The Pileated Woodpecker: Red-Crested Rarity
Debbie Becker has been leading weekly Bird Walks at the NYBG for over 25 years. You can often find her on Saturday mornings, guiding new and veteran “birders” alike through the Garden’s 250 acres with binoculars in tow.
While leading my weekly Bird Walk at The New York Botanical Garden I observed a large woodpecker flying by me. I was able to see its wings with their black feathers and white markings. My first and only thought was that I had just seen a Pileated Woodpecker.
After leading birdwatching tours at NYBG for 27 years, the one bird that has always remained elusive is the Pileated Woopecker. Although they are common just miles north of the Garden, not many of these birds have ever been spotted south of Westchester County. But after careful research, I discovered that males wander during the month of April, presumably seeking new territory. It was on May 5 that I had what I hoped was a Pileated–the first for NYBG in decades.
My bird tour was walking slightly ahead of me when I decided to backtrack a bit, hoping to see if I could relocate the bird. It was flying fast and I didn’t think it had landed anywhere close by. With the early leaf out because of the warm weather, I was hoping it hadn’t disappeared into a leafy tree, or the back of a branch. I picked up my binoculars and scanned the Forest to be sure. The day was overcast with deep clouds threatening a heavy rain. But as I looked toward the horizon I quickly spotted a large silhouette in a tree far in the distance. I focused in and immediately saw the red crest. My heart skipped a beat! A Pileated Woodpecker!
While my heart was racing, my brain said, ‘Take a picture!’ I raised my camera with its 400mm lens and got off one shot before the bird took wing. Only a few seconds had passed between spotting it, focusing in, and snapping the photo, but I felt like I was moving in slow motion! Just then I came back to reality and started to yell “Pileated, Pileated!” as it flew over the heads of my tour members. I came running back to the group, happy to learn that many of the birders had seen it, while two said they saw a second bird flying in a different direction.
Ornithologist and New York State bird compiler John Bull states in his book, Bull’s Birds of New York State, that a Pileated Woodpecker was spotted in Bronx Park by George Komorowski in April of 1939. Could Bronx Park, which is very close to NYBG, be one and the same? An email from noted birder P. A. Buckley confirmed my suspicions. As someone who had studied under Komorowski in the 1950s, Mr. Buckley was able to add even more meaning to my chance sighting.
“At [the time of the 1939 record] birders never, ever called the Botanical Gardens anything but ‘Bronx Park,’ in contradistinction to ‘the Zoo,'” Buckley writes. “So I am sorry to report you can take it to the bank that [Komorowski’s] April 1939 Pileated was most assuredly nowhere else but in the Botanical Gardens.
“But still–it took 73 years for the second one to show up, so hats off to you for having found it! In 1939 it was just a wanderer, probably from Grassy Sprain Reservoir where I saw my first in 1953, and where there was a very small (one to two pair) breeding population. But now they are exploding and your one (or two?) could well be the vanguard of a breeding expansion into New York City.”
Old growth forests on the East Coast are not common, yet NYBG has preserved its 50-acre old growth Forest since the Garden’s establishment in 1891. The Garden leaves old snags, dead trees and fallen wood for birds, reptiles, amphibians and forest mammals, making it the perfect habitat for the Pileated Woodpecker.
I’m always asked about the Great Horned Owls as I begin my Saturday bird walks. They remain the stars of the show. But the definite runner-up and understudy is the elusive and fascinating “Woody Woodpecker” of birds: the Pileated Woodpecker. Perhaps it’s the desire to see a bird so closely related to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a large species so seldom seen in the past 70 years that the American Birding Association lists it as “definitely or probably extinct.” Nonetheless, sighting the Pileated at NYBG after a 73-year absence is certainly a feather in our cap!
A day after the sighting, anxious to see if I could locate the bird once more, I returned to the Garden accompanied by six fellow birders. We heard it drumming, but it was nowhere to be seen.
Ed. Note: What a brilliant first half of the year the Garden has had on the wild front! Not only has a decades-long truant come back to roost in the Bronx, but wood anemones were rediscovered here after over a century spent missing from the Forest. If these reappearances are any evidence, the Bronx River corridor is on the upswing, recapturing the diversity that makes nature in New York City so integral.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.