After serving as chief executive officer for Cameron Memorial Community Hospital and living in northeast Indiana for eight years, my wife and I returned to Wisconsin for another healthcare leadership position. Fast forward two years. I have retired from the healthcare industry and now work part time at High Cliff State Park, within a mile of our home in Sherwood, Wisconsin.

High Cliff State Park is located at the northeast corner of Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin’s largest inland lake, covering an area about 30 by 10 miles. Noted for its walleye fishing, the Lake Winnebago system also hosts the world’s largest population of lake sturgeon.

A principal feature of High Cliff State Park, and the origin of its namesake, is the Niagara Escarpment, a 440-million-year-old rock ridge of dolostone that runs the length of the park and along the Lake Winnebago shoreline, creating beautiful cliff formations and hosting multiple natural communities.

The Niagara Escarpment stretches in a crescent nearly 1,000 miles from Niagara Falls through western New York into Ontario, Canada, then into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and southerly through eastern Wisconsin. The escarpment extends almost 250 miles in Wisconsin with notable exposures in Fond du Lac County, Calumet County (including High Cliff State Park), Brown County and Door County (where Wisconsin’s most prominent and highest Escarpment exposures occur). Living nearby and working at High Cliff State Park provides an ideal opportunity to experience the beauty and variety of the Park in every season.

I was fortunate while living in Angola to connect with two special people — Fred Wooley and Art Eberhardt — who share my passion for the outdoors. They generously imparted their knowledge and love of northeast Indiana’s natural world. Today, across state lines and 350 miles both are treasured friends. Fred continues as an interpreter and mentor, offering his knowledge and insights about all things natural.

It was on a hike led by Fred at Ropchan Wildlife Refuge Nature Preserve (an ACRES Land Trust property) in March 2017 that I first observed a pileated woodpecker. Though our sighting was from a distance I was fascinated by this crow-sized woodpecker with its black and white body and bright red crest.

Fred shared that he did not see a pileated woodpecker at Pokagon State Park until 1998, 18 years after he arrived at the park as interpretive naturalist, but they are now relatively common. As Indiana and Wisconsin’s largest woodpecker, pileated woodpeckers are usually quite shy, their presence often detected only by their loud rolling kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk call or by observing the large oblong-shaped holes they excavate in trees searching for insects and for nesting. Each pileated woodpecker pair needs 150-200 acres of mature forest for nesting and breeding territory.

I hoped this spring to see a pileated woodpecker at High Cliff State Park. Though I heard calling several times, observed fresh tree excavations, and once saw the elusive bird from a distance, I did not see one up-close — until Memorial Day.

On May 27, while hiking the meandering Lime Kiln Trail that parallels the Lake Winnebago shoreline below the escarpment cliffs, I was stopped in my tracks by a kuk-kuk-kuk call, and then heard loud drumming close by. I eagerly scanned the trees for the bird’s distinctive size and colors but could not find it. Continued loud drumming finally helped me locate the pileated woodpecker on the ground, almost fully concealed among a profusion of lime-colored spring foliage. It was a male pileated woodpecker, distinguished by a red mustache under its bill.

Hammering away at a rotten log, the woodpecker repeatedly popped its head up for a quick look around, and then resumed drumming. From a distance, a pair of crows called back and forth — caw-caw, caw-caw — and the pileated woodpecker showed no concern. But when the crows moved into nearby trees and called, the woodpecker’s head snapped up in alarm. Apparently deciding the crows posed no real threat, the hammering resumed. The woodpecker provided a delightful drumming performance for over eight minutes — as timed by the many photos I took — before it hopped to the trunk of an adjacent tree. Using its two forward facing, and two rear facing toes on each foot, it moved quickly up the side of the tree, head bobbing down and forward as it climbed— and then it was gone.

When I relayed my experience observing the pileated woodpecker on the ground, Fred noted that no other woodpecker seems to make the practice of feeding close to the ground, on a fallen limb, a stump, or just close to the ground on a standing tree more than the pileated. 

The appearance of the pileated woodpecker in the stunning wooded setting of High Cliff State Park was an exciting springtime gift for this fortunate observer. It also brought forward reflections of friends who in northeast Indiana and now across the miles enrich my appreciation and love of the natural world.

Greg Burns is a retired healthcare executive who is fascinated by the natural world and indulges his passion through regular rambles and adventures in the outdoors. He can be contacted at burns.gregt@gmail.com.

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