A normal spring day in the East Woods, but with a pileated woodpecker!

When I arrived this morning, the sun was just close enough to the horizon that I could ride the road without a light on, but slowly. Redwing blackbirds and robins were singing. By 5:20, it was light enough to botanize. Wrens were singing from the opening at the east end of the ravine that runs along the south edge of the woodlnad trail. A white throated sparrow had started up, and a field sparrow called from down near the east prairie.

The ravine that runs out toward the east along the south end edge of the woodland trail opens out at its east end into a low green opening, flat. I have never explored this ravine, so I headed down into it. The south-facing slope was a carpet of wild ginger, with clumps of Carex jamesii that I believe came into flower just in the past week and is already beginning to fruit. This is a unispicate sedge, an important Carex lineage of which we don’t have many species in our area, and perhaps they simply go more quickly from flower to fruit than I had realized. Carex blanda was in fruit as well. The flat opening I have visited before, but only its edge, and from the south edge. It is much like I had seen from that side: a carpet of false mermaid, now all sickly yellow and matted down with fruits well developed, flowering swamp buttercup, and Prenanthes alba and Smilax beginning to bloom. Cleavers (Galium aparine) is fully extended and in fruit, sprawling against fallen logs. To my surprise there was a labelled black walnut in there, quite large. Was there previously a trail down there or some interpretive stop? I’ll have to ask. I wandered around a bit and then headed back up to the trail.

The sun was coming in through the East Prairie. I headed around the woodland trail toward the Big Rock shortcut, and decided to take a shortcut myself up through the Rubus and Rosa brambles. Everything is coming along nicely, not a lot new going on in the world of flowers. I came across a stand of fowl mannagrass (Glyceria) that I had never noticed, a good sized patch of it. How do I miss these things? It’s not so far off the trail that I have a good excuse. In the epheral pool beside it was a nice stand of Carex tribuloides, one of my all-time favorites, but not yet in flower. I reached my bike and heard a yellow warbler calling from the wetland. It had been a nice walk, not a lot new to report. I figured I would get in, write a short note, and get on to a morning meeting I have today at Chicago Botanic Garden.

As I was heading back to the research building, a warbler was calling from a tree high overhead. The sun was illuminating the topmost boughs of the trees surrounding the fields west of Big Rock Visitor Station. Warblers often get active at this time, when they are first warming up for the day, but they are also usually so high in the trees that I can’t see them well. I stopped to try to find him. He was singing loud enough, and I could pinpoint him in one tree for several songs, then moving over to another. I couldn’t think of what the song was… perhaps just the call of a yellow-rumped warbler? Aside from the black-throated green I heard last week and the yellow warbler I heard this morning, and perhaps some blue-grey gnatcatchers—I’m increasingly doubting any gnatcatchers I think I’ve been hearing this spring as just wishful thinking—the yellow rumps are all I’ve seen this season. Perhaps that was what it was. I turned my bike and started to head out.

At that moment, I heard from the north side of the road the wild monkey call of what I at first thought was a northern flicker, but immediately suspected was far too loud. Pileated woodpecker? I turned to watch. A big black bird swooped off further into the woods. There was no other choice: the bird was almost crow sized, though I couldn’t see anything but black, and it was definitely the woodpecker I had heard. I kept my eyes on the tree he had landed in and biked up to where I could see more clearly. I leaned my bike against a tree and started walking up the southwest-facing slope through the savanna at the edge of the woods, overlooking the unnamed kettle pond wedged between the road and the heritage trail. The woodpecker flew further into the woods, and I lost sight of him. I walked through a stand of shooting star in bloom and heard him hammering. I looked up and around, trying for several minutes to find him. The sound of a pileated woodpecker drumming or drilling is, like everything else about him, very much like a downy or hairy or red-bellied woodpecker, but much bigger. I couldn’t place the sound, which reflected off the trees all around. I had a great view of the trees around and didn’t really think I had lost him, but I couldn’t figure out where he had gone.

Then suddenly I caught sight of him on a downed log that had fallen perpendicular to the trail. “Excavating” inadequately describes what he was doing. He was tearing into the tree, woodchips flying, adjusting back and forth in abrupt little quanta of movement, drilling his way precisely in toward something he dearly wanted and knew was in there. How could he know from a distance there would be food in there? And yet he must have. He hammered at the wood for 5 seconds, turned his head to look at what he was doing, adjusted, hammered away again, never stopping. He was quiet for a few moments, dipping his long bill into and out of the hole he had been making, then drilling again. When he was eating, I know that it must have been silent except for the sound of his bill against rotten wood, but as I recall it now, it’s as though the drilling never stop.

After about 5 minutes at a distance of at least 30 feet, I started walking very slowly toward him. I tried to time my steps to coincide with when he was buried in his work, up to his eyeballs in wood, but he was looking everywhere at once. What vigilance! If I were to try to do this, I would get nothing done, yet he was somehow wholly focused on what he was doing while simultaneously keeping his eyes on the entire woods at once. How is this possible? He seemed not to be overly concerned about me as I inched my way closer. I got to within about 18 feet. He was throwing everything he had into this, as though he were digging to save his life. The crest on his head and his neck muscles and his bill and his straight back were aimed only at the task of opening the log and getting the goods out. How was there any energy left to keep even his heart running? I wondered briefly what he might do if I got too close. I have no doubt about what a creature like that could do to a person’s skull.

A woodpecker on the bole of a tree uses its tail for stability. So, it turns out, does a pileated woodpecker on a rotten log. He dipped in and out dozens of times while I watched him, made numerous precision turns here and there, ate his fill. Then he raised his head and seemed to consider his situation for a moment. Perhaps it was half a second… perhaps it was 5 seconds. He flew off to a nearby tree and rested for a moment, then he started to work on that tree, drumming and pounding. I don’t know if I had perturbed him, but I wasn’t too concerned about it. A bird like that won’t wait long after I’m gone to come back and finish what he’s started.

I walked to the log and found to my surprise not one hole but two. I believe he made both, and in the course of the roughly 10 to 20 minutes I had been watching him. One was circular hole about one inch diameter. To its left was a hole about 2 inches long and 3/4 inch wide. Both were about an inch or so deep, burrowed into rotted wood. Again I wondered what had brought him to this section of this particular log today. It did not differ obviously in color or texture from the rest of the log, at least not to me. But I am not a woodpecker, just as he is not a plant systematist. He had bet right. Looking inside the larger hole, I saw one ant hobbling around, aimlessly. Have you ever seen an ant hobble? or move aimlessly? Neither have I, except when it is injured, and this one appeared dazed, the lone survivor of a thoroughly unexpected attack. Ants are remarkable social creatures, but I suspect that ants don’t have the intellectual wherewithal or social infrastructure to record these kinds of catastrophes and communicate them to others. Presumably, no ant has grown up hearing stories of a flood that devoured the world, of hordes of locusts that destroyed ancestors’ crops, of the plague. If there were such stories in ant lore, this lone survivor’s tale might well impact the arrangement and organization of colonies 1000 years hence.

Of course I know the ant I was watching certainly was not the lone survivor of the woodpecker, but I can’t help thinking these things. The ants’ misery aside, I walked out through the shooting stars thoroughly buoyed. It wasn’t yet 6:30, the trees on the far side of the field just illuminated on their upper halves, and I had the whole day ahead of me. Field sparrows and house wrens were singing. On the ride back to the office, I found bladder-nut (Staphylea trifolia) in bloom. I arrived, ate my breakfast and sat down to write. I need to leave momentarily for Chicago Botanic Garden, where I’ll spend the morning talking about how to mine oak genomic data for molecular markers that we may use for the next several years to tease apart evolutionary relationships from patterns of gene flow among white oaks and their relatives. One of them may be the very tree the pileated woodpecker is perched in right now, or, more likely, working on.

One thought on “A normal spring day in the East Woods, but with a pileated woodpecker!”

  1. Andrew –Your blogposts are always so thoughtful, imaginative, and informative — as well as making me want to close my laptop and rush off to the East Woods! I’m envious of your pileated sighting — I’ve been looking for it without any luck. Maybe I don’t get up early enough. Thank you for the inspiration and for sharing your walks in the woods and wetlands.

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