Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Thanksgiving Bird (no, not a turkey, a prairie pileated)

A misty Cherry Lake morning on Thanksgiving weekend

I've spent more than my share of time lamenting the birds that are declining from the grassy heart at the centre of this continent, thinking and writing about the species I no longer see as often as I would like. On the weekend, as we prepared to celebrate a Thanksgiving meal at Cherry Lake with our good friends Rob and Sylvie and their family, I had an encounter with a woodpecker that taught me to be grateful for the birds we do see, the ones that seem to be adapting and making a go of it.

The kind of prairie we have on our land, Aspen Parkland, is part of the most threatened grassland eco-type in the province. There have always been some trees in this kind of grassland, but under agriculture, with fire suppression, cultivation and cattle-grazing, some areas have seen Aspen bluffs maturing and expanding. (I say "some" because recent cropping practices and the increasing scale of farm machinery with rising input costs, have stimulated a lot of bulldozing of bush in heavily cultivated regions.)

More Aspen and larger trees is good news for a whole guild of bird species. Species like the Red-tailed Hawk are obvious beneficiaries, but for my money the bird that is really moving out from the boreal forest and adapting to the Aspen plains is the Pileated Woodpecker.

For six years I have been hearing and seeing Pileated Woodpeckers in the woods upstream of Cherry Lake in a tributary of the Upper Indian Head Creek. Despite the hard work of a dozen beavers in three lodges along the stream, there are Balsam and Aspen poplars in the ravine that measure 18 inches at the butt--perfect for attracting the largest woodpecker we have in this country.

They can be secretive much of the year and getting a look at one is always a treat. In fall, woodpeckers become more active and roam far and wide from their territories. It's a good season to see them. The last few weeks I have heard a Pileated calling from the woods upstream of our farm site. Each time I have grabbed the camera and headed out hoping to get a shot. I have several images of blurry trees and empty sky taken while one of the birds circled me through deep woods.

This weekend, though, with Sylvie's Thanksgiving supper sending good smells out into the yard, I heard someone yelling for me to come. It was Rob, down at a future garden site where he is using tarps to kill brome grass and other weeds: "It's the Pileated!" He was pointing at a few dead aspen that we have left next to the lake shore in front of the yard site. Grabbing the camera, I scanned the trees and saw nothing. It was a dead calm day, though, and something was moving the tall brome grass at the base of a broken off snag. Here is a shot of all I could see at first.

If you squint at the centre of the image you can see some of the red, white, and black pattern on the back of the woodpecker's head as he works on an old stump buried deep in goldenrod, brome grass, and thistle. I snuck through the grass and got as near as I dared, staying low and waiting for it to emerge. Then, to my amazement, it hopped through the dense grass to the base of another tree twenty feet away, whacking away at ground level, shaking the grass to and fro, before finally hitching upward on the trunk and into view. With late afternoon light behind me I was able to get a couple of photos.

Before I left to go set the table for supper, it moved on to more distant trees, flying part way and then diving down into the grass. This, I thought, is a bird that's going to make it here out on the plains as long as we have trees big enough for them to forage on and nest within. Yes, the grassland is changing and many of the birds who need open treeless plains are suffering, but at the same time, I can be grateful for the adaptive birds that are thriving. At grace that evening, with candles lighting a table full of good food grown on prairie land, I thought of the woodpecker and gave a silent thanks for wild drumming in spring, jungle cries rising from the ravine, and a red-crowned flourish passing through dark woods.


  1. Thanks Andrew. They are great birds, very exciting to come across one. They are becoming more common in the Saskatoon area too if I'm not mistaken.

  2. Great shot of the Pileated Trevor !I wish I would have made it out there now.:-)

  3. Rocky--if you want to try finding the woodpecker some time, let me know. I can give you some directions on where we usually see it.

  4. My family has beautiful pileateds that visit them. You have taken nice photos and posted them here. The pileated woodpecker is such a striking and gorgeous bird, which we love to appreciate...but they become slightly less welcome when they systematically dismantle your deck railings.

  5. Yes, I had some trouble myself with a woodpecker this spring. Not a pileated--I think it was a flicker--but it bashed several holes in our cabin's cedar siding.

  6. Wonderful story, will be looking during my morning walk in the river valley here!


  7. Thanks Bob--that valley certainly has its share of Pileated Woodpeckers, from what I hear.

  8. Thanks Bob--that valley certainly has its share of Pileated Woodpeckers, from what I hear.


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