Sunday, February 3, 2013

Good Weekend for Woodpeckers

This weekend we saw a lot of woodpecker action at our suet feeders and in the big maple tree out front. Our new suet log is popular. We'd had a smaller one the last couple of winters, but it got chewed so much that one of the holes was completely open on one side. This one is much thicker and should be useful much longer.

Red-bellied Woodpecker - male

The first sighting that made me grab my camera was the red-bellied woodpecker (above) - always a beautiful and welcome sight for its large size and dramatic markings. This is a male; the female also has red on her head, but it doesn't extend all the way over the top of the head as it does here. (You can see a female I spotted a couple of months ago here.) This bird stayed around for a long time, visiting the suet occasionally but mainly spending time on an upright dead branch, or "snag," in the upper portion of the maple tree (below).

Red-bellied Woodpecker in tree

Look closely (click on any of the photos to see them larger) and you can see the signs of larvae leaving wormy trails across the wood. That's what the woodpeckers are after.

Let me put in a good word here for leaving dead branches, and even dead trees, in place, where it is safe to do so. In our world of tidy gardens, pristine lawns, and formal landscapes, dead branches or trees are often considered unsightly, and removed. This practice has reduced habitat for cavity-nesting birds, including woodpeckers as well as birds that make use of old woodpecker holes, like bluebirds. One of my resolutions this year is to learn more, and blog more, about gardening with wildlife in mind, sometimes called ecosystem landscaping. Shelter, water, native plants, a variety of natural food sources, and varied nesting habitat are important elements of bird-friendly gardens. If you think about the benefits provided by a dead branch or tree, you may consider it a beautiful part of your landscape. (Note, however, that increased woodpecker activity at an ash tree may be a sign of emerald ash borer infestation.)

Hole in tree -- made by whom? 

The photo above shows a large hole in a good-sized branch of the tree, located much lower than the snag shown above. We first noticed this hole after the leaves dropped this past fall. I'd estimate the hole is three or more inches high. I've tried to keep an eye on it this winter. It's not being used for nesting, of course, at this time of year, but it might certainly be used as a sheltered roosting spot, possibly by smaller birds than the one that excavated it. The only bird I've seen approach it and look in was a white-breasted nuthatch, for which the hole is a huge entry point. During the breeding season, leaves block our view of this branch, so I don't know if we'll learn whose nesting hole it is, although the the two larger woodpeckers we occasionally see here, the red-bellied and the hairy, would seem reasonable guesses given the size of the hole. We've never seen a pileated woodpecker here.

Hairy Woodpecker - female

Speaking of the hairy woodpecker, one showed up this morning. Hairy woodpeckers are about the same size as the red-bellieds, though they apparently have more size variability. They are very similar in appearance to the noticeably smaller and more commonly seen downy woodpecker.

This female (it has no red spot on the head) hairy woodpecker hung around for a while today, so I took advantage of the opportunity to look for clues that quickly tell a watcher that a bird is a hairy woodpecker rather than a downy, since size can be deceiving from a distance. The beak size is a standard distinguishing point -- the downy's beak is small and stubby, less than half as long as the bird's head is deep (from the base of the beak to the back of the head). The hairy's beak is markedly longer -- almost as long as the depth of the head. (The angle of the photos above and below don't show the beak's full length.)

Also, it's my impression that downy woodpeckers move like small birds, with quick, darting movements, while the hairy woodpecker moves in a bit more stately fashion, like the larger bird it is. You'd readily describe a downy woodpecker as "cute," while a hairy woodpecker is a bit more formidable looking. Also, the tail seems to me to give the impression of greater prominence in the hairy. The Cornell Lab describes hairies as having "a somewhat soldierly look, with their erect, straight-backed posture on tree trunks and their cleanly striped heads."

Hairy Woodpecker - female

The suet log is a good point of reference for size. In the two photos above, you can see that the hairy woodpecker covers just about the distance from the top of one suet plug to the top of the one directly below it, a distance which is about four suet-plug diameters in height. In comparison, the downy, below, covers only about three suet plugs in height.

Downy Woodpecker - female

Except for a brief spell a few weeks ago, when we suddenly had a drop-off in birds visiting our feeders, a pair of downy woodpeckers have been regulars at our feeding stations for months. Below are a couple of close views I got of the male downy yesterday at a hopper-style feeder that has suet cages on the sides. He rested on the ledge, then approached the suet from the side. More commonly he and his mate fly directly to the suet cages -- usually, of course, the one we can't see from inside the house.

Downy Woodpecker - male

My friend Dan Tallman has pointed out that while downy woodpeckers tend to have black spots in the white outer tailfeathers, the hairy's outer tailfeathers are unspotted. Note a hint of a black spot on the outer white tailfeather, immediately above, in comparison to the all-white outer tailfeathers of the hairy woodpecker in the two photos earlier in this post. A better view of the tail (and beak) of the hairy can be seen in this post from August 2011, when a hairy visited the tube feeder right outside one of our windows.

Downy Woodpecker - male

It was definitely exciting to get good views of all three of these woodpeckers this weekend. There were even a few times when I could see all three at once. Now I know where to look for the red-bellied woodpecker at the snag near the top of the tree, perhaps I will notice him there more often.

1 comment:

Deb said...

I had a lot of downy woodpeckers at my suet feeder this weekend,up to 3 at one time, and a few hairys.