Bruce’s Birdtography: The Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed woodpecker. Photo by Bruce Wunderlich.

Seven species of woodpeckers reside in Ohio: red-bellied, downy, hairy, pileated, and red-headed woodpeckers; yellow-bellied sapsucker; and northern flicker. Until recently, I checked six of the seven on my backyard list and had photographed them all—all except the red-headed woodpecker. Knowing the preferred habitat of that species, I figured I might never have one visit my yard.

As I finished my breakfast one recent morning, I heard a rapid chrr-chrr-chrr-chrr bird call in my backyard. The call was not familiar to me, as are the calls of my usual backyard birds. Arriving at the double doors to my back deck, I caught a glimpse of red, black, and white flying from the deck railing to a nearby tree. I couldn’t believe my eyes: It was a red-headed woodpecker!

Red-headed woodpecker. Photo by Bruce Wunderlich.

I snapped a couple of quick photos of my most welcome visitor. My heart sank as it flew away before I got more than a quick proof shot. But a few moments later, it returned, this time in plain sight, and it allowed me to capture some great images. Wiping back happy tears, I watched and photographed the bird as it explored my backyard. I texted my co-workers, “I’m going to be late for work today!” One of the perks of working at Bird Watcher’s Digest is that everyone was okay with my spending some time that morning with my new red-headed friend.

With its bold, bright red, black, and white plumage, the red-headed woodpecker is sometimes called the “flying checkerboard.” To a photographer, these high-contrast birds are challenging. Nailing the correct exposure is essential for a great photo. Overexpose, and you will blow out all the white detail; underexpose, and you will lose all the black detail. Birds that have both black and white plumage can be especially challenging. If you use the high light warning on your camera, adjust your exposure until nearly all of the “blinkies” disappear in the white areas of the bird, which will give you the best exposure. Some corrections can be made in post-processing, especially if you are shooting in RAW mode.

The red-headed woodpecker has returned every day for ten days, mostly in the mornings to visit my suet feeder. It announces its arrival with its rapid chrr-chrr-chrr-chrr call that I always hear before I spot the bird.

To the BWD staff, the red-headed woodpecker is a bird with an emotional connection: It was the favorite bird of our late, beloved boss, Bill Thompson, III. Whenever I see this bird, I think of Bill.

I wrote this poem a couple of days after Bill passed:


I saw a bird today and thought of you
oh how I wish this all wasn’t true
You taught us all so much
About birds, nature, and such
“Bill of the birds” you were known
Because of you, our world has grown
How I wish you could stay
But you had to be on your way
“out there with the birds” you go
How could we say no
You’re on to the next adventure
Taking care of all of Earth’s creatures
With the birds you’re going to fly
I don’t know why we still cry
I saw a bird today and thought of you.

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