The Dance of the Pileateds

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Spring officially arrived in the Northern Hemisphere last Wednesday, but winter refuses to relinquish its grip. The temperature has been below seasonal for the last week, and Ottawa received another 20 cm of snow on Wednesday with more snow flurries on Thursday and Friday. This means there is still at least a foot of snow in the woods and the snowbank next to our driveway is still over 4 feet high. The ice on the Ottawa River is beginning to recede but all the ponds are still frozen. The temperature finally rose to 3°C yesterday after hovering at or below the freezing mark all last week.

I saw my first Red-winged Blackbirds and migrant Canada Geese on Sunday, March 10th when temperatures shot up to a warm, balmy 9°C. However, since then migration has stalled. I am still eagerly awaiting my first Common Grackles, American Robins, Song Sparrows, Killdeer, Turkey Vultures and Wood Ducks of the year…all species which typically arrive in mid- to late March. I keep waiting for the ponds to open up and the snow to melt; perhaps next weekend, I say, although I have been saying that for two weeks now. Everything remains frozen; it seems we have been on the threshold of spring for a month now.

Last weekend Deb and I spent some time in the west end. We started the morning off at Jack Pine Trail where we saw our first chipmunk of the year near the feeder. The Black-backed Woodpecker was absent, but we found the three other resident woodpeckers, a singing Brown Creeper, and six Mourning Doves near the feeder. A drive along Rushmore Road produced one Red-winged Blackbird, while on Akins Road we found one Horned Lark and a small flock of Snow Buntings.

We finished our morning with a stop at Mud Lake, which is always a good place to see some interesting birds. A small flock of Common Redpolls was present at the feeders on Cassels Street, while a lone Red-winged Blackbird perched in the trees below the ridge. A flock of at least 30 Canada Geese had arrived, half of which were resting behind the ridge and half of which were feeding on the exposed grass beneath the large trees on the lawn.

Canada Goose

Canada Goose

Canada Goose

Canada Goose

We didn’t see any Wood Ducks, but this American Black Duck provided a great photo opportunity!

American Black Duck

American Black Duck

Yesterday, my day began and ended with two new mammals for my year list: a skunk and a groundhog! As I was getting ready to go out, I checked the backyard and noticed several new tracks criss-crossing the snow. They didn’t belong to the squirrels, which leave a distinct set of tracks that look like double exclamation points (!!). I wasn’t sure who had made them until I noticed the skunk working its way along the fence of my neighbour’s yard! One used to have a den beneath the shed in the yard behind us; last summer, the new owners moved the shed to a new location so I wasn’t sure if the skunk was still around. The skunk disappeared behind the fence at the back of the yard, presumably heading in that direction.

Hoping that the skunk was a sign of good things to come, I started my explorations at Sarsaparilla Trail. It was unusually quiet – only a couple of chickadees and two White-breasted Nuthatches greeted me at the trail entrance. I saw a White-tailed Deer in the woods and a single junco near the parking lot and that was it. There were no Red-winged Blackbirds calling today.

It was a bit windier than I would have liked, so I decided to stick close to home. I visited the Beaver Trail next, where I saw plenty of turkey tracks but no turkeys. Two American Tree Sparrows were feeding on some seeds on the ground with some chickadees, and further along the trail I saw two large, black birds fly by and land on a tree.

Pileated Woodpecker (female)

Pileated Woodpecker (female)

I was thrilled when I realized they were Pileated Woodpeckers; I have a soft spot for these large birds, and never tire of watching them. They were on a tree right next to the trail, so I was able walk right up to them. They were engaged in a bizarre ritual, and at first I thought it was some sort of courtship ritual – until I realized they were both females. One would hitch herself up the tree; the other would follow on the opposite side of the trunk. Then one would circle around the trunk, while the other followed. Up and down the trunk they went, circling each other without making contact, completely silent.

Pileated Woodpeckers

Pileated Woodpeckers

Pileated Woodpeckers

Pileated Woodpeckers

Pileated Woodpeckers

Pileated Woodpeckers

This unusual dance went on for a while, so I decided to shoot some video of the two birds.

This one is zoomed in a little closer:

Altogether it went on for over five minutes; I caught three minutes of this ritual on video, and spent a couple more minutes photographing them, trying to capture both woodpeckers in the same frame. Since they are both females, I am guessing this is a territorial dispute, with one trying to establish dominance. This is the first time that I’ve seen two Pileated Woodpeckers here; I saw a single female last December in the same area. I heard a strong tapping in the distance, possibly a male.

Pileated Woodpecker (female)

Pileated Woodpecker (female)

Eventually one flew off to another tree deeper in the woods, and the other followed.

I didn’t see much activity along the trail until I reached the observation platform at the back. There I heard the welcome calls of a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds. There were at least five of them in the trees next to the platform; I put some of my sunflower seed mix on the posts and waited for them to find it.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

They were quite hesitant, and it wasn’t until two Blue Jays and a couple of chickadees flew in to grab some seeds that the red-wings became interested. Four of them came out into the open while one continued calling from within the depths of the cedar tree. They were still wary, so I retreated down the boardwalk so that they could eat. In the meantime, I heard at least one junco calling from the ground below and saw three Bohemian Waxwings perching in a tree overlooking the marsh. A White-breasted Nuthatch and a Downy Woodpecker were taking turns taking seeds from another post.

Downy Woodpecker (male)

Downy Woodpecker (male)

My last stop was the Jack Pine Trail where I hoped to find the Black-backed Woodpecker. A male had been seen with the female, and I was hoping to get some pictures of him. Neither put in an appearance, although I saw the chipmunk beneath the feeder again.

The trail was quiet, but I saw plenty of tracks in the snow, including several deer and Snowshoe Hare tracks along the outer loop. Snowshoe Hares bound across the snow, bringing their hind feet together in front of their front paws. The marks left by their front paws are staggered, which helps differentiate them from squirrel tracks. Both Eastern Cottontails and Snowshoe Hares leave similar tracks, but the hares’ tracks are much larger. It would have been great to see the Snowshoe Hare, but they are active primarily at night. I usually see them very early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

Snowshoe Hare Tracks

Snowshoe Hare Tracks

I found more activity at one of the impromptu feeders near the first boardwalk. Two American Tree Sparrows were feeding on the ground, while several chickadees and a single White-breasted Nuthatch were calling in the vicinity. The chickadees came to my hand for food, though the nuthatch kept its distance.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

An American Red Squirrel was dozing on top of another wooden box often used as a feeder.

Red Squirrel

Red Squirrel

Although the temperature had finally risen above zero, the breeze was still cold, and the clouds were moving in so I called it a day after that. On my way home I noticed a groundhog standing in the snow along Richmond Road. I can only imagine that he, like the rest of us, was wondering where spring was. Perhaps in another week it will begin to look and feel more like spring!

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9 thoughts on “The Dance of the Pileateds

    • Hi Lese,

      I start out early in the morning, usually leaving around 7:30 or 8:00, though sometimes I head out earlier in the summer. As to whether I see a lot of wildlife due to good luck or being a skilled observer, I think it’s a combination of both. It does take a certain level of experience to SEE what’s around you; and I think that it’s something more basic than skill, that anyone can pick up. It’s being able to notice an unusual lump in a tree which is actually a bird, or hearing a rustle on the ground and finding a Ruffed Grouse walking along (i.e., Mud Lake) or a bunch of Garter Snakes chasing a female in a “mating ball” (i.e., Jack Pine). However, luck plays a large part in it too – I can only see what’s around. If there’s no wildlife around, then all the experience in the world can’t help me!

      I have led a couple of outings for the OFNC. I’ve done a few outings at Jack Pine Trail, and last year Chris Lewis and I led a dragonfly walk at Mud Lake. We may do another one this summer, depending on our schedules.

      Thanks for reading!
      Gillian

  1. Gillian, what wonderful photos of those beautiful prehistoric-looking pileateds! Don’t know if you saw the pic my friend shared on my blog, but it’s not as close-up and awesome as this. Wonderful image.

    • Thanks Kathy! I did see the photos on your blog.

      These guys will often let you get quite close. Not always, but often enough that if you have a camera with a good zoom you can some amazing shots.

  2. Beautiful pictures! The reason I found this page was I was searching for an official explanation of the Pileated Woodpecker Dance. I just videoed two female Pileated WPs from my kitchen window and supposed it was a territorial dispute. We have many of them come to our Suet Cakes, but this was the first dispute I have witnessed.

    • Thanks Carl! I haven’t seen anything like that dance since. Interesting how you saw the exact same thing! I note that I am guessing it is a territorial dispute; there is much I don’t know about birds, so I am just making an educated guess here.

      Thanks for reading!

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