The New York Botanical Garden, May 5, 2012
While leading my weekly bird walk at The New York Botanical Garden I observed a large woodpecker fly by me. I was able to see its wings with black feathers and white markings. My first and only thought was Pileated Woodpecker.
After leading bird walks at NYBG for 27 years the one bird that always remained elusive was the Pileated Woopecker. Although they are common just miles north not many birds have ever been spotted south of Westchester County. After careful research I have discovered males wander during the month of April presumably for new territory. On May 5th I had what I hoped was a Pileated- the first for NYBG.
My bird tour was walking slightly ahead of me as I back tracked slightly to see if I could relocate the bird. It was flying fast and I didn't think it landed anywhere close by. With the early leaf out because of the warm weather I was hoping it hadn't dissapeared into a leafy tree, or the back of a branch. I picked up my binoculars and scanned the forest. The day was overcast with deep clouds and threatening rain. I looked into the horizon and quickly spotted a large silhouette in a big tree in the far distance. I focused in and immediately saw the red crest. My heart skipped a beat! Pileated Woodpecker! While my heart was racing my brain said take a picture. I raised my camera with the 400mm lenses and got off one shot before it flew. It was only seconds between spotting the bird, finding it and getting it, but I felt like I was moving in slow motion. As the bird flew I came back to reality and started to yell to my tour "Pileated, Pileated" as it flew over their heads. I came running to the group and was happy to learn that many of the birders had seen it and two birders said they saw a second bird flying in a different direction.
Ornithologist and New York State bird compiler John Bull states in his book, "Bull's Birds of New York State," that a Pileated Woodpecker was spotted in Bronx Park by George Komorowski in April 1939. Could Bronx Park, which is very close to NYBG, be one and the same? An email from noted birder P. A. Buckley confirmed my suspicions and even added more meaning to my sighting. Mr. Buckley commented,
"Ah. That jogs the memory. That was the one I was trying to remember. George Komorowski was an early mentor of mine and I was birding with him a lot in Van Cortlandt Park, Jerome Reservoir, Hillview Reservoir, Bronx Park, and Pelham Bay Park --- from 1950 to 1955 or so. He was the one who had told me about his 1939 record.
At that time birders never, ever, called the Botanical Gardens anything but 'Bronx Park,' in contradistinction to 'the Zoo.' So I am sorry to report you can take it to the bank that his April 1939 Pileated was most assuredly nowhere else but in the Botanical Gardens.
But still --- it took 73 years for the second one to show up, so hats off to you for having found it! In 1939 it was just a wanderer, probably from Grassy Sprain Reservoir where I saw my first in 1953 and where there was a very small (1-2 pair) breeding population. But now they are exploding and your one (or two?) could well be the vanguard of a breeding expansion into New York City."
Old growth forests on the East Coast are not common, yet NYBG has preserved its 50 acre old growth forest since 1895 when the Garden was established. The Garden leaves old snags, dead trees and fallen wood for birds, reptiles, amphibians and forest mammals making it the perfect habitat for the Pileated Woodpecker.
I'm always asked about the great horned owls as I begin my Saturday bird walks. They are always the star of the show, but the definite runner up and understudy is the elusive and fascinating Woody Woodpecker of birds the Pileated Woodpecker. Perhaps it's the fascination we have with the Ivory Billed Woodpecker or the desire to see a bird so closely related to another woodpecker so shrouded in mystery - but, nevertheless, sighting the Pileated at NYBG after a 73 year absence is certainly a feather in our cap!
Follow - up:
On May 6th I returned to NYBG to search for the PW. I was accompanied by 6 birders. We heard it drumming, but could not relocate it.
On May 12, 2012, at 7:27 PM, "P.A. BUCKLEY"
Glad to hear the Pileated was still around today, and that it was drumming. That makes it almost certainly a male, and probably a yearling. >> >> I managed to get into Bronx Park in Wednesday just as the rain stopped, and although it took me a good hour, I finally found the utterly silent Pileated in the large tree area near the green-circled # 2 on the BYBG map, although I was never able to get a clear look at its forehead. Now if only he can attract a mate.