by David Cohen
Mythic quests – for the Golden Fleece, the Lost Ark, the Holy Grail– pervade world culture. Here’s my neighborly, woodpecker version!
A neighbor whose yard abuts Rock Creek Park along Broad Branch Road saw me toting my camera, monopod and telephoto lens. “I know what you’re looking for,” she said.
I had no idea what she was talking about. “What?” I asked.
“The pileated woodpeckers,” she said. “Someone saw them here, and now people keep looking for them.”
Less than a week later, another neighbor told me, again, about local sightings of pileated woodpeckers. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology describes pileated woodpeckers as “one of the biggest, most striking forest birds on the continent.” I’d seen photos. I wanted to see, and photograph, the real thing.
That was several months ago.
Then, in the late afternoon on June 9th, I was looking and listening, camera at hand, near the Fessenden Street entrance to Linnaean Park. Because the sun was in the west, I faced east, seeking subjects with enough light on them to photograph.
Then behind me and to my left, I heard the slow, resonant drumming of a woodpecker. High in a branch, exactly where the light wasn’t, was at least one pileated woodpecker. I began snapping. The images were blurry, muddy, messy silhouettes. This wasn’t working, and my frustration was quickly exceeding my excitement. I needed to position my camera to the other side of the bird or birds. I knew that the odds the birds would wait until I positioned my camera properly were slim to none. Birds survive by flight, and commotions on the ground spur them into it.
Since the images I was getting were worthless, though, I had nothing to lose. I moved down the trail, then off the trail and into the forest. Amazingly, I continued to hear the drumming. More amazingly, I found a sightline through the branches and leaves. Here’s a little of what I saw:
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “A Pileated Woodpecker pair stays together on its territory all year round. It will defend the territory in all seasons, but will tolerate new arrivals during the winter.” I was glad to meet this pair!
David Cohen has a knack at getting the even the most skittish local wildlife to pose for him. You can see his photos of other woodpeckers in the neighborhood here.