Wednesday, April 5, 2006

A Cousin to the Ivorybill

Wednesday, April 5, 2006
Head of pale-billed woodpecker. Tikal, Guatemala.

When Jules and I were in Guatemala last month, we spent the final two days of our trip in Tikal, the famous Maya site where the pyramids are impressive and the birding is justifiably world famous. Among my quest birds on our trip was the pale-billed woodpecker, cousin to the ivory-billed woodpecker in the genus Campephilus. I figured that this might be as close as I would ever get to an ivory-billed woodpecker, though I hoped (and still do hope) to see a one someday.

In 2004 in Guatemala I had heard the distinctive double rap of the pale-billed, but no birds showed themselves. This year we were spending a lot more time in likely habitat, and several times our Guatemalan birding guides would point out the double-rap. My hopes were rising with each aural encounter.

Late on the afternoon of March 4, our first day at Tikal, we were looking across a large ravine toward Temple 5, scanning its shape for signs of an orange-breasted falcon nest, when three large birds flew across a clearing and into some gangly, tall trees. "Pale-billed woodpeckers!" Julie shouted and we all scrambled to gain better viewing angles. The light was low due to an oncoming thunderstorm, but occasional rays of sun forced their way through the darkening sky, illuminating the scene for us. I'll never forget the gleaming white bill and blindingly bright red crest on the first bird I located with my scope.

The three birds seemed to be associated with each other (perhaps a family group?) as they foraged and loafed. For the next 15 minutes we enjoyed leisurely looks at one or more of them and I did my best to capture their souls with my digiscoping set up.

Most of my pale-billed woodpecker shots came out like this: blurry images of busy birds.

To be standing there, in Tikal, with an ancient temple, old growth forest, and one of the most impressive and evocative birds in all of the Americas in one binocular field was nothing short of incredible. Julie and I kept saying "They look so much like ivorybills!"
This one is my favorite because of the crest. I've never seen a crest like this on a bird!

I shot and shot, getting mostly blurry images of moving birds, with perfectly in-focus branches and vegetation. The shooting conditions were tough. Even so, I could not help but think how great it would be to encounter an ivorybill (or three) in the same fashion, under similar conditions. Perhaps one day....

Here, for your viewing pleasure are the least objectionable of my pale-billed woodpecker shots. I took them through a Swarovski 65 AT spotting scope with a 20x to 60x zoom lens. My camera was (and still is a Canon Powershot A520 (4 megapixels) attached with a Canon LA-DC52F extender and a Swarovski DCA (digital camera adapter).

Check out the belly stripes and the bird's regal eye.

Not very sharp, but I love the lines in this photo. And that beautiful bill.

I must tip my cap to Clay Taylor of Swarovski Optik, North America for his helpful and sage guidance as I re-entered the digiscoping realm. My experience in Guatemala would have been so much less enjoyable if I had not been geared-up for digiscoping. Thanks Clay! You can check out some of Clay's own digiscoped images here.

And we also owe a debt of gratitude to Marco Centeno and Hector Castaneda for traveling to Tikal with us, and sharing their vast birding and nature knowledge. Gracias por los aves y las bromas, amigos!

This shot shows how massive the feet are on these woodpeckers.
Look how it's grasping the tree, and the spread of those toes!
You know what they say about big feet!


On April 6, 2006 at 9:10 AM Anonymous said...

Bird envy. That is what I have. What gorgeous birds you found in Guatemala. Keep on digiscoping. I love your blog! Your photo of the shadow of the oak on the field was spectacular too!

On April 6, 2006 at 9:12 AM Anonymous said...

So much like an Ivorybill. Oh I so want those birds to exist.

On April 6, 2006 at 9:23 AM Anonymous said...

What a gift you are giving us all. Thank you for showing us this amazing bird at so many angles. I am grateful every day for your good work.

On April 6, 2006 at 9:31 AM Rondeau Ric said...

Great photos, even the blurry ones.
Like the others who took the time to comment, I appreciate your blog and the effort it takes.
Thank you

On April 6, 2006 at 7:31 PM Lynne said...

I also like your favorite woodpecker photo. It looks like he has a DQ crest- very Woody Woodpeckery!

On April 13, 2006 at 11:40 AM Jay said...


Jay Packer here. We've meet several times at the birding festival in south Texas.

The second and third shots are pretty clearly Lineated Woodpecker. Dryocopus lineatus. The white line extends up on the side of the face, there's a red malar stripe visible, and the white V on the back is open, it doesn't connect.

The rest of the pictures are indeed Pale-billed Woodpeckers. The first shot is a male, and the remaining shots appear to be a female.

If you took these all in the same tree, this is not unprecedented. I and others have seen both species occuring together.

On April 16, 2006 at 5:45 PM wolf21m said...

Amazing photos. Thanks for sharing. I digiscope with a Swarovski AT-80, but have used the ScopeTronix Maxview-S adapter. Your photos came out very good.

On April 28, 2006 at 4:35 PM nancy said...

Bill--I just returned from Sayulita Mexico where I saw an pale-billed wookpecker. It made my entire trip worthwhile. What a bird!

On June 18, 2006 at 10:35 AM Gwyn said...

Wow! I still get faint when I get good looks at our local Pileateds, not sure if I'd survive seeing these!
Thanks for sharing them.

On July 7, 2006 at 1:01 PM 70ivorybill78 said...

I loved seeing these pictures. The pale eyes and the very long curved crest of one of the birds really brought back memories of my old IBWO sightings.

Thanks for sharing

Steve Sheridan

On October 23, 2007 at 11:03 PM Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info on the Pale-billed Woodpecker. I have also recently returned from a trip to Sayulita, Nayarit, Mexico, where I saw two Pale-billed, and one Lineated Woodpecker, as one of the posts mentions, all in the same tree. I got a few great photos of both species, and have been showing them around enthusiastically. These birds would have been phenomenal, even without the Citreoline Trogon that flew up while I was watching them. Thanks again.

On April 29, 2009 at 6:59 AM Dale Forbes said...

I liked the first photo most - with just the head sticking up out of the foliage.

it seems like you had a fair amount of time with the woodpecker, which means that you were very lucky. mostly, the pale-billed and lineateds will fly above you, hammer away for a bit, and then disappear in to the forest (usually to somewhere hard to get to, grrr).

Tikal is an incredible site: watching the sun rise over the misty-covered jungle from atop a pyramid is an unforgettable experience...

Good luck with the digiscoping, with practice, it gets a whole lot easier.

Happy birding