Summer’s Secret Stories

As I mentioned last time, it’s been a hard season for forest babies: no eaglet, no owlet, no bushtit-lets. After realizing this wouldn’t be the year for any of them, it took a while to recalibrate my attention toward the less conspicuous developments of spring nesting, those subtle clues to smaller dramas. On closer inspection, the Black-capped Chickadee hopping through the hawthornes turned out to be gleaning nutritious protein for its children, hidden somewhere in nearby shrubbery but peeping insistently for their forthcoming meal.

Black-capped Chickadee with grub

Black-capped Chickadee with grub

A few days later, as I walked along the beach, I noticed a Gray Squirrel at the edge of the forest, gathering flowers for a midday munch. Although I first thought they were dandelions, they’re more likely Common Catsear, whose milky sap is reported to contain lots of nutrients—and when I looked more closely with my binoculars, I saw that the squirrel was a lactating mother who surely needed that nutrition. I imagined a flock of squirrel babies back in the grass, peering through the green curtain as Mom worked her way along the tangled bank.

Squirrel with flower

Squirrel with flower

The slight shift of shadow under a leaf suggested someone hiding beneath:

Baby Dark-eyed Junco hides under dandelion, waiting for parent to return with food

Baby Dark-eyed Junco hides under dandelion,
waiting for parent to return with food

Then one afternoon, as I was in the central part of the forest watching the chickadees and song sparrows, the faint but persistent bleating sound ongoing in the background finally caught my attention. I followed it, threading my way through a thin forest trail—and look what I’d been missing all this time!

Pileated Woodpecker twins - two girls!

Pileated Woodpecker twins – two girls!

Pileated Woodpeckers, our largest woodpeckers, had built a nest and raised young almost to the point of fledging without my observing them. Early in the summer I’d noticed an adult Pileated Woodpecker working this well-excavated snag, and briefly checked it out another time or two, but I didn’t follow up; I figured it was just too rotten to make a good nest and that the woodpecker was using it for its bug banquet.

Now it was back to the nest snag every chance I got! I was fortunate that my friend, noted photographer and author Paul Bannick, could join me on several occasions at the nest, sharing his remarkable knowledge of woodpeckers’ lives.

Father Pileated Woodpecker arrives to feed daughters

Father Pileated Woodpecker arrives to feed nestlings

Father Pileated Woodpecker gets ready to feed his daughters

Father Pileated Woodpecker gets ready to feed his daughters

Pileated Woodpecker dad feeding daughter

Pileated Woodpecker dad preparing to feed daughter

Parent feeds nestling

Parent feeds nestling

(Although those photos both show the father woodpecker [note his red malar patch], the mother also feeds them.)

I hadn’t caught their whole childhood, but I knew it wouldn’t be long until the girls fledged. I could hear them tapping in the nest hole, practicing the skills of finding and extracting the ants and beetle larvae that make up most of their diet. One at a time, switching places every few minutes, the girls would “hang four” on the nest hole (two toes per foot on the hole’s lip, two toes behind as the anchor), leaning out to examine this huge new world. Which has flying bugs, imagine that!

Pileated girl checks out bug

Pileated girl checks out bug

Five days after I discovered the nest, I arrived midmorning to find it empty. Paul had said the young would be likely to fledge near dawn so they’d have the whole day to practice getting around the forest before it got too dark to fly. I knew I should get up and be at the nest before dawn to catch that first flight—and dear Gentle Reader, surely I would have, had sunrise come at some reasonable hour rather than 4:11 am—but I slept in and missed it.

What must it have been like, that first flight, for a girl who’d never even been able to fully stretch her wings out before then? This particular nest hole wasn’t that far up, maybe 8′, but this couple’s past nests were 20′ or higher in nearby trees. It’s pretty important that young woodpeckers get it right the first time. My fellow nature blogger Larry Hubbell, in his marvelous Union Bay Watch website, documented another young Pileated’s first scramble out of her Seattle-area nest: rather than winging it straight from the nest hole, she edged her way out, clinging to the bark for a while before taking that inaugural flight.

Now that the sisters are out of the nest, they’ll stay with their parents for a few weeks as they learn their way around the park, getting shown the juicy decaying trees, learning aerial navigation.

Pileated family (boy and girl, with father at bottom) Lincoln Park, West Seattle

2011 Pileated family (boy and girl, with father at bottom)
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

The nest hole won’t stay empty long. Because Pileated Woodpecker nest holes are so large, they provide homes for cavity nesters too big to fit in other holes: owls, ducks, even fishers and martens in other areas. I’m looking forward to seeing who moves in next.

In the meantime, the forest is still filled with smaller wonders. And, really—aren’t those enough?

Parent Dark-eyed Junco collects various prey for her young

Parent Dark-eyed Junco collects various prey for her young


6 responses to “Summer’s Secret Stories

  1. Your squirrel is so cute. Mine runs around with huge mouthfuls of insulation from out attic at the beachside!

    Sent from my iPhone please excuse typos and short replies.


  2. Your blog makes my day! So wonderful to know that there are people out there who truly care about the natural world!

  3. Your photos are always wonderful, but the squirrel is just precious!

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