The Woodpecker Portrait Session

Some famous photographer once said that “90% of photography is access“. That’s definitely true for birds.

I once saw this sad post on a photography forum: “After 4 years of walking through the woods, I gave up. The bird was always just ahead, on the next tree”. I felt his pain.

The Pileated woodpecker (dryocopus pileatus) isn’t rare in Minnesota, but it’s picky about its habitat and avoids residential neighborhoods. It’s also edgy and easily spooked. They’re seen in wooded areas around the edges of Minneapolis; about a year ago I spotted one in my neighborhood, and thought I’d try to lure him in.

I didn’t want a shot of a bird in the distance, darting from tree to tree; I wanted a portrait of that fiery red crest, impressive beak and crazy orange-rimmed eye. I needed a plan.

The Pileated is big; it’s the largest woodpecker in North America (unless you believe the ivory-billed is still around), with a body the size of a crow and a wingspan up to 30″. When drilling for food they want a substantial tree trunk on which to brace their tail, so typical suet feeders don’t suit them. I needed something like a piece of a tree that I could mount on a stand and reposition as needed. But a solid log would weigh too much and could blow over in the wind. And it had to hold a chunk of suet.

So I built this crazy thing:

It’s a cylindrical wooden frame wrapped in metal mesh. One side is open, to let wind through; on the other side is tree bark, with an opening to a suet cake. It’s mounted on a stand, placed near my back porch where it gets light.

Over time I’ve gotten nice bird photos on this feeder, including woodpeckers, but I never saw a Pileated until recently. On a sub-zero day in December, with snow coming down, a huge black bird swooped through the yard and landed on a small tree by the street. I grabbed a camera and got a lousy photo from too far away, through 2 panes of dirty glass:

Too far away…

And then he took off.

But the next morning I was, for some reason, awake before the sun came up; I looked out the back window and there he was on the feeder, hammering away. Wow! No chance for a photo. But later, I set up the camera, with the big zoom, on the back porch behind a “blind” I’ve constructed. The next morning, I got up even earlier – waited by the window – saw my quarry swoop in, and stepped quietly out onto the frigid porch. The sun was still below the trees, the temperature was 10 below zero (F), the light was dim and bluish, but I got what I wanted. He allowed me just a few clicks before he flew off.

I think these photos capture this magnificent bird calmly going about the business of life at the first faint light of day in the bitter cold of a Minnesota winter. He’s not worried; he knows just what he has to do, and has the tools to do it.

It’s been a couple of weeks and I haven’t seen him since. But I think he’ll return. I have what he wants.

6 Replies to “The Woodpecker Portrait Session”

  1. So that is how it is done. My idea (a long time ago) of a drone didn’t just work I guess! (only joking!)
    Great approach and I love the way you have constructed this and then been able to use it to get these magnificent images. Great background and great story. Thanks!

  2. That is some creative problem-solving! It certainly paid off with such an excellent photo. We have pileated woodpeckers all around the woods here, but I’ve never gotten close enough to see any details other than that red cap hammering away at a tree trunk. Now I can say I know what they look like when their heads (and wings) are still.

  3. This is a great story and the photos came out really well! You did put some work on getting it, that’s for sure, which makes the final photo even more rewarding. I hate photographing birds precisely for the reason stated in the photography forum you quoted!

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