When do you say, “I’ve seen it all!” or, “I’ve had enough!”? Sometimes when my husband starts talking about travel involving airplanes, I say, “I’ve seen enough!” My tolerance for airports, airlines and other air travelers has diminished as I age.
Oddly, though I’m on the trails at Hill-Stead so often, I have never felt that I’ve seen enough of them. Something always happens to pique my interest or even make me laugh. I suppose it’s just as well our trails are quiet. The sight of me walking along alone and laughing my head off might worry people. The other day I was hiking along, thinking how much fun it was looking at woodpeckers. They are amusing birds, and easy to see in any season save high summer, which they spend skulking around so that they don’t draw attention to their babies. It must be a real strain on them, since they are utter rabble rousers the rest of the year.
Many woodpeckers look alike, so it can be hard to tell them apart. Their names seem deliberately confusing, as though the nomenclature police don’t really want people to know which one is which. The “Red-Headed Woodpecker” for example, is infrequently seen in Connecticut and it does have a very red head. But the “Red-Bellied Woodpecker”, seen commonly here, also wears a sort of red skullcap. Since people see the red-bellied often, and the red head is so prominent, most people in these parts think it is the Red-Headed Woodpecker. They have no idea that the bird also sports a pretty red mark on its’ belly, which in reality accounts for the name.
A list of woodpeckers that can be seen in Connecticut is found in stores selling birding supplies and books. You can also print one from the Connecticut Ornithological Association website. There aren’t a lot of woodpeckers on it, and one that is listed is extirpated from the state. The Red-Headed Woodpecker is listed, but is rarely seen. That leaves six woodpeckers that anyone here might reasonably expect to see. These are: Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, Red-Bellied Woodpecker and Pileated Woodpecker.
Most of us can identify a Downy. They aren’t scarce, and they are the spitting image of the Hairy Woodpecker, which is harder to find than the Downy. Both have black and white “ladder” patterns on the back, and males have a distinctive red dot on the back of the head. But the Downy has a beak that is about the same length as the width of its’ head. The Hairy’s beak is far longer than that, and the bird is really much bigger overall than the Downy.
The Flicker is a charming woodie with a little chevron at the top of the chest, and a funny red Simon Legree mustache. They love to forage for ants and are known for feeding on the ground. With a brown/beige color scheme they camouflage well, and they also feed in trees.
The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker has the habit of drilling horizontal lines of “wells” in order to sip the sap that oozes out. They re-drill the wells to keep them flowing, also eating bugs drawn there by the sweet sap - a miracle of one-stop shopping. Woodpeckers have long tongues that roll up like fire hoses and are attached at the back of the head so they can stretch a long way into a hole or crevice. It is shaped like a bottle brush the better to dig the food out. Scientists (and helmet companies) are studying woodpecker skulls to figure out how they handle all that pecking without sustaining brain damage. They are models of good design.
The enormous Pileated Woodpecker was the prototype for Woody Woodpecker. It has the same hammer-shaped head and crazy laugh like the cartoon bird. Pileated’s are cousin to the “Lord God Bird”, or Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. A couple of years back someone in an Arkansas swamp thought they saw an Ivory-Billed. Before that, people thought the bird was extinct, and only old folks ever remembered seeing them. By the 1940′s the bird was already rare, and when the war came and forests were logged, no one saw it any more, until the guy in the swamp. Ivory-Billed’s were known as the “Lord God” bird because people who saw the huge things would utter “Lord God!” in amazement.
The Pileated was and is found in those same swamps. The cousins are very alike. After the “Lord God” bird was supposedly rediscovered, avian search parties rushed to see if they could suss out another, but in the end it seems to have been a Pileated after all. Should you see a Pilated yourself, feel free to yell “Lord God” if you want. They are themselves an impressive bird even if they aren’t rare or the subject of million-dollar search parties and best-selling books.
So it happened that recently I was watching and listening to woodpeckers at Hill-Stead. The ever-present Downy and Red-Bellied woodies popped up and down tree trunks like mechanical birds. Pretty soon a Hairy Woodpecker made his presence known with a demanding call note and a Flicker sang out his wild call. Four different woodpeckers in less than ten minutes is pretty good. Next, I noticed a Sapsucker furtively drilling a well high up in a Hemlock. So I had five out of the six! I never figured on getting the Pileated, and I wasn’t seriously looking. Yet suddenly there it was, crazy laugh and all. What’s more, I was able to follow his flight through the trees and watch him hop into his roost. All six woodpeckers at the same time! It made me get a feel for when to say “I’ve had enough” and “I’ve seen enough”, with respect to woodpeckers anyway. Although I have seen them all, I can assure you, I haven’t seen enough!
See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist