The White-breasted Nuthatch was too busy looking for something to eat to notice me. Although these birds are common in the Whitemud Ravine they can be tricky to photograph as they always seem to be on the move and rarely sit still for any amount of time. As I quickly and quietly drew my camera and focused in on the nuthatch it suddenly stopped and looked up at me. I thought that it all was lost and that it would just take off. Well, it did, but it took several seconds during which he was staring at me and this was just enough to allow me to get a picture of it. I managed to capture it in the iconic upside down nuthatch pose. Nuthatches ability of climbing down a tree upside down is a very unique ability among birds and I cannot think of any other species of bird that makes its living by finding food on tree trunks, e.g. woodpeckers, that does it upside down.
If you look at a spruce tree closely you may notice that all of the cones seem to be at the very top of the tree. The reason for this is an interesting life-history adaptation. A single spruce tree carries both female and male cones. Spruce trees, and conifers in general, depend on the wind to reproduce. In the spring, short-lived male cones produce pollen, which is carried to female cones by the wind. Usually, male cones grow toward the bottom of the tree and female cones toward the top, which reduces the chance that polled from the male cones “falls down” on female cones. Self-pollination is a bad thing since it could lead to reduced genetic variability and inbreeding. So if the male cones are at the bottom of the tree, how come the only visible cones are at the top of the tree. As it turns out, while the female cones are large and conspicuous while the male cones are small and inconspicuous.
We are in a bit of a heat wave with +1 °C. Despite this it is snowing. Big wet heavy snow flakes are slowly descending on the landscape. Although it is picturesque it makes it wet and soggy walking on the trails through the forest. It is a nice change from the biting cold and for the first time in a long time one does not have to bundle up when heading into the forest. Birding is definitely more enjoyable and the birds seem to be more active as well. Some birds, like chickadees, actually lower their body temperature in the winter. This reduces the gradient between the internal body temperature and the external temperature. This is the same as keeping your house at a cooler temperature to reduce your heating bill. Both responses reduce the amount of energy necessary to stay warm. With milder temperatures there would not be a need to conserve energy by lowering the body temperature and more energy could be spend on other things, say like increasing activity levels.
Along the Whitemud Creek old coniferous forest tends to grow at the bottom of the ravine along the creek while deciduous forest tends to cover bank slopes. The deciduous stands consists of trembling aspen and balsam poplar trees along with white birch. These species are typically considered “pioneer” deciduous species, because they can establish and grow where there are not already many other trees. Coniferous trees, such as White spruce, on the other hand, are “shade tolerant”, and can survive and grow under a canopy of aspen/poplar. Eventually the spruce exceed the aspen and poplar trees in height and they become dominant in the upper canopy.
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.
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.