Wednesday started in a similar fashion to most of my days, with a trip outside to fill my feeders. I like to ensure my feeders are full to start the day, so I am ready to enjoy the birds when they arrive at dawn and throughout the day as I work from home. After filling the feeders, I returned inside and sat down at my desk ready to begin my workday. As I glanced over my computer screen out the window, I noticed a flash of red at the feeder where I had just placed a handful of peanuts in the shell. Naturally, I assumed it was one of the Red-bellied Woodpeckers that regularly visit, but upon closer look I realized the bird was not a Red-bellied Woodpecker, but a much less common Red-headed Woodpecker.
Having only seen a Red-headed Woodpecker a few times in my lifetime, words cannot describe how excited I was to see this bird at my feeder. Red-headed Woodpeckers are currently listed as a species at risk in Ontario and therefore rare in most areas. The majority of reported sightings in Southwestern Ontario come from within two of our provincial parks, Rondeau and Pinery, as well as Point Pelee National Park.
Typically when a new species or first of year migrant arrives in my yard, I am quite content to watch from indoors and let the bird feed undisturbed while getting accustomed to my yard before I venture outside in an attempt to capture an image. I would much rather enjoy viewing the bird from inside and not have a photograph than risk spooking the bird and have it leave my yard just for the sake of an image. On this day there was construction going on in the yard behind me with dump trucks, a backhoe, and several men working. I watched as the Red-headed Woodpecker made several trips to and from my feeder unfazed by the loud noises coming from the adjacent yard. Given the nearby commotion, I decided that my presence in the yard was unlikely to startle the bird if I kept my distance and avoided sudden movements. As I slipped quietly out the back door with my camera in hand I could hear the bird calling form a tree in the corner of my yard.
I positioned myself partially hidden on the corner of my deck at a 90 degree angle to the sun. This was not my first choice in terms of light or background for a picture, but again first and foremost, I did not want to frighten the bird. Only a few minutes passed when the Red-headed Woodpecker swooped down from the tree and landed on my feeder. I quickly pressed the shutter button capturing several images before the bird grabbed a peanut and flew off over the yard behind me. My excitement level was so high that I was actually shaking and uncertain how sharp my images would be knowing that there was a high probability of camera shake. I realized the presence of a Red-headed Woodpecker in my yard would be a major distraction from my work not to mention I may never get another opportunity like this again, so I decided to spend the day in my yard observing and photographing this rare visitor. Fortunately, my schedule allows me to set my own hours and the lost time can be made up by working evenings and on the weekend, a small sacrifice I was more than willing to make in order to enjoy this beautiful bird.
As time passed, it became even more evident that this bird was not perturbed by me or the loud noises coming from my neighbour’s yard. Even the loud banging of a dump truck tailgate did not prevent this Red-headed Woodpecker from making frequent trips to my feeder. Realizing that the bird was likely to return multiple times, I decided to switch positions in order to achieve better lighting and backdrops for my images. Still, I kept my distance from the feeder and stayed hidden behind various trees and shrubs in my yard.
I first observed the Red-headed Woodpecker on my feeder around 7:30 a.m. and watched as it made regular visits throughout the day. Sometimes an hour would pass without seeing the bird, but its pattern of approaching from the south continued for several hours. When I finally went inside for dinner after 5 p.m. the bird was still making frequent trips to my feeder. I had to step out at 6:30 p.m. to run an errand, but when I looked out the back door before leaving, there it was grabbing a peanut and heading off to the south.
When I awoke Thursday morning, I headed back out to fill the feeders and hoped that the bird may still be around. After returning inside, again at about 7:30 a.m., I heard the Red-headed Woodpecker call and glanced out the window. High up in the sycamore tree I could see the morning sun glistening off its black back and red head. My schedule the remainder of the week did not allow me to devote as much time watching the bird, so I am unsure if it is still present. Having this bird stick around would be incredible, but despite plenty of food and adequate habitat, I imagine with such low numbers of these birds in our area it will move on to explore new areas in search of a potential mate. I will be sure to provide updates if the bird remains in the area.
Despite being a species at risk in Ontario, a number of Red-headed Woodpecker sightings have been reported in 2017 to the various bird observation websites including eBird. As many as 6 Red-headed Woodpeckers were observed during this spring’s Festival of Birds at Point Pelee National Park. Other sightings from Elgin and Middlesex counties have also been submitted. Friends of mine who live in Orillia, Ontario informed me that they had a Red-headed Woodpecker visit their feeder in early May. Closer to home, a juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker was reported last December along the Thames River near Civic Gardens Complex. This particular bird remained in that area throughout the winter. and I was fortunate enough to view it back in January. Unfortunately, I have not seen any recent reports indicating that it is still in the area. Perhaps this is the same bird now displaying adult plumage. Whether or not these increased sightings are a sign of hope for this fragile species only time will tell.
As is the case with all species at risk, habitat loss is one of the biggest factors leading to their reduced numbers. Red-headed Woodpeckers nest in dead trees, so the removal of these potential nest sites due to development, agriculture or safety reasons likely has contributed to their 60% decline in Ontario over the past 20 years. If you have dead trees on your property and it is safe to do so, leave them. Dead trees and branches not only provide potential nesting locations for many cavity nesting birds including the Red-headed Woodpecker, many birds prefer dead branches over live ones for perching. Decaying wood also houses plenty of insects which will in turn attract more birds. Dead and decaying trees may not be as aesthetically pleasing as live ones, but they are a key element to the survival of so many birds. By leaving some dead trees on your property you will certainly attract more birds, and who knows you may just save a species at risk in the process.