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Red-headed Woodpecker. At Our Feeder. No, Really!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I went running Sunday morning, even though the road was snow-covered and what wasn’t snow was ice. Thanks to ice and circumstance, I’d taken an unprecedented three days off in the last week, and I needed to get out. The sun was brilliant and right in my eyes; it was 22 degrees and as long as I kept moving I was fine. Chet and I lingered in the cemetery, he sitting on my lap as I sat on a headstone. We warm up his paws that way. I wrap my arms around him and rest my cheek on his back and we just sit. I sometimes think that if we were lost in the woods we would sit that way until we figured out what to do.

As I came up our driveway headed home I saw fresh bootprints in the snow and the words BIG NEWS drawn in a drift. I quickened my pace. Came up the sidewalk to find Phoebe still in PJ’s, clutching my camera with 300 mm. telephoto lens, frantically waving me inside. “There’s a red-headed woodpecker at the feeder RIGHT NOW! Get in here!”

She was the one who had run out to look for me; she the one who'd scratched M. HURRY HOME and BIG NEWS in the snow on the driveway. And now she was following this vagrant bird from window to window, frantically keeping tabs on him, willing me to get home before he flew away forever. She shoved the camera in my hands and pulled me to the kitchen window.

You can't buy a 15-year-old girl like that. You have to make them, with a healthy assist from Luck and Fate. This is Phoebe, having just found a short-eared owl's roosting nook (yes, they roost on the ground), and the fresh warm poop left by the flushed bird.

She knows how to make her mama's heart sing. And the best part is it thrills her just as much. More on that later.

There he was!  just off the kitchen window in all his natty glory, pecking away at the peanut feeder. It was a little like seeing a unicorn in the garden. Phoebs had taken a bunch of documentary shots already. I flipped all the way out, then started shooting. Red-headed woodpeckers are vanishingly rare in Ohio now. A couple of pairs used to breed in a stand of giant oaks over a cow pasture about two miles from our home, but have since deserted that place. We’ve had  flyovers every year in September, October and May, most of them spotted from our tower (red-headeds fly slowly and very high, so they can watch for hawks) but only one other red-headed woodpecker has landed in our yard in 20 years. That one ate corn for a morning and was gone before Bill got home from work. I've never forgotten that bird, that lost chance to share its miraculous beauty.

Of course, Bill was away at an Ohio Ornithological Society board meeting. Irony of ironies. He was missing his absolute # 1 favorite bird while figuring out how to make Ohio birding better for everyone else. It about killed us to know that.

Over the next seven hours, that woodpecker tried everything we had. He contemplated suet; he tried black oil sunflower (but seemed not to know how to open the seeds). He ate peanuts from our peanut feeder, and cached several in the bark of a dead tree just inside the woods. While he sat in our sycamore, I moved quietly out and replenished the Zick Dough in our birch log feeder, leaving conspicuous piles on the deck railing, too. He watched me. And not five minutes later he was tasting what I’m sure was his first beakful of homemade manna. From then on, he bopped between roasted cocktail peanuts and Zick Dough, storing quantities of both in the dead tree’s bark.

He was ugly to all the other birds, something I found oddly endearing. This newcomer, this rara avis, acting as if he owned the place. I was ready to sign the title over. The kids were enthralled, running from window to window to watch him. I was beside myself. How could this happen again, with Bill away?

I opened the deck sliders and sat quietly in a rocking chair and clicked away at him as he fed only 12’ away. He wasn’t bothered by the sound of the shutter. What a guy.

Lazily scratching his face on one of our feeder perches. Tip from my slim archive of bird photography pointers: Put the food in holes in a rotty log (birch is my favorite!), then prop some groovy looking dead branches all around your feeders, so you can get natural looking photos. You can only go so far with a photo of a bird on a feeder. Because ultimately, all feeders are pretty ugly compared to a weathered branch or a rotting birch log. If you plant birches in your yard, you'll always have rotty logs to play with.

Because birches love to grow, but they love to die even more.

Needless to say, we fell completely in love with Garrett, as Phoebe named him, and the feeling seemed mutual. He watched to see what I'd put out for him next, and sampled it as soon as I was inside. He's bombproof, ignoring the slap of our shutters as we aim our lenses at him from inside the darkened living room only ten feet away. But would he hang around for us?

And because I know you'll ask, here's the recipe for Improved Zick Dough. 
With the whole story about why it needed to be improved. More Garrett in my next post.


Wow, what a great new book, the Wilds, Rhinos, and your Red head finding a Red-headed and Bill making it home to share it with all the family. Love it!

Kathy in Delray Beach

Posted by Anonymous January 17, 2012 at 5:25 AM

oh. my goodness.beautiful, thank you. it's just a thrill.
off to white's mill to get more chick forever,xxoom.

Posted by Anonymous January 17, 2012 at 5:29 AM

Your enthusiasm is contagious! That was a great story. Looking forward to more. Thank-you.

Let's see......Bill and his "favorite" bird are never seen together at the same place at the same time. Hmmmm.....

Great story. LOVE Phoebe's snow messages.

Wayne, PA

Posted by Anonymous January 17, 2012 at 5:54 AM

Hi Julie,
I am surprised to here the rarity of Red-headeds in Ohio, I have been under the possible illusion that they were pretty common. I wonder if it has to do with where in Ohio cause you guys are almost in Pennsylvania :=). My wife's aunt lives in Ada near Lima and I have spent lots of time there as well as living in Columbus for six months in 2004. I recall that RHWO were pretty common. Every time I went for a walk near their rural Ada property, I found at least two pair. Last time I was at Killdeer Plains which was about six years ago, I had at least six pair.

Love your story, and I love Red-headed woodpeckers. I found a drawing that I did of a RHWO when I was about 8 years old living in Minnesota and when ever I get around to doing a painting of one, I plan to present them together, the first being preliminary drawing.

My very first sighting of this bird was a fleeting glimpse as I barreled along I-70 west in eastern Colorado. I have since had a few good looks at this wonderous gem. It's never enough, never enough.

Fantastic bird to have around the house! And congratulations on your new book! We'll all be eagerly buying copies.


Posted by Anonymous January 17, 2012 at 6:18 AM

What a great visitor.
I really hope he stays long enough for Bill to get home.

We have them in the yard in the summer but once October comes they are gone.

Julie, how thrilling! What a wonderful story and what a great experience and a great kid! I could swear I saw this species as a child in CT but it has been so long and I have no proof.

You are indeed blessed on many fronts. Such great children who share your love for birds. And a visiting Red-headed Woodpecker. (The woodpecker we cannot seem to attract.) Thanks for sharing yours. I hope he lingers.

AWESOME! I love this post! What an amazing creature to have visit and what an amazing daughter to get so excited! I really enjoyed the snow message, very clever.

Absolutely love that stunning red-head of yours. Oh yeah, the bird is beautiful too!

Ahh, a favorite bird and one that was actually often seen in the last town I taught in.
I love this post and I really love Phoebe's snow texting.

What a beauty! Can I borrow one of your photos of him to make a tiny drawing?

Fantastic experience! That is a bird I have yet to see, but its color pattern makes it one of the most beautiful of all birds.

It seems like my non-birding wife and kids see all the "more unusual" backyard birds while I am at work. There's a curse I tell ya.

Are they not gorgeous birds? I was lucky enough to have a pair in my yard about 2 years ago.

What a visitor, what a ham, what great kids, and what a wonderful book. You are extremely good at setting yourself up for good luck.

I love these guys, maybe best of all woodpeckers, but they are also diminishing from East Texas and Louisiana from where I know them.

Maybe he'll be like our falcated duck at Colusa NWR in California and spend the winter with you. Sounds like he's already making plans to build his cupboard there.

I don't know whether to envy you most for your life, your home, or your kids.

In other news, we'll almost certainly not be able to make it to New River. Schedules and finances just won't allow it, unless a miracle shows up. Maybe Midwest...

Wonderful! I'm a birder, but I love most that you care to warm your jogging partner's paws! ;-)

One of my favorite birds as well... and great description throughout of "all his natty glory," but perhaps my favorite line of all: "You can't buy a 15-year-old girl like that. You have to make them, with a healthy assist from Luck and Fate" -- that's a smile-inducer!

Floridacracker, I kept meaning to get out and photograph the snow texts but the bird was too seductive. Then it rained.

Andrea, by all means help yourself.

Crackermon, I am so sorry to hear you and Shel won't be lighting up Fayetteville WV this spring. The kids send their love.

Diane, you made me loll.

Had a friend in Perry Co that had a family of red-heads visiting their feeders,but in the early summer.

What's not to love about this post--a special red-head daughter...a special red-head bird.
What's not to love?

"Red" just doesn't seem glorious enough word for your visitor!
And coming from a family of red-heads, Phoebe is glorious too!

Great feeder bird! And he is in great hands at your place! Audubon once said of this species: "I would not recommend anyone to trust their fruit to the red-heads... a hundred have been shot in a single cherry tree in one day"

I so enjoyed this post. Phoebe is a gem, but then, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, as they say.

Four years ago we moved within the same town in central Illinois. We lived for 25 years in the center of town and now live outside. For all those years we regularly had Red-headed Woodpeckers at our feeder. I didn't even think we would not see them when we moved to a wooded area. They have been to our feeders here just a few times and it is quite an event when we see one. I can hardly believe that we once were so accustomed to seeing them that they didn't cause such a stir.

Isn't it the truth, Paula? We take for granted what we're used to. When I moved from CT to OH, it never occurred to me that I wouldn't have tree swallows nesting in my bluebird boxes. But I didn't. And the swallows I used to consider a minor nuisance on the bluebird trail suddenly became very dear to me. I treasure them so much more, now that I've had to live without them. They've started nesting in southern Ohio (and sometimes raising two broods per season in my boxes!)

This bird--I'm tellin' ya. All over the yard, acting like the Feeder Cop.

Your story about the Red Headed Woodpecker was wonderful and is what makes each day so special! You just never know what you will see.
I make Zick Dough (with Chick Starter) each week and I'm amazed at the birds who grace our feeders. I offer both the crumbled dough and I make a cakes. The Zick Dough forms and holds nicely if you line an old suet form with plastic wrap, press it well and chill it! The woodpeckers love the hanging form and our first day of FeederWatch we had our first visit from a pair of Northern Flickers... now they are hooked! Best of luck on the launch of your new book! Linda at the Jersey Shore

Posted by Anonymous January 18, 2012 at 12:56 PM

I loved the scene of you and Chet warming each other, sitting together on the cemetery stone, if that isn't love. And then to walk right into another love, your daughter Phoebe, and another ......a RED HEADED WOODPECKER, absent for 20 years! What gets into these birds to all of a sudden appear to thrill you and Phoebe to death? Phoebe knows what's important, she grew up knowing. What a beauty he is! I never in my life have seen one. He looked so clean and beautiful. But you knew how to treat him and to keep him, till Bill got home!!! Looking forward to more! carol logan

Posted by Anonymous January 18, 2012 at 6:33 PM

What an awesome bird! And an even more awesome daughter!

Love this post! They are my favorites as well and I am lucky enough to have at least one breeding pair that visits my feeder daily from April to September (northern KY, just south of Cincinnati). Every August their babies come too. Have never seen them this time of year though. And I LOVE your photos and thanks for the tips- I am going to have to go find some birch logs! My feeders are on my deck about six feet from my living room window, where the birds don't seem to mind if I sit and snap away. But, as you said, there are only SO many photos you can get of a bird on a feeder. I have a new project now and that's to build a bird photo studio on my deck!

PS- my RHWP lately eat mostly shelled peanuts, occasionally BOSF, and rarely suet. But initially they started coming to the feeder for dehydrated banana chips which I put out on a whim. That was their food of choice for the first three years, but for the last two they have ignored them totally and I have stopped putting them out. Second generation perhaps doesn't like them? Or just got bored and moved on to a new taste?

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