This week, the work crews were busy around the park, noisily clearing away piled up brush and using tractors to spread heaping mounds of ground up Christmas trees. I headed down the nature / equestrian path for quite a ways before encountering any bird life bold enough to face the crashes and bangs coming from the treeline. (I doubt my slipping, sliding and crunching along the muddy and leaf strewn path had anything to do with it.)
Finally I started seeing life in the bare branches, starting with a pair of chickadees.
Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)
After a bit, I locked onto a Downy Woodpecker further down the trail, and tried my best to approach within camera range without disturbing her. Twice I almost got a shot before she hopped around a trunk or flittered to a more obscured branch, but I kept hearing her rat-a-tat-a-tat and kept inching closer. Then the drumming sounds changed, coming from another direction entirely. I thought at first that the downy had flown the coop, so to speak. But this sound was different; deeper, louder, more "echo-y," if you know what I mean.
Then I heard it, and even with my limited experience I caught my breath. I'd heard that sound before, plenty of times up in the piney woods of East Texas, but I'd never seen the originator of that distinctive call. That wonderful, maniacal laugh (audio files borrowed from PileatedWoodpeckerCentral). And I immediately and totally forgot the little downy.
Slowly moving toward the source of the call, I saw a great flutter of black. At first I thought I was seeing a vulture back in the trees. Surely woodpeckers don't grow that big! Then I saw a flash of red and stopped in my tracks.
I waited a bit and watched as he moved slowly closer, still staying deep in the tangle of trunks and leafless branches. Finally I got a good view of him and snapped as many quick shots as I could get before he moved behind thicker underbrush.
Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)
Glancing down at my watch, I realized I was almost twenty minutes late starting back towards the office. I scrambled back down the trail and into the car.
Luckily everyone was hard at work when I snuck back to my desk and no one seemed to notice my extended lunch break. It would have been worth it, though, even if I'd gotten caught. Chalk up another lifer for this new year!
For some great bird photos from around the world, check out Bird Photography Weekly #21.