Text and Photos By Kyle Kittleberger
Penny, a bird guide for Evergreen Escapes tour company, and I had been searching for about an hour in ponderosa pine forest at Wenas Creek, central Washington. It was a warm afternoon without a cloud in the sky. We were looking for a bird I had never seen before, the White-headed Woodpecker. This ponderosa pine forest lay within the western most range of the White-headed Woodpecker in Washington. They had nested at Wenas Creek in the past; Penny had found them here before. I was grateful that she knew exactly where to look for this species.
We had seen signs that the bird had been here, for there were patches on some of the pine trees where bark had been peeled away. There were large holes in the bark where cambium was visible sap oozed out. There were plenty of healthy, large pine trees in the surrounding area but we saw not one White-headed Woodpecker. We had trekked all across the forest and saw numerous birds, including Western Tanager, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Western Wood-Pewee. We also saw a couple Downy Woodpeckers and a Red-naped Sapsucker, but no White-headed Woodpeckers. We decided it was time to head back to Seattle and began to walk in the direction of the car.
We were within a hundred feet of the car when a black jeep came cruising down the road. As the jeep passed our vehicle, a bird flushed from a nearby pine and flew across the road. I raised my binoculars and saw a flash of white as the bird landed on another pine tree. Immediately I realized it was a White-headed Woodpecker.
Penny retrieved her scope from the car while I searched for the woodpecker in the pine trees. I spotted it foraging up the side of a pine and alerted Penny. She focused the scope on the woodpecker and I was treated with a spectacular view. The white head was well defined against a black body. As the bird pulled bark off the pine I took a few photos. It soon flew to another pine. We chased it and once again were treated with spectacular looks. To our surprise we were now looking at two White-headed Woodpeckers. A male had flown in, its red crown visible.
For the next half hour or so we followed the woodpeckers as they flew from one pine to the next. Though we were treated with breathtaking views, and I was able to take great photos of the woodpeckers, the real treat, and the best experience I had while in Washington, had not occurred yet.
As we were scanning the treetops, a knocking noise began on the tree behind us. I stepped a little away from the tree and gazed up. The drumming continued, and I wondered if a nuthatch or sapsucker had flown into the tree. A sudden movement caught my eye and I spied the bird that was making the noise: a white-headed woodpecker. One had flown right above our heads, not less than ten feet away, while we were scanning the pines.
I alerted Penny and together we slowly moved away from the pine until we had a better look at the bird. The woodpecker continued to tap at the tree, sending bark pieces flying into the air. Upon further observation we noticed that the woodpecker was the male. I began to click away with my camera, photographing the bird as it pecked at the tree. Meanwhile, my guide focused her scope on the woodpecker. I stepped back and looked through the scope at the bird, once again captivated by its beauty.
The pecking stopped and we both looked up at the bird through our binoculars. The woodpecker was no longer moving and now perched motionless on the side of the pine. I noticed that the male’s eye was slowly closing. The bird was falling asleep!
The woodpecker closed its eyes, its grey eyelid now visible, and slept on the side of the tree. Penny and I could not believe what we were seeing. Never before had I seen a bird sleep on the side of a tree. Not only was this a life bird for me, but I was able to enjoy this very interesting behavior which I had never encountered before.
Kyle Kittelberger,16 years old, lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has been birding since the age of 10, when he first traveled to Alaska with his family. He spends as much time as possible outdoors, either birding or identifying other wildlife, or continuing to create a wildlife sanctuary in his backyard. He is interested in sustainability and wildlife conservation and hopes one day to be able to protect threatened wildlife and habitats around the world.