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The Best Woodpeckers of All

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

I call North Bend State Park in Harrisville, WV, my happy place. I also call it Birding Valhalla. That's because there's no place else I can think of where you can see 80 red-headed woodpeckers in a single day. 

They're here because the forest that was flooded to make the lake killed a lot of big trees. 

And those big trees were perfect for red-headed woodpeckers to drill out for their nesting cavities. 

To my amazement, we saw a bird making a cavity on July 25. Well after one would think they'd be excavating a nest cavity. Perhaps it's to be a roost cavity, even a winter roost hole. It was pecking away!

David laughed out loud to see it dip in, take bills full of sawdust and chips, and ptoo! them out into the breeze.
I was delighted to capture the moment for him. PTOO!!

All around us, red-headed woodpeckers were feeding fledged young, doing crazy loop-de-loops after dragonflies and dog day cicadas in the big spaces over the lake. It was wonderful.

There really is nothing I don't love about red-headed woodpeckers. The best woodpeckers of all.
But even as I enjoy North Bend, I know it's a limited-time offer. For the nesting snags they use, after more than a decade of standing in water, are falling into the drink. More are down every time I visit.

I was trying to shoot a poignant photo of two cavity trees in mud when this little character gave a metallic chip and bobbed into view.

It's this year's young Louisiana waterthrush, assuring me that, snags or not, there will always be something interesting going on at North Bend.

The double-crested cormorant and the great blue heron agreed as they posed against the elegiac wrecks of trees. Such riches from dead wood.

We stopped to examine the hollow bole of a sycamore, and I remembered why I love Mary Jane so much. She stuck her head in the space and sang a mysterious and compelling Native American song, her beautiful voice resonating and echoing across the quiet lake. Now, who does that? My friend Mary Jane, that's who. 

Because I look down so much, gazing into the water, looking for dragonflies and fish and water plants, I often miss what's overhead. David and Mary Jane pointed out this second Science Chimp stumper. Now, how did that snakeskin get there, 12' up in a dead snag that's standing in several feet of water? Did a snake somehow climb up there to shed? Nope.

They had just found a great crested flycatcher nest. The snakeskin had been airlifted up there. Great crested flycatchers like to trail a snakeskin out of their nestholes, perhaps as a deterrent to avian predators, but maybe "chust for nice." When I was a kid, I found a GCFL nest in our woods in Richmond, Virginia, by seeing a long trailing strand of Fiberglas insulation, stolen from a house under construction, trailing from a cavity. 

The snakeskin waved in the breeze in the most delightful way, and I felt lucky to have friends who can spot such things, and doubly lucky to be the one who gets to tell them how such mysterious things come to pass.

If canoeing North Bend with me sounds like something you'd like to do, there are still some spaces left in the Bird Watcher's Digest Reader Rendezvous coming up August 22-24, 2014.

Check it out here: Birding Valhalla With Julie Zickefoose

And in a lovely bit of serendipity, my pal Floridacracker has just posted a fascinating photoessay on a Florida park that's managed with fire for woodpeckers, including the endangered red-cockaded and the beloved red-headed. His post is called  A Place for Redheads. Go read it! With red-headed woodpeckers, it's all about living amongst large trees with an open understory. Whether that understory is water, as at North Bend in WV, or savannah, as at Ochlockonee, they need that kind of space between the trees because they're flycatching woodpeckers. I thought it was pretty cool that we two blogosaurs (Floridacracker started blogging in the spring of 2005, and I followed in December of that year) were groovin' on the same birds at the same time, many hundreds of miles apart.


Great sawdust catch :-).

Oh! love this place, love these photos, love the RHWO pttoing, love the GCFL snakeskin decor,love the echoing song of Mary Jane, just love it all.

Posted by Gail Spratley August 5, 2014 at 8:27 AM

YOUR RH's were doing stuff, while mine were just a couple of posers. Stuff doing trumps posing!
Another great Zick post!

Back many years ago, I could count on seeing lots of red headed woodpeckers on Toledo Bend, a huge reservoir on the Texas/Louisiana border and at a friend's house.

But the trees fell down and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed most of the pine trees on my fried's property and and then his place grew up in dense underbrush.

So I've seldom seen red-headed woodpeckers over the last several years. Thanks for the post.

Not sure I would stick my face in a hollow log in the south, liable to pull a moccasin out on your nose.
Love the sawdust a flying.
Tammy in Lower Alabama.

Posted by Anonymous August 5, 2014 at 5:36 PM

Julie,I agree that redheads are the best and the woodpeckers aren't bad either!But seriously, I just LOVE red headed woodpeckers and if I were able to spot 80 in one day, I just don't think my heart could take it! What a fabulous place.

Robin Ford

Great blog and photos, Julie, and a wonderful story by Floridacracker. Here in NW Ohio I have RHWP nesting and currently enjoy watching a single parent being followed by three noisy blackheads(young). Wonderful article in BWD on RHWP also. Shortly after reading the article I found one parent bird hit along the road (your dad was right). These RHWP remain here year-round and are a joy to watch at the feeders in the winter! RE Pohlman

Posted by Anonymous August 6, 2014 at 7:38 AM

Wonderfull fotosgreeting from Belgium

Aha! You've explained the mystery of why we are seeing a good number of red-headed woodpeckers at our new house, located in the New Jersey Pinelands, but on a golf course. We have a good habitat here for them with lots of spaced-out trees, but an open understory. (Dead trees available in nearby woods) Like another poster, we have red-heads as regular visitors to our suet feeders and have enjoyed seeing them feeding their young. Hope we will be as lucky to have them stay all year. They are delightful to see and indeed the best woodpecker!

Posted by kathy corbalis August 12, 2014 at 5:32 PM

Beautiful photos...and great photo essay. I, too, love the shot of the sawdust caught in mid-air.

After reading your post, I'm more than just a little interested in time we are in or near West Virginia.

I am a huge proponent of letting snags stand (when they are not a danger to one's house or loved ones). We were lucky enough to have a few snags already standing and already in use when we bought the place--since then, I've seen two or three more trees die. As much as I wanted height of the one elm and the shade that it provided for my planned woodland, I know that in a short time it will be very valuable real estate for cavity nesters.

Thanks for sharing your experiences and your happy place. :)

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