Gila Woodpecker — On the Go

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There are a number of species that identify closely with the Sonoran Desert and the Gila Woodpecker is certainly one of them. This bird is a desert specialist, living in close association with Saguaro Cacti. Drive around any part of our desert where there are Saguaros and you’ll soon notice that many of them have holes drilled into their columnar trunks. These are cavities created by Gila Woodpeckers for their nests. The cavities do the Saguaros no harm — the cacti simply build protective scar tissue around the cavities’ inner surfaces. The cavities provide homes for other desert species, once the Gilas have finished using them, including American Kestrels, tiny Elf Owls, and some flycatcher species.

Gila Woodpeckers not only live in Saguaros but they derive livings from these cacti, at least during the spring and summer months. One will frequently observe a Gila Woodpecker feeding on Saguaro flowers’ nectar or pursuing the bees and other pollinating insects that are attracted by the flowers. Later in summer the Gilas feast on the Saguaros’ sweet purple-red fruit.

I probably never go out into the desert without encountering a few Gila Woodpeckers. Perhaps surprisingly, I have relatively few good images of these birds. They are high-strung and not prone to linger for more than a few seconds on a perch. I seem to forever miss an image as the woodpecker flies before I can raise my camera to eye level.

For that reason I was thrilled the other day to capture an image of a female Gila Woodpecker at the instant she took off from her perch on a Saguaro.

Capturing an image like this one is as much a matter of luck as it is of skill. Gilas take flight without warning and they move far more quickly than humans’ reflexes. She was perched on the cactus an instant before she flew and I happened to have my shutter depressed at the moment of takeoff.

I’ve referred to this individual as a female throughout this post. How do I know she’s a she? Male Gila Woodpeckers have a brilliant red patch of plumage atop their heads. Females lack this patch.

Image made with a Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 IS L zoom lens+Canon RF 1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 2000, f13 @ 1/3200, +1/3 stop exposure compensation.

2 Replies to “Gila Woodpecker — On the Go”

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