Each and every spring, one of my first goals is to hunt down a handful of woodpecker nests. Just the simple act of locating these active cavities is a great experience. This is going to force you to explore. It’s going to force you to get some dirt on your boots. And I really can’t think of anything that we need more after a long winter than to get out, and become totally immersed in the sensory overload of spring.
Woodpeckers are what we like to call ecological engineers. These birds work tirelessly to improve the quality of a forest ecosystem. It doesn’t matter what species of woodpecker we are talking about, they all serve a significant role in their world. The pileated woodpecker for instance has nearly 30 other species of wildlife that are dependent upon their existence in the ecosystem for their own survival. The red-cockaded woodpecker has even more “dependents” if you will.
Then there is the northern flicker, quite possibly the most common woodpecker across North America and therefore creating homes for secondary cavity nesters from sea to shining sea. Some species such as the bufflehead, researcher believe, has evolved to be one of the smallest species of waterfowl in North America specifically so that it can utilize the nesting cavities of northern flickers.
Think about it this way: every single species of bird out there that nests in cavities, bird boxes, or some sort of hole are dependent upon the existence of woodpeckers. From building homes for a significant number of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects, to recycling dead and dying trees back into the nutrient cycle of the forest, woodpeckers are a significant keystone species in our country. So much so that I feel like the name woodpecker is a bit insulting really and prefer the name that people all across the Spanish speaking parts of the Western Hemisphere have given these little ecological engineers: carpenteros.
If you want to find woodpeckers to photograph, you have to find dead standing trees. This is a prerequisite for good woodpecker activity unless you are searching for red cockaded woodpeckers which nest in old growth long leaf pine trees. Everyone else however prefers dead trees.
Now the size of the woodpecker that you are after is going to play a big role in their frequency in the area. So a species like a pileated, which is the largest of our woodpeckers since the ivory bill was deforested out of existence, will be few and far between. Being that they are so large, they need more food and therefore more territory to find that food. Smaller species such as the hairy or downy woodpeckers are going to be quite common, but their nesting cavities are going to be significantly more difficult to find because the holes and the locations of their holes will be difficult to spot.
Most woodpecker cavities are going to be located in such a way that they are angled down somewhat. This helps to keep the rain out. So if you have a tree that has a slight angle to it, check the side of the tree that has the downward facing angle.
Once you start looking for these nesting cavities, you will know you are in the right place when you start to see holes all over the place. Most woodpeckers do not reuse their nesting cavities each year and instead prefer to excavate a new one each spring. They do however, often times have an affinity for a certain area and there will leave behind numerous holes all over the place from the preceding years. The more holes you find, the more likely you have found a place with a lot of woodpecker activity.
Now each one of these cavities in the trees may harbor some sort of wildlife. From blue birds to fly catchers, buffleheads to wood ducks, remember that there are a significant number of birds and small mammals that depend upon these cavities for survival. But for the woodpeckers themselves, you will need to look for the fresh cavities. Sometimes this can be difficult to discern. However, most woodpeckers of any size (pileated, red cockaded, flicker, red belly, etc.) will have what I like to call a front porch that I look for which will give their location away. This so called front porch area where you would see a woodpecker perched at the entrance to the cavity leaning inside the hole. Because of the amount of activity right there in this one exact spot be it for excavating the cavity or for feeding chicks, the wood will be light brown and very fresh looking.
For me, the way in which I find woodpecker cavities is split 50/50 between sight and sound. Use your ears when you are out looking for nesting cavities. From the slow but steady chop, chop, chop of a bird excavating (the rapid beat of woodpecker with its bill on a tree or limb is a territorial display and not the sound of one at a nest), to the subtle chirps, hums, or even buzzing sounds made by their chicks (pileated woodpecker chicks sound hum like a wasp nest as a means of deterring would be nest raiders).
For those who live in the western mountains, good stands of forest for nesting woodpeckers can be few and far between. This means that in the Rocky Mountains for instance they pretty much concentrate on cottonwood and aspen trees. Aspens are without a doubt the best tree in North America for cavity nesters because of the soft nature of the wood. So find a stand of aspens and take a walk through it looking for dead trees and you will find woodpecker cavities along with a grocery list of other species using old nests.
Back east there are a lot more variables when it comes to finding these nests. I find that areas around wetlands or swamps tend to have significantly higher concentrations of woodpeckers than other places – probably because of the higher number of suitable trees for excavating cavities and the better environment for their food sources (insects). With that said though, the majority of the woodpeckers I have photographed in the east have NOT been around wetlands. This probably has more to do with the fact that it was easier for me to set up in such a way to photograph them when not surrounded by water.
Finding these birds is simple enough. You just have to get out and look. Find the dead trees. Take a slow and quiet walk around the trees. As soon as you spot a potential cavity, keep your eye on it as you approach since quite often a bird inside will stick its head out and watch you till you get close.