Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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Bird photography winter project: capturing close-up images of pileated woodpeckers

Rob DriesleinMy dad retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service several years ago, and when he’s not hunting southeast Minnesota or fishing the Mississippi River and its backwaters, he’s taking wildlife pictures. The man who regularly groused about computers during his career now embraces them as he manages his growing digital photography portfolio. Outdoor News readers have seen some of his ruffed grouse and whitetail images in this newspaper the past several years, and I suspect they’ll see many more.

This winter he’s been trying to capture some pictures of a pair of pileated woodpeckers working over the hardwoods on his bluff country property. He devised a nifty setup to bring the birds closer in recent weeks, and his ingenuity might provide some motivation for other budding photographers.

Our largest woodpecker, the crow-sized pileated lives across the eastern United States and Great Lakes region, and it drills dead trees for carpenter ants or other insect larvae. It will frequent suet bird feeders. Dad didn’t have any dead snags near his home to attract pileateds, so instead of planting a tree and waiting patiently for 50 years for it to grow and die, he installed one.

My parents’ southeast property contains lots of dead American elm trees. Seems like they grow to about a foot in diameter at the base before Dutch elm disease kills them. We chainsaw down several every winter and buzz them up for firewood. This year, however, we kept the upper reaches of the trunk and several branches intact, then dad dragged it from the north 40 acres back to his house via ATV.

He dug a hole in the surprisingly soft ground during the December thaw and “planted” the dead elm about 10 yards from his house. He also added a small suet feeder. How long my mom will tolerate the pseudo-snag remains to be seen, but I’m guessing it will be long enough for Dad to snap the ultimate pileated woodpecker photo this winter.

To calm the woodpeckers and assure them that his backyard is safe, woodworker Dad also jigsawed and painted a pileated decoy. As you can see from the images, the setup works! He’s already shot several photos of a pileated exploring the snag, either oblivious to or at least comfortable with the pileated decoy companion.

Over the cold holiday season, the quest for a quality photo made for a fun winter project.

The final product included a suet feeder and a pileated woodpecker “decoy” to help attract wild birds.

A downy woodpecker joins a female pileated (and decoy) to feed and explore the dead snag that Bob Drieslein “planted” in his backyard over the holidays.The large pileated woodpecker might just qualify as the “charismatic megafauna” of backyard bird feeding. Bob Drieslein’s efforts to bring the crow-sized birds closer to his home for quality photography has begun paying off.

A male pileated checks out the pileated decoy the author's father placed on the dead snag. If birds could talk, the male might be asking, "What the heck are you?"


All photos by Bob Drieslein

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