ARTICLES: YEAR OF THE WOODPECKER
by Brian E. Small
For me, 1995 was a frustrating year in terms of pursuing one of my favorite photographic subjects. I spent many hours in various locations around the United States searching for opportunities to photograph woodpeckers but achieved little success. It seemed I was always a little late or the conditions weren't right for taking good pictures. In fact, one opportunity that I was told was a sure thing didn't work out because the nest tree blew down in a windstorm! Because 1995 was so frustrating, I was determined to make 1996 my year for woodpecker photographs.
The woodpeckers are one of the most unique, interesting and photogenic families of birds in the world. The vast majority of woodpeckers are boldly patterned and almost every species has some red on the head. Some species have complex social systems and live in small communal groups. Also, they can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Woodpeckers can range in length from 3 inches to almost 24 inches of the presumably extinct Imperial Woodpecker of north-central Mexico.
Woodpeckers are marvelous examples of evolution because their bodies are perfectly adapted to fit a very specific niche in nature. The feet of a woodpecker are particularly designed for grasping, clinging and climbing on vertical surfaces. Their tail feathers are extra stiff, allowing them to use the tail as a brace against the side of a tree. Many species have an exceptionally long tongue, which is barbed at the end that helps to pull insects out of tree crevices. Of course the most distinctive characteristic of a woodpecker is the ability to peck and hammer with its chisel-like bill. The skull and bill of a woodpecker are specially adapted to withstand all that pounding. You might even remember one famous Northern Flicker that tried to drill a hole into the side of the space shuttle!
I think what appeals to many birders about woodpeckers is that they are "birder friendly". For one thing, almost every species in the United States can be found at backyard feeders. Very often a woodpecker can be easily photographed while it tries to pry food out of a tree crevice. A bird may be so preoccupied with what it's doing that it will pay little attention to your close approach. Also, because they are cavity nesters, you can easily observe them constructing their nests and raising their young. There is nothing quite like the sight of 3 or 4 young woodpeckers sticking their heads out of a nest cavity and begging for food.
An obvious tip worth mentioning is that because woodpeckers spend most of their lives in a vertical position, you most likely will photograph them using a vertical format. By doing this, you allow the subject more space in the frame of your photos. However, if the opportunity for an unusual pose or action sequence is there, don't hesitate to go horizontal. I suggest you be selective, because at times photographing woodpeckers in a horizontal format can be the photographic equivalent to putting a square peg in a round hole.
One of the best ways I've learned to find woodpeckers is by studying where and when they can be found, and what their nesting cycles are. An excellent reference book called The Birders Handbook by Ehrlich, Dobkin and Wheye has provided me a wealth of information about the life histories of North American birds. Information about what specific habitat a bird favors or how long it's incubation and brooding periods are can be invaluable. Many species of woodpecker are partial to one or two types of tree so that you can narrow down where to look for them.
My woodpecker year began during a trip to south Florida in mid-February. The nesting season starts early in this part of the country so I thought I'd have an opportunity to get off to a good start. Of course south Florida is famous for it's wonderful concentrations of wading birds at this time of year so my first stop was the famous Anhinga trail in Everglades National Park. I began to walk the trail and not more than a hundred yards in, I came upon 2 other photographers burning up film. Before reaching them I thought they must have been photographing a beautiful breeding-plumaged heron in close or maybe an alligator. To my surprise, they were working on a Red-bellied Woodpecker that was building a nest only 15 feet away at eye-level! The other photographers invited me to join the action and I spent the rest of the morning observing and photographing as the nest was being constructed. This was a rare chance because the birds chose a nest site so close to a trail walked by hundreds of visitors every day. The woodpeckers were completely oblivious to the presence of people walking by, not to mention 3 very excited photographers. Sometimes luck has as much to do with getting a great photo as anything else.
I was home in California by mid-March and planned on re-visiting a Nutall's Woodpecker nest I photographed last year. I made a crucial mistake in 1995 by not paying attention to the background of my photos. Because the nest site was along a heavily shaded streambed I underexposed the background and my pictures looked like they were taken at night. Remember that photographs of birds that are not nocturnal, but have a black background, tend to look over-flashed and unnatural. With that in mind, this year I attempted to photograph the Nutall's at an angle that put a blue sky behind my subject. It worked out well and I learned a very important lesson to always be conscious of what's behind the subject. Sometimes you're attention is so focused on photographing the bird that you can loose sight of the whole picture.
April in Texas is famous for spring migration; however, the beginning of nesting season should not be overlooked. Many resident species, including at least 10 species of woodpecker, can be found nesting in Texas. This huge state offers a wide variety of habitats where you will want to search for woodpeckers. I spent my time this spring checking feeders in the Rio Grande Valley for Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, searching the forests north of Houston for the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker and in the Big Thicket country of east Texas looking for Pileated Woodpeckers.
At a spectacular Pileated nest site I photographed, I saw the adult woodpeckers being attacked for food by the soon-to fledge nestlings. The adult birds had to feed them by cautiously creeping around to the side of the nest hole from the back of the tree. This way, the adults could keep their distance from the aggressive youngsters and still feed them. After speaking with a number of other birders, I discovered this is a common behavior. Also, remember that if you go to the Big Thicket, that this area was once home to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Be sure to check all those Pileated's closely!
An excellent strategy I can recommend for finding woodpeckers is to be a careful and patient observer. In other words, a good birder. You know that woodpeckers are cavity nesters, so while you are out for general birding, try to be aware of any nest holes or dead snags you come across. Many woodpeckers will use the same tree year after year and be aware that some species will nest only 3 feet off the ground! Another benefit of searching for woodpecker nest cavities is the chance to stumble across other species using an abandoned hole. Woodpeckers may drill a number of holes a year and obviously can't use them all, so they end up providing a service by creating homes for other cavity nesting birds. I have observed and photographed Mountain Bluebirds, Western Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, Pygmy Nuthatches, Ash-throated Flycatchers, Brown-crested Flycatchers, House Wrens and many others using old woodpecker holes.
This May I found and photographed a Williamson's Sapsucker nest by checking lots of dead trees in the mountains of southern California. As you would expect, by spending 6-8 hours a day observing a nest site, I was able to learn quite a bit about this species' behavior. For example, how long the male would spend in the hole versus the female. Which bird would feed the young more often and what calls were used by the adults when approaching the nest tree? It's important to remember that if you want to attempt photography at a nest, you must maintain a safe working distance from the location. You don't want to do anything that would disturb the woodpeckers' normal nesting activities at this sensitive time. I always use a blind to conceal my presence, stay as far back from the nest as possible and never photograph on consecutive days.
June and July were the most productive months of my woodpecker year because in many parts of the country, this is the peak of nesting season. In mid-June I drove to the American Birding Association convention in Park City, Utah. With over 600 enthusiastic birders out in the field, it was not long before reports of photographable woodpeckers came in. In one location I was able to work on a Red-naped Sapsucker and a Northern Flicker that were nesting within 20 feet of each other. The flicker nest was at eye-level in a dead snag while the sapsucker nest was 25 feet up in a live aspen tree. The birds didn't show any signs of competition at the time I was there. In fact they ignored each other. Perhaps this was due to the altitudinal difference in their respective nest holes or maybe they had some other previously settled dispute. Whatever the case, it's fun to speculate.
Both opportunities required the use of fill-flash because I could only photograph the birds in dappled light. By using just a touch of flash, you can cut out harsh shadows on your subject while maintaining an evenly lit background. I have seen woodpecker holes completely in the open in a dead snag and also in complete shade in a live tree. Different lighting conditions like these can make for some challenging photographic circumstances. You invariably want to try and photograph so there is no more than a 1-stop difference in the amount of light on the subject and on the background. By doing this, your photographs will look more natural and have an even distribution of light.
My plan for July was to do a trip along the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada with a run through Yosemite National Park in search of Black-backed Woodpeckers and Red-breasted Sapsuckers. Unfortunately, I ran into a freak summer snowstorm that kept me out of the higher elevations so I never did catch up with a Black-backed. However, I did come across an outstanding area for the sapsucker in the aspen groves of Mono County. Within a two-mile stretch of road, I found 6 active Red-breasted Sapsucker nests, including a number at eye-level or below.
By early August, most nesting activity is done except for those birds that got a late start or are raising a 2nd brood. I headed for one of my favorite areas of central Oregon in search of some of these late-nesting woodpeckers. A little to my surprise, I found two excellent photo opportunities. The first was a White-headed Woodpecker coming to bathe and drink at a spring. However, not only did I get frame-filling photos of the woodpecker, but other visitors to the spring that included Red Crossbills, Mountain Bluebirds, Clark's Nutcrackers, Cassin's Finches, Western Tanagers, Chipping Sparrows and Pinyon Jays. I set-up my blind and a dual-flash system and waited for them to land on strategically placed perches.
The second chance was a beautiful Lewis' Woodpecker nest only 15 feet up in a ponderosa pine. My Birders Handbook said they might nest as high as 100 feet and that Lewis' tend to be nomadic and hard to pin down, so I felt very lucky to stumble on an accessible nest-site. I photographed the adults feeding the nestlings by using my trusty Fresnel-flash system. That way I kept a safe distance and still projected my fill-flash far enough to reach the action.
September and October can offer you the chance to see and photograph some woodpeckers as they leave their mountain nesting grounds in search of food at lower and warmer elevations. You should keep an eye out for all four of our North American sapsuckers as they visit sap wells they've drilled in previous years. I've photographed many birds at this time of year just by patiently waiting at active sap wells. The sap and insects attracted to it also provide food for a number of birds other than the sapsuckers. I've seen Ruby-throated and Anna's Hummingbirds, Yellow-rumped Warblers and even chipmunks feeding at sapsucker wells. The sapsuckers will often defend their food source from these intruders, so you may get a chance for some good action photos. Photographing at sap wells is another great way to test out your newest lens on a woodpecker preoccupied with what it is doing and to observe how woodpeckers provide a "service" for other birds.
The winter months are a great time to set-up one of those backyard photo studios you've read about in the pages of WildBird (see March '96). Downy, Hairy, and Red-headed Woodpeckers along with Northern Flickers are some of the most reliable feeder visitors. Just make sure you provide a regular food source (suet and peanut butter are favorites) and an attractive perch for your subjects. Because you can control your backyard set-up, you have a great chance to experiment with your photographs. Try using different perches, backgrounds or lighting conditions. Also, you may want to photograph the birds at a nice clean feeder. Your backyard would also be a great place to experiment with one of those light-beam shutter releases. I have yet to try one, but I know they can provide dramatic photos of birds in mid-flight. Just check out that winning Wood Duck photo in this year's WildBird photo contest (October '96).
I enjoy photographing all birds but the woodpeckers are certainly near the top of my list. They are active, animated birds that you can find all over the country in a variety of habitats. So the next time you¹re headed to a mountain, desert or woodland, keep an ear open for the familiar drumming of a woodpecker. You just might get hooked on woodpecker photography like me.