One of my favourite birds to see while birdwatching has got to be the Pileated Woodpecker, a species that stops me in my tracks and reminds me why I birdwatch in the first place. This is one attractive species. With a length of 16.5" and a wingspan of 29" (thanks, Sibley), this is one large woodpecker (the largest in North America if you categorize The Grail Bird as extinct). It is found across North America but is most widespread in the southeast corner of the continent.
What inspires this post is my 4rth experience with the Pileated Woodpecker, which happened just this afternoon at High Park (February 21). After meeting some friends for lunch in the High Park restaurant, I was walking back to my apartment when I noticed a large black bird flying high over my head. I immediately recognized it as a Pileated Woodpecker as the species is virtually unmistakable in flight. I had to stop and run back a few paces to follow its flight path through the woods. Like every other instance where I've seen this bird, I was mesmerized.
My first encounter of the species was, surprisingly, quite a disappointment. It happened at the tip area of Point Pelee (for the life of me, I cannot remember the year but Marianne can help me on this). A group of us were walking and I remember a stir as we heard through the grapevine that Sarah Rupert had seen a Pileated Woodpecker flying overhead near the vicinity of where we were birding. For whatever reason, Pileated Woodpeckers are hardly ever seen in the Pelee area (likely due to the fact that the species inhabits old-growth forests, which Pelee is definitely not. Rondeau Provincial Park is a fairly reliable, nearby area to see them I hear). So, when the species was seen flying over the tip, a search party was started, which I was a part of. We searched for a couple of hours, starting at the tip and working our way northward through Post Woods on the east side of the park. The most frustrating part of the expedition was that the bird was heard by the group but never relocated! This was a new Pelee bird for me (and a new species at the time) so the overall experience, though exciting, was a bit of a let down as well.
Fast forward to Jully 11, 2001, my first Pileated Woodpecker sighting. This time around, I saw the bird but it was a flyby only and I was in the backseat of a rental car!! We were driving along the highway in Nova Scotia on a trip to the East Coast. During these trips, I'm constantly watching out the window since you never know when you'll spot a good trip bird. It paid off when I saw a large, black bird flying overhead (at a distance) with the telltale undulating flight of the woodpecker...and that was it. Before I knew it, the bird was out of site, I was yelling at my dad to stop the car, and he gave me an incredulous look that reminded me we were in the middle of a highway (car accidents caused by birding may be more frequent than we know. If a police officer ever asked you why you slammed on the breaks on the road and caused a fender-bender, would you ever actually reply, "There's a very good reason, officer. Didn't you see that Pileated Woodpecker flying overhead?!). Anyway, it was my first sighting of this majestic species and I wouldn't see the bird again until 2007 in the Florida Panhandle.
My best looks of the Pileated Woodpecker were in Apalachicola National Forest. Although I was primarily searching for the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, in the process, I picked up a group of three Pileated Woodpeckers during the search. Let me tell you, it was a wonderful experience. Every time I heard drumming on a tree, I crazily stalked the sound as if I was desperately looking for a lost pet dog. My parents started to get impatient after about the third knock where I would then race away from them towards the sound. I really needed to see Red-cockaded. But first, I was treated with this trio. It was the first time I saw the species up close (we're talking a few trees away) and actually on a tree rather than a brief flyby. I won't soon forget it. This is truly one of our most beautiful birds. With their red crest, white-and-black patterned face, jet-black body feathers, and mighty bill, they are one heck of a species.
Now comes my fourth sighting, another flyby. This species remains elusive for me in Ontario with sightings separated by years, but in reality, this makes the experience of seeing one all the better. In fact, I don't want to see it again for a long time so that one day I'll look up and gasp when that large, black shape flies overhead. That is, unless one just happens to show up soon at Pelee to add to my May list...but that's a whole other ballgame.