Scherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary
The Scherman Hoffman Blog

The Grail Bird (2-25-2012)

If you’re a birder, you always want to see what you’ve never seen before. Some people go to great lengths for a glimpse of a rarity. Some find these birds without even trying.

Scherman Hoffman had an unusual one the other week – a red-headed woodpecker at its feeders.

028 You may think you’ve seen one, but likely you haven’t, at least not in this part of New Jersey. The more commonly seen red-bellied woodpecker (shown here) has red going along only the back of its head. It is named for the pinkish area on its belly. Despite what you may see, it’s not a red-headed woodpecker.

Neither is the pileated woodpecker (shown below), which is crow-sized and has a red crest above a black and white head and a solid black back.

The red-headed woodpecker has an entirely red head, a snowy white breast and belly, and back and wings that are solid black over solid white.

It does not usually come to feeders. When I’ve seen them they’ve been in the Great Swamp in Morris County, not very far from Bernardsville, where Scherman Hoffman is located. Recently, several were seen in Lord Stirling Park. Every year at least one juvenile is reported in New York’s Central Park. I was surprised to find one along Patriot’s Path, not far from my house as the woodpecker flies.

My husband has never seen a red-headed woodpecker, although he isn’t particularly upset about this. He enjoys birding but is more laid back about it than I am. Years ago, when I heard an adult red-headed woodpecker was hanging around in a tree along the driveway to the old visitor center in the Swamp (now a parking lot) and practically begging people to photograph it, I HAD to go. It would be too easy and I could see something I’d never seen before.

pileated I almost missed this striking bird but for the kindness of another birder who pointed out the proper tree. It was very much worth seeing and I regret having no camera with me (even on my phone of the time).

MH has never seen one despite my many attempts to find one for him – for his own good, of course. When I heard of the one at the Scherman feeders – the FEEDERS, right out front – I had to drag MH over to see it.

We struck out.

We were heading up the driveway when we stopped because a small group was canning the distant trees. “It’s in there,” one said. A cold and windy day, I knew MH wasn’t particularly happy to be there, because I wasn’t happy either. But I was hoping, and when I saw a large woodpecker on a tree I pointed it out to MH.

It quickly disappeared but I realized the back was solid black, not black and white. When the pileated started calling my guess was confirmed. (Red-headeds make a call that sounds like “Queer!”)

Was there also a red-headed woodpecker out there or had the others misidentified the pileated? I’ll never know. It wasn’t at the feeders that day and it hasn’t been reported since.

My husband likes to call these wild bird chases my hunt for the Grail Bird, after the book written a few years ago about the search for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, thought extinct but supposedly found in an Arkansas swamp. I have other grail birds, some of which are birds that are reliably reported every year during migration by other birders. The Wilson’s warbler, for instance. I’ve yet to get a clear view of one, preferably an easy-to-identify adult male, in all the times I’ve sought it.

On a trip to Florida a few years ago, despite seeing a host of new (to me) birds including an anhinga, two types of kites, a wood stork, limpkin, plus prothonotary warblers everywhere, I was upset at not finding a yellow-throated warbler (not to be confused with the common yellowthroat, which lives up to its name and even I can find). This is a southern bird that has been reported in the New York metro area with increasing regularity. I thought I had seen the one reported in central Jersey a few years ago but with the setting sun in my eyes – a common problem when I am looking for warblers – I can’t be sure. I figured finding it in Florida was a gimme. Wrong.


Perhaps it’s better to keep looking. It keeps me outside and looking around instead of indoors. I know there is a fine line between the urge to explore and expand my horizons and an obsession, and I walk it every day as I’m scanning the trees and ponds, wondering what I’ll see next.

Any bird is a good bird if you’ve never seen one before. If you just want to get out of the house and see birds, Scherman Hoffman is a great place to do it. There are bird walks every Friday and Saturday mornings at 8 am, which despite the early hour can draw big crowds of eager birders when the migrants are passing through.

And there are always the feeders drawing birds you can watch from inside the store. Who knows, maybe I’ll find that Wilson’s warbler there this spring.

By Margo D. Beller

As Margo mentioned, join us for a morning bird walk any Friday or Saturday morning at 8am. Meet at the new Hoffman lot (closest to the new store) and bring your binoculars! (But don't worry--a binocular can be loaned to you if you need one).

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