New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ivy League Red-headed Woodpecker and the Largest Woodpecker

      Wednesday, December 11, 2013- Circle Beach, Madison, CT- "After an Eight Month Absence" -  On April 4th of this year, "FC" the adult Kumlien's Iceland Gull that has spent the last two winters at Circle Beach left the Madison/Guilford area: it was the last day I saw him. "FC" (named after the two owners of this private beach) was originally discovered by Nick Bonomo in January of 2011. Last year on December 14, 2012, FC returned to Circle beach. For this year, I have been checking the beach every week since mid-November but I haven't seen him. December 9th, Jen and I stopped by Circle beach, but still no FC! This morning, Jen and I were going to stop by Jen's parent's house in Madison first, and then off to South Meriden to my Mothers house to drop off Christmas cookies that Jen had made. Since Circle Beach is just down the street from Jen's parents house, we needed to check and see if FC was here.

     I was telling Jen, that I was starting to get a little concerned. I was hoping that FC would be coming back again this winter, but there was no way of knowing if that would happen. The beach was quiet with only a handful of Gulls walking along the smooth sand that the dropping tide left behind. I walked out onto the beach with my orange Home Depot bucket, and the Gulls started coming from all directions. When the first handful of catfood spattered on the water, the horde of screaming Gulls dove to the sea like a football team pouncing on a fumbled football! I started looking hard through the mass of spread wings for those obvious white wings as more Gulls descended onto the water. Last winter I became very good finding FC or any other Iceland Gull in the mass of Gulls last winter: I had plenty of practice. But this was eight months later, I was rusty! But just like riding a came back to me almost immediately! I focused very intently on the Gulls and suddenly in the back of the Gulls a pair of white wings appeared- FC was back! This beautiful Iceland Gull had returned!>

      When the kibble was gone and the horde of Gulls scattered, there was FC standing just off the beach.>

     I looked closely to see if this was FC? Or maybe another adult Iceland Gull? FC had very distinct gray primary tip markings.....but this Gull had markings that were much darker, almost black in fact.>

      I wasn't sure at first, but this Gull behaved just as FC did last winter. This Gull appeared to recognize me, and walked very close to me, just as FC did the more he had gotten use to me.>

      After a few minutes, I realized it was FC, although with darker primary markings. It was like meeting an old friend!>

      Seeing FC walking towards me on the beach made Jen very happy......she was thrilled that FC came back!>

     A handsome Gull!>

       After spending a half hour with FC, we had to run to my Mothers house. This also would work out great because last week Nick Bonomo (again) had found two 1st cycle Iceland Gulls at the Stop & Shop in Wallingford. Jen and I shop here often, and since it is near and on the way to my Mother's house, we would be stopping anyway for a few groceries. Of course I would drop Jen off to make a quick run into the store while I searched for the Gulls. Unfortunately, I didn't see one Gull. But I did spot a small kettle of nine Black Vultures just across route 68. They were slowly drifting northeast.>

        After a visit with Mom, and since we were only twenty minutes from New Haven, we decided to drive south on 91 and see if we could find the Red-headed Woodpecker. It had been reported just a few days ago, but nothing since. A month and a half ago, the woodpecker was discovered in a large old tree on the corner of Bradley and Lincoln Streets just a few blocks from the Peabody Museum and Yale.

      I have been by this corner many times over the years going to the Ornithological specimens lab at Peabody....I never would have imagined I would be stopping here to see an uncommon Woodpecker.

     Jen and I first came looking for the Woodpecker nearly a month ago. The weather that day was overcast with a slight drizzle falling>

     When we stopped at the intersection, we started looking around....could this be the right location? That was soon answered when a woman walked by and told us that she lived across the street and hadn't seen the woodpecker in a couple of hours. I pointed at this large, well managed tree that was riddled with woodpecker holes across the intersection and asked if that was the tree that the Woodpecker had been frequenting? She nodded yes and wished us luck!>

      We watched for half an hour; no Woodpecker, but plenty of Squirrels!>

      After taking a few walks up and down the block, we decided to give it fifteen minutes longer before calling it a day.  In just about fourteen minutes and thirty seconds later, Jen pointed up to the top of the tree and said- "There it is, it just flew in!" There at the top of one of the two main upper trunks of this old tree was the juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker.>

     It probed the bark as it slowly walked up the tree. The lighting was very bad, and because of the awkward angle through the branches we could only see the Woodpecker in backlit silhouette. Even with the less than favorable conditions, it was a treat to see this bird, it was our first Red-headed Woodpecker.>

      The Woodpecker scrambled up to the top of the tree, and then took off! The whole encounter lasted about three minutes! Although not a great sighting, we did see and enjoy the bird!>

     Today as we were driving down the Trumbell St. exit off 91, we were soon pulling up to the intersection of Lincoln and Bradley. I said to Jen, I wonder if this bird is going to make us wait again, or even show up at all? I stepped out of our car and before picking up my camera, I looked up, and there it was!>

     But this time is was lower in the tree and was bathed in the soft sun highlighting its soft plumage.>

      With aid from the clear bright sky, the head feathering is beginning to show a few of the emerging red feathers that will soon showcase its brilliant red head.>

      The red feathering is starting to fill in on its upper chest>


           A blink....

     .....and then the Woodpecker grabs a snail from the tree. This is something that I have never seen a Woodpecker do before.

      Then it began to extract the snail from the shell.>

     Good profile view of this unique Woodpecker. This view also highlights the black striping in the white secondaries and tertials>

     A little closer>

     The Woodpecker hammers the bark a few times and emerges with a small grub>

     It flew over to the adjacent branch, but still in good view and in excellent light!>

     It was very interesting to be standing underneath this Woodpecker as it climbed up the trunk of the top of the tree.>

     It soon climbed to the top of the tree, but still in view. I was standing in the gutter in the road taking pictures when I heard a car stop. I looked over to see a pizza delivery man had stopped his car in the middle of the road. He got out of his car and looked up to see what I was looking at. He asked me what was going on, so I pointed to the Woodpecker, and he was excited to see it. He said his wife loves birds and has a few bird feeders in their yard. Then he pulled out his cell phone to call her. During the conversation with her, he gave me his phone and asked me if I would tell her what kind of bird it was which I did. She was very excited about the bird, and told me to tell her husband that she was going to come down to see the Woodpecker. Since his car was stopped in the center of Bradley St. he had to leave being prompted by honking horns from a few (agreeably) inpatient drivers. He said Thanks, and then drove off!>

     I like these two shots of the upside-down Woodpecker searching an old branch scar looking for grubs. I immediately thought that this would make an excellent sculpture!>

    Jen and I watched the Woodpecker for nearly an hour, and we really enjoyed it. When I got home, the encounter with the Woodpecker inspired me....I cut out a blank on the saw and rough-shaped a decoy it in an hour. Now I will have to find the time to finish it!>

     Woodpeckers are really fascinating birds to me. I consider them among my favorites right along with Seabirds, Waterfowl, Gulls, Owls and Nightjars, and on my exotic side: Trogans, Parrots and Toucans. I have carved many Toucan and Tropical Woodpecker decoys because I think they are beautifully unique and the birds themselves are great fun to watch in the rainforest! And since Woodpeckers and Toucans are kin, that is even more exciting to me as an artist and birder.

    A few years ago I was talking with a collector about unique bird species, and one of the species I mentioned to him was the Imperial Woodpecker. This (most likely) extinct Woodpecker was the largest Woodpecker in the World. The conversation continued being fueled by (at the time) the possibility of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker being re-discovered in a Nature Preserve in Arkansas. The Imperial Woodpecker
(Campephilus imperialis) is one of a dozen woodpeckers in the Campephilus family which also includes the (most likely) extinct Ivory-billed (Campephilus principalis) and the thriving Pale-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus guatemalensis) of Central America. These three Woodpeckers do share one characteristic; their feet. Campephilus have extremely large feet and propel themselves up a tree differently than other Woodpeckers. Most Woodpeckers climb up a tree with their legs held under their bodies. Campephilus Woodpeckers' large legs and feet are angled outward from their bodies; they actually hug the tree to "walk" up the tree. The term Campephilus means "lover of grubs".

     I read a few articles about the Imperial Woodpecker and then purchased a book from Buteo Books entitled "A Tale of Two Woodpeckers- the Ivory-billed and Imperial". Reading this book began my quest for more understanding of this magnificent species. This book did quench my thirst a bit, but I needed to feel and comprehend this bird and its unfortunate fate. When I carve a bird, the process of creating that bird from wood, paint and my inspired passion help bring me much closer to that bird whether I have experienced that bird or not. When I carved my Northern Carmine Bee Eater I had never been to Africa to experience that species....but I could! If I wanted to, I could travel there to see and absorb every aspect of that species including its environment, its my choice.

      But not with the Imperial Woodpecker! The absolute best that I could hope for was a really compelling book! When Tim Gallagher's new book "Imperial Dreams" debuted on the market, I immediately ordered my copy from When the box arrived, I quickly opened it and began reading the book. By the second night, I had read it cover to cover. Wow....this book is powerfully intriguing!

     The Imperial Woodpecker disappeared in the early 1950's. A few years ago, a short 80 second film clip surfaced of a female Imperial Woodpecker in the Sierra Madre Occidentale in Durango. Mexico. The film as shot in 1956 (the year I was born) by  Pennsylvania dentist and amateur Ornithologist William Rhein. Dr. Rhein went to the Sierra Madre in Mexico to specifically film and record the sounds of the Imperial Woodpecker. He went there in 1953, 54 and 56 and finally succeeded in 1956. He shot the only known footage in existence of the Imperial Woodpecker, a female, with a handheld 16 mm movie camera from the back of his mule.   He never succeeded in obtaining any sound  recordings of the Woodpecker, but his film footage is historic!

    Over the past few decades, stray sightings of this Woodpecker have been reported by the people who live in the mountains. Maybe, just maybe a few birds are just barely hanging on....finding a small hidden area of the mountains where they are not being harassed or killed?  But, (if) a few of these birds are still clinging to existence.....could anyone get to the area in the mountains that is/was the home of this Woodpecker?

    In this book, Tim Gallagher travels deep into the mountains of the Sierra Madre following in the same footsteps of many famous Naturalists before him questing for this Grand Woodpecker!  This once undisturbed land rich in history from the Apaches refusing to surrender with Geronimo, the million acre ranch of William Randolph Hearst which was looted by Pancho Villa, is now ruled by drug lords, kidnappers and thieves. Gallagher had terrifying encounters with drug traffickers heavily armed with AK-47s, walked into opium and marijuana fields, saw burned and burning villages and met many villagers fleeing the area.

     What started out as a noble quest to find a needle in a field of haystacks (or a missing jewel in the endless mountain range) turns in to a quest of survival in one of the most dangerous environments in the World!

     This was an amazing read!  The author was spurred on by the hope that this spectacular bird might still exist and possibly be saved if only someone would travel through the mountains, talk to the people, follow-up on leads, and hopefully find a nesting pair! Mr. Gallagher travels deep into the isolated mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidentale and carries with him a treasure map dotted with sightings of the Imperial Woodpecker entrusted to him by a friend on his deathbed. What happens then?......Well, you will have to read this great book!

     When I saw this book after opening the box, besides my overwhelming desire to read it, I also was immediately inspired by the cover. I just had to carve this male Imperial! The first thought that came to my mind was a miniature realistic carving of this magnificent Woodpecker....maybe a third size? This carving is a purely inspired spec piece. So I made a sketch/pattern about seven inches long.>

     I went to my wood room, selected a clean piece of Holly wood and cut the head and body out on my band saw.>

       Two hours later....I had a rough shaped male Imperial Woodpecker!>

    One of the unique features that I like to include in all of my sculptures is incorporating wood from the bird's geographical location. A few years ago I started researching the pine tree species from the Sierra Madre Occidentale and the most common species being Apache Pine (Pinus engelmannii), Chihuahia Pine (Pinus leoiphylla), Mexican Cypress (Cupressus lusitanica) and Arizona Cypress (Cupressus arizonica). I knew I didn't have the Pine or Mexican Cypress in my wood inventory, but I did have plenty of Arizona Cypress. I bought a few large billets a few years ago because someday I will be carving a life-sized pair of Imperial Woodpeckers! This miniature would certainly help make me familiar with the birds when that time came. For now, I added a small piece of the Arizona cypress to complete the trunk of the tree this male Imperial is perched on.>

    At a future date when this Woodpecker is completed, I will feature a step-by-step demonstration on my blog starting from its inception to the completed bird sculpture. For now, I added a few images of the process. Here the bird is completely rough-shaped and I am beginning to draw the feather layout>

     With the feathers located and drawn....I begin delineating the feathers with a small sharp-edged tool>

       When the bird is completely carved, I start adding the fine feather barb detail with my wood burning tips>

      Completely carved and detailed Woodpecker. Now I will carve the legs and feet and complete the base, then start painting it>

     Carving this miniature started me thinking about the pair of life-sized Imperial Woodpeckers again. In fact one of my private classes decided they wanted to carve a pair for their next years project. So that really lit a creative fire under me. When I do a sculpture of a realistic bird, it is essential that I have every measurement of the bird at hand to make sure the bird is recreated accurately. If it is a species that can be legally obtained, it makes this aspect much easier than a bird that is not legal to possess. But what if the bird is extinct!! That creates a whole new problem. Bird species that are not legal to possess are usually found in Museum collections such as Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History. I have been very fortunate to have been able to visit the Museums collection for many years for my research and studies. The Peabody has one of the largest skin collections in the country, but did they have Imperial Woodpeckers? A quick search of their website gave me the answer....yes, and five of them!

     I contacted the Collections Manager Kristof Zyskowski and made arrangements for a quick visit to the collections room. I like to keep my visits very short, usually an hour so I don't interrupt their work. I am very grateful and thankful for this great opportunity to visit the collection.....without this opportunity, my realistic bird carving would be severely limited to fewer species.

     When I greeted Kristof, I was led into the collections room. He pulled out two of the long specimen drawers.....and a huge sigh came over me. I was obviously overwhelmed with what was laying before me in the drawers. I couldn't believe that I was staring at five Imperial Woodpeckers... a bird that one time existed on this earth and is no longer here....just these few skin specimens remain! I was overcome with a large dose of humility as the reality of the moment began to penetrate into my soul. I stared in silence for a few moments as Kristof attended to other matters. To add to my silent respectful homage, the second drawer also contained a pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers giving me a double dose of reality. I know a small tear appeared in the corner of my right eye.....I was really overwhelmed by the moment.

     Kristof had spread out white acid-free paper in the small specimen tray I would use to transport the birds from the drawer to the acid-free paper on top of the specimen table. He had handed me a pair of exam gloves, and before I knew it, I was holding a male Imperial Woodpecker in my hands! I still can't explain the emotion that I was feeling at the time! But I can tell you to be carefully holding a bird specimen in my hands that doesn't fly in this World anymore was very humbling. I still to this day can't even comprehend just seems surreal to me.

     After I carefully made all the appropriate measurements, species notes and flash-free photos, I carefully returned the birds to the drawers. I slowly closed the drawers just to get that one last look as the birds once again went back int the darkness. This short experience was one of the most powerfully profound avian moment of my life; and a true artist's revelation!

     These next five images of the Imperial Woodpeckers were taken by me and used here on my blog with the permission of and with the courtesy of Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History with my most humble gratitude>

     On the drive home, all I could think about was being so blessed to be able to see and hold those Imperial specimens. Now with the fresh experience in my mind, and all those measurements on paper, I had to carve a full sized Imperial Woodpecker. I know I didn't have time in my schedule to start a realistic sculpture, but I did have time to carve a decoy! Although the drake's long red crest and black and white plumage was exceptionally striking, that curly crest of the female was really interesting. I had never carved anything like that before; it was inspiring. I started sketching out the heads of male and female to this Raven-sized Woodpecker, and I kept looking at the curled crest of the female>

     From the measurements of the Imperial Woodpecker skins, I drew this hen head including the top view of the bill>

    I couldn't wait to get to my band saw and start cutting. I selected a nice soft piece of Louisiana Tupelo wood from from my prime inventory. Tupelo is a wonderful wood to carve: nice and stable, and can be relatively grain-free. However, it isn't very strong, especially when you bisect the grain in this case the curled crest. I chose a piece of strong Holly and inserted the block for the crest in the head blank>

     The large body of the Woodpecker is cut out...first the side view.....

     .......than the top view>

    With the band saw table tilted to 45 degrees, I started removing thin crescents of wood from the sides of the blank to start shaping the body of the Woodpecker>

     The body is then worked on my pneumatic sanding drum to smooth out the band saw cuts forming a general rounded shape to the Woodpeckers body>

     With the body basically rounded, it was time to go back to the head. The Holly crest block was glued in place with marine epoxy>

     When the epoxy has cured, I start rough carving the basic shape of the female Woodpeckers head>

     With the head roughly shaped, and the wings, scapulars and mantle carved on the body, I pinned and glued the head to the body. The Woodpecker is basically shaped at this point>

     With the Woodpecker shaped.......

 was time to finish carving the decoy by sharpening the edges of the wings and feather groups on the body, carve the individual feathers and bill detail, add the eyes and make eye lids. Before I finish sanding all the carving areas of the decoy, I replaced the last two/thirds of the bill with Holly to strengthen that bill.

     Each Woodpecker decoy I make has a small wire clip with hook that fits into a hole in the belly of the decoy and then attaches to the bark of the tree. This wire hook/clip holds the decoy to the trunk of the tree. But seeing that this is a very large decoy, I wanted to add another feature that would help hold the decoy in position on the tree. I removed a small section of the tail and inserted a piece of wood called Mexican Zapote (Manilkara bidentata). It is also called bulletwood in Central America because I was told if you shoot the tree with a gun, the bullet won't penetrate into the wood.

    Because this wood is so strong, I would be able to carve the tips of the tail feathers in points (like a sawtooth) which would also mesh with the bark adding extra "grip" on the tree.

     When all these steps were completed, I sealed the decoy with two coats of clear lacquer.>

     With the decoy sealed, I primed and pre-painted the decoy with flat oil paint>

      The finish oil painting starts with the tail. Each feather is blended using several values and shades of the gray, gray/brown and black>

     When the tail and last few primaries completed with black, I started painting the white primaries and tertials using many values of white including softer tan shadows and simulated ripples in the feathers>

     The painting continued with the wing coverts and scapulars>

     Now the mantle including a simple blend where the white edging of the mantle meets the black areas>

     The head and bill are painted next, I added a few highlights of soft violet values to add a sense iridescence to the head>

     When the decoy dried overnight, I finished with fine details of the white mantle and also edge splits in all the feathering.>

    The painting is completed>

     The finished female Imperial Woodpecker decoy>

      A small Gallery of Woodpeckers and Woodpecker Carvings-  In Costa Rica, Jen and I saw many Pale-billed Woodpeckers....they are the close cousin (three Campephilus woodpeckers) of the Ivory-billed and the Imperial Woodpeckers. Here is a female>

     And a Male>

     The female>

     Here is a pair of Pale-billed Woodpecker decoys I made and took with us to Costa Rica. Here they are hanging in a Theobroma cacao tree (Chocolate) in a small Cacao plantation at the La Tirimbina Rainforst Reserve in La Virgin, near the town of Puerto Viejo de Saripiqui on the lowland Caribbean slopes>

     This is a commission that I am currently working on of a life-sized realistic Pale-billed Woodpecker. The supporting wood compliment is made from Almendro tree (Dipteryx panamensis) which is found along the Rio Saripiqui in Costa Rica one of the places Jen and I saw this species>

       Another large Woodpecker, the Pileated>

      A carving I made last year, here in the roughing-out stage......

      .....and here completed.>

      And to complete the Gallery, this Acorn Woodpecker male from the highland cloud forest at the Savegre Lodge in San Gerado de Dota, Costa Rica.>

                                   Female Acorn Woodpecker>

             I also made a pair of Acorn Woodpeckers and brought them with us to Costa Rica. They were made for and are now in the collection of Marino Chacon>

    Keith Mueller
    Killingworth, CT