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Woodpecker Watching in East Texas

Updated on June 25, 2015
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Woodpecker Watching

Female Downy Woodpecker at My Feeder
Female Downy Woodpecker at My Feeder | Source

Woodpecker Watching

This time of year, before the migrants return, I have a great time watching woodpeckers. My end of Houston Texas includes the meandering San Jacinto River and mixed deciduous-coniferous woodlands, so I have lots of woodpeckers year round.

Woodpeckers as a group specialize at foraging on trees. They have two toes that point forward and two pointing backward that make holding the sides of trees easier. They use their tails to brace against as they make short leaps, hitching their way up and down a tree.

These birds have a brush-tipped tongue that lets them pull up sap and insects easily. Most all woodpeckers eat both insects and berries. In my area, I see woodpeckers gathering Youpon Holly berries, hawthorn and blackberries. At the feeder, they like sunflower seeds, nuts, oranges and apples. Woodpeckers will store food in cashes during the fall, either in tree cavities or in holes bored into trees and fence posts.

Woodpeckers don’t actually sing, but their drumming on trees achieves the same effect. Their calls locate individuals in dense forests and warn off competitors. Woodpeckers can live from 6 to 12 years of age.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

I think the first woodpecker to come to my attention after moving in was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that had claimed a Sweetgum tree in the front yard. The vast series of sapwells attested to this bird’s love for Sweetgum sap. A few years ago, I called in a tree service to clean up the Mimosa in the back yard. Within an hour of their departure, the Sapsucker was there lapping up what he could from the cuts.

The males have red crowns and red under the bill. The females have the red crowns and a white patch under the bill. Their back and wings are striped black and white with a long strip of white along the wing.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Pictured on a Sweetgum tree.  The bark is mined with sapwells.
Pictured on a Sweetgum tree. The bark is mined with sapwells. | Source

Sapsuckers Feed Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds dip into Yellow-bellied Sapsucker sapwells too. According to Cornell Labs, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that range into Canada rely so much on these sapwells that they time their spring migration with the arrival of sapsuckers.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

These black and white striped birds wander in and out and come to the feeder for nuts. The red strip over the crown of their heads is the main identifying mark. The red belly is rarely in view, so not much of a help. The females also have red on their heads, but it doesn’t extend are far in the front, as you see in the picture below.

When ready to nest a male Red-belly will begin boring out a cavity. He will tap, make calls and taps on the wood around the cavity again trying to attract a female. When a female comes, and if she accepts the site, she will tap on the wood with him and then help finish the nest. The next year’s nest may be placed on the same tree under the first.

Woodpecker Fledgling

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker Hunting
Female Red-bellied Woodpecker Hunting | Source
Possibly a Red-bellied Woodpecker fledgling coming to the feeder for nuts.
Possibly a Red-bellied Woodpecker fledgling coming to the feeder for nuts. | Source

Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers

These two masked birds are very close in appearance. The males of both species have the spot of red at the backs of their white brow stripe. This is a different pattern from the Red-cockaded Woodpecker which doesn’t have the black strip across its eyes. The main difference is that Downys are a bit smaller and Hairys have a longer bill.

They appear to be partners of the forest as they forage on similar things. Both came running for the nut and seed wreath, pictured below. They will also come to feeders when you serve nuts. Downys have a division in feeding. The males forage from small branches and weed stems while the females stick to larger branches and trunks. In experiments, the females will go for the smaller branches and weed stems when males are removed, according to Cornell Lab observations.

Hairy Woodpeckers have a habit of following other Woodpeckers for food. They will drink from the sapwells of Sapsuckers, and investigate Pileated Woodpecker excavations for insects the other bird missed.

Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers

Downy Woodpecker making quick work of a nut and seed wreath.
Downy Woodpecker making quick work of a nut and seed wreath. | Source
Hairy Woodpecker checking crevices for insects
Hairy Woodpecker checking crevices for insects | Source

Pileated Woodpecker

This is a less viewed bird, but they wander the woods and are easy to identify by their tall red crest and bark-like calls. Often they call in a loud series like you will hear in the video below. They tend to be shy and won’t sit still for long unless pecking out food from a tree. The female has a dusky forecrown in front of her red crest.

(Update 6/25/15) I finally sighted my first Pileated Woodpecker! Once this March and again in May. Both times they were busy cutting into trees to make nests or dig out insects in Jesse Jones Park. As I said above, they are easy to identify by their red crest, but they blend into the woods surprisingly well. It was his call that finally allowed me to locate him. These birds as well as other woodpeckers make their nests in soft wood trees such as pine or aspen. They never use a cavity twice as the choosing and excavation process is part of their mating ritual. As such, these birds are the home builders of the forest. They make homes for many birds and other animals such as ducks, raptors, owls, squirrels and according to utility pole reports, snakes.

Pileated Woodpecker Calls by Kootenay Nature Photos

Red-headed Woodpecker

This bird is one of my favorites, but it doesn’t come to my feeders. I used to see them regularly when a girl living in Virginia. I hadn’t seen one since leaving that state, until just a few years ago. It dropped out of a large live oak right in front of me during a walk and then quickly flew off for cover. Later, I found a pair’s dinner tree and performed evening stake-outs to see more of them. This January, while walking through Jesse Jones Park, I found a small flock of them moving through oak trees.

Red-Headed Woodpecker

Update - Red-headed Woodpecker  close-up. Many sighted during the winter of 2014.
Update - Red-headed Woodpecker close-up. Many sighted during the winter of 2014. | Source

The Red-headed Woodpecker is the only one with a full red hood. Its body is black and white with white patches on their wings. This pattern gained them nick-names like shirt-tailed bird and flying checker board. The Red-head hammers for bugs in trees like other woodpeckers, but will also snatch up insects on the wing. The rest of their diet is mostly beech nuts and oak acorns.

Woodpeckers Yet to be Found

I haven’t found all the woodpeckers available in this area yet. Still on my to-find list are the Northern Flicker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and the Red-cockaded Woodpecker which is on the endanger list. Since a 2005 sighting, the hunt is on for the possible come back of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. They used to range through the Big Thicket, which once included my area.

Below is a video I found concerning all the woodpeckers of East Texas, concentrating on the search for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. These birds had been considered extinct until a boater videoed one in flight in 2005. It shows rare footage of the bird from the 1930s including a recording of its call.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Chasing a Ghost by Texas Parks and Wildlife

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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