We all take a lot of photos when we have a chance. With digital photography, there is no cost to taking lots of photographs, so when we have the opportunity it’s always best to take several photos rather than just one or two. By taking a number of photos, we can ensure that we get the best possible image to select from a batch of photos. If a bird turns its head, or blinks its eyelid (nicotating membrane) as you photograph, you find that the photo you thought you had turns out differently from your impression in the field. With a collection of photos, we can review the lot and select the best, or at least our favorites that we wish to share with others.
I’ve been intrigued with Red-headed Woodpeckers since I was a young lad, and that interest and attraction continues today. They are very colorful, especially for a woodpecker, and they are not common, especially where my range in North America has overlapped the range of Red-headed Woodpeckers. I rarely observed the species and was denied a good photograph – until the summer of 2019.
Friday’s Red-headed Woodpecker portrait was a breakthrough image of the species; taken with an aperture setting of f8 with a resulting fast shutter speed of 1/1250 of a second, at ISO 400.
In July of 2019 I was able to find an almost hidden nesting cavity and take a beautiful series of photographs of Red-headed Woodpeckers – both adults and fledglings – perched on weathered poles about 22 miles south-southeast of home. That’s the way it works sometimes, you go years or even decades without fulfilling a photo wish, only to fill your photo files with images of a given species – it happened with Snowy Owls, Golden Eagles, Prairie Falcons, Roseate Spoonbills, Tricolored Herons, Burrowing Owls, Blue Jays, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Bobolinks, a variety of warblers, and more.
This year proved to be another breakthrough for Red-headed Woodpecker photos, starting in May when a pair lingered at nearby Melody’s Grove. I thought they were in the process of setting up a nesting territory, but after a week they moved on. I’ve been seeing a few other Red-heads in the area 22 to 25 miles south-southeast, but they have yielded nothing more than some fun observations and a few documentary photos. But during the last days of July I began to see a Red-headed Woodpecker, then 2, in the trees southwest of an historic farmstead just 4 miles south of my office, as reported in my weekly Editor Afield articles. After about a week, I was able to ascertain the pair’s nest site and the fact that they were feeding nestlings.
A documentary photo of Sunday’s star Red-headed Woodpecker taking a rest (bird nap) in an inverted position that was new behavior for the photographer to witness.
Friday was mostly cloudy, but when the clouds revealed the evening sun, I focused myself on the pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers for about an hour – a really enjoyable hour – partly due to the behaviors of the birds, and partly due to the serenity of the evening with the slightest breeze that stoked the freshest air with a hint of sweetness after the 1½ inches of rain the previous day. The rain also washed the dust off the plants and other landscape features that made the light seem brighter and the colors richer.
The 2 adult Red-heads were actively hunting large insects on the ground, mostly from elevated perches, usually bare branches or snags. But they also watched for flying insects, which they made aerial flights to catch in mid-air – “hawking insects” is the term usually used for this style of hunting. After each catch, the adult would dispatch the grasshopper, cricket, or other big bug, then carry it to the nesting cavity to feed their nestlings.
My interest was to park my mobile blind near one of the “picturesque” snags and hope for an opportunity to photograph a woodpecker. I had a preferred snag picked out as a perch, but getting one of the woodpeckers to land there would be another story. They did occasionally perch on that snag, so it wasn’t a novel idea; but I was also concerned that if I parked at the optimum location to photograph, the woodpeckers might be hesitant to land there.
I decided my best bet might be to park at a location where I could watch the woodpeckers’ hunting activities, and wait for one of them to perch on the dead tree with the favored snag. Actually, it didn’t take long for one of the Red-headed Woodpeckers to land near my preferred perch site, and I gingerly started my vehicle and carefully eased forward to try to photograph the bird as it searched for flying insects from the thin branch elevated above the snag I had in mind. The good news was the woodpecker didn’t mind my mobile blind, and I was able to take a few photos from a preferred position.
When the red-headed bird took flight, it flew out and upward about a dozen feet, then returned to the bare branch; it was “hawking” flying insects, but didn’t make a catch that time, or the next try. But after the second attempt it landed on the snag where I hoped it might alight – what luck! Click, click, click; I photographed the woodpecker initially, then waited for the best possible portrait of the it, which happened next as it raised up a bit and turned its head just right into the sun – click! And that was it; that was the ultimate photo of the species for me. My friend Lisa, who is a professional wildlife photographer, would call that a specimen photo.
I had a lot of other photo opportunities during the passing hour, resulting in many images – action photos, flight photos; photos of the woodpeckers perched in other locations, perched with crickets or grasshoppers in their beaks – but I was so enthralled by the simplicity, and the grandeur of this American icon of wildlife that it inspired this expansive over-indulgence in writing about a relatively simple action that could have been shortened to: ‘I took a photo of a woodpecker Friday.’ OK, now that over-simplistic take is the other end of the photographic description spectrum.
Moments after elevating from its rest, the woodpecker showed a remarkable level of liveliness as it called and bowed for an extended period, providing a series of interesting photographs, none more animated or showing more character than this one.
I expected to do something very different this week, to use a single photograph to illustrate the above article, hence the initial title to the article “One Photo.” But all that changed Sunday afternoon, when I made an early 5pm start. Four miles south of my office I could see a Red-headed Woodpecker perched on the branch atop the dead tree where I photographed one Friday. I pulled into position, and the Red-head appeared relaxed but aware, settled low against the sun-bleached branch. It would soon become apparent that the bird lying in this low position against the bare branch was actually a resting and even napping, or at least seriously resting with its eyes closed.
I was glad the woodpecker accepted me in position, or at least my vehicle parked near it. In fact, while a cloud covered the area the red-headed bird swung around to hang from the backside of the branch, nuthatch-style. That was a bit of a surprise, except it became even more surprising when I realized the woodpecker was snoozing again. It hung upside-down for several minutes, in an embroyonic position (see photo).
A few moments after the sunlight cleared the cloud, the woodpecker revitalized in a big way, hopping back to the front of the branch and calling repeatedly for several minutes with its head feathers held erect and bowing forward time and time again, calling all the while in a lengthy display like I’ve never experienced before – what fun! Of course, I was photographing all the while with the sun providing a perfect quality of light for real life colors – very exciting!
The ultimate portrait of a Red-headed Woodpecker for Paul, provided by perfect light that reflected true vibrant colors in a pleasing setting. It’s interesting to note that the technical settings were all the same as Friday’s portrait: f8 at 1/1250 using an ISO of 400. What excitement and fun this Red-headed Woodpecker provided, along with memorable photos to share.
All the while I was photographing the trusting Red-headed Woodpecker after its naps and during its calling and bowing display time, I knew I was in the perfect location to take advantage of the perfect light as the bird was perched on a pleasing weathered branch. The resulting photos proved to be spectacular in my mind, with vivid colors and clear, sharp images that show a lot of life in the woodpecker. The photo I took Friday night turned out to be my best portrait of the species for only 2 days, when I took the others, 2 of which illustrate this article (photos 3 and 4). But I think those photos and some of the others I took during that session will remain the best of the best for Red-headed Woodpecker photos I’ve taken – Hoooray!
Eventually, the Red-headed Woodpecker began doing periodic short hawking flights to try to catch a flying insect. Once it caught a big flying grasshopper and returned to the side of the primary trunk of the dead tree. There I managed one photo before it cached the insect in a crevice in the bark – interesting. I would have expected it to take the insect to the nestlings.
Soon thereafter, the woodpecker flew to another treetop, where it was joined by its mate, which was surprisingly absent during the extended period I was on site. It must have been Sunday siesta time. All this behavior was quite different than other observation periods I’ve had, when both woodpeckers were all about catching big bugs and feeding them to nestlings hidden inside their nesting cavity.
The Next Step
I’m not done with this pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers yet. I’m hoping to get a photo of an adult feeding a nestling or 2 as they stretch their necks out of the cavity entrance, which should happen in advance of fledging. That could happen any day now, or probably during the next week. When it does happen I hope to share those fruits of my photography efforts. There is one catch though, the cavity entrance is not very clear due to leaves that shade it and trees that block other views of the nest site, so the ultimate photos at the nest site may or may not be forthcoming.
Overall, we do what we can, always with the best interests of the birds in mind – especially in the proximity to an active nest site. But I’ve already checked the behavior of the birds when I parked at the best location to try a photo, and they are not affected by my van with the camera lens protruding. And monitoring nesting birds is one of my specialties as a wildlife biologist, so I have a wealth of experience to use when judging when to photograph and when to leave birds.
I’ll keep you posted as I watch for the nestlings to begin poking their heads out of the cavity entrance any day, and I’ll monitor their activities during the fledging and post-fledging period. I’m certainly happy to have this opportunity to monitor the action and behaviors of the Red-headed Woodpeckers relatively easily – with a few excellent opportunities to observe and photograph these attractive birds.
Article and photographs by Paul Konrad
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