The Church of the Red-headed Woodpecker

The author launches into North Bend State Park Lake, West Virginia. Photo by Bill Thompson, III

The author launches into North Bend State Park Lake, West Virginia. Photo by Bill Thompson, III

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse: “Would anyone like to take Julie’s canoe out (into the slow-moving water of North Bend State Park, where Ms. Zickefoose had seen 35 active red-headed woodpecker nests in the previous couple of hours) rather than attend the business meeting?” My arm jolted skyward. I swear it was an involuntary reaction. “We’ll be back in about an hour and a half.”

So, my Bird Watcher’s Digest colleagues and Julie piled into the van, leaving me alone to paddle on a sunny June afternoon in the remote wilds of wonderful West Virginia. Cue the banjos. No banjos.

The lake was brown after recent rains, and bare snags jutted from the water in clusters along both sides of what was a stream channel, flooded decades ago. The hillsides were lush and verdant, and the sky quintessentially summer blue. The sun was warm on my pasty white arms, but the bottom of the little boat was cool, so I was comfortable. More than comfortable, I was in heaven. And I was not alone.

An adult pair of eastern kingbirds and a fledgling perched on the first snag I paddled by. The parents were teaching the young one to bathe. They’d sally off the branch, and skim the surface of the water, tipping to scoop up just a little water onto each wing, then return to the perch to preen. The adults were soaking wet, and the juvie was reluctant, apparently. The adults demonstrated their ablutions a dozen times while I watched. The baby had just one response: FEED ME!

Summer tanagers pickey tucked in the woods as I paddled by, and yellow-throated vireos three-A’d. And then, after less than 10 minutes of paddling, still within sight of the boat launch, a black and white and red art deco bird shot right in front of me, landed on the top of a tall snag and disappeared around back.

What is that loud, descending purr? I paddled closer as quietly as I could, trying to channel my Native American great-great-great grandmother. That purring, it turned out, was a demanding brown-headed red-headed woodpecker—no two!—craning their heads out of the nest hole as the parent flew off.

What’s that cheep-cheep-cheeping from the short snag behind me? Another adult red-head answered by flying in to a nest hole at eye-level and not 15 feet away. How could I paddle? How could I move? Why would I want to? Only because I felt like I was imposing on the nest in the low snag. I didn’t need to be that close for a spectacular view.

Besides, there were more up ahead. A northern flicker and a red-head interacted briefly on a tall snag where they both had active nests, the flicker’s about 10 feet above than the red-head’s. Just beyond, another red-headed flew into a snag and quickly out again. I was a 15-minute paddle from the boat ramp, although I had taken half an hour to get to this spot, literally surrounded by red-headed woodpecker nests. I saw at least seven active nests, maybe nine, as an adult would land and hop to the far side of a snag, disappear for a few seconds, then fly off again. There were simply too many to check out each one, and I really did not want to disturb any of them. What a privilege to be among them.

On another branch, tiny northern rough-winged swallows were clearly annoying their parents: “FEED ME! FEED ME!” Watch. Do this. Feed yourselves!

On a perfect-weather Monday afternoon, mine was the only boat in this paradise. I was in church, my blessings too numerous to count. I was unable to sing along with the diverse hymns all around me. Stand still, time! An hour isn’t enough in this extraordinary place.

Hallelujah! I get to return! Our visit was a reconnaissance trip for Julie’s Reader Rendezvous August 22-24. The meeting I escaped was to rent kayaks, canoes and a pontoon boat to take participants to see the concentration of red-headed woodpeckers. Next time, I won’t be the only boat on the lake, the only person in church. But it will still be a holy place.




About the Author
 Dawn Hewitt is the managing editor for Bird Watcher's Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *