From my office I can hear a bird hit the glass sliders in the bedroom. Some sound worse than others. In no instance is it a pleasant sound. Stella, our boxer, always hears them too and comes to find me, with a look that says, “Did you hear what I just heard? Come on, let’s check it out!” Sometimes there’s nothing to find, and it is business as usual. Sometimes all the birds are completely out of sight, meaning the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk has cruised the area at mach speed, closing down shop at the feeders. Sometimes there’s a groggy accident victim.

I picked her up, a red-bellied woodpecker, still breathing but not struggling. From their habits, you might conclude that a woodpecker might be better equipped than most to take an unexpected shot to the beak. Maybe so, but it’s still a nasty wake-up call, sometimes even terminal.

Photo-minded as I am, I needed to figure out how to exchange the useless telephoto lens on my camera for another lens capable of taking a close-up at arm’s length, while maintaining my gentle but firm grip on the woodpecker. The last thing you want to allow in this situation is for the stunned bird to recover, make its escape and slam into another window from the inside!

The photo series I took shows her first in my office for a formal portrait, a mug shot really, against a dark plastered wall. Then we went outside for better light, along with some confidence building for the bird in more familiar surroundings.

Lanny McDowell

Now Craig, the UPS guy, drives up; and he eventually exits his van. The woodpecker starts to perk up and I let go of her. I am talking to the UPS driver and telling him to come look, but slowly. As he approaches me the bird is totally free of my grip. She stays on my hand, sitting on top. When she picks up Craig’s movements, she shifts under, then behind, my arm, just as though it were a tree branch and she were hiding behind it. I manage to take the camera strap off my neck with my free hand and pass it to the UPS guy, asking him to move cautiously and take some shots. The woodpecker, after stumbling a little bit with the looseness of my flannel shirt, gradually makes her way up my arm, up to my shoulder, then onto my back right up to my neck. Needless to say, I am totally thrilled; Craig the UPS guy is having fun too, clicking away with my camera.

When the woodpecker does fly off, she seems to be doing okay and manages a somewhat understated little red-bellied squawk for goodbye. I have since seen her back at the suet cage and on the seed feeder.

The first year a red-bellied woodpecker was recorded on the Vineyard was 1979 and was seen by Rob Culbert in the Christiantown area; and, according to Vineyard Birds II, one was seen on the Christmas Bird Count that year. The first known nesting site was at Indian Hill in 1982. Birds of Massachusetts, which came out in 1993, says “Martha’s Vineyard presently holds the only significant colony of red-bellied woodpeckers in Massachusetts.” This year the total number of red-bellieds recorded on the Christmas bird count on Jan. 3 was 87 birds Islandwide, a new high for the count. Thirty-three of those came from feeder reports. Conclusion: this species’ recent expansion north is proving quite successful and enduring.

Lanny and pecker
Author has a new friend to watch his back. — Lanny McDowell

The repertory of calls, scolds and antics of this woodpecker gives it more character than most woodland birds, even in the company of chickadees, titmice and nuthatches; and it is never too shy to let you know it saw you first!

There is one other woodpecker note I would like to mention. For the last four years a lone adult male yellow-bellied sapsucker has shown up around our place near the center of West Tisbury on the sunny days right after a hefty winter storm with significant snowfall. He likes to go from maple to maple around the yard and then along the street, looking for what sapsuckers look for. This is likely the only time I will see one at this location during the year. I invariably hear him first. It’s a one note call, rather catlike. Luanne Johnson reports a similar wintering sapsucker that visits the maples in her yard on his rounds through North Tisbury.


Lanny McDowell photographs birds and sells avian fine art photographic prints at; he writes a blog on birding at where you can find more pictures of woodpeckers and other Vineyard birds.