight, and my mind went back to breakfast.
Having been in the sun, the shade of the porch chilled me slightly, and I decided to make a late pot of coffee. I set the camera on the piano and turned toward the kitchen, but in doing so, I saw something move in the old tree in the middle of the narrow pasture along the road. It was too far to see clearly, but the dark silhouette and jerky movement up the trunk suggested the yellow-belly.
Camera in hand I snuck out the back door, careful to hide myself in the shadow of the holly. Close enough for a long shot, I raised the camera in time to see the yellow-belly disappear around the trunk of the tree. I lowered the camera but continued to watch. Something moved on a large, low branch and I lifted the camera again. There he is, I thought. No, it can’t be. Unless the she had magically become a he, this was a different bird. I crept a little closer, keeping out of sight behind a small cedar.


    I lifted the camera to my eye again. He was still there. And so was she. And so was he. And so was he! Four yellow-bellies were on the same limb! They were too far for a good shot, and in the shadows, but I fired off a few anyway and managed to get three of them in one shot before they flew to one of the pear trees along the driveway.
Perfectly hidden behind a clump of trees, I quickly moved in close, and soon I had all four of them within shooting distance. At times they shared limbs, at other times they played chase.
If you like birds, this is a great time of year for having bradford pear trees. Frost softens the hard, woody fruit, making it edible–and apparently delicious–for a variety of birds. The longer I sat in the shadows, the more birds came in. A flock of robins and several cardinals moved through the canopy, but I stayed focused on the yellow-bellies who kept me on my toes. Rarely staying in one place for long, they circled me, chasing, feeding, chasing some more.
A mockingbird fiercely defended one of the trees, never allowing the woodpeckers more than a brief light on his territory. Oddly, he didn’t mind sharing with robins, but there were to be no woodpeckers.
I heard a pileated call again and looked up to see a male crossing the field to the far end of the drive, no doubt in search of the same reward his smaller cousins enjoyed.
Eventually, the yellow-bellies moved a couple trees away putting too much canopy between us for a shot. Slowly, I crept around the trunk I had been leaning on, hoping to make it a little closer without spooking them. With my focus in the direction of my prey I had not seen the other bird fly in, and as soon as I stepped into the open, a female pileated laughed and took off from a tree not twenty feet away. Who knows how long she had been there…
I took a few more steps down the drive, spooking the male pileated from his tree. The yellow-bellies were nowhere to be seen, and I kicked myself. A little patience would have likely rewarded me.
Hungrier than ever, I walked back to the house and set down the camera for the second time. A familiar call turned my attention to the kitchen window. I looked out the window to see my resident male red-belly bracing with his tail to retrieve a sunflower seed from the feeder. For a moment, I looked at the camera, but I was too hungry. It was time for lunch.


Photos of yellow-bellied sapsuckers from top to bottom:

1. Male and female sharing a tree trunk.
2. Male in sunlight on small trunk.
3. Close-up of male.
4. Male perched, female in flight.
5. Two males, one female from a distance.
6. Silhouetted male.

What do you think?