Sunday, September 25, 2005

Finding Delight At the Old Dead Tree

What good is an old dead tree? As a biology teacher of 33 years I know the answer to this question, but none the less I need to be reminded from time to time. I spent a wonderful September Saturday afternoon at home recently. I'm afraid most people would think that a day at home, Saturday or otherwise is a wasted day. But when you have an opportunity to experience the wonders of nature and the beauty of life all at the same time you consider it a treasure, not a waste of time. Sometimes I think that a day that begins with no meetings, no appointments and no place you have to be is a day that needs to be treasured, even if nothing happens. But something did happen.

A leisurely cup of blueberry coffee, time to read the newspaper and no place to go is how I started the day. Then I heard it. There he was again. The screech of pileated filled the September chilled air. Throughout the late summer I have been hearing both the tapping of the bill and the screeching call of a pair of nesting Pileated Woodpeckers. A year and half ago I had the opportunity to watch the pair of beautiful birds for an hour or so in my backyard. I shot a number of pictures and was amazed that one of the world's largest woodpecker species was making my backyard their territory. I had seen the characteristic rectangular hole in a Cherry tree near the back of my property a few months before, but had only heard the loud tapping in the distance until I looked out my back window that February morning. I saw the pair other times since that day, but not recently. Then in August I started to hear their characteristic screeching calls again. Each time I scooted out to the back deck, field glasses in hand and searched the trees. I saw them on the wing a few times, but couldn't find them in the trees. Saturday I heard the screech again. No answer, but the definite screech of a Pileated Woodpecker. Coffee in one hand and binocs in the other I quickly and quietly went outside. It was a bit chilly. One of the first cool mornings of the new fall season. It felt good, clean, natural. And I looked through the trees again. First without the binoculars the then with the glasses up to my face. Nothing. As I lowered the field glasses I saw movement in my neighbor's old dead Oak. Of course, why didn't I look there first? This is a woodpecker. Their favorite place to be is an old dead tree. That's where breakfast is. The bugs, the grubs, the ants......that's a mighty good feast for a hungry woodpecker. Being the largest woodpecker in the world means they need lots of bugs and grubs and ants each day. (The Pileated is considered to be the largest of the North American woodpeckers with the exception of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was considered extinct until a recent sighting in a remote swamp in Arkansas this past year. There is still a bit of controversy about the sightings, but it looks like the Pileated has been shifted to second place once again. But it is still a pretty big woodpecker to see in your backyard.) There he was (it was the male of the pair, so "he" is the right description here.) As I raised my glasses to my eyes I saw him. Red cheek patch, a long stiff tail and the telltale topnotch of a Pileated. He was busy. I watched him shred the bark of the tree. Piece by piece the long branch was being cleaned of its outer covering. He turned his head to get an angle on the bark. The long beak was more of a stripping tool than a digging tool this morning. It was incredible to watch how much bark was lifted every time he angled his head and drove it under the loosened the bark. What a beautiful bird!! His sharp claws dug in, his long stiff tail feathers pressed firmly against the branch, he was well positioned to do his work. Then he hopped up the branch a few inches and started to shred another section. I gazed up the branch and was amazed. The big branch was being transformed into a Shagbark Hickory (in looks anyway.) This tree is enormous. In fact, it towers above most of the other trees in our back woods. It has been losing its battle to survive over the past few years and my neighbor has been talking about taking it down for over a year. Now as I looked at it it was being transformed into a totally different kind of tree. If not a Shagbark, then a old southern Oak with long strands of Spanish moss hanging from it. At least that's what it looked like at first glance. Through my binoculars I saw different. The work of a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers over the past few months was incredible. They have been literally "hunting and pecking" the tree bare of its bark. Branch after branch, up and down the tree, the bark was hanging in tattered shreds. What a job they have done. Almost before my eyes I was seeing a three story tree stripped of its outer covering. It is quite a thing to see such small creatures (they are big woodpeckers maybe 14 inches , but small compared to us and tiny compared to the tree,) making such a big change in this towering tree. Certainly other woodpeckers have been helping. I have seen Redheaded, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers in the branches of this tree and at my suet feeders through the summer. Watching the bark being lifted and tossed to the ground by this bird convinced me that he and his mate were the primary excavators here.

Great viewing indeed, but I soon went back to my newspapers. Fifteen minutes was enough for me to learn about the work of the Pileated Woodpeckers and to appreciate how much work these small birds can accomplish.

About a half hour later I was finishing up and I heard the cries once again. What's going on out there? This time I took my spotting scope out. I can focus at 15 x and then zoom into 60 x to see much more detail. I set it up, raised the tripod and angled it to the same branch on the big dead Oak. He was still there, a little higher, but still angling his head, wedging the beak under the bark and lifting. Piece after piece was being lifted and thrown down again. I zoomed into his head. I was looking into his eyes this time. Black, glossy beads. He turned his head each time there was a noise. I saw a Fox Squirrel running away from the Oak. It was on the upper branches of a tree that was a bit further in the woods. I wondered if the screeching from the woodpecker was because the squirrel had gotten too close? At any rate it was making a fast retreat. What a picture. Here I was, standing on my deck watching the eye movements a truly magnificent bird. Then I focused on his bark activities. What was he actually getting? What bugs was he finding under the bark of this old tree? Then I saw it--a small white grub was visible. Then wham, it was gone! I watched for a while more. Another grub. And then I saw his beak open slightly and a long black tongue flicked out and got the grub. Wow! I wasn't watching Nova or reading Audubon Magazine. I was watching a bird in my back yard, in an old dead Oak, on a Saturday morning that most people would consider wasted.

My friend Stewart from Melbourne doesn't have woodpeckers in his back yard. He lives in Australia and there aren't any woodpeckers in Australia (they have parrots and Kookaburras , but no woodpeckers. ) To show his son a woodpecker he has to look in a book, go to a zoo, or travel in an airplane for 20 hours. Here I was standing on my deck, coffee in hand, scope angled up and watching one of our largest native woodpeckers flick his tongue and suck in breakfast. Not a waste in any possible definition of the word.

You never know what delight you can find in an old dead tree.

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