Yesterday at a local nature center I found this Pileated Woodpecker performing some major excavation work on a partially dead tree. The bird was using its bill like a chisel to strip off huge swathes of bark. It had already uncovered the bare area to the right and was working its way clockwise around the tree. It would hammer on a section and then nimbly hop away just as a slab of bark separated from the tree and fell to the ground. I was hoping to catch one of these more dramatic moments, but had to settle for the fine-tuning it’s doing here.

red-bellied woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker, © 2016 S. D. Stewart

Red-bellied Woodpecker

field report: woodpecker redux

Recent intelligence gathering indicated the presence of a group of likely overwintering red-headed woodpeckers, including two adults, at another park in the area so I went to investigate. Again I found them immediately, as they were actively foraging and calling frequently. Their ‘rattle’ call is quite distinctive and often precedes a visual ID. Lighting was more favorable today, so here are a few photos accompanying a report on my findings.

Adult Red-headed Woodpecker at North Point State Park, © 2015 S. D. Stewart

Adult Red-headed Woodpecker strikes the classic woodpecker pose at Black Marsh, North Point State Park.

Adult Red-headed Woodpecker at North Point State Park, © 2015 S. D. Stewart

Adult Red-headed Woodpecker at Black Marsh, North Point State Park.

Adult Red-headed Woodpecker at North Point State Park, © 2015 S. D. Stewart

Adult Red-headed Woodpecker at Black Marsh, North Point State Park.

Red-headed Woodpecker at North Point State Park, © 2015 S. D. Stewart

An immature Red-headed Woodpecker glares at the photographer, North Point State Park.

After spending way too much time attempting to photograph the woodpeckers I continued on from the Black Marsh Wildlands into the rest of the park. First I took the Powerhouse Trail.

Powerhouse Trail at North Point State Park, © 2015 S. D. Stewart

Powerhouse Trail at North Point State Park.

Rising up out of the woods before me came the trail’s namesake…

Powerhouse at North Point State Park, © 2015 S. D. Stewart

Powerhouse at North Point State Park.

Powerhouse at North Point State Park, © 2015 S. D. Stewart

Powerhouse at North Point State Park.

The property that is now North Point State Park was formerly a local attraction known as the Bay Shore Amusement Park during the first half of the 20th Century, and there was streetcar service extending to the park from the city (extremely hard to imagine today in this rabidly car-centric region). This concrete monolith provided power to the streetcars. Now it serves as an informal art gallery for graffiti artists:

Powerhouse at North Point State Park, © 2015 S. D. Stewart

Inside the powerhouse at North Point State Park: ‘Find the roots of everything.’

After leaving the powerhouse I took a spur trail to gaze upon the Chesapeake Bay.

Chesapeake Bay from North Point State Park, © 2015 S. D. Stewart

Chesapeake Bay from overlook at North Point State Park.

Friendly people had left sand art on the beach.

Sand art at North Point State Park, © 2015 S. D. Stewart

Friendly people were here…

After scanning the Bay for waterfowl and only finding a few bufflehead and a single double-crested cormorant, I left the park and drove farther down the peninsula to where it dead ends at Fort Howard, the former coastal artillery headquarters for Baltimore. Fort Howard has a rich military history, which I will not go into here but you can certainly read about it to your heart’s content elsewhere on the internet. The park is rather bedraggled and largely unused, likely due to its remote location. But there are some nice spots. Of course I only photographed the horrible ones because that’s just how I am.

Brandon Shores Generating Station, © 2015 S. D. Stewart

The Brandon Shores Generating Station, viewed from Fort Howard. A 2011 NRDC report based on EPA data described it as releasing the second highest amount of toxic air pollutants annually in the U.S.

Despite the glaring lack of visitors, there are more picnic tables and trash cans at Fort Howard than I’ve seen at any other park. I was curious about the trailer in the photo below but simultaneously afraid so I chose not to get any closer. I thought if I called the number someone might be willing to divulge the contents but then this person would have my phone number. So I didn’t call. I find that life is an ongoing process of weighing the pros and cons of situations like this.

Fort Howard Park, © 2015 S. D. Stewart

Scenic picnic area where I chose not to consume my lunch. (Note: if you call the number please leave a comment below.)

After passing the scenic picnic area I came upon this:

Fort Howard Park, © 2015 S. D. Stewart


Again, I wasn’t sure what to do here. Were they keeping women locked inside or barring them from entry. I couldn’t tell, but I didn’t hear any cries for help and without bolt cutters there was not much I could have done. So I left. No doubt this decision will haunt me for quite some time…

red-headed woodpecker

Red-headed woodpeckers are uncommon to rare in my area and declining in general throughout their range due to habitat loss and changes in availability of their food supply (primarily tree nuts). However, over the past few years they have become more prevalent around here as an overwintering species. A handful of them now typically show up each winter, scattered around the region. Earlier this week one was seen at a local park, in the same exact spot where another one had spent the winter a few years ago. The interesting thing is that both birds were immature birds, meaning they could not have been the same individual. So, somehow this second bird found this same spot, and chose to use what I’m pretty sure is the same tree for food caching. I went over to the park today and immediately found the bird, after running into a fellow birder who had just seen it. The sky was overcast, so the photos didn’t come out that great, but here are a few nonetheless. Once the bird finishes molting into its adult plumage it will have a bright red head and solid white patches on its wings, instead of the brownish head and black-spotted white patches seen here. In the last photo there are a few red feathers visible in the throat/upper breast.

Red-headed Woodpecker © 2015 S. D. Stewart

Red-headed Woodpecker (immature)

Red-headed Woodpecker © 2015 S. D. Stewart

Red-headed Woodpecker (immature)

Red-headed Woodpecker © 2015 S. D. Stewart

Red-headed Woodpecker (immature)

Red-headed Woodpecker © 2015 S. D. Stewart

Red-headed Woodpecker (immature)

yellow-bellied sapsuckers

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, © 2015 S. D. Stewart

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – immature male, indicated by red feathers beginning to show in throat


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – adult male seen in backyard through otherworldly mist

good omens for a rainy day

Woke with a heavy heart and the universe responded. Two morning omens visited to provide a lift:

1. Downy Woodpecker on the deck.

2. Ben on his bike.

That is all.

sparrow dreams

Yesterday I decided to go birding this morning at Irvine Nature Center, because there had been reports of Red-headed Woodpeckers seen and heard there recently. I’ve only seen one once before, and it was only a brief glimpse. Then last night I dreamt that I saw a Fox Sparrow while out birding. The Fox Sparrow is my favorite of the “winter” sparrows in this area, and I hadn’t yet seen one this year. So today I was hoping that even if I didn’t see a Red-headed Woodpecker, I would at least get a Fox Sparrow as a consolation prize.  Well, I did!  I found one scratching around up along a ridge. I also kept hearing a Brown Creeper (another favorite) calling shortly afterward, but never could locate it. There were plenty of other woodpeckers about, and many Dark-eyed Juncos. I ran into some other birders who were also out looking for the Red-headed Woodpeckers. We exchanged birding pleasantries, and then I headed back to the parking lot, not completely satisfied, but satisfied enough.


Em El and I took some much-needed vacation time last week. Part of our journey included a return trip (for me) to one of my favorite places in the South: the Congaree National Park. This park protects the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest on the continent. The average canopy height of the trees is over 100 feet, with many trees well over 150 feet high, including the National Champion Loblolly Pine, which tops out at 167 feet high and almost 15 feet around. Here I am below in front of one of the Congaree’s mighty giants. To put things in perspective a bit, I am about 6 feet 2 inches tall.

On this day, we spent about 6 hours exploring the swamp and it held many wonders for us. Migrating warblers and vireos flitted through the park, often coming quite close, and we frequently heard the wild cry of the Pileated Woodpecker, a bird that is in my mind the perfect ambassador to a place like the Congaree. During our sojourn, we were also lucky enough to spot two Barred Owls. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was the small herd of wild boars we startled (the startling was mutual, believe me) as we hiked through one of the more remote areas of the park.

Between the massive trees, the clumps of Spanish moss hanging everywhere, and the overwhelming primal feel of the place, I felt like we’d traveled back in time, and I couldn’t help wondering what it must’ve been like before our ancestors tore through here like a pack of Tasmanian devils, chopping down trees and draining swamps like there was an endless supply of both.

All I can say is I am so glad that the National Park Service exists. It is arguable that it was too little too late, and that in the grand scheme of things, the NPS protects a mere shred of the natural beauty that once adorned this country. But if it weren’t for places like the Congaree, it would be so much harder to drive through the South today and see how suburban sprawl eats up more and more land. I think of my trip to the Congaree like a pilgrimage. I return to the city renewed inside, for a little while at least.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

There was a family of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the yard yesterday! Three of them to be exact. Sapsuckers drill holes in trees and lick the sap that flows out, as well as eating the cambium of the tree. Other bird species make use of the sapsuckers’ handiwork, making them a “keystone” species. Some eat the insects that are drawn to the flowing sap. BTS and I had just spotted a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker for the first time the other day while birding in the park nearby, so it was exciting to find them in the yard a week later.

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