Sunday, November 25, 2007

Attracting and photographing Woodpeckers

I have always been fascinated by Pileated Woodpeckers since I was a child and we had them in the yard in Ocean Park, South Surrey. It took me a while to figure out was hammering on the trees and making the jungle noises.

Twenty-five years later after moving were the jobs are I settled in Black Creek here on the east coast of Vancouver Island and there are Pileated Woodpeckers here along with Hairy's, Downy's, Northern Flickers and Red-breasted Sapsuckers. It took years before we seen all them.

The first Woodpecker we attracted was a Hairy, we had put out a feeder with some sunflower seeds and the Hairy would grab one seed and fly over to a fir tree and wedge it in the bark then peck at it to open up the seed and then eat the meat, a lot of work for little reward.

Next we put out some suet feeders, the Hairy's and Downy's enjoyed these and we noticed a new shy bird on the lawn making holes, it was a Northern Red Shafted Flicker, as soon as it seen me looking out the window it was gone.

I started making peanut butter suet and drilling holes in logs, I then stuffed the holes with the peanut butter suet, the Woodpeckers really liked this and the Flickers were getting less shy we could stand at the window and watch them without them flying away, the Hairy's and Downy's were not shy at all and would come to the log even if you were standing close by.

A few years ago we seen a pair of Pileateds come into the yard, we had seen them in the neighborhood but not in the yard, they rooted around in the garden not paying attention to the feeders.

That fall a young female Pileated showed up and tried out the feeders, I had added a tailboard to one of the wire suet feeders and she seemed to prefer that one, she was a regular all winter and then in the spring she got up on one of the trees were there was a bird house and started drumming, it was a solidly built bird house and made a nice sound when drummed on, probably the loudest thing in the yard she could find. I guess she had found a mate and the drumming was to bring him over because he showed up right away.

Now we had two Pileateds showing up, they are territorial and will chase out other ones and even chase away the young ones in the winter.

Later in the spring the female became scarce but the male showed up regularly loading up with food then flying away making regular trips, unlike Hairy's, Downy's and Sapsuckers Pileateds hold the food for the young in the crop the others hold it in there bill so you can see when they are getting a load for nestlings.

Then one day we seen a fledgling on the tree, pink top and dark eyes, the male will hide the fledgling on the other side of the trees at first then as it gets older he will feed it in view.

A little later a female fledgling was being brought also, the dad took his job very seriously and the fledglings were not allowed to feed them selves at first and would be chased away from the food if they tried to eat.

That was last year and the same happened this year again, we had fledglings and parents all through the summer and fall, pretty hard to tell them apart now. usually one shows up at a time but sometimes there will be two or three Pileateds at once.

The other Woodpeckers bring the fledglings along as well so I keep feeding the Woodpeckers all year round so we can see them.

The Red-Breasted Sapsucker comes to a Weeping Birch tree in the front yard, they will occasionally come to suet and like running water. The fledglings are brought to the Weeping Birch and left all day, sometimes there five birds on there.

The only Woodpeckers I have seen bathe are the Flickers, they seem to prefer the concrete bird bath over the running water of the water fall, the Pileated male would use the bird bath for drinking every day during the summer.
 The Sapsuckers were attracted by the waterfall and probably were using it when we were not around.

Its been a multi year project to get the woodpeckers coming regularly but it has really payed off, we get to see them all year round and really enjoy seeing the fledglings in the spring and summer.

For taking nice pictures I like to pick out a nice looking log, with no light colored spots and nothing distracting, sometimes I will use a moss covered one as the green goes well with the red on the birds.

I make stands for holding the logs and drill a hole in the bottom for a steel peg so it will attach to the stand and with a 3/4" forstner bit I will hollow out a cavity that I fill with peanut butter suet.

Eventually the Pileateds will drill holes in the log and it will need to be replaced, this is good since you can only have so many pictures on the same log.

For Flickers and Pileateds a blind is at first essential, later as they become accustomed to your presence and you be able to do with out if your lens is long enough. I have a permanent blind in the backyard that I can move around, I also have a pop up blind that I use, they are light weight and easy to setup.

A lens in the 300-400mm range is ideal, a long lens can be used and will help with isolating the background.

Since you are choosing were the birds are to land pick a spot with a nice background, you don't want it too smooth but nothing distracting.

For lighting I mount a couple of flashes to the front of my blind, then shoot on cloudy days or in the shade, I like to expose the background around the middle of the histogram and fill flash the foreground with the flashes on 1/4 manual power, if I want the background lighter I will slow down the shutter speed and for the foreground I will vary the aperture, the camera is set to rear slow sync.

Balance fill flash means I don't want the flash to over power the subject and have the backgrounds dark, so less ambient light there is less flash that can be used, brighter the ambient light stronger the flash that can be used.

Don't use on camera flash, get the flashes off to the sides.

Occasionally you will get some ideal soft natural light, disconnect the flash and put the camera on high speed and hammer away.

Woodpeckers move quickly when feeding but they stop often to look around and when they do they are very still, you can get pictures of them down to 1/20 sec but they only pause for a second so you actually have to press the shutter when you think there going to pull there heads back and take a look around, they will also move there heads from side to side which will make it harder to get focus. It takes some practice to get the timing right and the keeper ratio isn't all that high, just delete the blurry ones and keep the ones that have nice sharp eyes.

Hope this is helpful to someone and any feed back is appreciated.

To see larger versions of the pictures click on them, there are also a lot more woodpecker pictures at my web sight .


Martin said...

I was asked for the Peanut Butter Suet recipe so here it is, I don't measure any of it so you will have to just try it out.

Scoop out one jar Adams Peanut butter into a pan set on low, heat up the peanut butter till its nice and runny, then add a bunch of cornmeal, rolled oats, sunflower seeds and for a treat some walnut pieces, also take some rolled oats and sunflower seeds and grind them up in a coffee grinder so there nice and fine and dump them in also, mix it all together adding cornmeal till you get a good texture, you don't want it too oily as it will get on the birds feathers.

Martin said...

Ruth gave me this tip, Hang your suet feeder by the log and this will get them to come over and once there on the log it won't take them long to find the hole with peanut butter suet.

She also asked why the squirrels don't destroy my logs, well I only have Red Squirrels here and I have Squirrel feeders for them, its the big Gray Squirrels that can be destructive and for them all I can suggest its hanging the log so they can't get to it, or put it on a pole with a Squirrel guard.

Martin said...

Birdlady gave me this information.

"Don't forget that they will go to nut feeders too. They also like soft food like bread and donuts. I have a tray that I fill up with peanuts and the Red-bellied Woodpecker loves it. They like grapes too. I got a shot of a Red-bellied with a grape in his beak. As soon as he plucked it he flew away with it. I have found out that most birds who are lucky enough to get a whole grape in their beaks will immediately take off with it as if they won a prize or something. If you have a place in your yard that you don't mind having an ant mound then the Flickers will come to it."

Patrick Belardo said...

Hi Martin, gorgeous pics as always. Welcome to the blog world.

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