Red-headed Woodpecker Winter

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

It must be a good year for American beech nuts in the local forests, or at least at the Bucktoe Creek Preserve.  There is an old saying…”No mast, no Red-heads”.  This means that if not many beech nuts and acorns grew this year, Red-headed Woodpeckers aren’t much interested in sticking around for the winter.  In the north, they almost exclusively winter in over-mature forest with lots of snags, dead branches with cavities, and big trees like oaks and beeches that produce a lot of nuts.

Last fall, Larry Lewis and Kathleen Pileggi, bird walk leaders at the preserve, discovered two Red-headed Woodpeckers that seemed to be setting up winter territories there.  What is so special about that?  Red-headed Woodpeckers are very rare in northern Delaware and southeastern PA at any time of year, and we are a bit north of their normal wintering range.  Breeding and wintering Red-heads are only found sporadically in the area.  Having two Red-headed Woodpeckers wintering within a few hundred yards from one another was a special find.

A stunning Red-headed Woodpecker is spending the winter at Bucktoe Creek Preserve. Photo by Hank Davis.

In October, the birds were first noticed by Larry and Kathleen.  The birds were observed storing nuts (caching), in crevices in trees.  This is their winter food supply, and told us that the birds were setting up shop for the season.  Both of the birds were immature, and had limited red on the head.

This woodpecker has slowly been molting from a brown and white juvenile into the red-headed, white and black plumage of the adult. Photo by Hank Davis

In December, one of the birds went missing.  It was hoped that the bird would resurface, since it was almost always found in the same few acres of mature beech forest.  This did not happen, so the bird either moved on or died.  There is a Cooper’s Hawk that frequents the area, and it might be the culprit…they eat birds!

The second Red-headed Woodpecker is still being seen, as of this past Monday.  It has turned from brown and white, into a rather good looking, red-headed, semi-adult bird.  It is almost always seen in the same location, and the habitat is mature forest with big beech trees.

Red-headed Woodpecker is a very rare sight in northern Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania at any time of year. They used to be fairly common, but have disappeared from most areas. In southern Delaware, there is a small breeding population that is hanging on. As a wintering bird, this is a rare and hard to find species that requires overly-mature forest with beech and oak trees that have produced lots of nuts. Photo by Hank Davis

Bucktoe Creek Preserve is a privately-owned 300-acre preserve located near Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.  Every Sunday and Monday at 8am, the Delaware Nature Society holds a free bird walk, led by an expert birder.  Larry and Kathleen are leading the walks the first two Sundays and Mondays in February.  Come see the Red-headed Woodpecker for yourself, and look for other surprises as well!

For another birding idea, participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count February 17-20 to get outside and contribute to science while having some fun in your yard, local park, nature reserve, or wherever you want to look for birds.  The Delaware Nature Society is participating by hosting a Breakfast and Great Backyard Bird Count with a walk around Ashland or Coverdale Farm Preserve to find birds for the count.  Sign up or get more information here.

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