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.
Red-breasted Nuthatches, just like their cousins the White-breasted Nuthatch are common, fleeting and assertive song birds. They know what they want and have no trouble elbowing their way to the food to get their fair share…, only to, moments later, vanish into the shrubbery again. A black stripe across their eyes reminiscent of a bandit mask only makes them appear more like a diminutive feathered vigilante refusing to get intimidated by more boisterous or larger birds.
Today’s picture is of a fuzzy Black-capped Chickadee that is visiting one of the bird feeders in Hermitage Park. Any nature walk in these neck of the woods this time of the year (or any time of the year for that matter) will virtually guarantee the companionship of Black-capped Chickadees. There does not seem to be a temperature low enough to faze these diminutive birds. They always seem to be on the go and always looking for the next meal. This one has struck the mother lode.
Dark-eyed Juncos are discrete little bird that like to “fly under the radar” by staying close to or on the ground. As I was watching the activity at the bird feeders with chickadees, nuthatches, downies and other winter birds quickly flitting in to pickup a morsel and then off again I failed to notice the more subtle activities going on on the ground. It took a while before I noticed the subtle scurrying of small dark colored birds on the ground. A closer look revealed the unmistakable dark hooded birds were Dark-eyed Juncos. Half a dozen or so of the juncos were scurrying around on the snow covered ground munching on all the seeds that had fallen down from the feeders.