Dear Angry Squirrel,
If your temper tantrums weren’t so photogenic
I wouldn’t linger so long with my camera at the foot of your tree
and you wouldn’t have reason to be so angry.
Some of our woodpeckers – Downy, Hairy, Pileated – are year-round residents in the North Woods. Others – the Northern Flicker and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – are migrants, only here for the breeding season. Both of the migratory woodpeckers have just turned up here on campus in the last week or so, and my first inkling that the sapsuckers had arrived was hearing their distinctive irregular drumming. Taptaptap-tap-tap–tap—tap! (Click here to listen.)
This morning while I was rambling around a male flew in and landed on a nearby trunk at eye-level, posing for a few photos.
I’ve written before about sapsuckers’ interesting foraging habits – as their name suggests, they drill small holes in tree trunks and feed off the sap. I like these guys. That red cap and throat are a beautiful pop of color.
(Lep = Lepidopteran = butterfly or moth. Come on, you knew that, right?)
There is hope for spring yet! In the past week we’ve had more and more migratory birds – sapsuckers, sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers – arriving back on campus, and yesterday afternoon I was out in the woods in just a t-shirt, though admittedly at the time I was slogging through a couple feet of slushy snow in my snowshoes. At this time of year, insects that normally might not catch my eye become cause for celebration. Case in point? This tiny, drab moth.
These little critters, each one about a centimeter long, were fluttering over the surface of the snow in the bog. I haven’t had much luck identifying them – there are many, many species of tiny drab moth, and I posted photos on BugGuide and Twitter but people suggested, like, three different possible families – but finding any moth at all feels like cause for celebration after this endless winter. Hooray!
Shall we take bets on what my first butterfly of the year will be? Mourning Cloak, Eastern Comma, Spring Azure?
I’d been convinced for a while that even though we hadn’t seen or heard them yet, our woodcocks must be here somewhere, hunkered down and waiting for the weather to change so they could start their spring displays. Well, now I have proof – one of the teachers at the school where I work snapped this photo on campus earlier this week.
Poor sad, confused, hungry woodcock. Hang in there, little buddy.
The scientific name of the Greater Prairie Chicken is Tympanuchus cupido. Translated from Latin, that loosely means “drummer of love.” The quirky name comes from its elaborate and famous courtship ritual, and Sunday morning I was lucky enough to witness it.
Greater Prairie Chickens, technically a species of grouse, used to be common, but their numbers plunged as the country’s grasslands were converted to agriculture, and now they’re mostly limited to carefully managed and protected prairie remnants like those found in Central Wisconsin. Anyone can pay $15 for the privilege of getting up at 4 AM on the April morning of their choice, tucking themselves into a wooden blind so small that it’s hard to sit upright, and sitting in the freezing cold darkness waiting for the birds to appear for their performance. It’s totally worth it.
I’m back in Wisconsin now, but I have a couple more Arizona posts to share with you. We had the opportunity to observe some interesting lizard behavior in Usery Mountain Regional Park in the Phoenix area when this little guy started running down the trail ahead of us, curling up its tail to display the black and white stripes on its underside.
We also did some sightseeing in the southeastern part of the state and found this group of lizards resting between some rocks in Madera Canyon.
Okay, there is really nothing in this photo to give you much of a sense of scale, but this is the Western Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium exilis), also known as the smallest butterfly in North America, with a wingspan of about half an inch. They seem to be pretty common around here (“here” being the Phoenix area), but since they’re so small it would be easy to overlook them.
The Western Pygmy-Blue is really a great example of why it pays to take a second look at things that are small and inconspicuous. Yes, it’s tiny – but look at the beautiful detailed patterns on its wings. What a lovely creature!
(I swear this is not an April Fool’s Day post. I tried and failed to think of something clever for April Fool’s Day. This is just the continuation of Part 1 and Part 2 of last week’s snowshoe adventure.)
Okay, so we maybe, possibly found evidence that there have been Black-backed Woodpeckers hanging around Inkpot Lake this winter. Did we see anything else worth mentioning? Yes. Yes we did.
In February I wrote about a previous expedition to Inkpot Lake and included a photo of a tunnel in the snow that, judging by the tracks leading to it, had been made by an otter. This time we found the edges of the lake heavily crisscrossed with more otter tracks and belly slides. Clearly this is a popular spot for them.
So, as we left the boggy area behind and worked our way back around the canoe launch, I kept pausing to examine every dark dot on the far side of the lake with my binoculars. I found a lot of stumps and bushes, but finally I found a dark dot that moved. Ready for a really terrible photo of an otter?
Actually we counted three otters total, frolicking around on the opposite side of the lake from us. It was pretty great. After I commented “Wow, it’s a whole pile of otters,” Leanna wondered what the collective noun for otters really is, so I looked it up and according to Wikipedia one word that gets used is “romp.” A romp of otters! Perfect!
We declared this adventure to be a huge success.
Okay, so if you remember from Wednesday, the reason we were snowshoeing out to Inkpot Lake was to check out some reports of Black-backed Woodpecker activity in the area. Black-backed Woodpeckers are a boreal species with a habit of flaking the outer layer of bark off of dead conifers in search of food, leaving large patches of the red cambium underneath exposed. No one I know has ever seen one here on campus. They’re uncommon, picky about their habitat, and mostly found further north than this – we’re near the southern extent of their range.
We bushwhacked along the boggy lakeshore (not something you could easily do in summer, but you can snowshoe over it okay) to get to a thicket of alders, spruce, and tamarack that looked promising, where we found… this.
Yes? No? Maybe so? I’m no expert, but if someone who was told me this was Black-backed Woodpecker activity, I would believe them. I think they tend to move around a lot during the winter, so it’s possible that whatever did this has moved on already, but the fact that there are bark flakes on top of the snow suggests to me that this happened a couple weeks ago at most.
We had one more interesting wildlife encounter before we left the lake, which I was going to include here, but this is plenty of photos for one post already so I think I’ll keep you in suspense until Monday. Next week is my spring break and I’m going to visit my parents, so my next few posts after that will be about Arizona – expect desert wildflowers and, if I’m lucky, maybe Elegant Trogons!
This afternoon I talked my friend Leanna into snowshoeing back out to Inkpot Lake with me – some students had told me they’d seen signs of Black-backed Woodpecker activity out there, and I was skeptical but I wanted to check it out. We took snowshoes instead of skis this time to make bushwhacking around on the boggy lakeshore easier.
Being a pair of naturalist nerds, we spent the whole hike out stopping to examine the tracks and scat we found along the trail. (Click any image to bring up a slideshow with captions.)
Did we find any signs of Black-backed Woodpeckers? Did we have any other interesting wildlife encounters at the lake? Come back Friday to find out. (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.)