Monday, February 12, 2018

Woodland Woodpeckers

By Beth Sullivan
Most readers have surmised, by now, that I love birds. I am not the best birder, as I hate getting up really early, especially in the cold season. So I really appreciate any opportunity to have quality birds come to me. There are those who constantly search for new, exotic and unique birds for their life lists (and, yes, I have a life list more or less). But I actually enjoy getting to know a bird species better over time and multiple observations, rather than counting a fleeting glimpse. In this way, I get to make every bird encounter special.

Unique woodpeckers

As a group I enjoy the woodpeckers with their many amazing adaptations which make them unique. We all have seen them simply smash their chisel beaks into hard wood yet never deal with concussions. No helmet required. From tiny flicks of sawdust to inches-long splinters of wood, they create feeding holes to get deep into the insect larva tunnels and ant colonies in the heart of a tree. Their nest holes are cavities excavated deep, and well into the center, of the tree wood. Some require dead soft wood, but many of the bigger woodpeckers will get right into the heart of living wood. Most will re-create their nest anew each year. Not a waste though as any number of other birds and mammals will use them. A generous species!
Their legs are short, and toes are long and strong, with two in the front and two in the back for better holding grips. All other birds have 3 toes forward and one in back. And take note of their tails. Their tail feathers are extremely stiff, and they are used to help steady and brace against the tree trunk where they are working or feeding.
Almost all of our woodpeckers are generally black and white and have a splash or more, of red on their heads, particularly the males. But not all can be named red-headed woodpeckers.
Hanging suet is probably the best way to attract our resident woodpeckers, and the occasional visitors. The most common one at our feeder is the downy woodpecker. Bigger than a sparrow, not as big as a robin, they are very agile and quick. A squeaky peep is their note, and a “whinny” their call. They are pretty scrappy and will challenge a bigger bird for a place at the suet. They are also known to sip at hummingbird feeders during the summer.
The hairy woodpecker seems to be a larger version of the downy. The difference is most noticeable if you could see them side by side. The best way to differentiate is to note that the beak of the hairy woodpecker is proportionally longer in relation to its head, as compared to the downy’s littler one. In both species, only the male has the splash of red on the back of his head.
The red-bellied woodpecker was a rarity in our region early in the 1980’s but has expanded its range northward over the last decades and is now very common. They are more of blue-jay size. A handful of bird. They have a very striking black and white ladder pattern on their back. Both males and females have red on their head; the male’s goes from nape to beak , over the top of its head. The female has a gray crown interrupting the red. Believe it or not, and it is really hard to see, they have a pale blush of red feathers on their underbelly. It is visible only in the best positions, but it is there.
The flicker is often mistaken for the redbelly as they are similar in size, but the flicker has a browner overall appearance, and a very striking yellow underwing color noticed when in flight. They also spend a lot of their time on the ground. They are the only woodpecker to do so, happily poking their beaks into ant hills. They do turn to suet in the winter.
Notice the sharp, little beak on this downy woodpecker.

The hairy woodpecker is larger overall, and the beak is longer and more substantial. 

This red-bellied woodpecker gives a glimpse of its red  belly, as well as, the toe arrangement displayed by most woodpeckers. 

The flicker is more brown toned, but you can see the yellow feather shafts that give the species its name.

Woody-the-Woodpecker comes to stay

In recent years, another woodpecker species is expanding its range and becoming a bit more visible-the pileated woodpecker. This is the big one. They are crow-sized, with a very striking black and white body pattern and the classic Woody-the-Woodpecker red crest on both males and females. When these birds drum on wood, it is loud. When they attack wood to get to food deep within, the chips fly fast, furious and big. They have a large home range and require larger tracts of woodland with large, mature trees. Just in the last several years, we have had a pair of pileated woodpeckers in our area, very visible on the woodland edges, but they have not yet made it to my suet. I am waiting.
Red headed woodpeckers, with their true, full, red head, are not common here at all. A few years ago a family took up residence at the Henne Preserve in North Stonington, much to the delight of bird watchers. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers tend to migrate through and occasionally over winter here, also being attracted to suet and seed stashed by other birds.
Almost all wooded Avalonia preserves host woodpeckers. Hoffman and Babcock Ridge are the best places to find pileated, and the Knox preserve is a favored spot for flickers. A very interesting group to observe from the comforts of a window seat, but more appreciated out in the woods, foraging, calling and doing what they do to the trees.
The magnificent pileated woodpecker has become a more common sight in our area. Photograph by Dennis Main

The large chisel marks are tell tail signs of the pileated woodpecker's work.

Red-headed woodpecker at Henne Preserve. Photograph by Niall Dougherty.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

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