While winter is still holding our neck of the woods in a solid grip the temperatures have climbed up to more balmy temperatures after a few weeks of deep freeze. It is interesting to notice how a few week weeks of sub -30 C temperatures make the -20 C to -10 C range feel like spring. It appears the the birds feel the same way as they certainly seem to be more active. The snow is still covering the forest in a thick blanket but it is nice when birding is not a physically painful experience.
In the northern part of Edmonton, in an industrial area along a major highway there is a large grain terminal. Pigeons flock to the site as the spilled grain is an easy source of food, particularly in the winter. On any given day there are thousands of pigeons roosting on the beams and ducting of the large terminal building. As a result of the abundant food source (not the grain, but the pigeons) the site attracts birds of prey, such as gyrfalcon and bald eagles. I have been wanting to visit the grain terminal for a long time but it was not until this week that I managed to make it. It was a sunny and mild day and sure enough the pigeons were there. I spend most of my lunch hour carefully scanning the pigeons and the duct work on the grain terminal in the hopes of spotting a raptor, it with no luck. The only action I saw were kanoodling pigeons.
The view of the Great Horned owl from the boardwalk was perfect. After a while of admiring the Great Horned Owl basking in the sun I noticed a Red Squirrel sitting the snow covered railing. Considering the apex predator perching in the tree right across the creek it seemed like an ill-advised choice for a piece of fresh warm meat…, I mean squirrel to strut around right below the owl. I find it unlikely that the squirrel would be unaware of the owl. It is also possible that the squirrel is well aware of the owls diurnal habit of snoozing and that the tables turns after dark.
Pileated Woodpeckers hold a special place in my heart. Many years ago, long before I got into birding a friend of mine was sharing stories about his encounters with these magnificent birds. He was not a birder, he just had the fortune of seemingly bumping into Pileated Woodpeckers on a regular basis. I on the other hand, had no such luck. Through his stories and my lack of ability to spot Pileated Woodpeckers these birds became a legend. A seemingly unattainable mythical creature that continuously eluded me. It was only years later that I spotted my first Pileate Woodpecker. How things have changed. These days I not only see them on a regular basis, but I can identify them by sound, whether they are vocalizing or going to town on a tree. The sounds they produce are unmistakable. Spotting a Pileated Woodpecker is always a special treat, spotting two next to each other is an unforgettable experience. The other day two Pileate Woodpeckers were at work on the same tree trunk. Higher up the trunk a Northern Flicker was also busy working away. It must have been a particularly good woodpecker tree.
Next to a pair of hardworking Pileated Woodpeckers there was a solitary Northern Flicker working away on the same dead tree. Was it a coincidence that the two woodpecker species were at the same tree? Perhaps this a tree was particularly good for woodpeckers? Or perhaps the flicker was opportunistic and followed the Pileated Woodpeckers along through the forest taking advantage of the large gashes in the trunks the Pileated Woodpeckers leave behind? The Norther Flicker was illuminated by the late afternoon sun which made it particularly splendid against the blue sky. As the Pileated Woodpeckers moved on, so did the Northern Flicker.
On this sunny mild winters day we came across one of the Whitemud Ravine Great Horned Owls perching in a tree overlooking the creek. It was soaking up the suns rays and seemed fast asleep. I cannot blame it. After the last few weeks of bitterly cold weather the -10 C day must have felt nice and balmy. According to eBird the last time a Great Horned Owl was observed in the ravine was in October last year. Has the owl been there the whole time, but just not seen? Has it been somewhere else and only recently returned to this location? Is it alone, or does it have a mate? The owl we saw was close to a tree where a pair of Great Horned Owls raised a pair of owlets last spring. Is this one of those owls and is it back for another breading season? So many questions and no answers. I will be keeping a close eye on the owls in the ravine and hopefully we will see another season of successful owlets born and raised in our very own backyard ravine.
Loud banging noises were coming from the forest. It sounded like someone was hitting a tree trunk as hard as they could with a baseball bat. I knew right away what was making the noise and it certainly was not a human. As incredulous as I was I realized that the only creature capable of making such loud banging noises was a Pileated Woodpecker. I have seen and heard many Pileated Woodpeckers and I know they can be quite energetic when they go to town on a tree. I had never, however, heard one making a noise this loud. It was easy to spot the culprit. There it was, sitting on a decaying tree trunk, illuminated by the sun working on the tree like there was no tomorrow. Large chunks of the tree were flying all around it as it was digging its way into the core of the trunk. The speed at which a Pileated Woodpecker can hammer its way through a tree is truly a sight to behold. There are plenty of dead trees in the Whitmud Ravine with large cavities in them that are the work of Pileated Woodpeckers. Based on the size of some of the cavities it is only natural to come to the conclusion that it must have taken quite some time for a woodpecker to hollow it out. Once you have seen a Pileated Woodpecker in full action one realizes that it would only take a matter of minutes to hollow out one of those cavernous cavities. The efficiency of Pileated Woodpeckers makes them the industrial version of a regular woodpecker. They are truly a force to be reckoned with.
The last two post have featured a Downy Woodpeckers, first a female and then a male. There is, however, another woodpecker in town that looks nearly identical to the Downy Woodpecker. The Hairy Woodpecker is a tad larger than the Downy, with a distinctly longer bill. There are also some even more subtle differences in the black and white markings the the outer tail feathers of the two species. To make things even trickier, the two species can be found in the same habitat and often if one of them is around, the other one is not far away. Today’s picture is of a female Hairy Woodpecker. The telltale sign is the proportionately longer bill relative the head. My rule of thumb is that in Hairy Woodpeckers the length of the bill is more than half of the width of the head while in Downy Woodpeckers the bill is decidedly less than half the width of the head. As with most things in life, the more of the two species you see and compare the better one becomes at telling them apart.
Yesterday’s post featured a female Downy Woodpecker. Today’s post is featuring a male Downy Woodpecker. If it would not be for the red patch on the neck of the male they would be indistinguishable. This male was just a few meters above the feeder where the female was feeding.
What is black, white, sometimes red and sits on tree trunks? Woodpeckers of course. It is a fascinating fact that many woodpeckers in the world seem to be black and white, with the males having red on their head. Case in point, our very own Downy Woodpecker vs Hairy Woodpecker vs. Pileated Woodpecker are all black and white with the males having red patches on their heads. The Black-backed Woodpecker is black and White, but with the males having yellow at the back of their head. As it turns out, both red and yellow plumage is caused by the same pigment (specifically carotenoids, which also create orange plumage). Northern Flickers also fit this pattern with black and white on their body and brown/orange on their body with red patches on their heads. As you move south through the american continent this color pattern repeats itself among the various woodpecker species one encounters, e.g. Cream-backed Woodpecker, Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Guayaquil Woodpecker, and the Magellanic Woodpecker to mention just a few (but there are many more species fitting this pattern). There are several reasons for this color consistency in woodpeckers. A recent study found that habitat, climate and a shared evolutionary history are strong determinants of woodpecker plumage.