That’s what they call it on Jeopardy! when a contestant answers all the questions in a row. For me, as a lister, it’s when I fill in a family on the local checklist. Some are easy — blackbirds, gallinaceous birds, wrens. Shorebirds are more difficult, since most of the species on the list aren’t residents and it’s pure luck if you’re looking in the right place when they touch down for a day. For the three years I’ve been keeping track, I’ve gotten 12 of the 13 raptors — Northern Goshawk is my nemesis. One of these days I’ll do the pre-dawn hike up into the High Peaks to see and hear Bicknell’s Thrush. Until then, my thrush list is one short.
I had plans, when I travelled to Ithaca in a week, to squeeze in a side trip to Montezuma NWR. Target bird: nesting Red-headed Woodpeckers to fill out the Picidae grid. They are just stunning birds, and I’d only ever seen one in my life, over 25 years ago: I was dog-walking in Forest Park in Queens when I heard rapping overhead. I looked up and saw a Red-head working away, not 20 feet up. Locally, there have been perhaps half a dozen sightings in 10 years, mostly immature birds, or adults that only stayed briefly.
Then, a surprising notice as I checked the local birdlist early Friday. Red-headed Woodpecker? In the Pine Bush? Well, that was worth getting up for!
I followed the excited directions (only getting lost once) and arrived to find not only two birders, but two birds! A pair, carrying food! That mean young, and that means a new confirmed breeding bird for the Pine Bush!
Be sure to click on this link for a great photo of the pair.
I watched them for close to three hours. They seemed very unbothered by the presence of a dozen observers as they foraged from tree to tree and sometimes on the ground. We also caught a glimpse of a bird, about the same size, dark-headed and with mottled black/white wings, which may have been a fledgling. The adults seemed to favor one particular broken branch, returning to it repeatedly. One flew to a nest-hole-sized cavity in a dead pine and spent some time poking its head in and out. We didn’t see any sign of a young one in there, though. There might just have been a bumper crop of grubs to harvest.
At one point we were standing directly under a tree the woodpeckers flew in and out of! If all my chases ended this successfully, I’d… well, I’d be out birding even more than I am. Apparently the birds are indifferent to the site reclamation work that’s been going on there for weeks — tree removal, undergrowth and invasives being cut back, to create an open understory which is just what Red-heads like. It will be fascinating to watch in the coming years and see if they can start to make a comeback.
So. Woodpeckers, seven for seven!