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.
After a long, snowy winter, it is awfully nice to see (and hear) the spring birds returning to the forest.
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!
You might be surprised if you knew how often I find myself sitting on my couch going, “Ugh, I really do not feel like going for a walk right now but I need to find something new to blog about.” Inevitably, though, once I’m actually outside my energy comes back and I end up enjoying myself thoroughly.
Temperatures are up this week, and yesterday was one of those sunny winter afternoons where the trees start shedding their accumulation of snow – periodically you’d hear a loud FLUMP! and the creaking of newly unburdened branches as clumps of snow rained down on the forest floor. I heard another sound as I walked, though. It was a woodpecker tapping, and not just any woodpecker. The loud, slow TAP, TAP, TAP suggested a woodpecker that was big. (Note that I am not referring here to drumming, the sustained rat-tat-tat-tat-tat that woodpeckers use to announce their territorial claims.)
This is (of course) a Pileated Woodpecker – a female, as you can tell from the black forehead. This is a really cropped photo, but I spent a few minutes walking closer to try to get a better one. I was able to walk right up to the tree she was in without disturbing her, but she’d moved around to an awkward spot between branches.
I’m guessing it’s too early for them to be nesting, but pairs stay on their territories all winter, ripping up dead trees like this one in search of insects to eat (they’re especially fond of ants). This one was leaving quite a bit of debris around the base of the tree she was working on.
Nothing to brighten your afternoon like a close encounter with North America’s largest woodpecker!
We found this cool chunk of birch log yesterday. See why I picked it up and carried it back to my kitchen to take photos? The fact that I photographed it on my kitchen table instead of outside means that the light isn’t the greatest, but the weather’s icky so whatever.
It’s an old woodpecker cavity – we guessed maybe a Hairy Woodpecker or a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker based on the size. The end where the tree broke off was probably the bottom.
This is looking up into what would have been the roof of the cavity. If you’ve never seen a woodpecker excavating a cavity, it’s a cool process to watch – its front half disappears into the growing opening, but every minute or so it’ll gather up all the loose wood chips it’s producing and pull its head back out of the hole to spit them out, ptooey. Nice to see what the result looks like from the inside!
Last spring I was in the woods with a group of kids and stopped to point out rows of small, neat holes that had been drilled into the trunk of a paper birch, standing out dark against the white bark. “That’s from a sapsucker,” I told them. We’d already looked at the gaping cavities the Pileated Woodpeckers had excavated in the nearby cedars, but now I explained how Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, another woodpecker species, make small, shallow holes like this and ate the sap that seeps out, rather than tearing the wood apart in search of insects.
“So is their favorite tree the sugar maple?” asked one of the kids.
What a good question – and not one I knew the answer to. We talked a bit about what trade-offs sapsuckers would face when selecting a tree, like the sugar content of the sap versus the hardness of the wood, and then we moved on to something else. The idea stuck with me, though. Do sapsuckers have a favorite tree species? What factors affect which trees they make their sap wells in?
Dead snags always seem to catch my eyes lately – probably because they always harbor signs of life, even on the coldest, snowiest days. (When I got up this morning it was -26ºF. Even after noon, when it finally made it into double digits above zero, walking in the snowy woods for half an hour was enough to make my face and feet very cold.)
Pileated Woodpeckers continue to rip apart the dead wood in search of food.
Lichens and fungus add contrasting texture.
Now I’m back inside drinking hot chocolate by the fire. Man, -26ºF. This has been a cold couple days.
- The view of Big Donahue Lake this afternoon – click to see full size!
I stepped out for a walk this afternoon and had only gone a short way down the path when I heard the telltale tapping of a woodpecker. After a moment I spotted it, a Hairy Woodpecker, high in a leafless paper birch. It seemed to be working at a decent-sized hole, not foraging around at random, but I might not have thought anything of it a moment later I hadn’t spotted a Downy Woodpecker hard at work on a cavity already big enough for the whole front half of its body to fit into – it would peck away for a minute, then stick its head and shoulders (do birds have shoulders?) into the cavity and clear out the wood chips that had gathered inside. It was an interesting behavior to watch.
Then I found this.
The work of a Pileated Woodpecker, and obviously quite recent – check out the wood chips at the base of the trunk! Why are all the woodpeckers suddenly excavating cavities at the beginning of November? Shouldn’t they be doing that in late winter/early spring when it’s time to think about nesting? What is happening?!
The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior seems to have given me my answer. Apparently in addition to nesting cavities, woodpeckers will excavate cavities to roost in during the winter. Basically they all suddenly went, “Oh crap, it’s November already, I better get cracking if I want to have somewhere snug to roost by the time it gets really cold.”
According to Sibley, it can take about two weeks to finish a cavity – I’ll have to return to that Pileated Woodpecker tree later and see if there’s any new progress.
UPDATE. From Bernd Heinrich’s fantastic book Winter World: “In late November and early December [my birds are earlier - Heinrich is in New England, perhaps they're on a different schedule] when temperatures are dropping rapidly and the first snowstorms blanket the woods, I often hear steady tapping unlike a woodpecker’s more intermittent rapping for food excavation. Following the sounds to a decaying tree or thick tree limb, I find the ground and/or snow below littered with small light-colored wood chips. The head of a downy or hairy woodpecker invariably appears at a round hole, then shakes to release a billful of shavings, and quickly tucks back in to resume hammering. At first I thought these birds were confused, perhaps misreading the photoperiod – the hours of daylight versus dark that many animals use to keep track of the seasons – to begin nesting a half year early. However, the finished holes excavated in late fall or winter (in more decayed wood than nest holes) were invariably used by the birds that made them for overnighting sites; I flushed out the bird in the evening by tapping on the tree, but it quickly reentered the hole to spend the night there.”