Pileated woodpeckers are here to stay

Outdoors: Several places to find birds in Eastern Iowa

A female pileated woodpecker guards its territory. This photo was taken near Danbury, Wis. (Brandon Caswell/corresponden
A female pileated woodpecker guards its territory. This photo was taken near Danbury, Wis. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)

Of Iowa’s seven regular woodpecker species, the most iconic is undoubtedly the pileated woodpecker.

This crow-sized bird is the largest extant woodpecker in North America. Only the ivory-billed and imperial woodpecker, both likely extinct, were longer and heavier.

Eastern Iowa, with its forested river corridors, harbors the pileated woodpecker year-round. This species typically is a much more notable find in Iowa the farther west you travel.

If you have ever seen a large, rectangular hole in a tree then you have seen the work of a pileated. They prefer mature woodlands offering plenty of large standing dead trees and fallen logs. Don’t look for them only high in the canopy, but also near the ground. It is often individuals foraging on or near the forest floor that offer the best looks and photo opportunities.

Pileated woodpecker also can persist in younger woodlands and may even pay a visit to wooded suburbs and backyards. Although not as common, they may visit suet feeders.

The body of a pileated woodpecker is largely black with a multicolored head. Males and females have a flaming red crest with a black line going through the eye to the back of the head. A perched bird has a large white stripe behind the nostrils that follows under the eyes and across the cheek to the rear of the head, turning down the neck and ending on the shoulders.

Males have a bright red stripe on the cheek, whereas females possess a black on this area instead. The throat is white. In flight, the underwing will show a large flash of white as the underwing coverts are a solid white on black flight feathers.


You will typically hear a pileated before you see it. A distant pileated may sound reminiscent of a northern flicker, but up close, the intense volume of its repeated piping call is unmistakable. Drumming is loud and powerful, but don’t be fooled by other woodpeckers, as most can make pretty impressive drumming sounds. Listen for a slower, deep drum that lasts a few seconds.

There are several places to look for this species in the Eastern Iowa Corridor. Wickiup Hill County Park, Squaw Creek Park, Palisades-Kepler State Park and Winnebago Park in Linn County all are productive places. Squire Point, Woodpecker Nature Trail and Woodpecker Trail in Johnson County also have resident pileated woodpeckers.


A popular way to attract birds among birders is called “pishing.” This technique involves making a light, repetitive sound around certain bird species that typically respond to it. It is done by keeping the teeth loosely held together and make a “Psst” sound, like the call used to get someone’s attention.

Instead of a “t” ending, try making that into a “sh” ending. Repeat this around five times in a steady tempo. Changing the volume and tempo also can help to improve success. Making a kissing sound by puckering the lips also cam interest birds.

How does this relate to photography? Once you have mastered pishing in the field and know what types of birds respond, it can be a great way to set up photographs. Species that often respond to pishing are sparrows, wrens, warblers, jays, nuthatches and chickadees. During sparrow season, I often will walk up to a large, well-lit woodpile with my camera settings adjusted accordingly. Pishing often tees sparrows up on a perch, usually long enough to try for a photo

Although there seems to be several theories, nobody knows exactly why certain bird species respond so well to pishing.


— Look for Lapland longspur and snow bunting in sprawling agricultural areas. American pipit, which enjoys more barren substrate, can be found well into November.

— Though many sparrow species will wane out in November, a couple species — such as dark-eyed junco and American tree sparrow — will only increase in numbers.


— Many wintering raptor species will set up territories throughout Eastern Iowa. Look for rough-legged hawk along the countryside. Even a flyover golden eagle is not out of the question. Several of the wintering owl species, such as long-eared, short-eared and northern saw-whet owl will return to their respective habitats.

— Geese species, such as cackling, snow and Ross’s goose, will move through Iowa on their way south. There should be a large influx of dabbling and diving duck species. Keep an eye out for scoters and long-tailed duck at places like Pleasant Creek Recreation Area and Cedar Lake, both in Linn County.

— Icterid flocks will continue to move south through Iowa. Large roosts can continue into the new year in select spots throughout the state. Look for red-winged, rusty and brewer’s blackbirds along with brown-headed cowbird, European starling and even great-tailed grackle in large, mixed flocks.


Nov. 9 — IOU Events Committee presents a birding adventure to the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge. The trip will be visiting Pools 8 and 9, between Lansing and Brownsville, Minn., for the annual fall migration of tundra swans and other waterfowl. During the fall, 20 to 45 percent of the eastern population of tundra swans use the Upper Mississippi refuge as a stopover point to refuel and rest. The largest numbers of birds gather in mid-November and will remain until freeze-up, then head to wintering areas on the Atlantic Coast. Historic aerial surveys estimated 10,000-20,000 swans during this time. There will be many other waterfowl species present as well. Large numbers of bald eagles winter in the area and will dot the islands and trees. Golden eagles will not be out of the question. Meet at 9 a.m. at the Allamakee County Driftless Area Education and Visitors Center, 1944 Columbus Road, in Lansing. The center is hosting a birding festival that day with a USFWS biologist who, at 10 a.m., will discuss bird research. There will be possible side trips to Harpers Ferry (weather permitting on a grade B road) and/or Ferryville, across the bridge. En route to Brownsville, Minn., there will be a stop at Pool Slough, near New Albin, where sandhill cranes will likely still be present. There are other viewing spots on Highway 26 along the west side of the Mississippi, but it is a two-lane highway and parking may be limited so carpooling is highly encouraged. Sunset will be at 4:46 p.m. Motels in the area include Stony Creek Inn in Waukon, Scenic Valley Motel in Lansing and Inn and Suite in New Albin. Ric Zarwell will be the leader, along with Charles Wittman. Bring binoculars and spotting scopes if you have them.

Nov. 17 — Linn County Waterfowl. Field outing to Cedar Lake and Pleasant Creek for migrating ducks, grebes, loons, gulls and sparrows. For those in the Iowa City area, meet at 7:30 a.m. at the Kohl’s parking lot, 2795 Commerce Dr., Coralville. That group will carpool to Cedar Lake in Cedar Rapids to meet leader Brandon Caswell at 8 a.m. For those in the Cedar Rapids area, just meet at Cedar Lake at 8 a.m. After Cedar Lake, the group will move on to Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area to view from several vantage points around the lake. Finish with walking on prairie & edge trails for migrating sparrows and other late passerines. Dress for the weather with extra warm layers and wear hiking boots. Return time to Cedar Lake around 12:30 p.m. and to Kohl’s in Iowa City about 1 p.m.

Nov. 21 — Iowa City Bird Club Meeting, 7-9 p.m. Dick Sayles of Quad Cities Audubon will present “Travels with Dick.” In 2019, Sayles has been to Israel, New Zealand and Australia. Venue is the Environmental Education Center, 2401 Scott Blvd. SE, Iowa City.

Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. His graduate degree centered on dating continental collisions within the Precambrian Canada Shield. Bird-watching and nature photography are among his favorite hobbies. Email brandon.caswell83@gmail.com with birding-related questions.

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