Friday, June 26, 2020

All About Pileated Woodpeckers

Here is a recent post from the Union Bay Watch Blog published by Larry Hubbell, long-time local photographer and birder.

Here also is an in-depth article about Larry and his work.

This year's young Pileated Woodpeckers look out on a changing world. 

Paradigms and power structures can suddenly shift. Leaders can be left aimlessly adrift, flailing wildly and watching helplessly, as the parade of life disappears in the distance. Looking back, the sudden change can be seen as the obvious result of mounting pressure. Historically, their pompous, bombastic rantings, along with their numbers and intelligence, have made American Crows one of the most dominant avian species around Montlake.

Last year, a change began when pair of Common Ravens settled in near Union Bay. Most likely, they are the first resident pair in Montlake since the forest was cleared over a hundred years ago. However, their full impact was not immediately felt. 

Early this spring, they built their first local nest and laid their eggs. Time passed as they incubated and defended them. The eggs hatched and as their nestlings grew so did the pressure. There was a growing demand for food. If there was a moment when the power shifted I suspect it was when the young ravens fledged. Suddenly, there were four large, hungry ravens to be fed. With each raven weighing as much a four adult crows their combined hunger had an immediate impact. 

Lately, I have found the inedible wings of crows scattered across Montlake. Young crows, still stuck in their nests, unable to fly, provide easy targets. Adult crows defending the nests are simply somewhat larger meals. More than once I have heard about uneaten food left lying on the ground. I suspect the young ravens, still developing their coordination, dropped the food. Initially, knowing no better, they simply sat and wailed louder, expecting their parents to bring more.

At the end of March, I found Chip, the adult male Pileated Woodpecker, excavating the nest. The process appeared identical to previous years. He was once again working in the decomposing remains of a large Red Alder. As the chips flew, he earned his name anew.

When Bald Eagles flew over Chip would somehow notice even when he was working deep inside the nest. The varying length of the wing feathers indicates this was a young Bald Eagle in its second year.

Chip was alert to the Bald Eagle's presence and not afraid to extend his head and watch it glide away.

At the end of April, an adult Raven flew in, vocalizing loudly and landed near the nest. At this point, I suspect the woodpecker eggs had been laid. Chip was in the nest but he never looked out. I believe he did not want to give the Raven any hint of the nest's location. Being of the same mind, I focused my photography on the Raven.

Early in June, after the eggs had hatched and the young Pileated were getting fairly good-sized, all four Ravens came in and landed near the Pileated nest. The adult woodpeckers were both outnumbered and outweighed. I listened and watched as one of the adults sat in a nearby tree and cried incessantly. Apparently, it worked. The Ravens never seemed to notice the nest. Evidently, the adult's cries distracted or annoyed them. The begging calls of their own young may have played a part as well. In any case, the Ravens quickly moved on.

A couple of days later, I watched as Goldie, the adult female, returned to the nest with food.

Pileated Woodpeckers eat a lot of carpenter ant larva. When feeding their young they regurgitate the masticated white paste and deliver it deep inside the throats of their young.

The next day, a delivery from Chip was also met with enthusiasm.

It is interesting to note how he carefully took turns feeding the young.

As the young grow their cries get louder and they become ever more demanding and potentially dangerous.

Perhaps, by approaching from the side Chip is minimizing his exposure to their bills.

Last week, their curiosity about the outside world was obvious. 

Their time for sheltering-in-place was coming to an end.

They were nearly ready to make the leap into the unknown. At one point, I watched as Chip circled around the nest from one tree to the next, calling loudly. The young answered excitedly but choose not to leave the nest while I watched. 

However, I have not seen them since. I suspect they are somewhere in the greater Montlake area. Historically, during the first summer, the young follow the adults from one location to the next. During the process, they learn where to find food and I suspect the adults teach them about the various dangers they may encounter e.g. Barred Owls, Cooper's Hawks, and now Common Ravens.

The question is, Where are they now? Have they survived in the Raven's world? Have the parents led them to food and safety? I have searched high and low but I have not found any of the four during the last week. I doubt the Ravens could have caught them all. Plus, I have not seen any feathers that would indicate the demise of a Pileated Woodpecker. 

Hopefully, they are adapting to the new world and simply evading the Ravens (and me). I would appreciate it if you would keep your eyes open and let me know if you see any of them. 

In case you are luckier than me, here are some critical differences to help you identify them and their feathers. 

Chip is the only male in the family. As such he has a red stripe on his cheek and a red forehead. He is also the only one with yellow irises, which is more of an individual variation and not gender-related.

Goldie has a dark forehead with highlights of golden-brown, which explains her name. She has black stripes on her cheeks. Her irises have a hint of red. Over the years, I am starting to suspect they are slowly turning yellow.

The girls are of course both female with dark foreheads and dark malar stripes. Their irises generally appear dark at this age. However, in direct sunlight they sometimes reflect the light blue color of the sky. It also may be helpful to notice that their 'topknots' have a slightly orange cast and the feathers tend to be shorter, fluffier, and often more erect than the parents.

On occasion, the adults raise their crests as well.

The lower thirty percent of a Pileated Woodpecker's primary feathers are white which as far as I know is a unique pattern among local species. They are also much thinner than the dark primary feathers of a crow. 

Primary wing feathers are some of the longest feathers on most birds. They are also meatless and, in my mind, likely to be left where they fall by a predator. A single feather, like this one, was probably dropped during the process of being replaced. On the other hand, a clump of feathers generally indicates that the target bird has been consumed.

Thank you for following along and watching out for our local family of Pileated Woodpeckers.


Tsuloss Watch:

The young eagle in Monty and Marsha's nest continues to grow. Sometime in the next month or so, I expect Tsuloss will leave the nest. A number of readers have now sent in their guess for when Tsuloss will fledge.

If you would like to play along send me your name and the date when you hope or expect Tsuloss will leave the nest. 

July 1st - Barry Saver
July 2nd - Tyler Mangum
July 4th - Larry Hubbell
July 6th - Joe Clancy
July 8th - Cynthia Jones
July 9th - Lynne Kelly
July 10th - Lynn Adams
July 15th - Jeff Graham
July 16th - Audrey Weitkamp

(By the way, the nestling period for Bald Eagles, as stated on All About Birds, can vary quite a bit. It is listed as 56 to 98 days. This implies to me that Tsuloss might just as well fledge in late July or even August.)

What species is this? Is it native to Western Washington?
Note: These questions apply to both flora and fauna.

Rufous Hummingbird: Our original native hummingbird that annually migrates to Mexico and back.

Black Twinberry: It is a native plant and it attracts native hummingbirds!

It is interesting to note that every Pileated Woodpecker nest site, that I have found in the PNW, has had an egg-shaped hole. The only one I have found on the east coast was round. I wonder where the shape change occurs?

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