Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Search for the woodpecker

No, not the ivorybill -- although I might actually get a chance to do that in May, when I'm going down to Arkansas to visit my in-laws. Wouldn't it be the coolest thing ever if I did find it, and got some photographic evidence?

But the woodpecker in question today is the pileated woodpecker of Funk's Grove, here in McLean County. Although in many areas of Illinois it is not unusual to see pileateds, here in McLean county it is something of a big deal. The county birding checklist (see links at right) has them as accidental/rare species, and although there have been rumors of pileated sightings, as far as I can gather from experienced county birders, most of them were unconfirmed.

Until November 14, 2009, when I went to Sugar Grove Nature Center for the first of my ebird "site surveys" (I am trying to get there at least once a week to tally all the birds I see in the interest of science) when I saw...a PILEATED WOODPECKER! From my bird journal: "I almost didn't believe it, since McLean County birding website claims last confirmed pileated sighting was 30 years ago!! Followed bird off the trail and got an excellent look. For that moment, felt that greater happiness could not be possible. Proof of phenomenon already noted (e.g, sandhill cranes at Goose Lake Prairie): the Spontaneous Joy of an Unexpected Bird Sighting. A different emotion than the Well-earned Satisfaction of a Worked-for Bird Sighting (e.g., first sight of bobolinks.) Let me revisit my joy with an all-caps reiteration: I SAW A PILEATED WOODPECKER IN MCLEAN COUNTY!!"

So, for me, it was quite the big deal, and I got the satisfaction of reporting a rare bird sighting, and also the satisfaction of having my sighting confirmed based on my description, and even circulated amongst the local birders a bit.

It helps that pileated woodpeckers are one of my favorite birds. I love to see them, and do so infrequently enough that it's always exciting. And a rare pileated sighting! Even better!

But then, I did not see the woodpecker again. Week after week, I walked all around the Grove, and saw red-bellies, downies and hairies galore, but no pileated. I didn't know if the bird had merely been passing through...if it was still alive...if it had stayed to take up permanent residence and I just didn't happen on it again.

And then last week, another central Illinois birder saw a pileated at the Grove. (Is it the same bird -- "my" pileated? I would like to think so.) And, I went to look for it last Saturday, and did not find it.

On Monday, my mom talked to the Sugar Grove nature lady and got more specific directions as to where it was seen, and the two of us went out again Monday evening for another shot at it. (What a terrible expression! So many idioms have such violent origins.) If anyone else is interested -- it was seen along the road between the Thaddeus Stubblefield grove and Funk's Grove cemetery.

We parked at the cemetery and strolled around for a bit, enjoying the spring weather (and respite from the rain), the wild flowers, and the sound of birdsong all around us -- mostly robins, starlings, grackles and chickadees. We saw a beautiful pair of bluebirds, a male and female. On the way home from the grove, we even saw a wild turkey crossing the road, bobbing its head with each strut.

What we did not see was a pileated woodpecker. We did not hear any tapping or calls that would indicate its presence. Nada. Zip.

Disappointing -- but also hopeful, and now I AM talking about the ivory billed woodpecker. So many sightings of it, contested or poorly documented, with such long stretches in between. People doubt whether it's even still alive, speculating that everyone who thought they saw it was mistaken...by pileateds. But I look at it this way: Funk's Grove/Sugar Grove Nature Center is not very big. I personally think that "my" pileated has been there all along, and the recent sighting is the same bird I saw in November. But there were months, in that small area, of a not uncommon (in other areas) and not contested bird, between sightings. And now that I'm actively searching for it again, I've had two trips with nary a sign. If a pileated can hide so well in a tiny grove...don't you think ivory bills can hide in a huge swamp?

(PS...the pileated woodpecker in the photo was taken in southern Illinois, not here in McLean county.)

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