Seeking Refuge at Thanksgiving: The Red-headed Stranger

As Thanksgiving weekend drew to a close, my friends and I paid a second visit to Blackwater NWR. The morning started with an adventurous walk along a woodland trail. The frequent, obvious blazes were no match for our talent for getting thoroughly lost. We certainly did not end up where we were supposed to end up!

It was nice to see the loblollies against the clear blue sky when we got out of the deep dark woods.

There is an observation blind along the Wildlife Drive that looks out over a pond and the marsh. Along the edges are the bleached white skeletons of pine trees. The day before I had heard a deep drumming in this area. “Pileated Woodpecker,” I thought. But I never found the bird that first day.

Woodpeckers? I’ve seen a few. Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, and Northern Flickers, the males sporting a bit of bright red on their heads. Northern Flickers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers; both species have some crimson on the crown. The few glimpses I’ve gotten of the large Pileated Woodpeckers, with their red crests, have been a particular treat.

So this time when I heard the same drumming, hoping to see a Pileated, I made sure I found the source.

BINGO! Gotcha. Except this was no Pileated Woodpecker, nor any woodpecker I’d ever seen before. Nonetheless, I knew instantly what it was, and excitedly beckoned to my friends to come see.

Red-headed Woodpecker!

This is prime habitat for the Red-headed Woodpecker.

They don’t like dense forest, but prefer lowland areas with scattered trees, pine savannahs, standing timber in wetlands or cut or burned forests.

Dead trees are a must for nesting, and there were plenty of them here.

We followed the bird around to the other side of the trees. The backlighting wasn’t great for photography, but I couldn’t resist capturing it in action. Red-headed Woodpeckers are a little odd for the woodpeckers. They eat almost anything: insects, spiders, nuts, acorns, seeds and berries. They “hawk” insects like the Flycatchers – flying out from a perch to catch bugs in mid-air.

They are also one of the few woodpeckers to cache food, and the only one to cover their cache with wood or bark. They gather nuts and acorns in the fall and tuck them into tree crevices and holes to be eaten in winter. This woodpecker had a bit of wood in its beak. It looked like it had been excavating a little area on this branch, perhaps looking for a tasty tidbit, or collecting wood to cover its cache.

From underneath the clean line between red head and white breast was conspicuous. We were thrilled to spend such a long time observing this beautiful bird so close by.

One last look at our woodpecker friend, still Red-headed, but a stranger no longer. For Robb, Don and me, the Red-headed Woodpecker was the highlight of our visit to Blackwater NWR, one of many wonders of nature to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend.