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As I ventured through the mature forest, I heard the loud “tap, tap, tap” I had hoped to hear.
Then, the ghost called its shrill, eerie cry, “keek, keek, keek, keek!” As quickly and quietly as I could, I weaved between large oaks, maples and hickories toward the sound that resonated only 50 yards in front of me. Finally, I thought, I would get a chance to photograph one of the largest woodpeckers in North America, the Pileated Woodpecker, the ghost of the deep forest, the bird I had been pursuing through the woods for many years. As I covertly crossed a small stream anticipating a view of the large, feathered critter, I slipped on a wet log, and crashed to the ground like a buffalo lying down for the evening. Not exactly the silent approach I was hoping for! I pulled myself up, took a look around me and saw nothing. No bird, no sound of the bird, not even a feather. Actually, I think I scared off every living thing within a ˝ mile radius of me. Once again, the bird had eluded me. The only evidence of its presence was a large, oval-shaped hole in a fallen log, surrounded by fresh wood chips everywhere. Just like that, the ghost had disappeared into the trees. I missed it again.
The Pileated woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in North America, except for the very rare (possibly extinct) Ivory-billed woodpecker. It’s as large as a crow with striking black, white and red colors. Its vocalization and drumming on trees can be heard from several hundred yards away. Their habit of pecking large holes into trees in search of insect larvae, and their favorite food, Carpenter Ants, is very well known. The cavities they leave behind may be used by many other animals, such as owls, other woodpecker species, bats, squirrels and even raccoons if the holes become large enough. In early spring, males will use their large bills to tap on dead trees, called drumming, to attract a mate. If his noise-making is successful, he’ll continue boring out a hole to be used as a nesting site. The Pileated Woodpecker has also made its way into the world of animation, becoming a famous cartoon character.
In 1940 Walter Lantz created the laughable character of Woody Woodpecker. Although Woody was supposedly created based on the Acorn Woodpecker species, his physical appearance and famous laugh are more closely associated with the Pileated Woodpecker. But it was an actual Pileated Woodpecker that got the last laugh at my expense on a trip to the Florida Everglades in 1998.
Arriving early at a conference for work, I took an extra day and headed to Flamingo, the southernmost part of Everglades National Park. After grabbing a sandwich and a bag of chips for lunch, I settled down at a picnic table overlooking Florida Bay to eat my food. Other than a few egrets wading in the shallows nearby, I didn’t notice any other people or wildlife in the area. I had forgotten my water bottle, so I turned and walked back to the car, only 50 feet away to retrieve it. When I returned, I found my sandwich torn apart and most of it missing. I had only been away from the table for 3 or 4 minutes. Where did it go? I looked all around the picnic grove and saw nothing. What could have taken my sandwich in just a few minutes? The answer appeared when I decided to repeat my actions again-except this time I kept watch on the table as I walked back toward the car. To my surprise, a large Pileated Woodpecker flew down from the top of one of the many palm trees and grabbed the remains of my turkey sandwich. Like a starving mad man, I ran toward the bold bird yelling like a banshee. “Woody” flew back into the palm and proceeded to gobble down the rest of my lunch. I even noticed some mayonnaise on its beak as it looked down at me. I was not happy. It was hot, the mosquitos were starting to bite me, and my turkey sandwich had become a woodpecker’s appetizer. So, with only a few dollars left in my pocket I headed back across the parking lot to buy another sandwich when it suddenly dawned on me-I forgot to grab my Doritos! I left them on the bench I was sitting on. Sure enough, gliding down from its perch above my table, Mr. Pileated decided to top off his sandwich with my chips-bag and all! I pretty sure I heard his famous “laughing call” as he flew away. I pivoted, scurried to my car and left the Florida Everglades! The ghost had struck again, and I never even snapped a single picture. Maybe I was just afraid he would take off with my camera as well!