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  • Writer's pictureBethany Plonski

Birding at Hickory Knob State Park

Birds were definitely one of the highlights of my artist's residency at Hickory Knob State Park. Starting with a bald eagle fly-by on my first morning, I got to see a total of 37 different species during the week, including a few that I'd never had the opportunity to photograph before.

On my first morning in the park, I noticed two yellow birds dashing into the trees next to the boat dock. The first one I could identify as a female orchard oriole (below), and she was quite a cooperative subject.

Female orchard oriole perched on a sweetgum branch
Female orchard oriole

The orchard oriole's companion was also yellow and similar in size, but with darker wings and a splotch of black on the throat. At the time I had no idea what I was looking at, but after doing a little research I realized he was an immature male orchard oriole. Up until my time in the park, I had never seen a first-year orchard oriole or realized that they look so different from adult males, which are orange and black. Unfortunately, I didn't get any decent shots of the male, but it was exciting to see him nonetheless.

I also saw my first great crested flycatcher during my stay. He was a handsome little fellow but also a scrapper, posing adorably one second and taking off to squabble with some smaller birds a moment later.

Great crested flycatcher
Great crested flycatcher

Woodpeckers are a favorite of mine, and the Southeast has several common species. I see downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, and red-bellied woodpeckers on a regular basis, but there is one species I hear often but have had terrible luck trying to photograph. I can't count the number of times I've heard or caught sight of a pileated woodpecker and dropped everything to chase after it trying to get a photo. In fact, it's become kind of a joke in our house whenever we hear the pileated woodpecker's loud and distinctive call. Yep, he's out there laughing at me right now and letting me know I'll never catch him!

Well, I lucked out during my week at Hickory Knob and finally had a chance to photograph a pileated woodpecker feeding fairly low in the trees.

Pileated woodpecker grasping a tree trunk
Pileated woodpecker

Pileated woodpeckers are named for their red crest, which resembles a Roman pileus (a type of tall hat). I could tell this one was a male because of the red "mustache" markings on his cheeks, and whatever he found in that tree trunk must have been delicious because he tried all kinds of gymnastics to cover every angle and eat as much as possible. What a joy to finally see this beautiful bird up close!

Pileated woodpecker feeding

Red-headed woodpeckers were another exciting first at the park. I saw quite a few of them, including a pair that came out to feed in the same spot every day. I suspect they were feeding nestlings, because they flew back and forth relentlessly catching bugs and returning quickly to the same part of the woods (where I assume they had nested). Never did manage to spot the nest though.

Red-headed woodpecker

Like pileated woodpeckers, red-headed woodpeckers were tough to photograph. They keep a good distance from people, so even though I spent a lot of time every day watching, waiting, and trying my luck on various shots, I only ended up with a handful of photos, which I am very grateful for. They are such striking birds.

And of course there were lots of birds I see at home too, but that doesn't make them any less of a joy to photograph.

Northern mockingbird perched on a tree branch
Northern mockingbird

Loved this creative perch!

Blue grosbeak perched on a pine branch
Blue grosbeak

Juvenile Easter bluebird perched on a pine tree
Eastern bluebird (juvenile)

Prarie warbler perched on a pine branch
Prarie warbler

Chipping sparrow perched on a branch
It's all about the sparrows...

Goldfinch perched on the tip of a pine tree
American Goldfinch

Mallard on a misty morning

Yep, I was in bird nerd heaven alright. And I haven't even started on the osprey nest yet!


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