Wednesday, April 29, 2009
The word pileated when referring to a bird means “having a crest on the top (pileus) of the head.” You can certainly see that—in all its bright red glory—in the portrait of a female pileated woodpecker, made as she worked a suet feeder near my front door this morning. The scarlet crest is easily the bird’s most eye-catching feature. Honestly, though, everything about this huge bird is simply spectacular Its size is about that of a crow. Yet its conformation is so primitive—seemingly as much pterodactyl as woodpecker—that the pileated somehow appears even bigger. Trust me, a photo won’t really prepare you for that first time when you look out and see this giant bird hanging from your feeder. The second shot shows—though not particularly well, and you will need to double-click and expand to see this detail—the tip of the long, sticky tongue the woodpecker uses to probe in a tree’s cracks and crevices and snake out an ant or similar crawly morsel. When fully extended, this worm-like tongue is considerably longer. Okay, I admit—perhaps I am becoming a bit obsessed with my oversized woodpeckers. The pileateds and I are still playing our photo game of sneak-and-spot…and I’m still losing most of the rounds. But I’m getting trickier and more adapt (or possibly just luckier) at stalking and waylaying them on their daily routines. Even so, the task is far from easy. The pileateds are ever alert, always watching, and will spook at a shadow. Plus, maybe it's me, but there’s something definitely disquieting about the look in their eye—a fierceness you don’t usually expect in a woodpecker. That, plus watching the way they use their long, stout, and obviously sharp chisel-like bills to lop off slabs of wood or bark from a tree with a casual whack—likely explains why I sometimes catch myself thinking…this crazy woodpecker could be dangerous! I kinda like that—a notion of menace in these red-headed wood whackers. Even if it isn't true. So keep your fingers crossed…maybe next time I’ll manage to bushwhack the male—or maybe the pileateds will bushwhack me. Either way, there's sure to be a good photo in the encounter.