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Pileated Woodpecker

North America’s largest woodpecker nests in the mature forests of Missouri’s Ozarks.

Last spring, my friend Mike Smith called to inform me that he had discovered a pileated woodpecker nest in the forested corridor along the Missouri River trail in Washington, Mo. Mike, who is a good friend, public school teacher and self-taught naturalist, knew I would be interested in photographing the woodpecker nestlings. Anticipating my first question, Mike volunteered, “The nest cavity isn’t too high so you can get a good angle for a photograph.” Thrilled at such an opportunity, I listened carefully as Mike described the location of the nest in a dead tree near the trail and its orientation to the sun, ever critical to photography. Just as I was about to hang up the phone Mike mentioned, “Oh, you might need some waders because the Missouri River is supposed to start flooding tomorrow!”

The next day I headed to the site on my way home from work, chest waders and camera equipment packed for the adventure. I soon found myself wading around in circles in thigh-deep water looking for the nest or some other sign of the woodpeckers. After 30 minutes I hadn’t found the nest and I had yet to hear the loud, cackling call of a pileated woodpecker. I decided to broaden my search to simply a “dead tree.” A few minutes later I spotted a bare snag tree, conspicuous in the lush surroundings, with a cavity opening about 15 feet from the ground. My heart skipped a beat when three red heads popped out of the hole and began calling with the unmistakable voices of pileated woodpeckers.

Pileated woodpeckers are North America’s largest woodpecker, almost as big as a crow. They are an uncommon, permanent resident throughout Missouri but are most abundant in mature forests of the Ozarks which contain large snag trees suitable for nesting. Pileated woodpeckers are easily recognized by their black body and red, tufted crown. They have a white stripe leading rearward from their eye and another white stripe below their eye that continues along their neck. Males are distinguished from females by the continuation of the red crown to the edge of the bill. Pileated woodpeckers typically eat ants, other insects, nuts and fruit, but I’ve seen them at backyard feeders where a couple of individuals can finish off a suet cake in one day! Pileated woodpeckers stay with the same mate for life and nesting begins in the spring. Both parents share feeding duties and after the nestlings fledge, the adults continue to feed the young and prepare them for independence, which occurs by fall.

Moments after the nestlings began calling, both parents arrived at the edge of the nest with a fresh supply of food. I took my camera/tripod rig from my shoulder and placed it in the water in preparation for a photograph. At that moment a large carp glanced off my leg and into my tripod. I lunged for the rig as it started to topple, catching it just before the camera and lens hit the water! Disaster averted, I began to photograph the nestlings as they begged for food. The light and angle were not quite perfect but it didn’t matter because I was overjoyed to capture an image of the rambunctious youngsters, eager to leave the nest and start life on their own.

—story and photo by Danny Brown

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