Hello again fellow Fox River Valley nature enthusiasts! As I write this column it is mid-February and a rather dreary, cold, and cloudy day. We’ve had a couple of warmer days recently though that promise that spring is on the way and indeed, at least astronomically, spring begins in late March. While March has never been one of my favorite months weather-wise, its volatile extremes range from bitter cold and snow to the beginning of severe weather season. During March, increased frequency of warm, moist air makes its way north from the Gulf of Mexico to meet with the cold, polar air from the Arctic resulting in severe thunderstorms and sometimes tornados. March has also become one of my favorite months for exploring the fields and forests of the Fox River Valley. This is the month when I saw and photographed my first Snowy Owl in northern Illinois (see my January and February, 2022 blogs) and also marks the month when I first photographed another uncommon but not nearly as rare of a bird in our area: the Pileated Woodpecker.
Establishing a Pattern
I had very rarely caught glimpses of Pileated Woodpeckers flying across the Fox River while I was fishing from my boat in the Fox River at Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area. I had never really considered pursuing them seriously enough to get photographs of them until I started hiking regularly in the Hoover Forest Preserve near Yorkville, Illinois, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Working from home provided me time to explore this preserve; time that would normally be devoted to my commute to and from work. That extra time really paid dividends for me, enabling me to discover this wonderful preserve along the south bank of the Fox River. One of the many natural assets of the Hoover preserve is its resident population of Pileated Woodpeckers. I would catch glimpses of these unusual birds flying through the forest along the trail or hear their characteristic “kok-kok-kok” calls often enough to inspire me to seek them out, specifically to photograph them. As most of my hikes in the preserve took place in the evening after work, I was able to identify areas that the birds seemed to frequent at that same general time. After identifying that pattern, it was simply a matter of being at the right place at the right time to be in position to get some pictures!
One evening, as a friend and I hiked along one of our favorite trails, that coincidentally was in an area that we had heard the woodpeckers calling before, we heard a loud rapping on a tree no more than fifty yards from the trail. This rapping was much louder and more powerful than any of the other woodpeckers in the preserve could produce, so we knew that a Pileated Woodpecker was very close by. We quickly, but quietly, moved closer to the sound of the rapping and finally got a clear view of a beautiful female Pileated Woodpecker putting the finishing touches on a large hole high in a mature hickory tree. I finally got some pictures of this elusive, beautiful bird! This bird and her mate returned to this same spot each evening at the same time for seven days in a row although they didn’t nest there.
The ”Rap” Sheet
Pileated Woodpeckers are by far the largest of the seven species of woodpeckers native to Illinois. The adults average between 16-20 inches in length with the males being slightly larger than the females. They are covered primarily in black feathers with a crested cap of brilliant scarlet red on the top of their heads. They have white underwing stripes and white striping on their cheeks. The males have bright red feathers on their foreheads and cheeks, that the females lack. The birds are year-round residents of Illinois and mate for life (which can be up to 9+ years). Breeding usually takes place in April or May and usually results in a clutch of four eggs. The birds make their nests in trees (usually dead or dying) where they hammer out nest cavities. The entrance to these cavities is characteristically rectangular in shape. The eggs typically hatch in about three and a half to four weeks and the nestlings fledge about four weeks after hatching. Pileated Woodpeckers’ favorite food is carpenter ants and beetle larva that they find in dead or dying trees in the forest. They will also eat fruit but their preference is definitely ants and beetle larva. They are really spectacular birds that are very much worth the effort to find and see. While they have historically been extremely rare in our part of northern Illinois, their numbers are markedly increasing in recent years. Luckily for us in the Fox River Valley, they are becoming more and more common in the hardwood forests that border the Fox River, particularly in its lower reaches.
Next time you’re out along the Fox River, particularly along a wooded area, keep your eyes open for a crow-sized woodpecker flying among the trees or your ears open to an unusually raucous, almost laughing “kok-kok-kok” call. You may be in store for your own sighting of this great bird.
Until next time, continue to enjoy the natural wonders of our beautiful Fox River!
All Photos by Tom Schrader