A wonderful surprise took place on a warm winters afternoon at Cheesequake State Park, a 1,569 acre park located in Old Bridge Township, New Jersey, found not far from the shores of Raritan Bay. While walking along the "Green Trail" an adult Pileated Woodpecker suddenly flew near me and landed on a tree. What a thrill!
At roughly 17 inches in length, nearly the size of a crow, the Pileated Woodpecker is the tallest woodpecker in North America, except of course for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a huge woodpecker that once ranged over much of the southwest, but is now sadly believed to be extinct in North America due to habitat loss. Despite high-profile sightings in the early part of this century, the last unquestionable record of an Ivory-billed in the United States was in the 1950s.
This leaves the Pileated Woodpecker beyond question the largest woodpecker to call North America home. Yet, it wasn't long ago that even this bird was near extinction. It became scarce during the 18th and 19th centuries with the clearing of old growth forests and the destruction of trees at least 100-years-old. Only recently has sightings of Pileated Woodpeckers increased. This shy bird has been making a gradual comeback to our woodlands in New Jersey and New York, as the Pileated adapts to second or third growth forests and gets used to the presence of people.
Here in front of me was living proof that Pileated Woodpeckers can do it, the bird can be found near Lower New York Bay and in the urban metropolis of New York City. A wonderful find, made even more so when you think of everything this bird has gone through in the last 300 hundred years, from habitat destruction to being nearly wiped out. Wildlife biologist John Eastman in his book, "Birds of Forest, Yard & Thicket," called the Pileated Woodpecker a bird that most vividly represents the spirit of wild places. I began to realize this was no ordinary woodpecker, this was a symbol of the primeval forest.
I was amazed at the Pileated woodpecker's stunning markings as it worked quickly over a small standing dead tree, right then left, up then down, shedding bark with chips flying high. The knocking was loud. The bird was hungry. It was chiseling and drilling deep holes. Then using its long, barbed tongue to extract wood boring insects. Carpenter ants and beetle larvae are favorite foods for a PIleated.
It was a female Pileated that I saw. Males have a red stripe on their cheek, which this woodpecker had none. It was a beautiful looking girl, if I say so myself. Mostly black with vivid white stripes and a flashy red crest on top of its head. The bird almost looked like the classic cartoon character, Wood Woodpecker. What a sight! Luckily my camera was near and I got a few shots. Prized possessions.
The tree must have been a favorite one for foraging. There were numerous deep holes already in the tree by the Pileated. I watched for about thirty minutes as the drilling and foraging continued before the female flew off through the deep, dark woods. Not to be seen again that day.
According to the park naturalist I saw that day, the Pileated Woodpecker is a new bird species to Cheesequake. It has never been sighted before January 2013.
With any luck, the female Pileated will meet a male, go through a courtship, and start a family in the park among the tall trees. With over a thousand acres of un-fragmented woodlands in Cheesequake, this big bird will do well here, since it needs a large area within a conifer-hardwood forest to raise its young. The spirit of wilderness hopefully breeding soon in Cheesequake State Park.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://www.natureontheedgenyc.com