The Great Pileated Woodpecker Oddyssey

The adventure begins! When it comes to doing stories for magazines, you pretty much have two basic types as a photographer: 1. The kind you already have all the images for and you base a story around your stock files, and 2. The assignment kind that you need to shoot for to make the story happen. At the moment, I’m working on a story on pileated woodpeckers as ecological engineers. These are the massive black woodpeckers with giant red crests that you see all across North America. Given their size, they just can’t help but to have a huge impact upon the forest in which they live – making them both a keystone and indicator species in the ecosystem. One small example of this is the fact that there are 38 known species of animals that depend upon the pileated’s carpentry work throughout a forest for their own survival.

Which type of story is this for me? Both. I have images to use for the story. But I need more in order to illustrate the story effectively. Thus, I have been on the hunt for a couple weeks now for cavity nesting species – specifically those that utilize pileated woodpeckers cavities. Out of this two week hunt, I spent the last three days searching one of the woodpeckeriest place in the area for potential candidates. In one day alone I located a red-bellied, downy, and pileated nesting cavity as well as two other active nests that I was unable to get a glance of the bird using it. Score! Not bad for one days worth of scouting.

Over the course of the next few weeks I will be working on shooting for this story and my plan is to keep up with the progress via the photo journal. Now I know I have been a total slacker this winter with keep up with the blog. I greatly appreciate the emails that I have received asking about it and when I was going to get back into the groove again. That sort of stuff is really motivating and inspirational!

Accompanying this first post in the woodpecker series is of the pileated cavity that I found. I have located several other pileated cavities throughout this time period. Some are good, some not so good to shoot. So far, this one appears to be the best – photographically speaking that is. Only problem is the height and the angle that I need to shoot from.

Here you see that this nest requires the inclusion of the sky from this angle. Now, personally I kind of like this composition – complete with the bright white sky as it gives the image something a high key feeling. As is, my options are to re-shoot this location with a blue sky. Only problem is, once done, that’s it, little else that can be done with this nest. This is not good enough though. I need more. I need behavior, I need a cover shot – literally (the editor told me so).

Now, the best way to spice up this location is for me to get rid of the sky entirely and bring some beautiful spring green foliage into the background. Background with any wildlife photograph is absolutely crucial. This one thing will make or break your image. To do this though, I need to get myself up about another 10 feet into the air. Doing so will bring the forest up into the composition and allow me to work this nesting cavity from multiple angles and keep the viewer’s eye locked in on what is actually important – the birds.

In order to accomplish this I will need to erect a blind on top of my Suburban. Some 2x4s lashed to the roof rack with plywood attached accordingly should do the trick for a shooting platform. My plan from there is to fashion a quick blind out of thin PVC piping with earth tone or camo cloth attached to it. Obviously I am not planning on blending in here by any means. The point of the blind is simply to conceal movement on my part and help put the birds at ease. No one wants images of birds scared half to death by some crazy bearded man standing on the roof of his truck with a giant lens aimed at them. I need natural behavior. Sure, the truck and structure is going to stand out to the birds. They will most likely be quite cautious of it at first. But given an hour or two, these birds typically acclimate to such things – given me and my movements are concealed – and will return back to normal.

Other options if given the right location would have included a simply climbing stand used by deer hunters to shimmy up a nearby tree, or a tower stand with a blind ontop of it – the kind you see sitting out in the middle or the edge of fields. The location of this cavity will not allow for either of these and therefore this appears to be the best option available – all things considered.

I’m sure more than one of you are thinking – oh man, I hope he posts pictures of the blind. Don’t worry, I will!

This entry was posted in Projects.